In 1972, college professor turned aspiring film maker Wes Craven produced the low budget horror film Last House on the Left to some small success, in 1977, he got more horror cred with the survival flick the Hills Have Eyes. After that it was a string of mostly forgettable TV movies and the like. But in 1983 or so, Craven hit paydirt.
He met with Bob Shaye of the indie studio New Line Cinema. There he pitched the idea that would put New Line on the map. Craven told Shaye about the idea of a killer who hunts kids in their dreams…and if you die in your dream, you die in real life. Based on a series of news stories Craven had read, in which people had told loved ones of terrifying nightmare they were having, and then died in their sleep (all involved young people, in at least one case, the kid secretly went days without sleep, hiding coffee in his room).
Shaye saw the potential there and green lit the project. What came about is one of the most memorable icons of 80’s horror. Named after a childhood bully, Craven created Fred Krueger, a child murderer who got freed on a technicality and then was killed by the parents of Elm Street.
Years later, high school student Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and her friends find their dreams haunted by a creepy man in a green and red sweater, oblivious to the fact that their parents murdered Kruger years before. And, of course, the parents would prefer to keep it that way. Nancy’s mother (Ronee Blakely) is a fall down drunk, estranged from Nancy’s police lieutenant father (John Saxon) who is determined to keep the truth from coming out. But the sins of the parents are threatening the lives of the youth in this story. And the parents do not want to face the truth (hey, it is a horror film, parents never believe the kids).
As Nancy’s friends start dying, the police right them off as murders and suicides, but Nancy knows better. She starts trying to fight the need for sleep, and manages to avoid Freddy’s claws. But her mother is certain her daughter is just going crazy, while her father sticks to what he can see and is unwilling to accept his daughter’s claims.
In fact, truthfully, the greatest threat to Nancy is her parent’s unwillingness to listen to her. In that regard, the film becomes, at times, unbearably preachy. But ultimately, Nancy stands up to Freddy, apparently defeating him at his own game.
Overall, the original Nightmare On Elm Street holds up quite well. Freddy was not yet as campy, and Robert Englund plays him with a real grim vibe. Freddy’s voice is a guttural, throaty growl that is immensely threatening. The first reveal of Freddy walking down an alley with distended arms, scraping his claws along garages is hauntingly creepy. The practical effects and make up still are effective. The music is one of the few things that really does not hold up over the years. Those synthesizer based soundtracks rarely do. One exception is that the main theme is pretty creepy. The thing that truly risks ruining the movie though? The final scene is clearly tacked on for sequel possibilities and it really makes no sense. Wes Craven has disowned that ending that was forcd on his work. Producers should trust their directors.
But overall, this remains a solid effort, even if it is somewhat tainted by a slew of much lesser sequels (though there are a couple worth catching).