By 1984, horror films seemed to be losing steam at the box office yet again. Re-invigorated by John Carpenter’s wildly successful Halloween in 1978, Hollywood had quickly run the genre back into the ground with a constant string of pale imitations and lacklustre sequels.
After 1983’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch bombed attempting to branch out from the iconic Michael Myers character, Paramount decided to end its own horror franchise with Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. It was into that landscape that writer-director Wes Craven and New Line Cinema released A Nightmare on Elm Street, quickly becoming the most impactful horror series of the decade.
The very success of the Nightmare on Elm Street series is perhaps why re-watching the first film now is such a shock. The aspects most frequently credited with the franchise’s popularity, while certainly present in the sequels, are almost totally absent in Craven’s lean, mean horror film. The real reasons for its success, though, remain as apparent today as they were at the time of its release.
Perhaps the most cited reason for Nightmare‘s success is its antagonist, Freddy Krueger. Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy all form what is perhaps the the holy trinity of horror movie characters, having permeated pop culture to such an extent that even your grandmother knows their names. Of that group’s respective series, Freddy has always been the outlier, given a snarky personality that was a marked departure from the silent blankness of Jason and Michael.
However, re-watching A Nightmare on Elm Street, it is quickly apparent that Craven’s take on the character is hardly what it would become in the sequels. The Freddy here is rarely seen, and when he is, his presence more sinister than comical. While the sequels would expand upon that aspect of the character to the point of self-parody, in this outing, Freddy is much more similar to Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees than not.
No, upon revisiting the film it is clear the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street lies in its weaponising of a basic part of life to stoke fear.
While Halloween and Friday the 13th both garnered their scares through the use of deft direction to build dread, they offered little that would extend fear beyond your time in the cinema. Craven, a former professor, realised early on that the more effective way to scare an audience would be to turn something that they encountered every day against them. In the case of Nightmare on Elm Street, that thing would be sleep, with Freddy Krueger able to kill teenagers in reality by doing so in their dreams.
That set-up also allowed for much more creative kills than other series could deliver. Dream logic allowing for scenes such as Tina’s being dragged up a wall and killed in mid-air, or the memorable (if cheesy) scene of Freddy’s arms extending across a dark alley way gave Nightmare a much stronger and more unique visual language despite its fairly low budget. Compare it to the relatively drab visual style of its contemporaries, and it is no wonder that it would stand out.
These dreamscapes are also the primary reason that the series would have such long legs at the box office, providing new directors a lot of range to work with. This over-reliance on visually decadent kills at the expense of tension or fear is perhaps what would finally derail the franchise in the 90s before Craven rescued things creatively with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare in 1994.
These things which make the original A Nightmare on Elm Street unique are also why it has held up the least well compared the first Halloween and Friday the 13th films. While it remains effective at making sleep scary, Craven’s directions lacks much of the tension-building techniques that those other films would employ to such great success. While Cunningham mimicked Carpenter’s usage of foreground when making Friday the 13th, Craven seems so enamoured by the crazy visuals that he forgets that less can be more when it comes to horror.
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Freddy’s scenes in the dream boiler room in particular lack tension, with most of them featuring the killer simply walking towards the camera. In 1984 when the visual tricks on display were cutting edge, these scenes might have worked better, but in 2018, they have lost much of that impact.
While some of what is on screen no longer feels as scary as it once did, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street remains a fascinating and important part of the evolution of horror films. Some genre fans may blame it for moving horror away from tension and towards overly-elaborate setpieces, but few can deny that those demonstrations of the horrors Freddy could inflict in one’s dreams led to countless hours of lost sleep for viewers. And in the end, is that not what every horror fan goes into a horror film hoping for?