Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #51
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: November 9, 1984
Sub-Genre: Eighties Slasher
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $26,319,961
Running Time: 91 minutes
Director: Wes Craven
Producer: Robert Shaye
Screenplay: Wes Craven
Special Effects: David B. Miller, Kathryn Fenton, Jim Doyle
Cinematography: Jacques Haitkin
Score: Charles Bernstein
Editing: Patrick McMahon
Studio: Media Home Entertainment, Smart Egg Pictures
Distributor: New Line Cinema
Stars: Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, Ronnie Blakley, Johnny Depp, Amanda Wyss, Nick Corri, Lin Shaye, Charles Fleischer, Ed Call, Sandy Lipton, Joseph Whipp, Mimi Craven, Joe Unger, Jack Shea and Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger
Suggested Audio Candy:
Charles Bernstein Elm Street Suite
Dreams have forever enthralled me and, what your mind conjures up while you lay in a state of slumber each night is totally exclusive to the individual. No two dreams are identical although themes are often recurring. My case in point is this: I was raised on eighties slasher movies and my recurring nightmare involved being stalked by a masked marauder while those around me were decimated one by one. Sound familiar? It should do as it sounds suspiciously like the premise to every last slasher flick of the period. The thing is, I welcome these elucidations of my outlandish sub-conscious, having been an avid horror buff for my entire adult life and the lion’s share of my childhood, making said nightmares little more than sweet dreams to me. Indeed, I liken their revisitation to sneaking in through the unattended emergency exit at the local cinema each night and being provided a matinée for free.
As an infant I always had a mind’s eye far more vivid than any of my peers. My dear long-suffering mother has relayed to me many times the occasion when her and my father were called into my teacher’s office for a little chat after the school bell chimed. On arrival they were asked whether everything at home was okay. The teacher went on to explain how I was displaying a natural flair for art; only of a far more baleful variety than he was comfortable with. That is not to say I wasn’t sketching fluffy bunnies, more that mine had been disemboweled or had their throats torn out and skullcaps crushed.
Needless to say my home life was joyous and filled with affection, and wasn’t in any way responsible for me “acting out” as it was labelled. I simply always had horror in my ventricles. When kids my age were learning the script from Star Wars word for word, I was watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and snorting with laughter as Franklin struggled frantically to release the brakes on his wheelchair. It was great for role-play; if someone pounced on me brandishing their imaginary light sabre then I’d rev up my imaginary chainsaw and shout “have at you”. That’s strong conflict resolution right there. I have very sturdy beliefs around the whole age debate. For me, censorship should be the responsibility of the parent. Should your home-life be joyful then, so long as your room isn’t a shrine to Charles Manson with pentagrams carved into the floorboards, it’s all good right? Surely it is better to watch these movies in a controlled environment than with a flock of impressionable lambs. Watching horror films at the age of ten didn’t turn me into a raving psychopath…yet!
By the mid-eighties the slasher machine was in full surge and mincing teens by the busload. Historically the sub-genre had its feet firmly planted in reality and resonated most when you place yourself in the sneakers, slip-ons or Doc Martins of the protagonists (consider The Breakfast Club and work out which pigeonhole you fit). However, Wes Craven bucked the trend. Events here were way outside of the strict parameters of the slasher movie so you didn’t so much place yourself in their shoes as watch them through fish eye lens. Sniffing the unique potential for lucrative franchising, he set out to make a film whereby you couldn’t outfox or outrun your pursuer. There was to be no hiding out in closets in Elm Street.
Freddy would have a far different set of tools at his disposal. No need for machetes, axes or frying pans but instead a self-crafted set of metallic finger monsters, each able to slice through young supple flesh as though heated butter. He would use dreamscapes as his playgrounds and sleep as his method of transportation. Wes was bang on the money and auditoriums filled faster than Leprechaun’s bladder at O’Malley’s, with excitable audiences gleeful buying into Craven’s vision. Its success single-handedly saved New Line Cinema from bankruptcy, earning them the nickname “the house that Freddy built” in the process.
Traditionally, the first dilemma faced by an aspiring slasher filmmaker is where events should play out. Camp site, deserted hospital, rickety mine shaft; it needs to be somewhere secluded and shut off. What could be more intimate than that place we travel when in slumber? The only means of escape then are the baseball-shaped digital alarm clock on your bedside dresser or your mother entering your room to open your curtains.
