With Halloween rapidly approaching, I thought it might be fun to look at one of my guilty pleasures: scary movies. Like the James Bond franchise, scary movies can be extremely problematic, but they can also be entertaining. As I’ve gotten older I’ve become a little disquieted with the tendency to focus on gore and body counts, but I’ll try to note those along the way and grapple with the bigger picture as well.
Coming in 1984, Nightmare was relatively late to the slasher movie boom that began with 1978’s Halloween, but it managed to stand out with originality–becoming one of the best-loved horror movies of all time. Instead of placing a bunch of horny teenagers in line to get killed by a masked bad guy stalking them, Nightmare puts all its violence into elaborate set pieces that take place in the character’s dreams. The trick worked, making countless viewers afraid to go to sleep–just like Psycho made them afraid of taking a shower a generation earlier.
Nightmare also features a fan favorite villain–but we’ll talk more about him in a bit. In the meantime, grab your dream dictionaries and let’s get down to it.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
To quickly recap, a shadowy man with a glove that has knives for fingers stalks Tina Gray in the opening scene. She wakes up in time to escape his knives but there are slash marks in her nightgown. The next day at school, it turns out her best friend Nancy Thompson (our final girl) had a dream about the same guy. They stick together that night out of solidarity but when Tina’s douchetastic boyfriend Rod shows up, she heads to the bedroom with him get it on. Nancy’s boyfriend Glen (a young Johnny Depp) wants to follow suit, but Nancy shrugs him off (checking the box for the tired horror movie cliché about virgins surviving). Tina falls asleep in the afterglow and finds herself getting stalked by the shadowy figure again, and this time he catches up to her and kills her in one of the horror genre’s most famous demises ever. Back in the real world, Tina’s chest is slashed open and she defies gravity by getting dragged up the wall and onto her bedroom’s ceiling before finally dropping down to the floor in a bloody heap.
Rod disappears, making him look suspicious to Nancy’s father, a police lieutenant. The next day Nancy’s mom does some day drinking, her father uses her as bait to catch Rod when he tries to talk to her, and Nancy is almost killed by the shadow man when she falls asleep in class. It’s quite a day, and it isn’t over because she dozes off in the bathtub and is nearly drowned by the mystery man.
Her day continues to spiral when Glen shows up and she decides to do some investigating in the dream world–asking Glen to wake her if her dreams go bad, and the guy totally falls asleep on her because he’s useless. Thanks to a convenient alarm clock, Nancy manages to wake up before getting turned into shish kabob. Way to go, Glen. They run off to the police station because Nancy is convinced that Rod is in danger, but it’s too late: he’s dead of an apparent suicide, having been hanged in his cell.
At Rod’s funeral, Nancy creeps out her parents by describing the man from her dreams. They totally know more than they’re saying, but for now, her mom continues day drinking and takes Nancy to a sleep clinic to get a handle on those dreams. They can’t help her, however, except they manage to wake her up in the nick of time once again–and Nancy emerges from her dream with a white streak in her hair, a slash on her arm, and the mystery man’s hat–seeming to show that she can take things out of the dream world with her when she wakes up.
Mama continues day drinking and puts bars on the windows of the house. She also takes Nancy into the basement to drunkenly tell her who the mystery man is and explain his backstory, finally letting us know that the bad guy is Freddy Krueger, a child-killer who was burned alive by local parents as vigilante justice after he was let go on a technicality. Nancy’s mom has even been keeping his glove hidden in their boiler for no apparent reason.
Nancy makes plans with Glen to meet at midnight so she can go to sleep and Glen can wake her just in time (because that worked great the first time). Nancy will take Freddy out of the dream with her and Glen can take Freddy out in a vague, not really mentioned way (It bears noting that Glen is not even remotely physically threatening). But Glen keeps dozing off and his parents won’t let Nancy talk to him. Nancy wants to sneak out but her mom is drinking from her secret linen closet stash.
Glen falls asleep again, and this time Freddy’s hand reaches up through the bed to drag him and his TV into the mattress, spraying blood up to the ceiling in another of horror’s most famous demises. Far more blood than could ever be found in a human body, but whatever.
Realizing she’s just gonna have to do this damn thing herself, Nancy puts drunk mama to bed and goes full Home Alone on the house, setting booby traps. She sets some alarms and goes to sleep, managing to grab a hold of Freddy just as one goes off and wakes her up. There’s a ludicrous moment where she thinks the plan didn’t work until Freddy jumps out from the other side of the room (how did he get there?). Then he pratfalls around the real world like one of the thieves in the Home Alone movies until Nancy finally manages to set him on fire and get the police across the street at Glen’s house to come over. Unfortunately, Freddy’s not in the basement anymore and Nancy and her dad follow some flaming footsteps up to drunk Mama’s room, where Freddy is still on fire and smothering drunk Mama. Nancy’s dad puts out the fire and both Freddy and Mama’s corpse disappear into the bed.
