Thursday, August 16, 2018

Nightmare on Elm Street, A (1984)

... aka: Les griffes de la nuit (Claws of the Night)
... aka: Nightmare
... aka: Nightmare - Dal profondo della notte (Nightmare - From the Depths of the Night)
... aka: Nightmare - Mörderische Träume (Nightmare - Murderous Dreams)
... aka: Pesadilla en la calle del infierno (Nightmare on Hell Street)
... aka: Terror på Elm Street (Terror on Elm Street)

Directed by:
Wes Craven

Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss) runs through a dimly-lit school hallway. Something's not quite right as there's also a sheep (?) walking around. The sound of metal scraping against metal is heard. She ventures into a boiler room by a lit furnace and, finally, someone jumps up from behind her and grabs her. She then wakes in bed covered in sweat. Ah. Relax. It's only a nightmare. Well, except for the part about her nightgown being torn right where the dream assailant had grabbed her. That's odd. Her mother, woken by the commotion, recommends she cut her nails. The following day at school, Tina's worn out from lack of sleep. She mentions the terrible recurring dream that's been keeping her up at night to her best friend, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), and Nancy's boyfriend, Glen Lantz ("introducing" Johnny Depp). It turns out Nancy's also been having bad nightmares but can't remember all of the details. We typically don't remember much about our dreams, do we? Glen doesn't seem to want to even discuss it, so we can assume he's been having the same bad dreams, too.

Later that night, Tina invites Nancy over for a sleepover. Her mother has run off to Vegas for the weekend with her boyfriend and Tina's scared to be alone. Glen sneaks over, as does Tina's sort-of boyfriend Rod Lane ("Nick Corri" / Jsu Garcia). The more Tina describes her nightmare, the more Nancy remembers about her own, and the two have been having a very similar dream about the same exact man... A mysterious, scary man cloaked in shadow but wearing a dingy red and green sweater and armed with a glove of razor-sharp fingernails. "More like finger-knives," clarifies Nancy. Before going to bed, Rod makes mention that he too has been having nightmares. That's four for four if you're keeping score.

The sound of rustling outside of Tina's window wakes her up. She finds the window cracked as if someone's thrown rocks at it and then hears someone whispering her name. Going outside to investigate she encounters the nightmare man again, this time his arms outstretched to an inhuman length. He's behind her. Then he's in front of her. He laughs as he cuts off his own fingers. Next thing she knows he's on top of her slicing away. Tina doesn't wake up this time. The struggle with the nightmare man in her nightmare finds her being dragged up the wall to the ceiling and then across the ceiling by an invisible force. She then comes crashing down onto her bed in a shower of blood. Dead.

Witnessing Tina being killed, Rod (who already has a bad reputation around town) panics and flees the scene. A manhunt is issued for his arrest and he's finally located and put behind bars. But Nancy, who's now one of the supernatural psycho's primary targets, knows better. As all of her friends get picked off one-by-one, and with the adults not believing her and instead assuming she's losing her mind, Nancy starts guzzling caffeinated beverages and popping "Stay Awake" pills while devising a survivalist plan to save herself.

There's a good reason I haven't mentioned you-know-who's name yet and that's to give you an idea what audiences back in 1984 must have experienced. Through the first half of the movie, the name is not even uttered. People didn't go to theaters in droves to watch a heavily-promoted "Freddy movie," they went to see the horror film that everyone was talking about. Nowadays, everyone knows Freddy (called just "Fred" here) Krueger (Robert Englund); his face, his sweater, his hat, his sick-o sense of humor and most especially his special homemade glove with a blade extending from each finger. Most people are even familiar with his entire back story. A cruel and sadistic murderer of "over 20 children" during his human existence, Freddy managed to skirt the law due to an improperly filled-out search warrant but then was hunted down and torched by a mob of angry parents. Now a vengeful dream-slayer, he exacts his revenge by terrorizing and murdering the children of his killers in their dreams... and takes great pleasure in doing so! Two of the people who helped put him down were police lieutenant Donald Thompson (John Saxon) and his estranged wife Marge (Ronee Blakley), Nancy's parents.

