A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) — “I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy”
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Today, it’s a rare instance of LoC honoring a horror film, their most recent at time of writing — only thirty-eight years old! Wes Craven breathes new life into the flogging slasher genre for the first of two times across his career, and gives the world a begloved burnt-faced icon in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street! You all know the words, yeah? One two, Freddy’s comin’ for you…
(Registering the Registry is sponsored by Adept7777 and Dan Stalcup on Patreon.)
Rather safe to say Freddy Krueger’s appeal isn’t quite the same as on debut, yeah? Amongst the pop culture pantheon of slashers who loan their faces to posters and t-shirts and oodles of fanart in which they’re all hanging out as buds, the lingering memory of Freddy’s heavily burnt face is one of a wisecracking goofball character. Still a guy who’ll kill you in some gruesome way inside your dreams and still a guy whose core character trait is Being A Child Murderer (or Being A Child Molester if you’re one of those who takes the use of Wes Craven’s initial concept for the character in the 2010 reboot as signal to apply it across the entire franchise), but a guy who’ll orchestrate those gruesome deaths in the form of elaborate visual metaphors notable for their complexity rather than fear-factor, all while spouting one-liners about the Nintendo Power Glove and prime time, bitch. A decade of franchising and lending his face to dolls ’n’ video games ’n’ rap numbers made Freddy the slasher with a personality, one of those figures whose function in the film is practically more audience surrogate than the actual audience surrogates, for you’re oft here waiting for whatever crazy kill he’s gonna pull off next, sitting in his corner to see whatever ol’ Fred has up his red-and-green striped sleeves. To be certain, such an effect takes hold over any horror flick reproduced through sufficient sequelization, as the audience clings to the easily-identifiable recurring character whose return makes them a familiar presence capable of generating excitement rather than figures of dread as per our first meeting — even the dire inhuman Shape of Michael Myers inevitably heard the cries of, “Go get ’em, Mike! Cut ’em wide open!”, to say nothing of Jason or Leatherface. Freddy’s mainly notable amongst this trend because his voice and near-infinite toolbox of deadly dream dioramas enabled his filmmakers to lean into the trend harder than his lead-booted mundane predecessors.
Let’s say we rewind Freddy all the ways back. Take him before the guest spots in fighting games, before the rumbles with Jason, before the popularization of Halloween costumes based on his look, before anyone spoke half a word about dream children or masters or warriors, before even his use to covertly explore internalized homophobia. Stripped of the decades which made him endearing and personable and familiar, the idea must hold some merit at its core, show some reason this picture spawned a franchise and revitalized a genre other than simple profit-motivated attrition. For our purposes, there is A Nightmare on Elm Street, an American moviegoing public rather sick of slashers after the utter glut of such following Halloween and especially Friday the 13th’s examples, and the intriguing prospect of a movie in which your dreams really can hurt you. Let’s find out why this man sticks in your craw.
To begin, there is only a tight frame within the movie’s frame, a tiny cramped picture swimming in black, and within this claustrophobic slit depicting a grungy workbench sat amidst a disused, sweltering industrial environment, there are only hands at work. Hands that pour over the contents of a bag filled with nasty looking things, selecting a dirty glove and an assemblage of steak knives before setting to work on grafting the pair together, carefully soldering pieces and cutting leather to create the perfect killing instrument. Here’s a man we meet in grime and filth, the unsanitary a home for someone so obsessively dedicated to finding new ways he might hurt people. It’s interesting how our first exposure to Freddy doesn’t involve any sort of overt supernatural power, the film emphasizing the material assembly of his glove right up front and following with his hunting Amanda Wyss’ Tina across a boiler room lair during the opening credits. Prior to Tina bolting up in bed at sequence’s close, a blind viewer might not think Freddy a dream demon, for his sudden appearances around corners and preternatural ability to perfectly stalk his prey from just off-camera is downright Slasher 101. Only some mildly surreal imagery does anything to tip Craven’s hand, and indeed much of the opening act to follow plays at moving like a typical example of the form. Bunch of ordinary teenagers hanging out with one another after school, joshing one another’s partners and having sleepovers without their parents’ permission and talking about some creepy urban legend, threats lurking in the shadows revealed as jerk boyfriends playing some thickheaded prank. Kruger is shrouded in the ordinary for about twenty minutes of a ninety minute movie, damn near forever given what’s to come.
