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A Nightmare on Elm Street

by Wooley
posted on 10/01/22

For a period in my teens, A Nightmare On Elm Street supplanted The Rocky Horror Picture Show as my favorite movie of all time. Not favorite Horror movie. Favorite movie.
I remember my older brother, who was already developing a reputation as a dangerous badass at 15, came home from the theater shaken. He couldn't go to bed, my mom had to go sit with him for a while, and he slept with the light on for several days. And this was a guy who was known for beating peoples' asses and carrying a gun.
And then it came to HBO and I got to see it. And I stopped counting how many times I watched it at 24. No joke. It was so imaginative, so completely out of left field, and so damn scary, I just couldn't imagine anything quite like it. In that way, it was like Rocky Horror.
Like a lot of movies I loved when I was younger, this movie stopped really working for me when I hit my late 20s to early 30s. But the last time I saw it, I was reminded that it was a helluva thing. But it's been at least 5 years.
So here we go.

For starters, I think it might be the best title in Horror Movie History. I remember when it came out and there was something just so matter-of-fact about it that gave everyone the chills just hearing its name.
And honestly, I think the opening scene is a mini-masterpiece and is better than the opening of Scream and it’s not close. There I said it.

The simple, grimy, DIY way that this total stranger (you don't get to see anything but his legs and hands in the scene) makes this terrifying new murder-weapon, which obviously has only one purpose, is such a grim and gritty way to start the film, especially the way the picture is framed smaller within the larger frame-size and then expands out to film the frame at the end.
And you don't know that you're in Tina's (who you haven't even met yet) dream so the sudden appearance of a bleating lamb in the dark, wet hallway...

Chilling. Plus, one thing I really enjoyed was how Craven sort of subverts the slow-running-victim trope because it's a nightmare and Amanda Wyss (Tina) really exaggerates it so the way she runs in the dream, like her legs don’t work right or she can only take tiny steps, reminds one of like what happens to me when I try to run in nightmares, where I can’t seem to get good traction and can’t run nearly as fast as I should be able to and need to. ****ing terrifying. He nailed that.
Now I will make another bold statement: The scene from 12:12 to 18:25 is the scariest scene in movie history or I’ll hear what is. I remember the first time I saw it, it was like I couldn't believe what I was seeing. People who came to this movie later, especially after they'd seen one of the sequels, have no idea what they missed, how shocked everyone was by it. From the very subtle moment when the stranger (at this point in the movie, neither the victims nor the audience have any idea who Freddy Krueger is) tossing rocks at the window to get Tina's attention tosses the last one with such threatening intensity that he cracks the window like a bullet...

... to cutting off his own fingers just to show her how helpless and hopeless her situation is...

... and concluding with one of the most violent, seemingly impossible deaths in movie history. It's one for the ages. And let's not forget that this (practical effect, no less) happens during that same scene...

And the music during this scene is unbelievably frightening... and then when it’s silent instead!!! Aigh!
Yet another bold statement that I'll stand behind: I’ll stack this score up against Carpenter’s Halloween score any day of the week. I’m tellin’ ya, this score.
By the time the movie actually slowed down a bit, I wondered, "Jesus, does this movie have literally three maybe even FOUR of the scariest scenes in movie history? Is that possible? And I checked and I was only like 45 minutes in.
The good news is, the fun doesn't end there. The movie keeps going and really is just brilliant. The scene where she goes to sleep and Depp is supposed to watch her is just so clever from start to finish, the way Craven has conceived it and then executes it, I actually had to think about all the parts of it and how flawlessly they worked.
I also thought a lot of the writing in general was very good. For example, after Nancy has the dream where the Hall Pass Monitor turns out to be Freddy in disguise, when she wakes up screaming and says she'll go right home, the teacher (Lin Shaye! I love that she's in this!) hesitantly says to her, “You’ll need a… a hall pass.” Just so clever.
And after Freddy tells Nancy, "I'm your boyfriend now", a genuinely sinister quip that would end up being turned into the silliness of the mid and later films of the franchise but is just mean-spirited here, we see what has to be another of the most spectacular death scenes in film history, again in the same film.
“You won’t need a stretcher up there, you need a mop.”
(The blood dripping down through the ceiling? Are you kidding me?)
“What’s the coroner got to say?”
“He’s been in the john pukin’ since he saw it.”

And I've hardly hit on all the incredibly imaginative, creative, and terrifying scenes in this film.
Like Nancy's best friend calling to her from inside her own body-bag!

Or Freddy coming for Nancy when she just nods off in the bathtub for a moment.

The movie is just chock full of imagination, creativity, and terror.
I'll drop a few of my notes here and then summarize:
John Saxon was such an underrated actor.
On the flip side, what the hell happened to Ronee Blakley? She was lauded by critics after Nashville, nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe yet in this film her performance is so poor it cheapens the picture.
Evil Dead on the TV?!!! How have I missed this as many times as I've seen this movie?!
Oh my god, the actress who plays Nancy (who is supposed to be 17) has a line in the movie where she sees herself in the mirror and says, “Oh god, I look twenty years old.” This was an in-joke by Wes Craven because Heather Langenkamp was, in fact, twenty years old.
I’m definitely gonna have to move Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy way up my Final Girls list. While an early scene that is completely dubbed makes it seem like the acting in this film is bad, that disappears (other than Blakley) once the movie moves indoors and they have mics, and Langenkamp really does give a helluva performance of resilience for a Horror movie. She belongs in the conversation.

Finally, I think it's worth mentioning that this movie came out of nowhere, made by the creator of Last House On The Left and The Hills Have Eyes (two rough films) for $1.1M. And you get a movie that is simultaneously as frightening and violent as any movie up to its time and also incredibly imaginative, creative, and well-executed.
This is one of those movies, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Halloween, that’s stamped in time for good reason. So creative, so imaginative. A Nightmare On Elm Street is dozens of times better than any of its sequels.
Freddy is so much more malicious and terrifying in this (and in Freddy’s Revenge) than he is in all the other silly-ass movies. It’s night and day. And I feel sorry for anyone who saw those first, because here he is, without a doubt, the most vicious killer in Horror history, not a wise-cracking clown.
So. Is A Nightmare On Elm Street the scariest Horror movie of all time?
It certainly makes its case. And I'll certainly hear it. I can tell you that I came away feeling that it was as seminal as ever and a major god in the Horror pantheon.

(Is it flawless, no. Is the positive so overpowering that the negative doesn't matter? Yes.)