As a kid, A Nightmare on Elm Street was the scariest of the classic slashers (Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street) to me. The sequels have made Freddy more funny than scary, but looking at the first film as a standalone production today, the film holds up quite nicely. It made director and screen writer Wes Craven and Freddy-actor Robert Englund household names in the 1980s, and rightfully so. A Nightmare on Elm Street is not perfect by any means, but it is dang good. What stands out to me as especially great are the atmospheric dream scenes, the kills, and the film’s antagonist, Freddy Krueger. Funny enough, I think that Freddy is also a detractor of the film, and I’ll get into that further down.
This is, to many, the only good Nightmare film. I actually love the entire series, although, I admit, the series does get pretty campy as it goes along. I agree with series critics, however, in that this is the best film in the series.
Teenagers Tina Gray and Nancy Thompson are stalked by the same man in their nightmares, a horribly burned man with “knives for fingers.” After Tina is killed by the man in her nightmares and in real life by his blurring the realms of the dream world and reality, Nancy and her family begin to question Nancy’s deteriorating psychological state and stability as her friends are offed one by one by the killer, and she becomes terrified to fall asleep. Nancy is pursued by the killer in her own nightmares and feels targeted by him. In a moment of catharsis, Nancy learns from her mother that the man, Fred Krueger, is a child killer she and several other parents killed with fire for murdering children. His body was buried by them in a place no one will ever find it. Freddy is killing Nancy and her friends, the “Elm Street children,” to pay for their parents’ crime. Nancy still reaches out for support and help from her father, but does not receive it.
In typical “Final Girl” form, Nancy successfully pulls Freddy from her nightmares and fights him, eventually setting him on fire and locking him in her basement. Freddy escapes as Nancy tries to flag down her father from next door, and Freddy kills her mother. Her father finally can’t deny Nancy’s claims anymore and wants to be there for his daughter. Nancy realizes, however, that she is strong enough to take care of Freddy alone. She turns her back to her mother’s bed knowing Freddy will appear, and she turns to Freddy and tells him that she takes away all of the energy and power she gave to him. She tells him he is nothing and turns her back to him. As she reaches for the door knob to leave the room, Freddy disappears in a cosmic warp.
Nancy leaves her room, and the door to her room becomes an exit from her house. She and her mother walk out onto the porch, and her friends pull up, fully alive and calling out to her. She gets in the car, and the convertible top comes down donning the red and green stripes of Freddy’s sweater. As the car speeds off, Nancy’s mother is pulled through the door window by Freddy.
There are actually only four kills in this movie. For a slasher, that’s really low, but it seems like Craven was going for quality over quantity. I’m glad, too. All four deaths are unique and scary. The later films in the series have more kills, but some of them are really dumb. They, along with some less than inspiring Freddy one-liners, helped make Freddy something to be laughed at rather than feared. This film started Freddy on that trajectory with the one-liners, but in this movie they feel fresh and scary. My favorite is “This [his knifed glove] is God,” which brings me to the movie’s first kill.
This is one of the scariest opening kills I have ever seen. I think what makes it so scary is the viewer does not really see it coming. There is a really large build-up in which the viewer gets to see Tina’s life: nightmares from her point of view, her house, her mom… Even the rest of the friend group the movie focuses on is introduced as friends of Tina. When I first watched this movie, I thought that Tina was the main character. Tina isn’t killed until about 15 minutes into the movie, which gives the viewer just enough time to start caring about whether she lives or dies. It isn’t until she starts thrashing around on the bed and her chest is slit open that I thought, “Oh, wow, this is happening.” Let me back up, though.
Tina has just had an intimate moment with her boyfriend, Rod. She falls asleep in bed with him, and her friend Nancy and Nancy’s boyfriend, Glen, are asleep downstairs. She asked her friends to stay the night with her because she had been having nightmares about Freddy, which earlier that day she had learned her friend Nancy was having, too. The two girls don’t know what to make of the nightmares; Tina being the first death, no one had been killed by Freddy yet. Nancy blew the nightmares off as just bad dreams, but Tina was truly terrified by them.
