Warner Bros. Horror Pick: A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)

The late and very great Wes Craven reinvented the horror genre numerous times. When I was invited to take part in the Warner Bros. Horror Picks promotion/Halloween film recommendation, celebrating classic titles distributed via the major Hollywood studio, I thought it would be a good choice to select A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and finally get around to setting down my thoughts on Craven’s passing, his contribution to cinema and praising one of his most iconic and important films. 
I found out about Craven’s passing on the morning of 31 August, the last day of Film4 FrightFest. Needless to say, attendees were in sombre mood, as word got around. Alan Jones, one of the festival directors, gave a few lovely words on Craven's importance to the genre, what a genuinely nice bloke he was and that we'd all miss him. Jones's words captured our collective feelings perfectly.

Wes Craven was truly a master of the medium - a man whose work defined 1980s pop culture, with his creation of slasher villain, Freddy Kreuger. The best thing I can say about Craven's best work: once you saw it, you never forgot it. Ever. Craven's films ruled my childhood and I still count seeing Scream (1996) on VHS as one of the great viewing highlights of my youth. I think I watched it three times before we had to take it back to the store. The other one I loved and watched repeatedly was The People Under the Stairs (1991). 

I tweeted at the time, that Craven was a director who understood the horror genre like a professor, and whose contribution to horror cinema was monumental. I stick by those words. It wasn’t just an outpouring of standard-issue Twitter hyperbole in the face of bad news. The Last House on the Left, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Scream are four zeitgeist-defining works of modern-era horror. 

In the 1970s Craven helped, with others, to push the genre into bleaker, crueller and transgressive territory. It's worth taking socio-political readings with a pinch of salt, but the films definitely thrived on exposing the bestial nature of human behaviour hidden behind the mask of polite middle-class sensibility; how easily it can slip away under provocation and stress. It made Mum and Dad the monsters.

Craven had a few stinkers, in his filmography, but when he got it right there was nobody that could touch him. Even if we leave this auteur-heavy tribute and view cinema as a collaborative medium – which it absolutely is – Craven selected time and time again brilliant writers, cinematographers, production designers and composers to work with.

I don’t remember the first time I sat down and watched A Nightmare on Elm Street. I was definitely, by the BBFC’s certification system, and moral consensus, far too young to see it, but like all burgeoning horror fans, the allure of dark material and seeing something adult and strange is part of the appeal.

I must have been ten or eleven. It was definitely before I was a teenager, I know that much. More than likely I’d seen it on VHS, either from a video store or taped off the telly, at a friend’s house, whose name has been lost to the fog of memory or I found it on television late one night, and watched it with the sound turned down low enough not to disturb the folks.

A Nightmare on Elm Street reinvigorated and reinvented the slasher movie, just as the subgenre was on death’s door. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly and terrifyingly, the story is focused on the inescapable and the unavoidable: we all have to sleep! Having a killer stalk you in your dreams ... there is literally no safe place to hide. If the interpretation of dreams is an art more than a science, cinema is the perfect vehicle for such explorations and analysis. 

A Nightmare on Elm Street's aesthetic approach, from the very beginning, blurred dreams and waking life. The use of soft-focus lighting and having the story play out in the same locations, whether in 'dream time' or 'real time', also helped create a quintessential spooky vibe. Then there are the classic moments: The ‘No running in the hallway’ shot, the centipede coming out of Tina’s mouth, Nancy running up the stairs and the steps turning to glue (a truly astounding bit of anxiety symbolism) and Johnny Depp's epic death scene. It's why I can let the occasionally ropey acting and effects work a free pass: because the film's imagery, subtext and themes are so electrifying and powerful.

A Nightmare on Elm Street captured the primal and the dreamlike in riveting style. Craven really did hit on a fascinating concept and Fred Kreuger (Robert Englund) is a transgressive figure, too. Initially a child killer, he became a pop icon whose shtick became increasingly comical. In the original film too, he’s a taunting, occasionally silly, monster, but there is an eeriness to him lacking in the other movies. I also think Craven injected the hints of humour and strangeness because our dreams can have such unexpected moments - where the comic and cruel collide. Kreuger is unstoppable because he is the essence of fear.