I can only imagine Hallowe’en parties in 1984, but I’m guessing quite a lot of people were dressed up in a battered fedora, red and green striped sweater, poorly applied ‘burned’ make-up and a glove with cardboard blades glued on, for if anything has endured from Wes Craven’s multiple-sequel spawner, it’s Robert Englund’s nightmare-stalker Freddy Krueger.
If it’s true that a horror movie lives or dies (generally by running upstairs instead of out the front door) by it’s killer, then there’s no surprise that this franchise is still going. I haven’t seen the 2010 reboot and I’ve only heard bad things, but I’m intrigued to see Jackie Earle Haley’s take on the former child murder released from prison on a technicality but burned alive by the parents of Elm Street. Krueger is an icon from horror history, up there with Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and the Guy in the Scream mask, making up the B-team behind the likes of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman. For Krueger, you see, is unstoppable. He’s risen from the dead to take the children of those that murdered him, but he does his killing in the one place he cannot be caught; the children’s dreams. This is a genius conceit, but also the film’s biggest let down.
If you want to terrify your audience and instill in them genuine fright once they have stopped the film and gone about their daily lives, you scare them with something ordinary. A situation they themselves will find themselves in on a regular basis. Hitchcock did it in Psycho with having a shower. Craven did it with going to sleep. There’s nothing you can do about it, eventually you’ll have to go to sleep; quite often it happens without you even planning to. And once your head is resting gently on your pillow, all you can think about is that maniacal laugh echoing around the walls. That tapping at the window, surely that’s just the branch of a tree blowing in the wind, it couldn’t possibly be the knifed glove of the man out to rip you to shreds? When asleep you’re at your most vulnerable. It can happen anywhere – at home, school, prison, hospital, and there’s no way to defend yourself (short of Inception-style techniques, crossover anyone?) and Craven knows this. In his world, a glass of warm milk is as deadly as any conventional weapon.
But the fact that Freddy exists in dreams, can defy physics by being everywhere at once and can take on any form he chooses to terrify you the most, makes him almost less scary. There’s a sense of inevitability. Much like in Ring, once you watch the tape, you’re going to die. There’s not a whole lot you can do about it. You can’t kill Freddy in a dream, you can’t stay awake forever, there’s really only one possible outcome. Yes, in this film and the ever diminishing sequels they find loopholes to temporarily get around the issue, but I’ve always found these to be annoyances and cop outs from the original story. I’d forgotten the ending of this film when I saw it, and I was almost incredibly annoyed at the backdoor excuse they try to use.
It’s a good, solid horror film, and is much more effective if you never, ever watch the sequels. Whilst they have some inventive kills (hearing aid? genius) and increase the comedy quotient, Freddy becomes a watered down pantomime villain, whose incessant survival becomes more grating the more films you watch. But here his terrorising of four teens (including a 21-year old Johnny Depp in his movie debut) is played largely for tension and scares, though there’s a few lull-in-the-score moments that are clear setups for something to jump out and grab our virginal heroine Nancy (Heather Langenkamp).
There are moments of black comedy – a cop telling a paramedic “you don’t need a stretched, you need a mop,” and the kills are satisfyingly gory. Nancy looking in the mirror got a laugh out of me, as at the time of the film’s release Langenkamp was, you guessed it, 20 years old. The image of Krueger’s hand emerging from between the legs of a girl asleep in the bath is more than a little terrifying.
Choose film 6/10