Tina has one of the nightmares right before her death. In her nightmare, she hears and then sees pebbles being thrown against the upstairs window. One (which I heard may be a tooth rather than a pebble, actually) gets stuck in the glass. Tina goes outside to investigate. She doesn’t say the horror-film cliche, “Who’s there?” but her line is pretty close.
Who the hell is that?
She walks further out into an alley and then turns around and sees Freddy with ridiculous long arms stretched out, and his knife blade scraping and sparking against a wall.
A chase scene then occurs. Freddy tries to scare Tina with some ridiculous, macabre theatrical moves like cutting off his fingers and laughing in Tina’s face as he allows the skin on his face to be ripped off. Tina makes it back to her house and yells out to her friends from the back door asking them to open the door as Freddy grabs hold of her. She and Freddy fall to the ground and a table falls on top of them, covering them up. This transitions back to her in bed with with Rod, where the table becomes covers. Tina is screaming and Rod climbs out of bed and pulls the covers off of her to find her thrashing about. Rod calls out her name to wake her up, but then is stunned to see four slash marks appear down her chest and blood start pouring out. Tina then begins levitating and gets thrown around the room. Her body is swung at Rod, knocking him to the floor. Tina is drug up the wall and across the ceiling where she reaches out for Rod right before falling lifelessly to the bed and her blood splattering all over Rod.
Tina’s death is truly gruesome and terrifying. I could have gone without the silly theatrics by Freddy before her kill, but watching Tina be killed by a silent killer as her boyfriend watches on is scary. It was unique in its time, and I think it still is. I want to question how Freddy physically pulls off throwing her about the room and then dragging her up the wall and across the ceiling, but that’s part of what makes Freddy scary: he can do the seemingly impossible as he merges the dream world with reality.
Like Casey Becker’s death in Scream, I think Tina Gray’s death is iconic in the horror film genre. Also, like Casey’s death, Tina’s death has been mirrored, or recreated, in the film’s sequels, each with a girl being drug up a wall, and each with someone else looking on.
Tina’s death would have been scary enough if she were alone, but Rod being in the room with her makes it terrifying. It shows that a character does not have to be alone to be killed by Freddy, which adds to his fear factor. Freddy does not care who sees him do what he does, and a friend can’t stop him.
Nancy, who takes over the protagonist’s role after Tina’s death, sees Freddy walk through Rod’s jail cell, pick up the sheet covering Rod, and wave to Nancy. Nancy then has a chase scene with Freddy before she wakes up and realizes Rod is in danger. She rushes to the police station and begs to see Rod so she can make sure he’s okay. While he’s sleeping, the sheet seemingly ties itself around Rod’s neck and then drags Rod across the floor and up a wall as Rod yells out for help. Nancy, Glen, and her father walk in right as Rod dies, seemingly from hanging himself.
Rod’s death is the most tame in the film, and while scary for its own reasons, I don’t think it’s as scary as it could have been because we do not get to see his death from his point of view. I mean, we see the look on his face as he realizes the sheet has made a noose around his neck, but we don’t see the dreams he has had about Freddy, and we don’t ever see him interacting with his killer. Later films show us kills and interactions with Freddy from other characters’ points of view. In this one, after Nancy takes over as protagonist, we only see Freddy through her.
What is effective about this death scene is the creepiness of it. The sheet moves like a snake. I think Rod’s death being staged as a suicide is also creepy because Freddy has managed to kill two characters so far and yet Nancy still looks crazy to the adult characters when she talks about Freddy or about being in danger.
Having lost two of her friends, Nancy is logically concerned about losing her boyfriend, Glen. She pleads with him to stay awake. He puts on headphones and lays a TV in his bed to help him fight sleep, but he loses the fight. Nancy tries to call Glen to wake him up, but Glen’s parents intercept the call, and Glen’s dad leaves the phone off of the hook. Nancy’s mother has put bars on Nancy’s window, so she can’t escape and only has the phone to save Glen. When that is taken away from her by his father, she rips the phone from the wall, wraps the cord around it, and leaves it lying on her bed. She walks to her door and hears the unplugged phone ring. She answers it and hears Freddy. Freddy says, “I’m your boyfriend now,” and his tongue goes through the phone and licks her. Nancy now knows Glen is in trouble and rushes downstairs to leave the house. Her mother interferes with her plan, however, having locked the door so Nancy is forced to stay inside.
