A Nightmare on Elm Street

A Nightmare on Elm Street ★★★★★

"..Ya gotta stop that kinda dreamin'.."

I don't know what life was like before Freddy Krueger. As long as I have been alive and capable of storing memories, Krueger has always been there. A Nightmare on Elm Street was released the year after I was born. By the time I was five years old, there were already four films in the series and Freddy Krueger was a pop culture icon. I was fascinated with the character before I had even seen the movies, this included being absolutely terrified of him as well. Despite having awful nightmares, none to rival those of Tina or Nancy, I was still very curious about this boogeyman everyone was talking about.

In the small town adjacent to mine, there was a Fisher-Price toy factory. Around Halloween they would set up a makeshift Haunted House, mostly for the kids of the employees. I wasn't old enough to go but I remember my older brother (he had gone with our cousin, whose mom worked at the factory until it was shut down in 1995), as white as a ghost, telling me there was a slide and at the end of it, Freddy Krueger was waiting with extended arms. I was sympathetically terrified and to this day, I don't know if my brother just made it up to scare me because he was keenly aware of the fact that every child was afraid of Freddy Krueger or if it really happened. Being a kid in the 1980s had a truly defining role in my becoming the genre obsessed adult that I remain today.

I can't tell you the first time I had actually seen one of the films from this series, but it wasn't long after being consciously aware of the villain. I highly doubt my parents allowed me to watch it at such a young age, but that's what older siblings are for (not that my parents were very restrictive about the movies I was watching in the first place).

For many years I always held Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors on a pedestal above all of the other films, including the first. Now in my 30s, the more I watch A Nightmare on Elm Street, the more I recognize it as an influential, smart and modern classic of a horror film, and, not to mention, the best in the series.

Last night as I was watching it, I was trying to imagine what the audience must have experienced watching it theatrically in 1984, before Fred Krueger was a wisecracking character with a television show, franchise and plenty of merchandise selling his brand.

Wes Craven hit pay dirt with this film. He may have had some success with The Last House on the Left, The Hill Have Eyes or even Deadly Blessing but with A Nightmare on Elm Street he had solidified his career and garnered himself as a household name, not just with horror movie fans, but most everyone.

At this rate, anyone can tell you that it was the disfigured man with a dirty brown hat, a red and green striped sweater and long knives for fingernails who made this movie so memorable. But, I don't want to dismiss Craven's brains. He knew to cast international-genre regular John Saxon in a key role, that Nancy's affinity for booby-traps would be well received after exploring it in his debut film, The Last House on the Left, and he knew to return a favor to Sam Raimi for having a poster for one of his movies in the basement in his cult classic The Evil Dead.

In the opening scene, Tina - dressed in a see-through white nightgown crosses paths with a lamb in a steamy boiler room. Marking her as a sacrifice for the audience's depraved viewing pleasure, sent into a nightmare like a lamb to the slaughter.

The next key scene involving the same character, after establishing her friendship with a sweet, virginal girl in granny clothes, named Nancy, explores the possibility of these friends dreaming of the same man. They're having a sleepover at Tina's while her mother his away, completely shaken up after the all-too-real nightmare she had the night before, Tina didn't want to be alone. An audience seeing this for the first time is still not clear on where the threat is coming from, is it exclusively in nightmares? The night is dark and the teens are shown inspecting noises heard outside, locking doors as they gaze out into the dark unknown.

What Craven did next was turn that unknown threat trying to get into your home where you feel safe, upside down and inside out. There is no door you can lock to keep away from this villain, because he invades your sleep and no matter how long you keep yourself awake, you know that eventually you have to close your eyes and dream, and that is where the unknown is lurking, waiting, unavoidable.

One of my favorite scenes takes place in Nancy's bedroom; in one of her first physical struggles with the man of her nightmares, she holds a pillow in front of her and Freddy guts it, white feathers falling on them by the bucket-load until she wakes to find the pillow still in tact and her watch guard Glen, asleep in the chair next to the bed. The ethereal, yet exhilarating scene followed by the lame attempt to scold Glen for not doing the one thing he was asked. It makes me laugh more now because if I were in Nancy's place and asked the same of my husband, I know he would fall asleep too and have that same dumb look on his face as soon as he woke.

A Nightmare on Elm Street will always be one of the few horror films I can watch repeatedly for the rest of my life, never losing its ability to awe, its lingering sense of dread or the way it can sweep me up into a whirlwind of sentimentality.

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