August 11, 2014

A Nightmare on Elm Street: 30 years on

On this day in 1984 Wes Craven's horror film A Nightmare on Elm Street was released into American cinemas. It featured a group of high schoolers getting killed one by one in their sleep by the murderous spirit of Freddy Krueger, a child molester and murderer who used - in life and death - a hand-crafted glove with blades attached to each finger. That was a powerful and frightening visual motif, that glove. The surreal dream imagery resonated with audiences as well, so much so that Freddy managed to return for another six sequels, a short-lived television series, a crossover with the Friday the 13th movie franchise and, in 2010, an abortive remake.

The slasher movie was a hugely popular form of horror in the 1980s, and of the various competing franchises - Halloween, Friday the 13th, et al - it was A Nightmare on Elm Street that was by far my favourite. It had two things that the other franchises lacked. Firstly, it's dream setting allowed for wonderfully imaginative horror sequences. Secondly, its antagonist got to speak, gloat and laugh at his victims' expense. Freddy wasn't just scary, he was funny as well.

So much of the franchise's success can be pinned on lead actor Robert Englund. It's easy for an actor to be dismissed in a horror movie, particularly if they're wearing a latex prosthetic mask and play the maniacal villain. Englund treated the role with respect, and the quality of his work remains visible for anyone to see. His performance shifted with the changing tone of the films: basically later sequels became deliberately funnier, so Englund became funnier as well. When Craven return to direct New Nightmare in 1994 he stripped the character right back to his frightening first iteration, and Englund changed his performance appropriately.

One aspect of the Elm Street franchise that is often overlooked is the number of noted writers and directors who got a major break working on the series. Sequels were directed by Chuck Russell (The Mask, The Scorpion King), Renny Harlin (The Long Kiss Goodnight, Die Hard 2), Rachel Talalay (Tank Girl) and Stephen Hopkins (The Ghost and the Darkness, Under Suspicion). They featured writers like Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Walking Dead), Ken Wheat (Pitch Black) and Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential). There were creative opportunities in the Elm Street movies that simply weren't available among competiting horror films.

The 2010 remake failed to get audiences, and I think that was in so small part because the remake abandoned the humour. The 2010 Krueger is a merciless sadist, played by Jackie Earle Haley without any of the mockery and laughter than Englund gave the character. The murders are simply violent slashings, without any of the imagination or excess that typified the original films. Simply put, Freddy Krueger is a poor match for post-millennial horror, which is cruel, gory and relentlessly bleak. Is there nowhere else for a homicidal maniac to have a laugh?

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