Released in 1984, A Nightmare on Elm Street was a wide-ranging critical and commercial success, establishing the faltering young studio New Line – nicknamed ‘The House that Freddy Built’ – and revitalising the career of writer/director Wes Craven, as well as introducing the cinema-going public to the enduring horror/comedy icons, Freddy Kreuger and Johnny Depp, who together must have inspired a significant demographic of fancy dress and Halloween costumes. Returning to the original film in the wake of the increasingly bizarre sequels, culminating in Wes Craven’s meta-mad New Nightmare and Samuel Bayer’s dourly unnecessary 2010 remake, I was surprised by how much fun it is. For some reason, I had retrospectively given the original film a patina of respectability in the light of the daftness of what was to come, but that daftness was right there from the beginning, and Nightmare is best enjoyed as a pulpy B-movie that sneakily delights in its own absurdity.
Although Robert Englund is credited in the opening titles as playing ‘Fred Krueger’, he really is Freddy from the get go. Forget any contemporary neuroses about the ubiquity of paedophilia; Freddy, the disfigured knife-clawed child murderer, is a cackling, malevolent clown figure who delights in the fear and disgust he causes his victims. His costume is circus-tent red and green, and in an early appearance, his arms stretch out from one side of the street to the other, both ludicrous and genuinely frightening. He’ll happily lop of a finger for a giggle, and his murders are gruesome jokes on his victims, involving peek-a-boo chases and Johnny Depp’s Greg getting sucked into the pit of his bed to be spewed out, like the gushing spill from the elevator in the Overlook Hotel. ‘You’re not gonna need a stretcher,’ a cop tells the rushing medics. ‘You’re gonna need a mop.’
Heather Langenkamp as Nancy, Freddie’s target and adversary, has a goofy awkward innocence and a weird dreamlike nonchalance. Everyone in the film behaves with an odd dreamy logic, though the dreams themselves are never really that dream-like, with the exception of the gooey staircases that melt under Nancy’s running feet. The dreams are more like Hollywood-digested Freud, with the boiler room as the steamy, ready-to-blow site of repression, rage and dark history, in stark opposition to the pastel-coloured suburban life on show. Freddy himself is a product of Nancy’s parents’ crimes, and they are as much a danger to her as Freddy, with Ronnee Blakley as Nancy’s booze-drenched mom and B-movie legend John Saxon as the absent police detective dad.
Ultimately, Nancy will try to inhabit Freddy’s sado-comic world and play by his rules. Anticipating the Home Alone antics of Macauley Culkin’s Kevin, Nancy improvises a series of Wile-E-Coyote traps – a hammer falling from a door, exploding lightbulbs – but these manoeuvres and her attempt at psychological release will be dubiously effective against a cartoonish figure who, like all cartoon heroes, simply won’t die.
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