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Tuesday, 30 October 2012

A couple times on this blog I've sought your feedback on what movie I'm most embarrassed I haven't seen.

I've mostly considered the true classics as primary contenders for this honor, but there are plenty of movies it's surprising I haven't seen because of my audience demographic. In other words, everyone else my age with more or less my background has seen this movie, but I haven't.

A Nightmare on Elm Street would certainly qualify. That is, until I finally saw it on Saturday night.

So I'm introducing a new feature on my blog called "I Finally Saw," where I'll discuss movies that were new to other people in the 1980s or 1990s, but are only new to me today. Will they hold up? Will I be able to put myself in the mindset those people had when they originally saw these movies? That kind of thing.

I may never have seen it, but I've definitely had impressions of A Nightmare on Elm Street since it came out in 1984. A lot of my friends saw it right around that time, even though we were only 11 going on 12. I wasn't one of those kids who gravitated to horror movies at a young age. I didn't like to be scared until the past decade or two, and the disturbing things I imagined happening in A Nightmare on Elm Street (I found this poster particularly disturbing) were things that I ran from rather than embraced.

Before I go on, I'll say that if you are like me and hadn't seen this, you deserve a SPOILER WARNING.

So one of the things that surprised me about this movie is the low body count. Unlike many other slasher movies, which offer up a good six or eight characters to kill off, Nightmare introduces us to a mere four teenagers, only one of whom ends up getting killed by Freddy Krueger's famous finger knives. Of the other two, one gets hanged and another (Johnny Depp) is basically vaporized into a geyser of blood.

Some of the structuring of the deaths kind of surprised me as well. In what should be a scene with life-or-death stakes, Depp's character falls asleep while standing guard as Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) enters her dream to confront Freddy. Given how much emphasis is placed on not falling asleep, thereby letting Freddy kill you in your dreams, it's rather amazing that the script doesn't kill off either of these characters when Depp starts to snooze. Under ordinary horror movie morality, death should be the just punishment for a weak character not taking the threat seriously enough and falling asleep on the job. But Depp's death occurs later under sort of lame circumstances. He's supposed to come over to help Nancy (a second time) at midnight on a particular night, but falls asleep. What's lame about it is that he actually falls sleep twice, and the first time is awoken at about 11:40 -- in other words, with plenty of time to cross the street to Nancy's house before midnight, but not so much time that he'll accidentally fall asleep again while waiting. Yet he does accidentally fall asleep again, and this is when he buys it.

Another thing I found strange is that none of the deaths show Freddy's actual participation at the moment of death. On the one hand, that's by design. Freddy is not actually present in the real world; he's only killing them in their dream. So when the first victim's stomach is sliced to ribbons and she's dragged up a wall, it's appropriate that we don't see it, because Freddy isn't actually "there." It's useful for the audience to see what her boyfriend perceives is happening to her. But once this is accomplished, wouldn't it be better to see Freddy taking a more hands-on approach in the next two murders? Instead, we just see a guy in a prison being hanged by his own bed sheets, and a volcanic spray of blood coming out of a bed.

Now, the stuff that surprised me in a positive way. The Freddy stuff we actually do see managed to be pretty disturbing. Oh, I'm not saying I had nightmares myself about it, just that it was objectively more scary than I thought it would be. Like, when he's struggling with one victim who manages to peel the features off his face, revealing a cackling skull. Or the ominous quality of Freddy's arms as they extend 15 feet out the side of his body. Or like when another victim asks Freddy what he is, and he slices open his skin as his wordless answer, unleashing worms and maggots.

And that leads to another surprise about Freddy: I thought he was a lot more of a talker, and specifically, a wisecracker. In fact, he doesn't talk nearly as much as I expected, and there are almost no groan-inducing puns. My guess is that this aspect of his persona doesn't really take off until the sequels -- all of which, not surprisingly, I have also not seen.

Still, A Nightmare on Elm Street seems a bit more dated than other seminal horror movies from this period. It doesn't have the timelessness of Halloween or even the original Friday the 13th, which is probably a reflection of it being filmed deeper into the 1980s than either of those films. (In fact, Halloween wasn't made in the 1980s at all, having come out in 1978.) So perhaps I'm just expressing a preference for the 1970s horror aesthetic over the 1980s horror aesthetic.

I can tell you one place that Nightmare steps horribly wrong. In an ending that leaves things wide open for the multiple sequels, and expresses for certain that Freddy isn't dead (the way he's dispatched barely even suggests he might be dead), Nancy's mother is pulled through the window of her front door in the film's final shot, presumably by an unseen Freddy on the other side. You're supposed to be chilled by this, right? Uh uh. It's so obvious that the body being pulled through the window is a doll that it's downright funny. The doll's legs even catch on the side of the window in a way that make them bounce in a completely doll-like and completely inorganic manner.

Regardless of this unintentionally funny image the film left me with, I'm glad I "finally saw" A Nightmare on Elm Street, and ultimately I rate it pretty highly simply for its place in horror history.

Also, now I finally get that Simpsons Halloween special where Groundskeeper Willie gets burned in the boiler room and attacks Bart and Lisa in their dreams.


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