[box cover]

A Nightmare on Elm Street

New Line Home Video

Starring Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, and Robert Englund

Written and directed by Wes Craven

Back to Review Index

Back to Quick Reviews

Few movies manage to linger in the memory of their audiences for more than 10 minutes after the end credits start rolling. What a phenomenon, then, when a movie can worm its way as quickly and firmly into an entire culture's consciousness as Wes Craven's 1984 low-budget horror flick A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Craven had built a solid cult reputation in the 1970s with two unusual, graphically violent shockers, The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. Although Craven showed a unique knack for injecting human drama into a monster-dominated genre, both films were exceedingly raw and neither gained any attention outside of devoted horror-fan circles. A few years later at the end of the decade, John Carpenter's sleeper Halloween carved a out a box office niche for the slasher film, and the subsequent success of its blockbuster imitator, Friday the 13th spelled out big potential for teen gore and faceless, yet iconic, psycho-killers.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is an ambitious effort within a prolific formula unaccustomed to much effort at all. Heather Langenkamp stars as Nancy, a teenager suffering from horrific nightmares in which she is chased by a severly burned man wearing a glove with long razors protruding from the fingers. Her friend (Amanda Wyss) is having the same dreams and is so terrified of sleeping alone she invites Nancy and their boyfriends over to help get her through the night.

She doesn't make it. This time the burned man in her dreams catches her and kills her, slashing her stomach open with his finger-knives — for real, although it appears to her horrified boyfriend Lou as if she's being butchered by an invisible force. She is merely the first. These dreams begin plaguing — and offing — other teens in the Elm Street neighborhood, and Nancy, sleep-deprived has to find a way to stop it.

The burned man, of course, is the infamous Freddy Kruger (Richard Englund), now one of the most easily recognizable names — and faces — in film. Freddy's indelibly creepy, metal-scraping fingerknives are just one of Craven's distinguishing inventions that turned this small film into an endless, money-making franchise. Unlike his zombiesque slashing predecessors, Freddy is neither faceless, nor silent, nor dressed in dull black death garb. His bald, tissuey, burned face perenially flashes a gleeful grin, and he meets every fearful plea with a quick rejoinder. And he doesn't dress like a fiend — he dresses like your grandfather, in a red sweater and a fedora.

Despite Craven's half-baked attempts at metaphysical exploration of the relation between dreams and reality, Kruger's abundant personality is solely responsible for the film's success, and exactly why none of the sequels were any good. In the first film Kruger is a menacing glyph, giving lively definition to Nancy's fears. Of course, the popularity of the character dictated that subsequent films would focus more on the villain than his prey, which may be good for merchandising, but not so conducive to drama or empathy.

In the original Nightmare, though, Craven got it right. He outlines his serious intentions with his casting of Langenkamp as Nancy. Whereas most of these movies revolve around teen-age hedonism, she is refreshingly serious and — a bit disappointingly — not very sexy. While she does spend half the film in her nightclothes, it's pajamas, not nighties. Not even the film debut of future teen heartthrob Johnny Depp as Nancy's beau can divert Craven away from his singular focus on terror.

The casting of Langenkamp, however, also illustrates Nightmare's great shortcoming. She's not a very good actress. Likewise, neither are the writing, editing, or directing very good either. It makes for a frustrating experience, knowing that while a movie strives for unusual quality, it sadly fails to deliver. It must be said that Jacques Haitkin's cinematography is excellent, and there are fine performances by Depp and B-movie veteran John Saxon, but there's little else to compliment — other than Craven's grand, if unrealized, vision.

Fans of Nightmare will love this new disc, especially if they have access to a DVD-ROM drive. The film can be watched in either 1.85 anamorphic widescreen or pan & scan, and with either the original 2.0 mono soundtrack or a 5.1 Dolby Digital re-mix. The commentary by Craven, Langenkamp, Saxon, and Haitkin is a plus, but the DVD-ROM content provides a plug-in-heavy array of Freddy-themed games, Flash animations, and web links, plus an ineractive version of the screenplay. A great package. Keep case.

— Gregory P. Dorr

Get it at Reel.com

Back to Review Index

Back to Quick Reviews

Back to Main Page

© 1999, The DVD Journal