If ever the hashtag #SorryNotSorry were applicable to anything I have done here at the lair, this is the time. I stated in my initial Cravenous post that I wanted to examine Wes Craven’s lesser-acknowledged films…the ones that didn’t include “Nightmare” or “Scream” in their titles. However, I simply couldn’t skip this film, denizens. My horror-loving heart is so full with joy and exuberance for this particular movie that the thought of not taking full advantage to re-watch and re-examine it filled me with an aching sadness. Besides, I’ve actually never written specifically about the film. I’ve done a Poster Pick examination of the film’s poster (ah, Poster Picks, I miss you so). I’ve also written about Nancy Thompson as a Lady of Horror May-hem.
Now is the time on Sprockets when I finally write about the actual film, and the most significant solo contribution that Wes Craven made to the horror genre: A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Die-hard horror fans will already know how Craven found real-world inspiration for this script within several news articles that detailed the mysterious sleep-induced deaths of Laotian refugees who had recently immigrated to the United States. They claimed that something was trying to kill them in their dreams. No one believed them; in one instance, a young Laotian man struggled to stay awake for several days before his family finally got him to sleep. I’m sure you know what fate he met.
Craven, of course, being fascinated already by the historical terror and power of dreams (he had trained himself since college to dream lucidly and to keep a dream journal), instantly knew that he wanted to come up with a movie that centered on a powerful dream demon who would take out his victims when they were most vulnerable. He also knew, thanks to his daughter Jessica’s influence, that he wanted a strong heroine to lead his story. Remember how I wrote in my review of Swamp Thing that Jessica was disappointed in her father’s use of the cliched “Tripping Heroine” trope? With Nancy Thompson, Craven set out to undo that disappointment tenfold.
What Craven did was create one of the most significant (though ultimately too revisited) villains of modern horror as well as one of the fiercest horror heroines. We’ll get back to Nancy in a moment, though. Now, rather than simply regurgitating to you all the fun factoids that I have learned about this film throughout the years of my obsession, I’m instead going to encourage you to seek out the InfiniFilm version of the movie. It’s chock-full of special features, including two full-length “commentaries” (I feel as though one of the commentaries was more of a pieced together selection of interview bits from various players in the film and crew rather than a legitimate commentary session). Pay special attention during the commentary with Craven, Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, and cinematographer Jacques Haitkin to hear mention to how this was for the laser disc release of the movie. Good times.
A couple of intriguing moments from the commentaries that I would like to focus on came from two of the lovely ladies to star in this film. First was from Amanda Wyss, who played Tina Gray. She referred to the teens in this film as “shelterless.” I think is a brutally beautiful way to describe Freddy’s teen victims. They had no consistently protective force in their lives (with possibly the exception of Glen). Even Nancy with her stalwart police officer father couldn’t completely depend on him. Having divorced parents meant that she only had access to him in a limited capacity. Instead, she was living with her mother, who chose to deal with the secret that the Elm Street parents were keeping from their children by disappearing into alcoholic fugues as often as possible. That takes us to the deeper truth of this “shelterless” existence. Nancy and her friends were being taken out by this dream demon because of the sin of their parents. What began as these parents taking the hard-line final choice when it came to protecting their children from the neighborhood child molester and murderer ultimately led not only to their inability to protect their children but their culpability in their children’s murders at the hands of the man they killed. It’s quite the perverse circle jerk, if you think about it.
Conversely, I suppose that you could argue that the parents provided the wrong sheltering. Nancy’s mother sheltered her from the truth of who Fred Krueger had been. All the parents sheltered their children from this truth, and that cost them all dearly.
The second moment was hearing Wes Craven and Heather Langenkamp refer the character of Nancy Thompson as a “warrior woman.” It really struck a chord with me and made me re-evaluate my use of a more accepted term when it comes to the surviving females in horror movies: the Final Girl.
