Wes Craven’s iconic classic A Nightmare on Elm Street has been parodied, remade, continued and retread so much, the spirit of the first film is hard to remember. Horror expert Kim Newman, writing in his huge book Nightmare Movies (buy it – you have to), holds up Nightmare as the film “responsible for the resurrection of the just-petered-out psycho trend”. Indeed, it does have a horrific, psychotic killer at the centre of it – the terrifying Freddy Krueger. And this psychotic murderer bridges the gap between fantasy and reality, perhaps in a similar way to Norman Bates’s blurring of male and female sexuality in Hitchcock’s classic Psycho. Krueger defies the rules of the real world, and slips in and out of teenager’s dreams.
These days, for better or for worse, nightmares are probably the last things going through a teen’s head as they sleep their youth away. Night-time thoughts of a metal-nailed, twisted old man scratching them to death are probably very low down the list on the dream Richter scale, far behind sleep fantasies about an upcoming trip to Magaluf, the chance of appearing on The X Factor and what it would be like to sleep with Brad Pitt/Beyoncé/both at the same time (delete as applicable). Bad dreams are no longer as high on the agenda as they once were. A revisit to the 80s world of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street reminds us of their importance in ways the shallow Michael Bay-produced remake will never manage to do.
The plot of Nightmare is simple – the fear it generates is less so. To avoid being slashed to death by Freddy Krueger – a scarred and deadly suspected criminal, back from the grave – you have to stay awake. He haunts the dreams of high school kids, and slaughters them while they rest.
The mad thrill one gets when witnessing Nightmare for the first time is heightened by the feeling of doing something slightly sleazy, perhaps even wrong. Enjoying all this blood and terror surely isn’t good for you? And isn’t Wes Craven the horror equivalent of fast food? I’d give a resounding no on both counts. Although it delights in threat, the film is surprisingly moralistic, and its genius lies within its brilliant concept: something as natural as sleep could lead to your horrific death.
The fear is brought about by the inevitability of sleep – something the characters (a fairly bland but likable bunch) have to naturally do, as does the viewer sometime after watching the film. It’s something so simple, yet so brilliantly scary, it puts torture-porn exploits such as the Hostel and Saw sequels to shame. Nightmare has blood, but that’s just the icing on the cake.
We mustn’t get carried away, though. A Nightmare on Elm Street isn’t a masterpiece when held up to films such as Casablanca, Some like It Hot and Citizen Kane. But it does bring to life all the things that are fun about mainstream horror nonsense that has the guts to be brave, bold and inherently ridiculous. Plus it features a young Johnny Depp with a weird haircut, and that’s always worth seeing.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), directed by Wes Craven, is available on DVD and Blu-ray disc from Warner Bros. Pictures, certificate 18.