A Nightmare on Elm Street ★★★★★

I’m so excited to begin revisiting this series after concluding F13th and my rewatch of this last night only bolstered my enthusiasm. I have my issues with Craven’s spotty filmography and with what Scream did to the genre in the late 90’s, but the films of his I love, I love fiercely. None more so perhaps than this groundbreaking, seminal masterpiece. 

All the big 4 slasher icons (Myers, Leatherface, Voorhees and Kruger) would each one day have their respectively special spots in my heart, but Freddy was the first for me. The flame to my nascent horror loving moth. Universal Monsters were the gateway weed that hooked me, but Freddy became my heroin. 1986 was the glorious year I discovered the first two films on HBO. 9 year old me was on the hard stuff and there was no turning back. 

Rewatching this nearly 36 year old film last night, I was struck by what always strikes me about it. The boundless imagination. Craven’s creativity is so on fire here, so electric, that it feels like the frame will barely be able to contain it. His non stop barrage of ingeniously visualized nightmare imagery synchronizes perfectly with his vise like grip on tone.

Then he up and shows off by layering the whole thing with a carefully considered set of themes and subtext deconstructing the rotting soil threatening the foundation beneath seemingly placid suburban homes and families. It’s like grindhouse David Lynch. Craven impossibly manages to thread the needle on this unlikely pairing by foregrounding the confrontational viscera of the former without sacrificing the esoteric poetry of the latter. 

And he couldn’t have cast it better either. Langenkamp is that rare final girl in a horror film that actually comes across like a resourceful, strong willed and morally centered TEENAGER. Not like a 25 year old playing a high schooler. This makes her stand against ethically compromised parents and invasive, predatory force alike all the more inspiring. Depp is terrific (natch) in his feature film debut and both Garcia and Wyss commit themselves admirably as cannon fodder catalyst for the narrative. 

This is where I would typically extol the greatness of Englund as Kruger, but honestly, I didn’t see it last night. He just hadn’t found his instrument in the role yet. It reminds me of the evolution Otis Driftwood underwent between House of 1,000 Corpses and Devil’s Rejects. Englund really found the character in parts 2 and 3. He’s kind of all over the place in this film and the wildly inconsistent, piss poor makeup on him doesn’t help matters. 

No, Craven is the star here, not Freddy, who feels half formed at best. So many movies attempt to bring across the feeling of being in a dream and so few apart from Lynch’s work succeed. Craven works wonders achieving that illusory sense here with a minuscule budget.  It’s all in how he frames shots and edits, the manner he has the teens speak to each other, the way he alternates lulling with the iconic synth based score and stabbing with it.

But more than anything, it boils down to his imagery. I could list all the usual suspects here, but you already know them. It’s just exhilarating to watch this film again, stacked up against the bulk of lifeless chum that’s been thrown to teenagers over the last decade or so as far as horror is concerned. All I’ll say is that shot of Freddy jumping through the mirror at Nancy is to this day more striking and shocking than anything I’ve seen at the multiplex in decades. 

Special shout out to the vividly colorful cinematography of Jacques Haitkin that sets this film apart from nearly all its contemporaries. Sure, he turns in solid and expected work in dark environments with heavy shadows oppressively menacing the characters. But it’s the startling contrast with the bright sunshine, freshly painted houses and bold primary colors everywhere during the waking hours that gives this film its unforgettable bite. 

There really isn’t anything you can say to detract from how monumental an achievement this film is, and to do so is to engage in pedantry and self serving folly. Watching this again took me back, not just to the film, but to my own life growing up in similar suburban splendor during this gaudiest of all decades. My older sister and her friends were the age of these teen characters then and their fashions and behavior bring me back to those halcyon days when the world seemed less complicated and more full of mystery and possibility. 

Couldn’t be more excited to continue through this series. Check back in on how that statement ages as I get to Freddy’s Dead and New Nightmare.

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