I noticed a curious thing when all of the those #7favfilms lists were flying around on Twitter earlier this month. Almost every horror list contained Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” including my own.
This gave me pause. What is it about “Nightmare” that makes it so timeless and universally well-received?
The concept is transcendent.
The average person is asleep for about 1/3 of their life. And yet, the Land of Nod remains mysterious. It is a bodily function outside of our control — often compared to death in literature and art.
Sometimes we recall our dreams, and sometimes we can’t. Often, a dream just leaves us with a feeling — dread, sadness, fright or happiness. By no means a passive act, sleep can be a very physical experience. I’ve had my fair share of night terrors, and believe me, they are real and they are upsetting. When deprived of sleep, the insomniac feels like a shell of a person.
That’s the hook that catches every “Nightmare” viewer — we all sleep. Young, old, rich, poor, black, white or brown, everyone can relate to the vulnerability of being asleep. And Freddy Krueger is a killer who stalks his prey while they sleep, through the vessel of their dreams — the ultimate boogeyman.
The special effects hold up.
This is when I climb on my soapbox and declare that even the most rudimentary practical effects will hold up better over time than the computer generated imagery from the same era.”Nightmare” was released in 1984. It gave us terrifying, visually stunning special effects scenes like this one.
Know what else was released in 1984? “The Last Starfighter,” which may have been notable for its use of computer generated imagery at the time, but just doesn’t hold up today.
The casting is perfect.
At the time, John Saxon (who plays Nancy’s father) was probably the most recognizable cast member. Johnny Depp (Glen) was a fresh face, with “Nightmare” preceding “21 Jump Street” by 3 years. Robert Englund became synonymous with Freddy as the franchise expanded, but he wasn’t well known in 1984.
The other actors — Heather Langenkamp (Nancy), Amanda Wyss (Tina) and Jsu Garcia (Rod) — were relatively unknown.
This is important because we can relate to the characters — the actors aren’t larger than life personalities, they are people we care about. We are devastated by their deaths. Like Jamie Lee Curtis, Langenkamp is the girl next door with the out-of-touch parents; the cute, easygoing boyfriend; and the slightly wild best friend.
This is a crucial element that is lost in most new horror movies. Take Ouija (2014), a movie chock full of CW-esque beautiful young people. They are mediocre actors, reading mediocre scripts in movies that rely on jump scares. We don’t care if these kids make it to the final act, and we don’t have any emotional investment in their stories.
Back to my original question.
Is “A Nightmare on Elm Street” the quintessential horror film? Of course, you could argue that movie preference is a matter of taste. And there will certainly be naysayers out there, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say, “yes.”
It’s as close to a perfect fright flick as you’re ever going to get. It’s scary, gory and young-at-heart, but it has the proper doses of all those ingredients — just enough to take you to the edge, and pull you back. It’s a movie that you can watch over and over, and never get tired of — thank goodness, because who would want to fall asleep after watching it?