I’ve always taken issue with the use of “girl” in the comics world. Whereas the use of “boy” for the male superheroes is rare (and usually refers to an actual young character), there are several instances of “girl” in the names of female superheroes, including those who are clearly not les petites filles. I can’t help but wonder whether the absence of “boy” isn’t in part because of the negative connotations this term carries in reference to a grown man. One need only look to segregation-era America to understand the dismissive, offensive implications of using a child identifier for an adult man. While not on the same derogatory level as “boy” is in this context, I would argue that “girl” in reference to a grown woman, or even a woman on the precipice of adulthood, is similarly dismissive. Additionally, it’s infantilizing the character in question—locking her in at a certain age and never allowing her to reach full maturity. The implication is that this character must look eternally young (a brutally pervasive mindset that drives far too many women into the mutilating “care” of plastic surgeons) and be in constant need of supervisory assistance, care, or rescue.
Similarly, the term “Final Girl” carries with it a pejorative air, especially when you take into consideration that: A) there is no male counterpart term—no “Final Boy”; and B) any male character who survives such a trial would most assuredly be viewed as a fully tested man by the end of said events.
So why not the same for the female characters?
With Nancy Thompson, the term “warrior woman” resonates so wonderfully and so vividly with her approach to defeating the dream demon she and her friends are encountering. At no point does Nancy ever view herself as Freddy’s victim. Instead, she goes about trying to figure out what’s happening to her friends and her; once she gets the full story, she goes into survival mode and begins planning how to defeat Krueger rather than sitting by, idly awaiting her turn as his next kill. Additionally, she must contend with the doubt of all the adults around her and the continued murder of her peer group. She accepts her fate and her need to complete this journey, with or without the benefit of external support. In her final showdown with Freddy is where Nancy proves her mettle most eloquently. She is in such control of that moment that never once have I doubted that her strength could have defeated this nightmarish stalker. It’s such a fantastically powerful moment and one of my all-time favorites from any genre.
I wish that Craven had gotten his wish to end this movie on a more final note. While I have often stated that I first discovered Freddy Krueger through the campier, sillier Elm Street sequels, once I learned the origin of this monster, I understood the dilution of his power that the sequels had upon him. It also made me appreciate all the more Craven’s efforts with New Nightmare.
In addition to getting an amazing script from Craven, we also get a top-notch technical crew who pull off some incredibly progressive practical work. Of course, there’s the rotating room that allows for the memorable deaths of Tina and Glenn (spoilers). Again, seek out the InfiniFilm version of the movie for some great stories from Craven about this room. There’s Haitkin’s gorgeously atmospheric cinematography and lighting. Speaking of lighting and ingenuity, I do want to touch upon one particular technical moment from this film for its simple yet highly effective brilliance. While there are many moments of technical merit throughout this film, I’ve chosen this one for how it reminds me of an equally effective simple trick from John Carpenter’s Halloween. In that film, we see the slow emergence of Michael Myers from the shadows with the use of a blue light bulb slowly illuminated beneath his iconic mask.
For this movie, we see the emergence of Freddy Krueger from the solid wall behind Nancy as she sleeps. As it goes in cinematic lore, they achieved this by stretching a panel of white spandex behind the bed and having special effects technician Jim Doyle push against the spandex while lit from underneath. The end result of Freddy hovering over Nancy’s prone form is visually stunning and disturbing.
Add to all this an amazing cast, including Langenkamp, Saxon, Wyss, Johnny Depp in his first film appearance ever, Ronnie Blakely, Roger Rabbit as the sleep disorder researcher with the weirdest taste in posters…
Seriously, what’s up with that poster next to Fleischer’s character? And who else has ever noticed it before?
Oh, and Robert Englund. I give Craven so much credit for the script and the directing, but choosing Englund to play Freddy Krueger was key. Had he not selected the right actor for this role, this could have just been another cheesy 80s slasher flick. The stars aligned so magically for this film, however, and we the horror faithful are that much better off for the fact.