The shot then cuts to Glen asleep on his bed. Freddy’s arm reaches around his stomach and pulls him into the bed. Blood then shoots from the bed all over the ceiling like a gusher and runs down the wall. Glen’s mother walks in to check on Glen and screams as she discovers the scene.
Again, like with Rod, this scene would have been more scary if we had gotten Glen’s point of view, but Glen’s death is memorable. Also, again, like with Tina, I questioned “How?” with Glen’s death. What makes the blood shoot up like that? What happens to Glen’s body? How would police or the media explain or describe this death? I think the viewer has to let go of reality a little bit when he or she watches a Nightmare movie. Nancy’s father still thinks his daughter is crazy despite the unbelievability of Glen’s death.
Nancy has managed to pull Freddy from the dream world. She has booby trapped her house and has Freddy chase her through it, getting hurt by each of her traps. She pours gasoline on Freddy and sets him on fire in her basement. He chases her up the stairs, but she manages to knock him down again. She locks the door and then runs to scream for help from her window to her father at Glen’s house next door. Her father eventually comes, and the two discovery firey footsteps leading upstairs to Marge’s room. The two follow the footsteps upstairs and find Freddy on top of Nancy’s mother, Marge, in her bed. Both are ablaze.
Nancy’s father grabs Marge’s blanket and puts it over the two to extinguish the fire. when he pulls the cover back, Freddy is gone and all that remains is a charred Marge. Her body sinks into the bed, presumably into Freddy’s lair in the dream world like Glen’s. The bed appears untouched after Marge’s body disappears.
This is my least favorite kill in the movie, mostly because we just kind of happen upon it rather than see it happen. I appreciate that Marge, the character who reveals Freddy’s backstory and admits to setting him on fire, dies by fire, however. That symbolism and irony is great.
There is surprisingly a lot to unpack in this film. This is where I think too much. I want to discuss what I think works in this movie, and what doesn’t.
It is kind of hard to ignore the fire imagery in this movie. Freddy died by burning, and fire seems to follow him throughout the film: smoke or steam appears when characters die, his lair is a boiler room, Nancy burns herself to wake herself up from her nightmare and escape Freddy in English class… Finally, Nancy sets him on fire in the climax of the film, and Freddy is able to kill Marge with fire to pay for his own death.
I think of Freddy’s character as a phoenix. He dies by fire, and is born again from it. I don’t know if Craven intentionally created Freddy as a phoenix-like character and expected viewers to connect all of the fire imagery, but it works. I kind of doubt that Craven intentionally set up the fire imagery because there were some missed opportunities, the biggest being when Nancy “kills” Freddy by stopping believing in him, and he falls and disappears into a spacey, blue warp. I think fire should have been used here. The warp looks and feels cheap, and while I get there was limited technology in the 1980s, him disappearing into fire would have made the story stronger.
However, I have to give Craven credit. Freddy’s final kill in the movie is done with fire, and I think that is significant for a number of reasons. Not only is it his last deed in the film, but it works as an act of revenge for what was done to him in life.
The characterization in this film was extremely strong for a horror movie. Let’s talk about the teenagers first.
Nancy, Tina, Rod, and Glen all felt very real. Craven spent a lot of time building them up to make viewers care about them. It absolutely worked. I wrote above how I did not see Tina’s death coming when I first watched the film, and her death stayed with me not only for its intensity, but because I felt sorry for her. Rewatching the film as an adult, I noticed little things Craven added to bring the characters to life. He gave them vices. Tina’s and Rod’s were each other and sex. Glen wanted a more mature relationship than he was getting from Nancy. Nancy’s vice, I believe, was like her father’s: authority. She told the characters what to do and demanded answers from them.
Seeing their families (all but Rod’s) help bring them to life as well. Only Glen has a “typical” family; from what we see, the rest of the teenagers come from broken homes. Not only does this help make them believable, but it makes them sympathetic. Viewers care about if these characters live or die, which makes their deaths more intense and more scary.
Watching Nancy deal with her alcohol-abusing mother and neglectful father strengthens her independence and her role as a final girl. Nancy sending her father away so she can stand up to and face Freddy alone is powerful. Nancy is a great final girl because she takes charge in the film. Sure, she reaches out to Glen and then her father for saving, but she takes over her own fate when she’s ready. That allows viewers to see growth in Nancy. Her final scene with Freddy is believable as a result.
