As perhaps the most influential horror film of the ’80s (as well as one of the formative films of my youth), and yet consequently also the slasher flick most responsible for the genre’s decade-long degradation into self-conscious camp, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a movie defined by its dual legacies. Wes Craven’s gory tale of undead kiddie-killer Freddy Krueger and the teens he terrorizes via dreams was a slickly produced variation on Halloween’s return-of-the-repressed conceit that boasted empathetic lambs for the slaughter, an iconic villain, and an overabundance of twisted, horrifyingly surreal sights that effectively tapped into the link between carnality and death. “This…is God,” says Freddy (Robert Englund) while holding up his phallic finger razors during his first meeting with slutty Tina (Amanda Wyss), only to then perform faux-castration on his finger in order to let his internal yellow goo spurt—an instance of frighteningly sexualized imagery in tune with the slithering, cock-shaped sheet that strangles Lane (Jsu Garcia), the condom-like body bag that encases Tina during virgin Nancy’s (Heather Langenkamp) classroom dream, and the geyser of blood that erupts from the dark, hungry (vaginal) hole in Glen’s (Johnny Depp) bed.
Nightmare’s skill wasn’t that it invented such associations—which had already been thoroughly mined by its ’70s predecessors—but that it refined them in uniquely disturbing ways, drenching itself in an atmosphere of unreality positioned somewhere between waking and slumbering states. It’s an ambiance aided by Craven’s deft editing, Charles Bernstein’s hauntingly jarring score and musical cues, and the film’s unforgettable children’s rhyme (“One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…”), and most convincingly realized during Nancy’s unconscious trip through her high school hallways (replete with a chilling hall monitor Freddy) and into the type of fiery basement where, it’s later revealed, Freddy the man was eradicated and Freddy the supernatural specter was born. Toss in the ultimate revelation that Freddy is really the byproduct of parental vigilantism—and thus akin to a demon scorned, determined to exact revenge against those who offed him—and the sense that Freddy’s intrusions into his victim’s nightmares are acts of subconsciously perpetrated rape, and Craven’s classic has enough anti-sex, anti-parent, mass-psychosis undercurrents to keep it relevant for decades, even as time and scores of subsequent, inferior Freddy outings slowly chip away at its once shocking scares.
While Craven is only partially to blame for allowing the Nightmare franchise to fall into junky sequel disrepute—after disliking the studio-mandated request for a twist ending, he reportedly cut ties with its follow-up—Freddy’s eventual transformation from malevolent monster to quip-spouting joke nonetheless irrevocably sullied the original’s impact, its central fiend sapped of his terrifying deviance (epitomized by his perverted wagging tongue) by awareness of his forthcoming penchant for corny one-liners. In and of itself, this series devolution into goofiness was dispiriting. Worse, however, is that the success of Freddy’s maiden voyage (which more or less single-handedly put neophyte New Line Cinema on the map) led to an unfortunate era of tongue-in-cheek mainstream horror films in which bad puns and wink-wink kills became the norm. And thus despite Nightmare’s enduring portrait of believable teendom (from Langenkamp’s feisty heroine to the debuting Depp’s bland cuteness), its bizarre vision of adulthood (with John Saxon’s standard-issue daddy cop overshadowed by Ronee Blakley’s creepily spaced-out mom), and its resonant argument in favor of parent-child truthfulness, it also, regrettably, must be held responsible for amusing but distinctly un-horrifying trash like Child’s Play and Dr. Giggles.