Wednesday, October 12, 2011

“Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep.”

So I’ve written a lot of words about various classic monster franchises, but haven’t really gone into more recent categories. THAT CHANGES NOW with one of the biggest names in 80s horror, as we begin a long, nightmarish journey to Springwood, Ohio. That’s right, its 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Nancy Thompson is a normal teenager with normal (if archetypal) teenage friends, who are all having similar dreams of a horrifically burned man stalking them in a boiler room and attacking them. When they awake they have actual wounds like those they got in their dreams. At first, this is just weird, but when one friend is horrifically killed by the guy in her sleep during a sleepover, Nancy starts to freak out and wants answers, and it becomes clear that the parents of Elm Street are hiding something.

Nancy Thompson: Heather Langenkamp is our hero, an everygirl type of character who just wants the nightmares to end. She’s bright though, and starts working out some ideas on how to confront the murderer who stalks her dreams. She picks up a white shock of hair after one close call.

Glen Lantz: Introducing Johnny Depp! He’s Nancy’s boyfriend. Questionable taste in midriff exposing t-shirts aside, he’s a decent fellow but a fairly bland character.

Tina Gray: Amanda Wyss is Freddy’s very first victim. Like most 80s horror victims, she’s a promiscuous teen. The results are messy.

Rod Lane: Jsu Garcia as Nick Corri as Tina’s greaser boyfriend. He’s a crude, rebellious youth and the prime suspect for Tina’s death. Freddy makes short work of him.

Marge Thompson: Ronee Blakley is Nancy’s mom and denies up and down that anything could possibly be wrong and that Nancy is just imagining things and should really get some sleep. Marge is in deep denial. Marge also likes booze. A lot.

Lt. Donald Thompson: John Saxon! He’s Nancy’s father and a police lieutenant. Like all movie cop dad’s he’s a good man but busy and overworked and doesn’t have much time for his daughter.

Fred Krueger: Robert Englund is one hell of a creepy monster in this. I should point out that Freddy’s look is extremely effective. Trousers, a tattered red and green sweater, horribly scarred face, a weird clawed glove and a dapper fedora. Freddy’s backstory is that he was a child murderer back in the day and the parents of Elm Street banded together to take him down in a fit of vigilante justice, locking him in a basement/boiler room and burning him up. But he’s apparently too evil and too pissed off to let that stop him, so he’s bided his time and now starts taking revenge on the children of those who killed him.

Directed by Wes Craven, the movie certainly shows its modest beginnings with a modest budget. Elm Street itself certainly looks generic-suburban enough but other locations for Springwood look nothing like any Ohio location I’ve ever seen. In fact, they look suspiciously like Southern California. The Ohio setting makes sense, since Craven himself is a native Ohioan, but yeah…palm trees. In Ohio.

Now, obviously the dream sequences get the lion’s share of effects work, and the practical effects are actually pretty good. Tina’s death near the beginning is a particularly effective scene, along with some of Freddy’s menacing approaches (backlit in an alley and pushing through a wall over a sleeping Nancy, for example).

Written by Wes Craven, the storyline is fairly interesting and nicely self-contained. The pacing works very well and by the end of the movie, the line between awake and asleep is blurred as the tone gets increasingly desperate for a solution. As far as “flaws,” Nancy’s plan to confront Freddy in the real world with assorted homemade traps is a little hard to take seriously in a post-Home Alone world, though it does work to show Nancy showing initiative. The other nit to pick is that its interesting to see Freddy being deadly serious in this one. He really only cracks a few jokes (like the infamous ‘I’m your boyfriend now” line) and most of the rest of the time he’s just a sadistic monster with no redeeming qualities. Which, considering that’s what he is, works just fine. It just stands in contrast with the heavy merchandising of the brand that occurred later when Freddy’s personality solidified (or perhaps congealed).

Original music by Charles Bernstein and, well…it’s the early 1980s. Yes it is atmospheric and suitably creepy at times, but there’s a lot of electronic effects. A LOT. What’s aged better is the children’s nursery rhyme that herald’s Freddy’s approach.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is actually a rather intelligent movie that gives the viewer a sympathetic heroine and a mysterious and effective villain. There’s also subtext you can look into, like a critique of suburban culture and the theme of teen sexuality and the loss of innocence of growing up, and so on. There’s stuff open to interpretation. Obviously the movie’s got stuff for the blood seekers out there, and that stuff’s imaginatively done. Its just nice to have some brains hiding behind the slaughter as well. Recommended.

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