Putting aside much of the junk that followed, the original Elm Street deserves a lot of credit for not only being a well-crafted horror film but also for effectively punching up the tired post-Halloween slash-n-hack movie formula. The clever premise working inside the anything-goes landscape of dreams affords writer / director Craven (who based this on some odd real-life occurrences he'd read about) and his crew the opportunity to go to weird, disorienting, sometimes even surreal places, yet they never alienate the audience in doing so. As a result, both the slasher faithful and those wanting something a bit more inventive and imaginative can all walk away happy.

Craven's screenplay was completed years before the film started shooting. After it was shopped around and passed over by most of the major studios, New Line Cinema finally decided to bite. For New Line, a company whose place in the entertainment industry was hardly cemented at that point thanks to the less-than-spectacular performance of their debut effort (the slasher ALONE IN THE DARK), this was a make it or break it investment of a couple million dollars. Despite receiving a lukewarm reception from critics of the day, Elm Street not only didn't break the studio, it was such a runaway hit that it practically made the studio. And its increasingly more-lucrative offspring would buoy them over other ups and downs throughout the 80s and beyond.

Enduring weeks of lengthy (three-hour-long) sessions in a makeup chair in order to play Freddy proved very worthwhile for Englund, who'd already spent ten years slogging away in Hollywood without making much of a ripple. After dozens of supporting roles in films and TV shows, Englund finally had a signature role under his belt. The character would make him a household name, ushered him into headlining lead roles and turned him into the most popular horror movie star since Lee, Cushing and Price. Because the more comedic later sequels played up the carnage for laughs, it's sometimes easy to forget just how intimidating, perverse, mysterious and creepy Englund's Freddy is in this original film. The character is never center stage nor overexposed and even when he is on screen he's usually kept in the dark. His infrequent lines are seldom played for cheap laughs either as we would see in the later films.

After this pulled in an impressive 25 million in U.S. box office, a sequel immediately went into production. Though it was financially successful (even more so than the first), A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY'S REVENGE (1985) faced backlash for partially ditching the rules set down in the original. Fan favorite A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS (1987) helped develop the Freddy joker persona as most know it today. With each victim he claimed, often in an amusing or absurd way, Freddy was never without a snappy one-liner and the series continued down this path for the rest of its duration. By the time the fourth film was released, Freddy was at the height of his popularity, every genre magazine's cover boy, mass merchandised and the recipient of his own syndicated TV series, Freddy's Nightmares.

The success of this franchise from 1984 to 1988 caused major Freddy fatigue by the end of the decade. None of the subsequent follow-ups: the dreary A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989), the awful Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991; released with a 3D "Freddy-Vision" gimmick) and the surprisingly clever but financially disappointing New Nightmare (1994), could match the box office magic of the first four. A break was in order, and a break the series got.

After laying dormant for about a decade, and now with a little help from another genre titan, the series rebounded with the spin-off Freddy vs. Jason (2003), which brought in an impressive 80 million dollars. An obligatory remake directed by Samuel Bayer was released in 2010 but was roundly rejected by most series fans. Not only was it filled with lame attempts at jump scares and God awful CGI effects, but Englund himself was replaced for the first time ever by Jackie Earl Haley and given a new, "more realistic" make-up design.

Producer Robert Shaye's voice can be heard as news and radio announcers. His sister Lin Shaye (who would become a horror icon herself in the decades to come) plays a school teacher in one scene. The cast also includes Joe Unger as a policeman, Charles Fleischer (who went on to voice Roger Rabbit) as a doctor and Craven's former wife Mimi Craven as a nurse. The score is from Charles Bernstein, who also did the music for Craven's Deadly Friend (1986). Craven allowed Bob Shaye and Sean S. Cunningham to direct a couple of individual scenes themselves to save some time.

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