A Nightmare on Elm Street was a hands down triumph which earned a favorable critical response and consequently more than respectable box office receipts. It spawned countless sequels, a 2010 remake, film and TV spin-offs, merchandise unbounded and of course, by no means least, gave horror prodigy Robert Englund his true breakout role. Willy from the seminal V got the opening he craved to show a wider audience what any self-respecting horror enthusiast had known ever since Bruce D. Clark’s Galaxy of Terror. He retains that formidable aura to this day and surely owes a massive debt of gratitude to Craven for handing him that dusty fedora as opposed to David Warner who was originally cast to play Krueger. Hilariously Englund actually cut himself when trying on those famous alloy talons for the first time.
Before he became a parody of himself (a long time ailment of Craven’s works), Freddy showed real menace and a balance was struck between playfulness and pure bad sportsmanship. I recount the marketing push for Elm Street’s 1984 theatrical release, urban legends of cardiac arrests in auditoriums were rife and this assisted in making it an easy sell to anyone wishing to appear hardcore to their flock of drones.
I have great respect for Wes Craven, he has enjoyed continual success throughout his career, and when he slumps he has many pies to dip his fingers back into. However herein lies my issue; if you asked me to name my thirty most-loved horror features not one of those would belong to him. Sorry Wes, you produce many sterling products but Elm Street is the closest you have ever gotten to etching your name across my heart. I have never been able to shake that underlying suspicion that his works suffer in their transition between good and downright masterful.
My view was echoed by my brother Bleeding Lotus during our first live studio podcast three days ago. Being a staunch pacifist I don’t desire to wage war on one of the flag bearers of contemporary horror and I certainly would never mark his work down on account of my own personal preferences, but for me there’s definitely a certain untraceable ingredient missing from many of his works. It made for an interesting debate and you can read An Idiot’s Opinion on Krueger and Craven by Bleeding Lotus at the close of this appraisal.
Back to the dream world, our amiable gaggle of tight-knit teens comprised our plucky heroine Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), a certain young dreamboat by the name of Johnny Depp (on the wrong end of the scissorhands this time) as her footloose love interest Glen, and Amanda Wyss as Tina who was doomed to become the primary recipient of a good old-fashioned ribboning. Watching her nightdress sliced wide open in no uncertain fashion was a joy to behold and this brutal and uncompromising dispatch, worthy of any kill list.
Ironically, malevolent bed linen later returned to claim her moody beau Rod (Nick Corri) and we duly waved adieu to the grunting Italian/American stereotype whom we have all grown kinda fond of. Meanwhile, Depp enjoyed a tad more screen time but ultimately the strain of carrying around 500 gallons of blood was all too much for Glen as he slid beneath the sheets, while his parents defended the house stoutly like a pair of Gamorrean guards at a Tatooine tittie bar.
Poor Nancy couldn’t get anyone to pay attention to her apart from her father Lt. Donald Thompson (Horror stalwart John Saxon). Saxon Jackson, as I affectionately refer to him, carried the burden of his character with conviction, growing visibly more weary as events continued to escalate from bad to OH FUCK! WE’RE SCREWED. The realization soon bedded in that his past actions had returned to haunt his beloved Daddy’s girl’s dreamscapes as well as his own and Saxon conveyed this brilliantly. He was always destined to have his final hurrah alongside his daughter and would return to do battle in a derelict junk yard with some marvelously dated Sinbad-esque skeletal foes in part three. There John rediscovered some of the form he gleaned from his time with kung-fu legend Bruce Lee but ultimately not quite enough to save his raggedy ass.
Then there was Nancy’s nonchalant to the point of narcissism mother and gatekeeper (Ronnie Blakley) who appeared so disinterested in her daughter’s plight that it seemed Freddy must have been picking up the tab for her booze. Craven got it on the button with all the parental characters for two reasons: firstly, their lack of empathy with Nancy reflected just how little parents understood their kids at the time. It was a decade where the Kids in America wanted to dance like Kevin Bacon, but met opposition from their own keepers’ repressive refusal to let them talk hard. Nancy’s home/prison provided further proof of this in action. That reminds me, CBS/FOX clearly had too many cartons of The Stuff left over from shooting Larry Cohen’s B-grade treat as they kindly donated the mallow to Ronnie who proceeded to inject it into the stairs to further stymie her hapless kid even further.
This brings me neatly on to its second reflection. It created a dream-like ambiance with an exasperated Nancy feeling as though her every cry was muted, her progress slowed by the elements and all the adults around her. The Grue was gleefully over the top and quite within its rights to be. Once that tenuous link to reality bended, Craven was provided a limitless ocean of opportunity for blood-soaked carnage and took full advantage. There were no wise quips to be found here and A Nightmare on Elm Street was a decidedly dark little number. Not quite Pamela Voorhees and Crazy Ralph’s love child-dark as it was billed to be but still dark.
