Thursday, April 29, 2010

Retro Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

You know what A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is? It’s an idea – a really cool, really interesting and extremely frightening idea. Over the past 25 years Nightmare has maintained elite slasher flick status, propelling writer/director Wes Craven into the Horror Hall of Fame and installing Freddy Kruger as a cinematic household name. Aficionados who came up in the 80s look at it as one of the greats. It maintains an astounding (and alarming) 95% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, beating out other slasher classic like the original Halloween (93%), Scream (81%), and the original Friday the 13th (60%). In fact, if you don’t count Psycho (which, to be fair, isn’t structured like a slasher flick), Nightmare is the most acclaimed slasher flick of all time. And not just on Rotten Tomatoes. Metacritic, the New York Times, etc. all view Nightmare as a pinnacle of its genre. A truly classic horror film.

And it may in fact be just that. You may have watched this flick as a kid and been haunted in your sleep for weeks. But guess what – I watched it the other night, and I thought it sucked.

Oh, snap! Did I just get you angry? Are you all riled up and ready to pour vengeance into your keyboard and beat me bloodily in the comments section? I hope so!

Look, I won’t argue against this flick’s importance. It amplified a sub-genre I love, beefed up interest in Halloween (my favorite slasher) and helped pave the way for Scream (my second favorite). But screening Nightmare today, it feels less like a movie and more like a history assignment – I watched and respected it for what it was, but couldn’t ignore what it is.

And what it is, is dated. The effects don’t hold up. The acting is complete shite. And worst of all, the movie isn’t scary. It’s isn’t even freaky.

Watching Nightmare changed my perception of Wes Craven, and not for the better. If you go back to films like Halloween, or Psycho, or even The Shining, it’s easy to be moved by the director’s approach to the story. These films all FEEL old, but the scene’s move with the same studied intensity now as they did then.

In contrast, the direction of Nightmare feels meek and uninspired. The idea of a slaher/monster who hunts and kills us in our dreams – when we’re powerless to defend ourselves – is something that digs into our greatest fears and weaknesses, dining on our most inherent and primal concerns. There’s brilliance in that concept, and Craven gets all the credit.

But as a director – in the position he’s famous for – his work in Nightmare is equal parts imaginative and sloppy. The famous scene where Tina (Amanda Wyss) is cut, bloodied and dragged across her ceiling is frightening in concept, but doesn’t play as well as it should. The scene where Glen (Johnny Depp) is pulled into his bed, and then shot out in a geyser of blood is horrible to think of (or type in a blog) but seems almost ridiculous when watching the film.
Nightmare just doesn’t hold up. It’s famous for introducing Freddy (portrayed by Robert Englund), a timeless villain in horror lore, but a wussy freakshow of a man in reality – a killer who hops around like an orangutan , laughing hysterically before being easily bested by the first person to actually fight back. He’s more of a nuisance than an intimidating threat.

It’s famous for introducing Tina as the heroine, and then killing her off (shocking!) and making her the first heroine-fakeout of the genre. Except when we watch it now, we realize she’s barely in the movie and never feels like the main character at all. Plus Hitchock did the same thing in Psycho 20 years earlier, and did it better.

It’s famous for introducing Johnny Depp to the cinematic world. And that’s just awesome. But if he stands out here at all, acting wise, it’s not because he’s good or given anything at all to do. It’s because everybody else is so laughably, dramatically bad in contrast. Heather Langenkamp plays the lead, Nancy. She’s whiney, boring and just plain awful. Ronee Blakley plays her mother as walking 1950s melodrama incarnate.

Nightmare wasn’t made with a big budget. It doesn’t have big stars or lots of money to throw around. But neither did Halloween. If anything, Nightmare suffers by aspiring for imaginative greatness without the means (budget or talent) to achieve it.  It’s sad to say such a thing, but I can’t help it.

25 years later, the original Nightmare is sometimes fun, never scary and too often laughable.


? said...

I think the danger with reviewing films that have been burnt out by pop culture and whose ideas have been beaten into the ground is it's hard to see it for what it truly was or is -- an example of a genre breaking new ground and offering a cerebral, satirical slasher film. The original is of its time but it deserves a pass for a lot of its faults and a lot more credits for breaking new ground. The hardest thing to do in any genre, especially horror, is to be unique and different and Nightmare was that in spades. For me, a bonafide classic, albeit one with a lot of 1984 nostalgia adding a layer of gauze over my cold, cynical 2010 eyes.

Shame you never saw it as intended. Back in the 80s.

- Irish

? said...

Have no interest in the remake either, it should be added. I've seen that movie, so why should I? The more redundant remakes made, the less films I have to see and be surprised by. Damn you modern brand fixated Hollywood.

- Irish

The Bru said...

I think, nostalgia is great. And Nightmare belongs to the 80s and, as the Irish said, we have to take that into account when watching it. But I agree with DubMC that, why have some other films of the era dated (or matured) a lot more gracefully than Nightmare? Each film belongs to its era, but great films transcend it. Nightmare isn't a great film - it was a good film for 1984.

? said...

Agreed, Bru.

-- Irish

bheeler said...

I really think the original Nightmare is equal parts creative/inventive and derivitive, and that's what works for it. The "don't fall asleep" stuff is lifted from Bodysnatchers, the idea of the Freddy character from newspaper clippings, the razor claw from the likes of Wolverine and other geek tools, and of course the slasher approach that was trending so well. And it's all blended into a new, cool perspective/package. I can see how it was really, really fun back in the day. And the re-make only emphasizes that point.

But bad acting now was bad acting then, and the same goes for story flaws and not-so-scary villians. They just didn't matter as much in the moment.


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