One of those films that just got past me, I’d never seen A Nightmare on Elm Street until picking up the original VHS online recently. I went with the VHS as this original pre-cert version is apparently the only uncut UK release. I had seen the second sequel A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (which I remember liking) on its original cinema release but that remained my only exposure to the series. Nowadays of course the first film is considered a horror classic, Freddie Krueger is an icon (though he’s just “Fred” Krueger in the titles here) and writer/director Wes Craven is considered one of the masters of the genre. Let’s say I had high expectations.
Sadly, if this ever really did seem like a great movie, the years haven’t been kind. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its moments and in places it shows signs of real horror movie class but even at its strongest it goes back and forth between creepy and inept. The concept is a great one, a variation on the usual “teens in danger” slasher flick. A group of kids from the same neighbourhood start having nightmares in which they’re being stalked by the same monster, a freakshow-faced hat-wearing razor-clawed psychopath. Turns out their dreams are haunted by the demonic ghost of a dead serial killer. That villain too – the aforementioned Freddie Krueger , as played by Robert Englund – is an undeniably great movie monster but here just too often comes across as a bloke in a lame Halloween costume.
Talking of Halloween, there’s obviously a John Carpenter influence here, which can only be a good thing. It’s most apparent in Charles Bernstein’s synth soundtrack, which although not in Carpenter’s league at least helps establish an atmosphere (end title song Nightmare by 213, however, sounds like a bad demo that can only have been included by accident).
The biggest downside is the acting which, including that of a young Johnny Depp, is ropey throughout despite the best efforts of Englund and Hollywood stalwart John Saxon. The writing doesn’t help, with Craven’s awful dialogue leading to some truly cringe-worthy mother/daughter interactions. There’s also an odd moment with a talking digital watch which is worth looking out for (as if Craven had thought “There’s bound to be talking watches by the time this is released. I mean, come on, they’ve got calculators on them now. Calculators!“).
Of course, the film looks good and there are great scenes. In particular the two iconic bedroom “kills” – one Exorcist-like sequence has a character being thrown about the ceiling, another ends with a bed erupting in a fountain of blood. By the final act though, it’s all definitely falling apart. A montage which is supposed to take place over just twenty minutes sees the heroine expertly carrying out about a day’s worth of DIY (part of a sequence which has gained in unintentional humour by having become the apparent inspiration for much of Home Alone) and the actual denouement is just silly.
As a piece of pop culture history, A Nightmare on Elm Street is definitely worth checking out. You might, like me, want to see what all the fuss was about – just go in with your expectations suitably tempered.