Damn, this is a scary movie.
That may seem like an obvious point to make when talking about the original A Nightmare On Elm Street but it’s still one that needs to be made. I always seem to forget just how scary the original is. I mean, there’s been so many sequels. And there was that kind of silly movie where Freddy Krueger fought Jason Vooerhees. And then there was the fairly forgettable reboot. Freddy Krueger is something of a cultural icon. Even people who have never watched any of the movies knows who Freddy Krueger is. Freddy has become so well-known for his quips and his puns and his bad jokes that it’s easy to forget that the reason he put razors on his gloves was so he could kill children.
Despite the fact that Jackie Earle Haley took over the role in the reboot, Freddy Krueger will always be associated with the actor who first played him, Robert Englund. What’s interesting is that, whenever you watch or read an interview with Englund, he comes across as being literally the nicest guy in the world. (His autobiography is one of the most cheerful Hollywood memoirs that I’ve ever read.) Before he was cast as Freddy, Englund was a fairly busy character actor. It’s always a little odd when he pops up in some old movie on TCM because, inevitably, he’s always seems to be playing a nice and often kinda shy guy. Supposedly, when Englund auditioned for the role of Freddy, he darkened his lower eyelids with cigarette ash and he purposefully said very little while meeting with director Wes Craven. Craven, who based Freddy Krueger on a childhood bully, was impressed enough to cast this very likable actor as one of the most evil killers in the history of horror cinema.
And make no mistake about it. In the first film, Freddy Krueger is terrifying. He’s not the joker that he would become in later installments of the franchise. When he does laugh, it’s because he’s taunting his latest victim. This Freddy isn’t quite as quick-witted as the Freddy who showed up in Dream Warriors and other films. This Freddy keeps things simple, popping up in your nightmares, chasing you, and, once he catches you, killing you. It’s not just his glove and his burned faced that makes Freddy terrifying in this film. It’s how determined and relentless he is. He’s not going to stop until he catches you and, seeing as how he’s already dead, there’s really not much you can do to slow him down. Englund plays Freddy as being the ultimate bully. The only joy he gets is from tormenting the rest of us. It’s a testament to the strength of Englund’s performance that memories of Freddy dominate our thoughts when it comes to A Nightmare of Elm Street, despite the fact that Freddy is only onscreen for seven minutes.
It’s an effective film, not just because of the nightmare scenes but also because of the scenes that take place in the waking world. The majority of the film follows Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), Glen (Johnny Depp), Tina (Amanda Wyss), and Rod (Jsu Garcia, who is credited as Nick Corri in this film) as they try not to die. And let’s be honest. None of these characters are particularly deep. Rod’s the bad boy. Tina’s the rebellious Catholic. Glen’s the nice guy. Nancy’s the good girl. They’re archetypes that should be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a slasher film. And yet, you really do care about them, especially Nancy and Glen. (Admittedly, everyone that I’ve ever talked to about this film seems to care about Rod the least.) Langenkamp, Depp, and Wyss all give such likable performances that you really do find yourself worrying about what will happen to them when and if they fall asleep.
I rewatched A Nightmare on Elm Street last night and I was shocked to discover that, even though I knew what was coming, the movie still scared me. The sight of Freddy straining against the wall over Nancy’s head was still unbelievably creepy. The gory scene where Freddy attacks Tina still frightened me, as did the famous geyser of blood scene. Even the much-parodied scene where Freddy’s glove rises up between Nancy’s legs while she sleeps in the bathtub still made me shudder.
It’s easy to take for granted just how good and scary the original Nightmare on Elm Street actually is. For horror fans, it’s a film that deserves to be watched this October season. Just don’t fall asleep afterwards.