Anyhoots, it all took its toll on our heroine who aged with the speed of Starman before our eyes. By the end of the film, if you had handed her a ladle of soup and a pinafore then a fully fledged fishwife she would have surely become. Meanwhile, Marge had started to resemble the autopilot from Airplane by the bungled closing shot. Quite how she fit through that tiny hole in the front door without prior deflation will forever be a mystery to me and, in truth, if the opening to the second film had been the closing of the first it would possibly warrant that extra mark it misses out on.
After Chuck Russell’s way more than decent A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors in 1987, Craven’s original formula rapidly became diluted but not before he had become horror’s hottest property on his hands. Still this series’ regrettable downturn in fortunes showcased an almost lazy approach to his work in my opinion. The original Elm Street represents perhaps the closest he has come since to achieving true mastery. And, when all is said and done and claws retracted, that’s still something to treasure.
Crimson Quills Judgment: 9/10
Grue Factor: 4/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: For the atrocity of not leaving the kids alone, Freddie felt the longer arm of vigilante law so he exacted his retribution in an assemblage of inventive ways. These included lessons in why never to fall asleep when Freddy Krueger has his feelers near your nightdress, never fall asleep within a country mile of fresh bed linen, and never EVER fall asleep without turning off MTV first. Rivers of Grue seems a fitting title for what was thrown at the screen by the vat load and Freddy’s mop and bucket would have come in handy. As for the skin, alas there was none although Wyss having her skimpy white tease rag ventilated still plays on perpetual loop in my head thirty years on.
An idiot’s opinion on Krueger and Craven
Fred Krueger sits atop the list as the prevailing figure of my childhood nightmares. Disfigured, disturbed, violent and seemingly invincible, the first time I saw his visage adorning a far-too-graphic magazine cover, I knew that little Lotus was gonna be having a few sleepless nights. Yet, to highlight the point I am heading towards and confirm the apparent ubiquity of 80’s actors, I have fond memories of Robert Englund as the kindly Willy in the original ‘V’. Herein lies my gripe, and because of it, Craven never stood a chance.
Englund was amazing as Krueger, the heartless, child murdering pedophile (the original script is the story I live by) who coldly devoured the dreams and souls of his hapless victims. Yet, over in TV land, Englund’s reptilian was a hero to millions and with a face like his (too esoteric to be a leading man of mainstream cinema, too familiar to ever be forgotten) the impact of one on the other was assuredly felt. I loved (the correct tense) A Nightmare on Elm Street. It was the first horror film I saw as a tyke that truly made me understand the hateful side to humanity. Sure, it’s a film, but as a little boy, it felt all too real and caused this little bleeder some serious loss of sleep (a trend I am certain sparked my adolescent insomnia).
Yet once I understood who Fred Kruger was, things took a turn down Mr. Whippy alley. Fred Kruger stayed in my dreams, but he became an ally, a comrade who was compassionate, but could literally tear my subconscious enemies a new one. I had amalgamated Willy and Freddy and created some hybrid that acted upon my behest (and being the warped little boy I was, there were many fatalities in my slumber). The sequels did little to diminish this opinion of the once great Slasher and Freddy became something of a joke (with a few bad ones to rattle off himself) and so did Craven’s career. “Whoa” I hear you cry “Who are you to judge Wes Craven, horror master”. Listen, it’s my opinion and I mean no offense, but I am entitled to have my say.
Craven has had watchable movies since and in 1996’s ‘Scream’, delivered a superb piece of cinema (perhaps his best). But he didn’t (and still doesn’t) have the collective oeuvre of the greats. Craven’s films are too samey and always fall victim to a bad script. He often has casting issues and, I feel, lacks the courage of his convictions. The nadir before his brief resurrection with Scream was the calamitous Vampire in Brooklyn, a film he could have gotten away with 20 years earlier (a newbie) or 10 years later (it’s his middle age slump). I think it’s unfair for me to pick and poke at Craven and many more erudite and intelligent people than I will have opinions that are far more valid and perhaps less contentious, but I always speak my mind and, to borrow modern vernacular “don’t chat shit” and implore you to ask yourself, does a handful of good movies warrant a place in the pantheon of great horror directors? Don’t answer that now, but please think about it, because at the end of the day, good movies are all Craven has.
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Copyright: Crimson Quill: Savage Vault Enterprises 2013 (Revised Edition 2016)