By 1984, slasher films were wearing thin. Of course, after Carpenter mastered the slasher with
, every Joe in town wanted to make one. And they’re the perfect film for amateur film makers: they’re cheap, exploitative, and easy to make. The problem is, after Halloween
, most slasher films sucked. You’ve got Halloween III
, the Friday the 13th
sequels, Don’t Go in the Woods
, the list goes on and on. In fact, slashers could have disappeared completely if it weren’t for one stand out film that re-imagined and rejuvenated the genre completely; that film is Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street
The story focuses on a young teenage girl named Nancy, who is having intense nightmares about a sleazy, knife-fingered guy in a fedora. Strange thing is, her friends are having nightmares about the same guy. As the dreams become more brutal and personal, her friends begin to die. Her best friend, Tina, is slashed to death and dragged to the ceiling before falling into a pool of her own blood. It soon becomes apparent to Nancy that somehow, this scummy dream figure is the one who butchered her friend. As the danger increases when another friend is killed, Nancy unravels part of the mystery: a deceased child murderer is coming back in kids’ dreams to continue his dirty work. She prepares herself for an all-out war with this spectral figure in his dream world, hoping to somehow pull him back into her real world.
What separated Nightmare
from the run-of-the-mill clichés that dominated slasher cinema at the time was the fantastical element of the film. Oh sure, plenty of slasher films had their share of supernatural elements, mainly that the killer can’t be killed. But this standard was so overused that no originality could be fit into the equation no matter how many times one tried. Instead of recalculating once again, Craven instead changed the equation. Sure, the killer can die; in fact, he already has. No, he’s not some dumb, hulking, speechless zombie like Jason. He’s a wise-cracking, ruthless, phantasmal pedophile named Freddy Krueger. His voice, his added personality, makes him an even more grotesque killer with his sexual deviance, and yet he becomes an intensely likable villain because he does speak; he has more interaction besides being there merely to kill.
The fantasy of the story also allows for a more complex plotline. While any generic slasher film has the scary killer hacking away at teenage breasts, A Nightmare on Elm Street
actually incorporates a universal weakness for all the characters (other being incredibly stupid and they can die while the killer can’t): we all have to sleep. There is no safe haven from the threat in this film other than staying awake, which eventually becomes impossible. Anyone can drive 1000 miles away from the killer and be safe, but no one can survive without sleeping, which is when you are vulnerable (much like Invasion of the Body Snatchers
). The protagonists are inevitably helpless, and it’s this helplessness that helps generate the fear.
Craven also plays with the separation of the “real” world from the “dream” world. The transition can be subtle, sometimes even unnoticeable, making him able to trick the audience into a false sense of security; if we think Nancy is awake, then we know she’s safe. A quick, seamless transition from the real world to the dream world keeps the audience in the dark until some trigger alerts us of what’s happening, the first instance being a frighteningly surreal scene where Krueger scrapes the metal walls of an alley with overly-long arms. Other mind games are played with the characters and the audience, such as a school hall monitor maintaining her appearance, but she is wearing Krueger’s glove and taunts Nancy in Krueger’s voice. Craven masterfully uses subtle games to torture the audience until the moment of truth finally arrives.
Of course, Craven was no stranger to slasher films. He created one of the first American slasher films in 1972 with The Last House on the Left
and again in 1977 with The Hills Have Eyes
(though the latter isn’t quite a slasher film). The premise for those two films was simple: group of killers, group of victims. Put them together, and watch all Hell break loose. With A Nightmare on Elm Street
, Craven added a bit more complexity and storyline to the film, mainly the dream element. Where Freddy kills the kids isn’t an actual, physical place, but the kids are actually, physically being killed. Nightmare
requires a bit more thought process than his first two slashers, yet manages to stay just as brutal and powerful as a hammer to the face. The combination of mindless brutality and smart, slick, and polished horror is the perfect combination for a good, scary film. Both elements are mastered in A Nightmare on Elm Street