HED (faM): Day 11: A Nightmare on Elm Street

Halloween Every Day (for a Month)

By Andrew Neil Cole

Day 11: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).     elm street

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m not crazy about slasher films. To my way of thinking, there are two types of horror movies: horror movies that tell horror stories and horror movies that depict horrific events and actions—that’s it. Slashers almost always fit securely into that second category. There are, however, exceptions to every rule. Movies such as Halloween and Black Christmas are well-regarded slashers because they take the subject matter seriously and their characters are realistic and believable and not archetypal caricatures whose worth can be measured only in surface values such as breast size or ab definition. Here’s a simple metric for determining the quality of any slasher movie: If at any time you find yourself rooting for the killer to eliminate all of the characters, you’re probably watching a bad slasher movie. However, there are plenty of bad slasher movies that are still lots of fun … but I digress.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the most iconic, universally lauded slasher films ever, and rightly so. The story is original and conceptually terrifying. The characters are likable and likely to remind viewers of people they actually know (or knew in high school). These are not one-note characters that exist solely to whet the appetite of the audience for upcoming death scenes. No, in this movie, the bad boy rebel is also a loyal friend, and the mousey “good girl” finds the requisite courage to perform some pretty outrageously violent acts (as illustrated in a prolonged booby-trap sequence) when she needs it most. Like The Haunted Palace (the movie I watched on night number nine), A Nightmare on Elm Street is a multigenerational ghost story in which the sins of one generation will be remunerated with the innocent blood of the next generation. These characters were damned even before they were born, and right from the beginning their situation has an ominous sacrificial-lamb aura of inescapability about it. Unlike so many slasher victims, whose fates are decided by the inexplicable need for a late-night swim or the overwhelming desire to have sex in a forest where an infamous slaughter occurred, the characters in Nightmare are fully aware of their predicament and fight their seemingly unavoidable fate with every ounce of their strength. As a result, A Nightmare on Elm Street feels somehow more grounded in reality than most non-supernatural (or realistic) slasher flicks. In fact, I don’t really consider A Nightmare on Elm Street a slasher film at all but rather a ghost story that trains a white-hot spotlight on copious amounts of slashing. After all, Freddy Krueger is a malignant spirit, not a living, breathing masked lunatic with a machete and an ornery disposition.

It should also be noted that Nightmare is a fantastic piece of filmmaking. This is a tightly paced, thrilling tale that seamlessly blends horrific nightmare imagery with mundane, everyday suburban iconography. Consider the bleak dreamlike quality of one character’s (Tina) corpse in a body bag being dragged away by an unseen force, leaving a grisly trail of smeared blood behind. Now contrast that with the banal, well-worn imagery of the stereotypical suburban classroom from which another character (Nancy) is beckoned by that very corpse. Masterful moments like this (and there are many) more than make up for the ridiculous ending, particularly the instant when the blow-up sex-doll version of Ronee Blakley gets yanked through the miniscule window in her front door.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is a classic and an American original that will be remembered forever by horror fans the world over. Unfortunately, we recently lost Wes Craven, the writer and director of this gem. But he, too, was an American original who will never be forgotten. Rest peacefully, big guy. You earned it.