As the slasher boom came to an end, with most major studios bowing out of the genre and leaving just the independent filmmakers to milk the concept dry, a struggling director by the name of Wes Craven had penned a script full of original ideas and inventive deaths, far from the standard butcher knife kills which had become commonplace with the countless Halloween clones. Funded by pledging production company New Line (whose only previous credit had been the classy thriller Alone in the Dark), A Nightmare on Elm Street would not only introduce the world to the grotesque bogeyman that is Freddy Krueger but would also move the horror genre into the world of merchandise and shameless marketing, something which only the likes of Star Wars had previously dabbled in. Shot on a relatively small budget with an inexperienced crew, the movie would eventually cement the careers of both the director and studio.
Fifteen-year-old Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss) once again finds herself in a creepy old boiler room. There is a constant drip of water from the pipes and the sound of metal being scratched again metal rings through her ears. The place is playing tricks on her, a goat suddenly appearing from nowhere and a constant feel that someone is watching her. Eventually, that presence appears in the form of a burnt man (Robert Englund) in a striped old jumper, a dusty Fedora and a menacing glove on one hand, with long claw-like blades attached to each finger. Suddenly, Tina wakes up screaming, which summons her sleeping mother from the other room. She looks down at her clothes to discover four identical tears, which match perfectly with the blades that he had attacked her with. Grabbing the crucifix off the wall, she curls up in bed and prays that she will survive the night.
The following day at school, Tina is discussing her scary nightmare with her friends, the sweet-yet-naïve Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) and Nancy’s boyfriend Glen Lantz (Johnny Depp), when Tina’s criminal lover Rod Lane (Nick Corri) appears behind them, making crude references to the kind of dreams that she has been giving him. That night, with the mother away, Tina has invited over her friends to keep her company, when an uninvited Rod arrives to spend some quality time with her. Later, as everyone is sleeping, Tina begins to violently toss around in her sleep, before her shirt is ripped open and four deep cuts simultaneously appear across her stomach. As Rod watches, her body is lifted into the air by an unseen force and is dragged up the wall and onto the ceiling, suddenly falling back down onto the bed, a shower of blood praying over him. As Glen and Nancy break the door open, Rod is seen escaping out through the window.
Struggling to cope with the death of her best friend, Nancy begins to have bizarre visions, including seeing Tina’s corpse in a body bag being dragged through the halls of the school whilst she whispers her name. With Rod arrested for the murder, Nancy witnesses the burnt man appearing in the cell and willing the bed-sheets to wrap around his neck, pulling his body up to the ceiling to the guards who find him believe that it was suicide. But, as the mysterious figure begins to terrorise them, Nancy learns the truth about him and his death at the hands of her mother and the parents of the neighbourhood. The man is Fred Krueger, a child murderer who had been released on a legal technicality and so the parents of the victims, determined to keep him from hurting any more children, had tracked him down to his boiler room and had burnt him alive. Somehow, he had found a way to come back and was now haunting the children of the guilty in their dreams.
Much of the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street relies on the performance of Englund, who provides a subtle-yet-sinister turn as the demonic antagonist. Somehow made all the more creepy by his co-stars towering over him (perhaps giving the indication how he is a dirty old man), Englund’s most famous role prior to Krueger was as a friendly alien in the hit sci-fi show V, so Craven’s decision to cast against type was an inspired move. Langenkamp also shines in her role, adding a vulnerability and intelligence that makes the character’s development from victim to violator an interesting transition. Sadly, much of the supporting cast provide weak performances, most notably Depp, making his screen debut. Lacking the charisma and depth he would apply to his later roles, Glen is a one-dimensional character who, whilst adding a little humour to the story, does little to provide genuine sympathy.
Craven’s achievements with both the creation of Krueger and the endless delivery of surreal set pieces are remarkable. Having previously been responsible for a slew of movies that ranged from average to awful, A Nightmare on Elm Street saw the filmmaker developing as both a storyteller and a director. Occasionally adding a touch of brilliance when exploring the illogical nature of dreams (the stairs that inexplicably turn into goo being a perfect example), Craven’s script was more of a deranged fairytale than a straightforward slasher. One theme that the film explored that had become a common aspect of his work was the protagonist being forced to become as savage and calculating as the antagonist, something that had also been explored in The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. Despite a laughable epilogue that had been included at the insistence of the producer, A Nightmare on Elm Street was a highly original and inventive horror that successfully lived up the promise of its unique concept.