A Nightmare on Elm Street: The birth of an icon
Innovative and well-crafted, Wes Craven's supernatural slasher from 1984 brought a new perspective to the horror genre, giving birth to a franchise that would create one of the most iconically terrifying villains of all time.
Writing about A Nightmare on Elm Street is not an easy thing to do. I mean, what is there to add to the infinite literature surrounding it? To say Wes Craven’s piece is iconic is a mere understatement. Released in 1984, the film follows a group of teenagers who each begin to be haunted in their own dreams by the same man with a burnt face and knives on his hand.
If John Carpenter was the horror pioneer during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Wes Craven arrived mid-decade to give new life to the genre and turn it inside out. Craven had already shocked audiences with his first two films, The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), neither of which are conventional horror films, so there was a tendency from the beginning of his filmography towards breaking the boundaries of the genre. But it was in 1984, during a time when there was a proliferation of teen slashers -most of which felt like more and more of the same-, that Craven revived the decaying subgenre and gave birth to a supernatural slasher with a horror villain so authentic and terrifying that it would become one of the biggest -if not the biggest- icons of horror.
The premise for A Nightmare on Elm Street was truly innovative back in the day when Craven showed it to the world. He has stated that he actually got the idea from real-life news about a series of teenagers in Asia who died suddenly in their sleep, with no apparently logical explanation. That got him to think: What could possibly be happening to them while they were sleeping that would ultimately cause their death? That is how Craven conjured the dreamworld into the ultimate setting for horror. And this is something that was downright brilliant for three reasons: First, setting the story in an otherworldly setting gave the director an endless realm of possibilities to play with the genre itself, which can be reflected, for instance, in the creative ways in which Freddy haunts and kills his victims (i.e. Tina climbing through the walls while being slaughtered or Johnny Depp’s iconic blood bed scene). The film begins and ends with a dream sequence, that reminds the viewer that no matter what you do, you simply can’t escape Freddy once he’s penetrated your subconscious. And on top of that, all of this is accompanied by a hauntingly effective score that is the perfect backdrop to the dreamy setting.
Second, this decision paved the way for Craven to come up with a mythologized killer that would trump any other in the genre: Freddy Krueger. Freddy is something no one ever expected to see in a killer. His arrival completed the not-so-holy trinity of horror villains, which so far was made-up of just Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees (two similarly stoic killers whose distinguishing traits involved wearing masks, not talking, and slowly preying on their victims). But Freddy was the opposite of his predecessors. He was witty, talked a lot, and wished for his victims to see him and to know him. He was and wanted to be the center of attention; hell, part of the premise actually involves the fact that he needs to be remembered in order to have strength. And even though he is supernatural, Freddy has a very human -albeit highly psychopathic- side to him. He feels a wide range of emotions: We often see him angry and frustrated, or laughing joyfully when he kills one of his victims. And I think that makes him even scarier.
And finally, the underlying brilliancy in Craven’s masterpiece is how it penetrated the minds of everyone growing up during its time: Wes Craven alone is responsible for the collective fear of sleep of a whole generation. You see, after watching any other horror film, fear might make sleep a little hard to come by, but when it finally does, that’s about it. You’re free to wander blissfully into your dreams. But with A Nightmare on Elm Street, turning off the TV and going to bed was simply not an option. To better illustrate this, in a documentary called Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy (you can stream it on Shudder), Lin Shaye opens with a line: “Freddy was to dreams what Jaws was to swimmers”. The thing is, you can avoid sharks all you want by not going to the beach, but you can’t avoid sleeping. And that is what has made Freddy out to be the ultimate boogeyman.
In contrast, the rise of the slasher also saw the rise of an archetype of horror: That of the female heroine, also known as… -if you’ve been following me for a while, you should know this by now- the final girl. A Nightmare on Elm Street not only gave birth to an iconic villain but also to its counterpart: Nancy Thompson. Nancy was the ultimate girl-next-door-turned-badass, and her character reinforced a trope that has been followed by horror directors ever since -and deconstructed by many too-. She is naïve yet resourceful, and ultimately finds the way to defeat Freddy… or so we think. And as we know, she will come to be a legend in herself, fighting Freddy a second and a third time in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.
All in all, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a clever piece of horror that revolutionised the genre for the decades that were to come. Obviously, the franchise fell into that hole of overproduction that most horror franchises stumble upon. Up to this day, there are 9 films, including a remake and a crossover, and let’s face it, most of them are pretty bad. Actually, the only real good films are the three I’ve mentioned, which constitute the original Craven trilogy. But no matter what, the franchise saw a character that had the potential of being iconic and helped institute him as the villain of a generation. A Nightmare on Elm Street is innovative, original, fun and intelligent, and even though the horror genre is constantly reinvented throughout the years, this is one of those films that will never ever be forgotten.