Running time: 91 min.
Release date: November 16, 1984
Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street has a premise that will make anyone take pause before turning off the nightlight: our bed, the one setting where we are most at comfort, can also make us vulnerable. When we dream, there are some of us that think we can control the outcome. A Nightmare on Elm Street tells us differently. The film is a unique and creative entry into the horror genre; it is much more frightening than the usual "stalk and slash" fare, mainly because it delves into the psyche of its victims before attempting to end their lives.
The film opens with young Tina (Amanda Wyss) making her way through a boiler room while dressed in her nightgown. This surreal image is merely a dream, as reinforced by the sight of farm animals running through the halls of a school. She is being stalked by a disfigured man wearing a glove adorned with blades, which he likes to run along metal surfaces, emitting a nerve-wracking high-pitched squeak. She awakens from the nightmare, but also notices that her gown has been shredded. The next day, she seeks comfort in her friend, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and Nancy's boyfriend, Glen (Johnny Depp). Nancy agrees to spend the night with Tina in order to keep her company, but they eventually discover that they have all been dreaming about the same creepy man.
Tina's boyfriend is Rod (Nick Corri), and he comes over to reconcile after a fight. They have sex, as teenagers are prone to do in this genre, and Tina falls asleep. Soon after, she is dreaming about the disfigured man again. This time she is caught and as Rod awakens he witnesses Tina getting attacked in reality by an unseen menace. Rod disappears as Nancy and Glen discover Tina's bloody, lifeless body. Of course, the police arrest Rod on suspicion of murder. The police chief is Nancy's father, Don (John Saxon), who is worried that Nancy is caught up in this situation. Nancy goes to school the next day, but falls asleep in class and dreams about the man, who calls himself Fred Krueger (Robert Englund). In her dream, Nancy burns her arm to wake up and notices that the burn exists in reality as well. She runs home and later falls asleep in the bathtub, where another attack from Krueger waits. At this point, Nancy believes that Krueger is responsible for the Tina's death. Eventually, Rod also succumbs to Krueger while in jail.
Nancy's mother (Ronee Blakley) takes her to a sleep clinic, worried about Nancy's lack of sleep. While there, Nancy has a dream and when she awakens, she has pulled Krueger's hat into the real world. Nancy's mother, an alcoholic, tells Nancy the story behind a man named Fred Kruger, who was a child killer in reality. He got off on a technicality, but the neighborhood parents got together and issued some vigilante justice, leading to his death. Nancy now believes that Kruger is stalking their dreams, seeking vengeance. Meanwhile, Glen suffers the same fate as the others, albeit in a much bloodier fashion. Nancy concocts a plan that will somehow bring Kruger into the real world where her father can arrest the man for the murders of her friends. This also involves a series of silly, cartoonish booby traps.
Wes Craven has written a story that is quite cerebral for a horror film. It takes a route that is actually above the usual slasher-style story, and utilizes surrealism in a most creepy manner. Characters run in their dreams, just like characters run in the woods in other stories, but their running is slowed down, just like in dreams. Credit goes to Craven for creating a unique setting with unsettling atmosphere, especially in the scene where Krueger appears in a fog, arms extended beyond the capacity that any human arm can reach. Krueger himself is a different kind of killer. He doesn't wear a mask like Jason or Michael Myers, but he is scarred. He is a boogeyman of a different kind, stalking you when you are at your most vulnerable: while you sleep.
There are some drawbacks, however. The scenes between Heather Langenkamp and Ronee Blakley are either poorly written, or just acted poorly. The blame should probably go on Blakley, who plays her role quite hammy and laughable. This takes away some of the strength of the film, as do the scenes involving Nancy setting up the booby traps. So in the final act, the movie is threatening to fly off the rails, but thankfully Craven doesn't allow it to overstay its welcome. Freddy Krueger is somewhat underdeveloped as we don't know how he became a dream killer, but because he is such a distinct creation, it is forgivable. A Nightmare on Elm Street may lose points on these factors but it is an overall enjoyable horror film with a creative vision.