Released 26 years ago, Wes Craven’s 1984 slasher A Nightmare on Elm Street will forever be remembered for introducing the charismatic villain Freddy Krueger into pop culture – yet A Nightmare on Elm Street isn’t principally about Freddy. The film centres on a group of hormonally-charged high school students (among them a very young Johnny Depp making his big-screen debut) whose dreams/nightmares are being infiltrated by dead child-killer Krueger (Robert Englund). Our lead protagonist, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), is a typical teenager with typical problems; she’s white, a child of divorce and has a lecherous boyfriend.
Indeed, along with other slasher movies such as John Carpenter’s excellent Halloween (1978) and Sean Cunningham’s sub-genre defining Friday the 13th (1980), Craven adorns A Nightmare on Elm Street with all the archetypal situations and thematic traits which are so integral to the construction of the slasher sub-genre. Such examples include, the notion of sex equating to death and what film-theorist Carol Clover has defined as ‘the Final Girl’ – the female protagonist who successfully defeats the enemy; in the case of Nancy she is typically resourceful and courageous, willing to venture into unknown territories in order to defeat her antagonist. But where A Nightmare on Elm Street succeeds is in its preying on archetypal fears.
As noted, the dream, or nightmare is a staple of the modern horror movie but in A Nightmare on Elm Street Craven brings a certain intelligence to the concept, inviting viewers to think about the division between dreams and being awake, between fantasy and reality, between other worlds and our own. It’s through this thematic device that Craven evokes themes surrounding the loss of innocence and American suburban life, notably of how suburban life is assumed as being a safe haven when in fact it houses many of the most horrifying details and stories behind its façade. Or furthermore, delving deeper into the text, Nightmare showcases how Craven uses his blackly comic antagonist to highlight the idiosyncrasies of teenage life – the sexual politics and fear of growing up.
The original A Nightmare on Elm Street still stands on its own as an intriguing and chilling testament to what can be done with limited funds and directorial ingenuity. When viewed within the context of today, it brings a refreshing reproach to the influx of the heinous torture-porn that saturates the contemporary horror market. Yes, it’s a simple concept, but it’s one which explores that familiar primal fear of being attacked at your most vulnerable. After all, aren’t the simplest horrors the most frightening? As Nancy Thompson would urge, “Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep.”