Sleep. It’s where many people find solace and comfort at the end of their days. It is both necessary for a healthy life and unavoidable. What ailment can it not alleviate? A broken heart. Sickness. Disputes and arguments. It is one of the most important ingredients for a healthy life.
There’s a darker side to sleep, as you know. Nightmares. Sleep Paralysis. Night terrors. What if sleeping could cause something worse than that all of those things combined? What if the simple act of falling asleep could invite a demon into your life – one who would cut it short?
This is the basic premise for Wes Craven’s genre blazing A Nightmare on Elm Street, released in 1984. In it, reality is distorted, and the world of dreams and waking life are twisted into one horrible stream of gory torment for a group of young teens. It’s been causing real life nightmares and avoidance of sleep for unsuspecting viewers ever since. Freddy Krueger may seem like nothing more than a fictional character, but he’s alive alright.
Even today he lives on in your subconscious thought; and once you invite him in, he may never leave.
What makes Elm Street work so very well is that the story is simple yet effective. In plays with our most primal instincts – the instinct to sleep – and turns it into something that makes you think twice about that afternoon nap. Even if you’ve never seen the film you know the story. You know what Freddy Krueger looks like, and you know what he can do. Much like Jason Voorhees, the character’s appearance has become a pop culture icon among the highest echelon of fictional characters.
The difference between Freddy and Jason, though, is that Freddy speaks. While his lines are sparse in this first film, each one becomes that much more powerful. Krueger is vulgar and obscene; he taunts his young victims and gets a rise out of terrifying them before they die. In his dream world, he can do whatever he pleases. And if that means cutting off his own finger just to terrorize you, so be it. A demon in every sense.
Robert Englund’s portrayal of the monster is perhaps the scariest of any movie monster because of this. His voice is deep and commanding – but it’s also filled with sickness and malice. Wes Craven originally intended for the fedora-wearing killer to be a child molester, making him not only horrifying but also nothing short of vile. However, the character was “toned down” to be “just” a child murderer. It is instead simply implied that he may have done more than killing the teens in not-so-subtle imagery; a claw between a young girl’s legs in the tub, for example. A tongue reaching out from a telephone to meet an unsuspecting mouth. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that the sickness of Freddy Krueger is much deeper than what is explicitly stated.
Another difference between Jason and Freddy is that from the start, Krueger is a supernatural entity. The character, being a specter of sorts, can do whatever he pleases. And he does just that with every given opportunity. One of the scariest, must surreal sequences in the entire film is when Tina (Amanda Wyss) falls asleep and encounters Freddy in an alleyway. Though he walks in the middle of the road, he stretches his arms well beyond what any human is capable of and reaches all the way to the fence, scratching it and making a terrible racket with his claws. The image of his silhouette contorted beyond comprehension is something so bizarre that it becomes unforgettable. Craven takes liberties with Freddy’s magical capabilities more than once throughout the film, and it is effective every time.
A Nightmare on Elm Street featured a heavy amount of blood. The most noteworthy scene would involve budding actor Johnny Depp, where the actor played Glen in his first movie role. The then-unknown actor, just a poor boy, would fall asleep on his bed and sucked into it. You don’t get to see what is going on in Glen’s dream, but instead, you see only the result of it. A torrent of blood gushes to the ceiling, defying the laws of gravity in a demented display of violence. The scene is shocking, to say the least, and is best described as “wet”. What makes it even more tragic is that Glen, in horror movie terms, is innocent.
Elm Street would slightly deviate from many horror movie tropes set forth in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and solidified in the original Friday the 13th (1980). Freddy does not discriminate between his victims. If you have sex or use drugs, you are just as susceptible to a violent death as someone who is abstinent. Keep your morals. Break them. It doesn’t matter. You’ll become a victim soon enough. All you have to do is go to sleep.
What can you do, then, to defeat a creature like this? As Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) discovers, all you have to do is refuse to give in to your fear. The conclusion comes in an unexpected yet intelligent climax when Langenkamp’s character banishes Freddy by denying him his fear.
Though the scene is admittedly a bit clunky in execution, the thought process behind it is a stroke of genius.
Decades later, the film truly holds up. While many sequences in Friday the 13th (1980) would come off as goofy later on down the road (and I will be comparing the two series frequently in this FF installment), A Nightmare on Elm Street is still downright horrifying. There are shots of young girls in body bags; burned faces, mutilated innocents. And above all, there is a creeping, unstoppable fear that maybe, just maybe Freddy could actually be real. After all, why not? The whole basis for the story is rooted in at least a little bit of truth, anyway.
Oh, you didn’t know that? I didn’t for many years. Let me explain. Wes Craven would describe something called “Asian Death Syndrome” as the inspiration behind this film on numerous occasions. Sometime in the 1970’s the LA Times ran a story of refugees who had come to America from Cambodia abruptly dying in their sleep. The men reported strange nightmares which made them unwaveringly reluctant to go to sleep; and when they died, some actually perished. Similar cases continued throughout the years, which inspired Craven heavily. Though I could not find the original article, a continuation of the phenomenon is described here. This article is from 1990.
Maybe just as interesting is that Wes Craven, who wrote and directed the film, created Krueger from real experiences. The name comes directly from a childhood bully named, yes, Fred Krueger. There was also an isolated occasion where a young Wes Craven saw a solitary old man outside his window in the middle of the night. The image was enough to stick with him for many years.
Set against a modest budget of just over one million, A Nightmare on Elm Street was a commercial hit, making $25,504,513 at the American Box Office. By this time, critical reception to horror films were a bit warmer than what they were when Friday the 13th was released four years previously and was not met with as much vitriol. But just like Cunningham’s film, the popularity would inflate drastically over time, creating a sprawling franchise that would last for decades and infect not only film, but Television, video games, and merchandising.
However, this was not the intent. Wes Craven wanted to make Elm Street and end Krueger’s story there, but Robert Shaye had other plans.
Craven initially had a hard time selling the script and bringing the project to fruition. It was pitched to Paramount but declined. It was also pitched to Disney, but Craven turned them down because they wanted to tone down the character and make it family-friendly. Could you imagine?
The head of New Line Cinema Robert Shaye saw the potential and took it on. New Line had originally dealt only with distribution; it was not, as Paramount was, a moviemaking company. Shaye, acting as Producer, fought for the project. New Line Cinema would go on to become a powerhouse in the film industry all because of Krueger. Having the foresight of marketability and franchising, Shaye wanted a twist ending that would imply the series would continue.
While Wes Craven was not in favor of this, Shaye’s ending was the one that made it to the final film. It is perhaps the only unintentionally hilarious moment in the entire film. Nancy’s mother is pulled back into the house by Krueger, and in her place, an unconvincing doll was put in to be pulled through the window on the front door. This one flub may be the only misstep in an otherwise near-perfect horror film.
Being that the director was not interested in doing a sequel, he would not direct the following film. Still, Freddy would live on, and Robert Englund would be immortalized forever by a striped sweater, a deadly glove, and an iconic hat. Stay tuned; things are about to get very weird.