Nightmares plague a group of suburban teens. A common figure haunts their dreams. He wears a tattered fedora hat and striped sweater. Burn marks cover his face and he has razor blades for finger nails.
With Halloween, John Carpenter gave us his version of the boogeyman in the corporal Michael Myers. With A Nightmare on Elm Street, writer/director Wes Craven goes further, painting Freddy Krueger as an ephemeral entity capable of invading your dreams. And should he kill you in dreamland, you die in real life. Often in a gruesome fashion.
This proves an inspired twist that plays to Craven’s strength. The dreamscape allows him to indulge in over-the-top set-pieces devoid of plausibility and logic. The real-life deaths showcase ingenious special effects, including a geyser of blood erupting from a bed and a scene where an invisible assailant drags a girl up a wall and across the ceiling before eviscerating her. Craven also demonstrates an ability to show without showing, such as when a cop says to an arriving paramedic, “You don’t need a stretcher up there, you need a mop.”
The cast proves a mixed bag. Like Brian De Palma, Craven casts for type. When this works, it provides an easy shorthand. John Saxon could be playing his character from Black Christmas. But others struggle. Ronee Blakley plays all her scenes with the same deadpan stupor. One suspects she was told her character was an alcoholic but given no further context. Heather Langenkamp charms as the girl-next-door heroine, but struggles with the melodramatic scenes opposite Saxon and Blakley.
Robert Englund proves the biggest surprise as Freddy. Though he lacks the series’ later one-liners, Englund does a good deal of laughing and roaring. Unlike the contemporary silent archetypes Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, Englund delivers an articulate villain who relishes his role.
I’ve seen the film countless times and always forget the finale. Not the tag with the cringeworthy mannequin effects, but the third act, when Langenkamp sets a series of Home Alone style booby traps throughout the house. Working through Craven’s filmography, this proves a motif, beginning with The Last House on the Left, continuing in The Hills Have Eyes Part II, and now here. Now, I’m not suggesting Craven should have directed Home Alone, but maybe the sequel?