What makes a work of art a classic in one era and laughable in another? I’ve written before about the Citizen Kane Effect, or the idea that some works that were groundbreaking for their time had such a profound effect on the medium that they essentially became the new standard, to the point that the innovations of the past might appear mundane to the modern eye. But there’s a flipside to this phenomenon — sometimes a work is innovative and interesting for its time, but as the years pass on, the tropes of the genre change, or the grammar and shorthand for how particular ideas are expressed evolve. When this happens, older works can feel miscalibrated or even half-baked to viewers who come to them after their heydey, having grown accustomed to the conventions of follow-on works that build on, and eventually move away from, their hallowed predecessors.
Perhaps this is why, despite my best efforts, I essentially laughed my way through A Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s prudent to go into any work of art, especially those considered landmarks of the genre, with an open mind. While some seminal works may be overpraised, it’s worth the effort to appreciate why something is considered a classic, even if a modern viewer may have trouble connecting with it. But at a certain point, no matter how hard we try, we cannot escape the baggage that we carry into our viewing experiences.
Perhaps it’s naive to expect a horror film to have the same impact thirty years after its debut that it did when it was originally released. And yet, my prelude to A Nightmare on Elm Street was The Exorcist, a film that predated Nightmare by nearly a decade, but was still just as vivid, striking, and scary in the present day as it was to audiences in the seventies. At the same time, my postscript to the film was Nightmare director Wes Craven’s own Scream, released a little more than a decade later, which manages to be both frightening and fun while trafficking in the same tropes that Craven himself helped establish in Kruger’s first slasherrific outing. So what makes the difference? Why is one scary movie chilling and another chuckle-worthy?
The shallowest, and yet most inescapable reason I found A Nightmare on Elm Street so hard to take seriously was its score. There’s something about layer upon layer of synthesizer sounds that completely undercuts the gravity of almost any scene in the film. The phoniness of the sound can take the modern viewer out of the moment, and remind them of the artificiality of what’s being witnessing. Whether it’s Freddy flicking his tongue in time with some corny laser sound effect, or a synth-pop club mix playing while he chases his victim around a boiler room, the sonic elements of the film convey only a sense of farce when it’s aiming for fear.
That reaction is both completely unfair and completely understandable. In 1984, synthesizers were du jour and would have felt no more out of place or polarizing than the then-novel alternative rock sounds of Rent did in the nineties. Yet in 2015, the year that signified The Future to fellow eighties franchise Back to the Future, the score cannot help but sound chintzy and outdated. It’s old enough to sound passe without being old enough to sound classic, and dates the film in a way that The Exorcist’s sparser musical accompaniment does not.
It’s also difficult to move past the glut of middling-to-awful acting in A Nightmare on Elm Street, much of it vacillating between stilted and hammy. Naturalism is not an inherent virtue, and outsized performances can work in the context of an outsized film, but the unbelievable, melodramatic crying and screaming only made me laugh when I was supposed to be sharing in the characters’ terror.
The wooden exchanges between the various teenagers in the film, including Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp, playing the film’s lead) and her whitebread beau, Glen Lantz (a young Johnny Depp, who receives an “introducing” credit) can almost pass for an accurate depiction of the banality of teenage conversations. But the performances still stick out as particularly labored and unconvincing.
Moreover, Ronee Blakely, who plays the protagonist’s mother, offers the tearful confessions and out of control drinking problems torn from a Lifetime movie. John Saxon, who plays Nancy’s father, gives one of the few serviceable performances in the film, bringing an air of authority to his role as a police officer and caretaker. But none of these actors are helped by the fact that each essentially lacks a real character to dig into. The parents have minor shades of conflict to work with, but each of the younger members of the cast essentially portray generic teenage archetypes with little to distinguish them from the standard-issue slasher kids.
Robert Englund, who plays the now-iconic Krueger, acquits himself well enough as the film’s antagonist. But his is largely a physical performance, and to that extent it often rises and falls with the supporting effects and creativity of Nightmare’s kill sequences. Krueger growls and grins and chases after his victims with a creepy glee, but it becomes difficult to distinguish what Englund himself brings to the character (who was also played by other actors in certain scenes), from the layers of makeup and prosthetics, not to mention the cinematic horrorshow, that build up the character apart from the man who plays him.
