A Nightmare on Elm Street ★★★★½

I’ve seen Halloween four times, Texas Chainsaw Massacre twice, myriad other classic and modern slashers, but I can’t remember the last time I’ve watched Nightmare on Elm Street. I’ve always remembered being dissatisfied and unimpressed with the movie, seeing Krueger as the worst of the subgenre’s icons.

I don’t think I’ve fully appreciated Nightmare on Elm Street until this watch. I even liked the booby-trapped finale, up until the confusing final minutes.

Nightmare feels unique among the genre even today, more akin to Stephen King’s It than other slashers. Instead of the typical formula, the movie focuses on Nancy and her close friends; there are no extraneous victims, no one treated as fodder. Their friendship interweaves with Nancy’s familial drama and the mysterious original sin looming over the teen’s unconscious torment. The kills are impressive surreal set-pieces, but each one drives the plot forward rather than simply being an excuse for gory shocks. The nightmare sequences are suspenseful, inventive, packed with eerie imagery and clever scenarios. Tina’s gravity-defying death might be the best introduction to a slasher villain since Leatherface’s surprise reveal: a masterpiece of visual effects, gore, suspense, and of course Englund’s playfully evil performance. 

I hate the over-the-top joker that Freddy would become, but he’s perfect in the original. A slasher with a voice and personality still feels refreshing, and Robert Englund takes the already iconic design to stellar heights. Freddy Krueger is just so creepy and menacing in this film, from the construction of the glove backed by his raspy breathing to the terrifying toying with his prey. Unlike the often blunt methods of his slasher brethren, the concept of “a killer that strikes in your dreams” allows for subtlety and ticking-clock tension, a dynamic between victims and danger that’s more than just fleeing or hiding.

Those greater possibilities are embodied by Nancy as the film’s protagonist. She’s the lynchpin of the plot, confronting her familial secrets with righteous anger and her supernatural stalker with resourcefulness. While most “final girls” flee, she goes on the offensive, turning Krueger’s powers against him. The “Home Alone” finale is a tad silly today, but works well in the context of the established rules and Nancy’s strengths. 

Everyone sleeps, has struggled to stay awake, has had nightmares. Tying the horror to such a universal and relatable experience was a stroke of genius, that Nightmare on Elm Street utilizes masterfully.

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