A Nightmare on Elm Street

Wes Craven’s 1984 classic A Nightmare on Elm Street is my all-time favorite horror movie and honestly ranks as one of my favorite movies of any genre. There’s so much that’s great about this movie (and its sequels of varying quality) and so much to unpack (from the characters to the story telling to the strong women and of course the horror icon Freddy Krueger) that I’ll definitely be coming back to it to discuss more in the future, but I couldn’t let the month of Halloween slip by without talking about ANOES at least once.

First off, I love this poster. If you’re not familiar with the story of ANOES this poster does a great job of presenting the idea to you. The girl is in bed and something threatening is materializing above her head. That coupled with the title of the film tells us that this girl is having nightmares. Then we see the excellent tagline “If Nancy doesn’t wake up screaming she won’t wake up at all” which tells us that this is no ordinary dream; something about this nightmare is actually deadly. I love this whole poster because it’s a good composition and a great presentation of the movie’s themes. The only thing I don’t love is that it’s not a particularly flattering rendering of Heather Langenkamp who plays Nancy:

The movie opens in the nightmare of a young girl whose name is later revealed to be Tina. We realize rather early on that her nightmare is more than any regular dream because after she awakes from her close call with the man of her dreams she finds the effects of his attack have followed her into the waking world:

The next night Tina’s mother will be going out of town and she’s afraid to sleep alone so she invites her boyfriend Rod, best friend Nancy, and Nancy’s boyfriend Glenn (Johnny Depp in his feature film debut, by the way) to spend the night at her place. While hanging out Tina mentions some of the details of her nightmare which prompts Nancy to describe the nightmare she herself had the night before. It turns out Nancy and Tina dreamed of the same man and Tina is more unnerved than before.

Glenn assures them that such a thing is impossible. Given his reaction to Nancy’s description, however, it would seem that he too has been visited in his dreams by “a man in a dirty red and green sweater”.

This is one of the things I love about this movie. The characters (and the actors portraying them) all do a very good job with building the atmosphere as they start out at different levels of belief: Tina fully believes that her dream is more than just a dream; Nancy is sympathetic but still dismisses the shared nightmares as nothing more than a coincidence; Glenn outright dismisses the idea though seems to be more uneasy than he lets on, and Rod is seemingly unaffected but admits he has been frightened by an extremely realistic dream. The characters are actually characters with feelings and stories which, as I’ve mentioned before, makes all the difference in a horror movie and is sadly not usually the case. These four are shown to actually be friends by the way they interact and care for each other and we SEE their friendship, we’re not TOLD that they’re friends.

We as the audience realize that there’s something significant to the dreams, but we still don’t know who this man is or how he manages to reach these kids. We learn the extent of his powers and his reason for being as the characters themselves learn it. We get to experience the doubt and skepticism through them and even toward the climax when it seems almost certain what’s going on there are still questions about what’s real, what’s imagined, and how sane our characters may be.

The movie has a pretty low death count which is also extremely effective. Rather than leading up to a climactic slaughter-fest the deaths come one at a time and their gravity is really felt each time this group of friends is whittled down bit by bit. I’m not going to talk about who dies and when because I’d like this post to be pretty light on the spoilers but I wanted to emphasize how each death in this movie is part of the storytelling. There’s an order to the deaths which hides the idea of the dream killer being real. The first is believed to be a murder, the next a suicide, and the adults have this plausible deniability so that they can explain away the deaths and don’t have to believe their children who keep telling them the fantastic story that their dreams are killing them. The deaths are effective also because they drive the survivors closer to the truth and make them more determined to beat this evil because these are their friends. These are their friends who are dying and the remaining few are not taking that lightly.

I really believe everyone should see this movie at least once. Not only is it a horror classic but there are great characters, fantastic storytelling, wonderful special effects (especially for the time), good scares, an excellent villain, and a truly unique idea. Wes Craven is known as one of the masters of horror and this film is a great example of why.