Nancy’s dad leaves the room and Nancy waits for Freddy to rise up out of the bed. When he does, she says she understands how he works now and she regrets all the power she gave him by fearing him. Turning to walk away from him does the trick, and Freddy disappears.
But when Nancy walks out of the room she’s suddenly outside and Tina, Rod, and Glen pull up in Glen’s car. Drunk Mama is also there, beaming like June Cleaver. Somehow, Nancy doesn’t think that anything is amiss and she gets in the car just in time for the convertible’s roof (styled like Freddy’s sweater) to come down and the windows to roll up, trapping her and her friends inside as the car careens away and Freddy’s hand drags drunk Mama through the front door’s window.
Nightmare deserves the credit it gets for being a fun horror movie, but I feel like no one really talks about the massive plot holes it has. For instance, Nancy and Tina get stalked by Freddy in elaborate dream sequences every time they fall asleep, but Glen and Rod are seemingly attacked in the real world with no fanfare. You could say they were dreaming that they were asleep and those things happened to them, but it really looks like Freddy is either moving an object in the real world to kill someone (Rod), or literally reaching into the real world to suck someone into the dream world to his death (Glen). If that’s not what’s happening to Glen, then where does his body go?
Meanwhile, as Glen is being killed Nancy gets two phone calls from Freddy. How is this happening if she’s awake, as she appears to be? He even manages to lick her through the phone.
There’s no demarcation between the dream world and the real world, which to me is a fairly big problem. Even after Nancy ostensibly drags Freddy into the real world, he manages to burn her mother alive and drag her into the bed, which is filled with a supernatural glow. How is he doing this in the real world?
I’ll give writer/director Wes Craven a pass on the ending since he didn’t want to film the bit where Nancy drives off in the Freddy car and her drunk mother gets pulled through the window. Let’s just say to me it only exacerbates these problems–because how does Nancy end up in that dream world? Did her alarm never wake her up in the first place? That still wouldn’t explain the fact that Freddy calls her (twice!) in the real world and turns her phone into his mouth.
Still, Nightmare is a fun movie. It moves quickly without sacrificing plot or turning its characters into tired clichés. Craven also does a fine job proving why he was one of the genre’s favorite directors.
Nancy makes for an excellent final girl–probably one of the genre’s best. She’s smart, she’s tough, and she’s not afraid of a fight. She also spends almost the entire movie on the defensive, unlike a lot of final girls who only kick into action in the final showdown. And while the movie’s employment of the virgin trope is tiresome, there’s no denying that Nancy is the real deal. She also really looks like a teenager–which might sound like a weird thing to point out, but since most characters in horror movies are played by twenty-or–even-thirty-somethings, it stands out. But don’t get used to her–she won’t return until the third Nightmare movie (where she gets killed off in the final showdown), then she disappears again until Wes Craven’s trippy New Nightmare, where actress Heather Langenkamp plays a version of herself instead of Nancy.
Freddy makes for a twisted bad guy, walking the line between being funny and being sinister far more successfully than he will in any of the sequels. It’s a shame that he devolves into a cartoon character from here on out, because in his first movie he’s pretty incredible. His twisted sense of humor makes him unique but you also don’t doubt that he means business. He’s probably the most popular horror movie villain of all time, but for me the taint of the sequels ruins him. If he had remained like this, he would score a lot higher for me.
As origin stories go, Freddy also scores high. He’s a child murderer (later movies also make him a pedophile) who wants revenge on the parents of Elm Street for burning him alive when police couldn’t get him. The idea that he’s a supernatural entity trapped in the dream world, stalking his victims in their sleep, also works. It’s a fun twist on the format and it goes a long way to explain how he keeps coming back to life without contorting logic too badly. Of course, the revenge idea gets dropped pretty quickly in the sequels because there are only so many times he can avenge his own murder, I guess.
The original Nightmare is fairly conservative with its gore–spending a lot on Tina and Glen’s deaths but taking it relatively easy for the others. To me, this is a mark in its favor. There’s enough to gross you out and scare you a bit, but not enough to make you feel like a torture porn enthusiast.
The death toll itself is also light for a horror movie. Only four people die in this movie (Tina, Rod, Glen, and Nancy’s mom). Nightmare movies tend to have lower body counts than other scary movies–perhaps because each death needs an accompanying dream sequence to pair with it.
And that’s it for the original Nightmare on Elm Street. But don’t worry: because evil never really dies, we’ll be back for more soon. I’ll review some of the other big horror movies, but we’ll probably check back in with Freddy at some point.