“It’s a new and improved slasher flick! Now with dreams!” The way some people laud the jejune gorefest A Nightmare on Elm Street, they might as well be admen enthusing about the new features on their company’s latest stove model. Director Wes Craven‘s recipe is simple: just take a hunk of Halloween and a slab of Friday the 13th, toss in a few teaspoons of The Exorcist and a dash of heavy-handed philosophizing about the blurred line between dreams and reality, and voila! You have a scrumptious franchise, one that has cleverly gorged itself on the rotting carcass of pop culture.
Maybe if I were still an angst-ridden teeny-bopper, I’d understand what’s so frightening about watching a wannabe-demonic dude with fakey-looking burns on his face and knives for fingers tear apart other teeny-boppers, picking them off one by one. Then again, maybe not. A few jump scares aside, the most chilling aspect of a Nightmare on Elm Street is that its cartoonish violence too lightly treats a grisly phenomenon that has captured the public’s imagination in the modern era: serial killing. Small wonder that the 80s were also the decade of Richard Ramirez and Jeffrey Dahmer.
For a guy who’s got the supernatural power to make bodies levitate and combust into pools of blood, Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) sure has trouble getting Craven’s hackneyed drama off the ground. Complementing his ersatz sleep-haunting efforts are cardboard-cutout youths reminiscent of characters from an after-school special.
In a cornball use of anticlimax, Freddy appears right at the beginning, invading the slumber of bleachy-haired Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss), chasing her through an underground boiler room. The demented Freddy has plans for her entrails, just as he does for the neck of her boyfriend, the too-tough-for-dweebs Rod Lane (Nick Corri) that the clueless parents in the town initially think is responsible for the mayhem. At the center of the action is little miss sensitive Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), who seems to have been the prototype that Craven would later exploit in his more tautly structured slasher flick Scream—a good girl whose lack of sluttiness puts her beyond the beast’s reach, at least for the moment. By her side is her poofy-haired boyfriend, Glen Lantz, played by the versatile Johnny Depp, the only actor in the film good-looking and talented enough to deserve a subsequent career. He’d probably hold his head in shame if his thoughts ever returned to this faceless screen-performance debut.
Craven polishes the turd by piling on human-interest melodrama between Nancy and her policeman father Don (John Saxon), ever the paternal protector. Don’t blame him for not believing daddy’s little girl: you know what they say about the lightbulbs not shining so brightly in cops’ upper stories. It falls to Nancy’s mother Marge (Ronee Blakley) to reveal Freddy’s child-murdering past as part of a crudely delineated backstory about the villain’s scorching death throes. This all goes to show that if there’s one thing Craven succeeds at in Nightmare on Elm Street, it’s in cobbling together who-cares sub-stories.
But at least if it scares you as little as it did me, there are plenty of 80s synthesized beats to groove to in the meantime (or at least laugh to). Such campy pleasures are unfortunately small comfort to those looking forward to at least a few genuinely spine-tingling thrills or a twist ending that doesn’t reek of contrivance. With each brandishing of his bladed digits, Freddy beckoned the sandman a little nearer.
Joe’s Grade: C-