When I wrote about Tina’s death, I wrote about thinking Tina was the main character at the beginning when I first watched the movie. The protagonist shift was absolutely intentional, and it works to strengthen Tina’s character and her death scene. Had Craven introduced Nancy first, neither would have been as strong. I wrote about Casey Becker above, but need to mention her again here, because there is a protagonist shift in Scream as well, and it made Casey iconic. When Casey died, I believed any character could die in Scream. Similarly here, when Tina dies, the viewer is left believing anyone can.
The only character I was disappointed with (who wasn’t minor) was Nancy’s father. Marge’s character admits to and ultimately dies for what she did to Freddy, but Nancy’s father doesn’t. He finally does in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, but looking at this film alone, I can’t help but feel disappointed in his character. He not only makes his daughter pay for his crime, but he leaves her alone to do it, making her feel crazy.
Nancy’s mother, Marge is another character I want to look at. She has the vice of alcohol, and she does not support or believe her daughter despite knowing the truth about she and her friends did to Fred Krueger. She makes amends with her daughter before her death, however, by telling her about Freddy’s backstory, and apologizing for not being there for her. She tells her daughter that she is strong and is a survivor. I think that moment may have been the pivotal moment that changed Nancy from a victim to a final girl, and it’s worth noting.
Finally, I can’t discuss characters without discussing Freddy Krueger. We actually don’t learn a whole lot about Freddy in this film. In the first two deaths, I don’t even think we know his name. What we learn is that he was a child killer, and a bunch of adults got together, set him on fire, and hid his body. Freddy is killing the Elm Street children for their parents’ crime, but I don’t get why. Why not go after the parents from the start? Also, what is Freddy’s ultimate motive? When will he be finished? In later films after the Elm Street children are all wiped out, Freddy continues killing. I’m trying to understand Freddy, but maybe we aren’t meant to.
Additionally, I would have liked to have found out where Freddy got his powers to kill in dreams. While the film is very good about developing the victims and final girl, we don’t get enough backstory on Freddy.
Robert Englund, the actor who portrayed Freddy, however, was exceptional. He made Freddy both funny and scary and brought a ton of energy and passion into his performance. I believe the film made Freddy a little too silly, and I wish they would have steered more toward the scary side, but he was still frightening, and with what he was given and the time he had on screen, he fleshed out the character by giving him personality. While we don’t know a lot about Freddy from this film, I feel like the viewer walks away feeling like he or she knows Freddy, and that’s a big compliment to Englund.
Wes Craven was genius when it came to setting in this movie. He made the movie feel atmospheric, relatable, and believable while all the while leaving the viewer questioning whether he or she is watching a dream sequence or real life. Craven distorts both with little details that bring both together. From Freddy being an invisible killer to characters bringing little things back from their dreams, he made the transition from dream world to reality seamless. I think about little details like a feather floating in the air after Nancy dreams about Freddy ripping her pillow open, Nancy talking to Glen and asking if he’s still there and he appearing and answering her in her dream, and the table covering Freddy and Tina and then turning into the cover on the bed.
In merging the two worlds this way, Craven set up the idea that what happens to a character in a dream happens in real life. If you die in your dream, you die in real life. This is a central idea that continues in the rest of the films. I think it’s important to recognize the efforts Craven made to set up and strengthen this idea with setting.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is a classic that stands strong today, almost 40 years after its debut. While a lot of the effects and creative decisions feel dated, there is a lot that still feels fresh: Tina’s death scene, the protagonist shift, the characterization and growth of Nancy, the atmospheric settings and nightmare scenes… the blur between the dream world and real world, and a legitimately scary Freddy Krueger.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is scary. Watching the characters fight sleep feels relatable and painful, and I think that is where the film truly succeeds in being scary: everyone can identify with the need to sleep. Being afraid to sleep is scary in itself.
I would have liked to have received more character development in both Freddy and Nancy’s father, but that is my biggest issue with the film, and I think the film is incredibly strong even with that issue. The characterization of the other characters, particularly Nancy and Tina, more than make up for it, and the film has so many other strengths, characters aside.