Friday, 11 November 2011

A Scream Within a Dream: "A Nightmare on Elm Street"

Warning:  Some Spoilers Follow

If Psycho made you afraid to have a shower and Jaws made you afraid to go in the water, then A Nightmare on Elm Street made you afraid to go to sleep at night. In the film teenagers are killed in their dreams by a mysterious man with knives on his fingers and a burnt face. All three films take something relatable and relaxing and turn it in to something nightmarish, the former two films offer some kind of escape: don't take a shower and don't go swimming; but A Nightmare on Elm Street doesn't offer that kind of escape. You can't stay awake forever. Writer/director Wes Craven's concept for the film is ingenious in this respect, and genuinely scary. It's the ultimate boogeyman story and while it's hard to view the film without thinking of its legacy, the sequels, spinoffs, and remake, the film still stands as an inventive and engaging horror film, and one of the best of its era.

The man in these teenagers' dreams is Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), a child murderer who was killed parents within the community after Krueger wasn't able to be convicted of his crimes. Now Krueger is back to kill the children of the parents who murdered him. What's interesting about this backstory is how it's not revealed until later in the film. While knowing this backstory before watching the film, I still admired how Craven keeps this backstory close to his chest, revealing it just when things have reached the boiling point. I also liked how sparse Kreuger's backstory is. The psychiatrist from Psycho is no where to be found here. Craven isn't interested in psychoanalzying Krueger but in making him a symbolic figure. Krueger is an interesting blend of the symbolic and the literal. Krueger is literally killing these teenagers but he's also symbolic of what a nightmare is; I think this combination of symbolism and literalism is what makes Krueger so timeless.

What I found interesting about this film, considering the legacy of the series, is that much of the focus of the film is on the character of Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp). It takes some time to get a good look at Freddy. When we do it's when Tina's (Amanda Wyss) death scene. After that scene, we don't see much of Freddy aside from his glove in Nancy's bathtub or his hat when Nancy is able to bring it out of the dream world. It's quite effective not always seeing Freddy. It enhances the symbolic nature of his character and allows the film to be about the Nancy character as she loses her innocence and has to face her mother's past. I think after this film Freddy was featured more prominently in the sequels. I also think he became more of a jokester. In this film, he's more serious despite taking pleasure in killing.

Langenkamp gives a fine performance as Nancy, effectively going from a innocent teenager to an angry and sleep deprived fighter. It's fun to see Johnny Depp in his first film role as Nancy's boyfriend Glenn. He gets one of the most famous deaths in the series when he's eaten by his own bed.

It may sound odd but A Nightmare on Elm Street reminded a little of Christopher Nolan's Inception. Hear me out. In that film, the dream worlds the characters entered were very rooted in the real world. In A Nightmare on Elm Street the dreams, despite Freddy's presence and some haunting imagery, resemble the characters' waking life. This creates suspense as to whether someone is dreaming or not and makes familar places very threatening.

A Nightmare on Elm Street has some wonky logic which doesn't always explain itself; but like a dream, a nightmare, we're just along for the ride. In this case, it's a very thrilling one.

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