The better sequences where Freddy intimidates and eventually pursues his prey are far and away the highlight of the film. But while his actual kill scenes generally stand out as the most engrossing and inventive parts of the movie, the instances where Freddy half-heartedly lumbers after his targets can come off as laughable rather than frightening. And the instances where this dream demon, with the power to essentially bend reality to his murderous will, deigns to get into minor shoving matches with his diminutive victims, take some of the punch out of his otherwise spine-chilling persona.
On the whole, there was a decidedly hit-and-miss quality to Freddy’s scare tactics. Some were appropriately novel and terrifying, while others fell flat. That said, while tricks like Krueger’s elongated arms, or scenes where he pops out from behind a tree to yell “boo” come off a bit cheesy, slapdash, or even comic to a modern viewer, others are just as striking today as they were in 1984.
The film’s biggest asset is its premise. The idea of a murderer who attacks his victims in their dreams is an imaginative one that lends itself to myriad opportunities for surreal and unsettling horror. Since A Nightmare on Elm Street was released, films like Inception, The Science of Sleep, and even fellow ghoul-focused works like Buffy the Vampire Slayer have used the surrealist setting of a dreamscape to impressive effect. But even in light of the achievements in those works, Wes Craven’s magnum opus of dream-based terror still manages to use the premise of a monster who exacts his revenge through children’s nightmares to its full effect.
The disorienting cuts from scene to scene as Krueger stalks his victims are still mesmerizing. Craven’s commitment to his craft stands out in sequences like Tina’s death. The stakes of the film are heightened when Tina’s already unsettling writhing takes an even more disturbing, supernatural bent as an invisible force drags her up to the ceiling.
The handful of jump scares in the film feel a bit cheap, but Craven still finds places where he can imbue Nightmare with an eerie sense of tension and foreboding, like the moments where Krueger’s gloved hand emerges from the bath, or a sheet wraps itself around Rod’s neck, or a torrent of blood collects on the ceiling. Outside of the movie’s bigger showpiece sequences, Craven sprinkled the film with persistent signs that something was amiss before the audience learns the full story, and this often lent an air of terror to a film that was otherwise too campy to consistently create emotional investment.
There were also some nice structural elements and bits of continuity in the film, like Krueger appearing without his hat for the balance of the movie after Nancy rips it away from him in the dream world. In the same vein, it’s was a nice touch that when Nancy begins her final showdown with Krueger, she finds that the finger-knives in the furnace that her mother had shown to her earlier are now missing. These little details help bolster Freddy’s threadbare mythology and his connection to the waking world, adding to the suspense.
To the same end, Craven takes care to establish both Nancy’s trap-setting know-how and the idea that literally turning your back on Freddy takes away his power long before she actually uses these tactics against him. Craven was anything but subtle in laying this groundwork, but at a minimum, it helped make those moments feel appropriately set up, if still a bit hokey. Despite that fact, Nancy being able to slow down a reality-warping monster using tactics that would eventually show up in Home Alone makes that showdown reek of slapstick more than terror, and it makes Freddy seem more Stooge-like than fearsome.
By the same token, the poor pacing of the film hurts Craven’s attempt to to keep that sense of terror afloat. There’s little feeling of build throughout the film, with the various disparate events seeming jumbled and stitched together. There are odd blackouts between scenes, and a number of quieter, more mundane parts of the film where the actors involved were simply not equipped to carry the moments the when nothing supernatural was taking place.
At best, the film is a collection of interesting setpieces, an elaborate game of mousetrap where the audience keeps waiting for the next marble to be set in motion. But in the intervening downtime, the points where we’re supposed to care about who is being killed and why, the movie falls flat. The unlimited, horrific possibilities of dreams give the movie its spark, harnessing the idea that, as Descartes famously noted, dreams and reality are indistinguishable from one another, to spine-tingling ends. Craven does all he can to take advantage of the fact that those “safe” moments may, in fact, still be part of the nightmare.
But ultimately, that’s a gimmick, or at least not enough to overcome the lesser elements of the film. A Nightmare on Elm Street certainly plays its premise to the hilt, and wrings as much juice out of the concept of a dream-based killer as possible, but the superb premise and well-constructed murder scenes don’t make up for the flat characters, the bad acting, and laughable score.
Maybe, at the time the film was released, the inventive phantasmagoria Craven and his team produced was enough to justify the film all on its own. The movie’s visual creativity and novel kill sequences certainly stood out as the highlight of A Nightmare on Elm Street. But it’s hard to be genuinely compelled, let alone frightened, amid an array of soap opera-level acting, synth pop dance mixes, and a mixed bag of scares that render the film not nearly as potent in 2015 as it was when it originally spooked viewers, more than thirty years prior.