Review by J.T. Johnson
ORIGINAL RELEASE DATE: November 9, 1984
DIRECTOR: Wes Craven
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Jacques Haitkin
MUSIC: Charles Bernstein
In the 1980s, the slasher film was in full effect thanks to the massive box-office success of films such as “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”. In 1984, director Wes Craven had already made a name for himself underground within the horror genre with small independent horror films such as “The Last House on the Left” and “The Hills Have Eyes”. That’s why it may surprise most to discover that when Craven originally shopped “Nightmare” around, absolutely nobody wanted it.
That is until he met Robert Shaye, the founder and CEO of New Line Cinema, which was at the time a small video distributor. The other studios turned down the film because they didn’t think that the horror being set in someone’s dreams was all that horrifying. Thankfully, Shaye immediately saw the potential in the script and in the filmmaker.
The movie follows a group of kids as they begin to realize that they are sharing the same nightmares about a man who is horribly burned and wears a glove with razor-sharp claws on it. Tina (Amanda Wyss) is the first girl to realize that these are more than just nightmares. She enlists her other friends Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and Glen (Johnny Depp) along with her boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri) to stay with her one night.
She is immediately attacked in her sleep and in the real world, it is so violent that she is being dragged up the wall and onto the ceiling while Rod watches in confused horror. After she is killed, it is primarily up to Nancy to figure out how to stop this evil force named Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) once and for all!
Tina’s death comes early on in the film and it is a story beat taken right out of Alfred Hitchcock’s playbook. We follow Tina at first and she seems to be the default main character. After she dies, we realize that it is Langenkamp’s Nancy that we’re actually supposed to follow. Not only must she battle Freddy in her dreams, she must also go up against adults that don’t seem to believe her but they also seem to be hiding something about Freddy as well.
When it comes down to the “Nightmare” films and the “Friday the 13th” films, I always preferred “Nightmare”. This is because I always cared more about the teenagers in the Freddy films. They weren’t just fodder for Freddy to pick off as they were usually smart kids who actually tried to figure out how to stop this mysterious dream stalker.
I particularly like this first film best of all. The sequels that would follow would be fun rides, but they played up the humor more as the series progressed. In this original film, though, Craven and company keep things serious for the most part. Also, it helps that Craven cast the perfect person to play his monster.
Englund went on to become a pop culture icon with Freddy. He loves to play Freddy as a tormentor who doesn’t just love to kill his prey. He has to play with them first before striking the final blow. The dark humor associated with the character is there in this first film, but it is way more subtle than it became in later films.
Beyond the monster, though, the film’s premise allows for some creative and now classic moments. Tina’s death is unique as she is dragged up a wall and pinned to a ceiling while an invisible Freddy torments her. Before that, he almost gets Nancy as he is about to breach the wall above her bed but she wakes up just before he can get through. Then, there is the still effective blood bath that shoots out of a bed once Freddy drags his unsuspecting victim down below.
This is not just a good, chilling horror film. It is also a good visual experience due to the creative plot. Craven solidified his status as a master of horror with this movie and to this day, it remains his masterpiece in addition to creating one of the most unique movie monsters ever devised for the big screen!