A Nightmare on Elm Street

December 8, 2010

Main Street, U.S.A. A favorite location for novelist, playwrights, painters. The embodiment of American dreams and values.

Those credential-carrying artists are not the only ones who have explored the fertile locale. Main Street has been frequently used in horror movies. Really good horror directors love to turn the nostalgic clichés of Main Street inside out, and examine the dark underside of the contented American community. Whether it’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Stepford Wives, or Halloween, horror films have provided an imaginative method of describing the explosions of psychosis that lie underneath life’s calm exterior.

Even the title of Wes Craven’s new horror film—A Nightmare on Elm Street—suggests a movie firmly in this tradition. And Craven (a former college humanities teacher) uses the location fairly well, although he’s a little short on the kind of small-town atmosphere that made Body Snatchers so believable.

But he has got a pretty good idea—the murderous guilt of a group of neighbors is passed along to their children via collective nightmares—and Craven runs wild with it. He begins the film with a violent nightmare, and never lets the gas pedal off the floor after that.

There’s a killer on the loose in the dreams of some teenagers, and this dude can actually kill them during the nightmare—so, after a couple of deaths, our heroine (Heather Langenkamp) decides she better not fall asleep until she figures out a way to beat this guy.

Naturally, since the killer’s appearances are all within dreams, she has a hard time convincing her parents (Ronee Blakley—remember the country singer from Nashville?—and John Saxon) that she’s really in trouble. They keep telling her, “Honey, you look like you could use some sleep.” In these movies, parents never do understand until it’s too late.

Craven, who scored strongly with his first two low-budget films, Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, hasn’t assembled a solid horror flick since. But Nightmare puts him back on track—it’s suspenseful all the way. It’s also wildly gory. Craven likes to take the audience all the way with this sort of thing, even if he turns a few stomachs in the process.

The movie has a sloppy look to it, and the acting is flat. But the action is non-stop, and if that sounds like a small achievement, you’d be surprised how many action movies are deadly dull.

For all its violence, Nightmare is not one of those movies that exist as an excuse to place passive women in sadistic situations. The heroine is intelligent and resourceful, and has the audience completely on her side during the climactic battle, when she must outwit the demon.

And even though the movie borrows from predecessors—Poltergeist and The Exorcist loom especially large—it finds its own scary, scream-inducing niche. Score another one for the low-budget independents.

First published in the Herald, 1984.

Got through the whole review without mentioning Freddy Krueger, which at the time I remember thinking an amusingly flat-sounding name for a villain. There’s a measure of different periods in horror there—from the heady exotica of “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” to the flat next-door-neighbor ring of “Freddy Krueger” and “Jason Voorhees” and “Michael Myers.” In any case, good movie. I suppose in those early paragraphs, and with the rather sober tone overall, I was trying hard to talk the average reader into a comfort zone to consider that a bloody horror picture might actually have something to say, and even that it might be part of a larger tradition. But what is this “life’s calm exterior” crap?


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