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A horror movie about being hunted down by a crazed murderer is scary enough as it is. Audience members who follow the footsteps of a potential murder victim may find themselves biting their nails or feeling their heart race as they wonder what is the next move for the innocent character. Does that person run down this path or that path? What if the chosen path leads to a dead end? Does one then go up and above or down and below something? And should the murderer catch up with the victim, are there self-defense methods to employ, like any objects lying around that can be used as weapons? To watch a movie like this is to constantly confront a series of open-ended what-if questions, which is where much of the fun lies.
The 1984 film A Nightmare on Elm Street, written and directed by Wes Craven, takes the concept to another level. Instead of a serial killer who exists in physical reality, we have a murderer who essentially exists in spirit form and does his evil deeds in a metaphysical world, specifically within the nightmares of his victims. The film doesn't explain how the events of a dream can leave physical marks in reality, like a murder within a nightmare that actually results in the victim being physically mutilated to death in extreme ways, but the film doesn't need to anyway. The important thing is that the audience is now playing the horror what-if game without the laws of nature applying. Here, a potential murder victim could also encounter the surreal and supernatural, like bloody corpses that move and speak, the killer suddenly appearing in front of the victim after being far away shortly before, and movement of a wall. This makes the audience a lot more uncertain about what will happen next.
The movie centers on four teen characters: Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), Tina (Amanda Wyss), Ron (Nick Corri), and Glen (Johnny Depp in his theatrical debut). Although each of these four has at least one important part in the story, it is Nancy who is at the center of it all. It is she who wonders how she and her friends could have nightmares about the same creepy killer. It is she who has the most nightmares, whether at home or even at school, and knows all too well the fear of falling asleep. And it is she who might find a way to end this threat, after discovering a vital clue about the reality-dream barrier and learning about the origin of the killer.
Allow me to talk about the killer before I forget. He is a grotesque man named Fred Krueger (later known widely in pop culture as Freddy Krueger). He wears a disheveled hat and sweater, has a severely mutilated face, and kills people with blades attached to the fingers of a glove. This is someone who is pure evil with no trace of humanity whatsoever. It's no wonder he is among the great movie villains. He is definitely scary even to the audience, not just to the poor teens we're seeing on screen.
Overall, several things make A Nightmare on Elm Street an entertaining horror movie. You have a plot that moves nicely with twists that make it interesting, a realistic central protagonist with a good supporting cast, a memorable villain, and the premise of mixing the real and the surreal. All of this makes the audience intrigued by what is happening, whether or not it's in physical reality. When you succeed in screwing around with the audience's minds in a fun way, you know you've made a good movie.
Lastly, it's remarkable that the budget for this movie was fairly small. Wes Craven managed to accomplish a lot with relatively little. This is definitely a movie that he could be proud of and that horror fans could appreciate. I certainly enjoyed it, and it was a great way for me to spend an evening before going to sleep. And no, I didn't have any nightmares about Fred Krueger that night. Consider me one of the lucky ones.
Anthony's Rating: 8/10