Cutting-edge – Seeing A Nightmare on Elm Street for the first time
Eighties horror movies have such a unique appeal, none more so than A Nightmare on Elm Street. Slasher flicks were huge around the time and Nightmare’s antagonist, Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), is an iconic slasher villain, hunting down teenagers that love to scream with his knife-tipped gloves.
I’d never seen A Nightmare on Elm Street until last night before bed; ironic, I know, to catch up on the story about the demon that haunts your dreams at that time.
Yet, seeing it now, knowing all that I know about horror films, it’s fascinating to see how it creates imagery to explore unique ideas, but within that eighties mould. So, here are the points of interest that I took away from my first viewing.
The dream visuals
They’re what defines the villain’s method of killing. They power the narrative. They’re even in the film’s title. And still, these dream sequences look great, with a practical focus that ties in specifically to the film’s central theme.
What’s real and what’s a dream? It’s the question that the characters are always trying to figure out as they investigate strange noises, unsettling imagery and the recurring setting of a hellish boiler room. It’s also what frames the scares, as director Wes Craven and production designer Greg Fonseca interrupt calm scenes with a horrifying Freddy entrance.
Take the famous bathtub shot. Craven and director of photography Jacques Haitkin frame our hero, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) taking a relaxing bath. The still close-ups betray a calm reality, which the sudden appearance of Freddy’s clawed hand from the water breaks. It’s the suddenness of it that scares us, the manipulation of what we think is real merging with a nightmare.
This is helped entirely by the practical effects, props and sets. The fact that Krueger’s interactions with the world are all real, that Craven really did find a way to show a wall stretching so that Freddy’s face appears from behind the plaster, makes these moments all the more shocking. They’re real for us, so it feels more real for the characters: the idea of being a dream won’t protect them. It makes it that much more terrifying.
The use of sex
From the almost sexually obsessive nature of Michael Myers’ relationship with Laurie Strode in Halloween, to the way that sex is directly involved with the creature and its way of killing in It Follows, it’s a theme that horrors love to explore and analyse.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is no different, as it ties every single attack/kill to some kind of sexual expression: Tina and Rod sleep together before Tina is killed; Glen jokes about watching ‘Miss Nude America’ before falling asleep and meeting his end.
Now, it’s easy to read this as a condemnation of sex: getting frisky is risky, and you’ll get punished for doing it. However, while I’m not sure about you, I feel as though Nightmare and other related films are actually exploring the fear of sex. If sex is what brings Freddy out to slice ‘n’ dice, then you’re going to be afraid of getting busy under the bed sheets. Same applies to Michael Myers, let’s say: if you read him as a sexual tormentor, then sex is something to be terrified of.
It’s almost like the idea of sex being that moment when we’re at our most vulnerable. Of course, horror films will exploit that: vulnerability is their bread and butter. Intimacy was being openly explored at a much younger age in the eighties, and this is even more true now: with all that we know about the dangers of sex in the present, it’s interesting to see how Nightmare still applies.
Entertaining us with excess
Hey, let’s not get carried away though: Nightmare is not a parable of promiscuity, it’s a hell of a slasher film that’s surprisingly funny, in spite of its violence. It’s this violence that can sometimes deliver the biggest laughs: when Freddy asks Tina to look while he cuts off his fingers with a cheesy grin, you can’t help but chuckle.
I think that’s part of the brilliance of slasher films, and such a useful point when looking at Nightmare for the first time in the present: they have such a timeless appeal that, even when they’ve aged and some scenes feel ridiculous or excessive, they still manage to bring us together for a laugh and a scream.
The reason Nightmare works so well though is because of its real vs. dream theme. As Craven is constantly merging the two, we just accept that any scene could be a dream. This allows the director to mess around with hilariously over-the-top sequences: Nancy preparing her house for Freddy like she’s a serial killing Kevin McAllister, or Glen kicking the bucket with enough blood to fill about twenty. It’s entertaining as hell, but it’s also excused because the fantastical nature of it is kind of the point.
Yes, A Nightmare on Elm Street is at times corny and always gratuitous, but it’s a slasher film: it’s what we love about them and it’s what drew me to Nightmare as I was watching it.
Nevertheless, Nightmare still has all of the classic credibility. It uses themes that we recognise in horror films in interesting ways and its practicality only adds to these ideas, while giving it an old school charm. So, no matter how old slasher films like A Nightmare on Elm Street get, we’ll always find value in them.
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