The film’s first big dream sequence starts to reveal what makes Freddy tick, in his psychology and our relation to his person. Certainly the plethora of effects on display help as Tina flees through her nightmare, from Freddy distorting the walls as he leans through their fleshy membrane to watch her friends sleep, to his alleyway-blocking rubbery arms, to his self-mutilation by slicing off his own fingers with a glove that is God and letting his entire face slough off in Tina’s scrambling hands to reveal the cackling skull beneath. An impressive showcase of practical effects talent coupled with simple editing tricks and body doubles to allow Freddy multiple leaps from nowhere in a single shot, all towards a goal of establishing this killer can be anywhere and do anything. On a sneakier level than the gore and the sequence-capping real life kill of Tina crawling up the walls ’n’ spinning in midair as invisible claws gash blood every which way, though, is the impression we form as to why Freddy’s doing this. His motive’s a little whiles coming in dialogue, but for this kill he’s laughing it up and leering at his victim-to-be from afar, giving her plenty chances to get away and taking actions to no viable end other than freaking her right the fuck out. Freddy takes raw, outright perverse pleasure from watching his victims run and run long as they can, a failed strike merely an excuse to prolong the inevitable and terrify them with some other horrible sight until he finally rends their flesh. He can express as much, too, so manic he is in bursts of cruel joy at the teen slipping his grasp in a blind panic; where you might assume such about any butcher of horny teenagers in the dead of night, Freddy’s so into his personal orgy of violence you can hardly escape the conclusion in his case.
Such an impression deepens across the second act as active focus shifts to Heather Langenkamp as Nancy Thompson, a surviving friend of Tina’s and Freddy’s new primary target. Her own disturbed dreams after such a gruesome death follow a similar pattern to what we established with Tina, hallucinatory visions of a familiar place tainted by eerie figures reminiscent of Freddy’s guise, a draw down into sublevels twisted into his cramped home of hot metal and staem, a preliminary stalking geared to making her bolt awake in terror. Complications, however, come twofold: first, Nancy’s escape from Freddy involves burning her arm in a manner that manifests on her flesh in waking life, and second, such a bizarre series of events after noting she dreamt the same dreams as many friends has peaked her ears to potential connections between further strange happenings. Some of the film’s big memorable shots come about during this stretch and reinforce our impression of Freddy as a perverse figure, like the knife-gloved hand reaching up between Nancy’s legs in a bubble bath or the overhead shot of him walking through prison bars like they aren’t there, but Freddy’s tendency to play with his food also opens the possibility of understanding the killer, taking him beyond the raw stuff of night terrors and into something a sufficiently clever teenager might outwit. While Freddy CAN cause Nancy enormous grief through such taunting, catching her as she falls asleep to seed her dreams with his intention to murder Jsu Garcia’s falsely-imprisoned Rod and then doing so with an animate bedsheet noose right before her waking eyes, the distress and probing questions such acts invite also leaves him open to exposure, gives her further opportunities to stress test his rules of operation and question assumptions about just what’s out for her blood. It’s a tug o’ war game between Freddy as incomprehensible monster and Freddy as a definite presence guided by reason and thus weak to counter-rationality.
Course, Nancy’s still a teenager, bound and guarded by parental rules and an initially unspoken paranoia which manifests as increased overbearing oversight from her policeman father and veritable house arrest courtesy Ronee Blakley as her worsening alcoholic mother. There’s shades of adolescent frustration your parents won’t give you all the facts in simple straight talk no matter how old or willful you get, an unwanted and relatable strain on a girl already fighting to stay awake for several days straight and groping in the dark about why her friends keep dying. Some truth comes to the surface when her mother drunkenly confesses to knowing what Freddy was in life, to having banded with other local parents and participated in setting the lowlife bastard child killer aflame, but it’s of limited practical use and only serves to underscore the terror of what Freddy is now. Living, he thrived in the shadows, his gleeful assault on the community intensified by the paranoid suspicion he could be any one of them, come for any parent’s child, do whatever he wished and then slip comfortably back into anonymity; dead and dreaming, the same applies, only with no risk of anyone tracking him down, no chance the authorities or guardians over his victims will make the same logical connections and put him down once again. That invisible suburban anxiety over a stranger out to harm your blood transfigured him as the flames flickered out, that stubborn refusal to admit anything’s wrong until it’s too late gave him impeccable cover, and Fred Krueger rose anew, free to do what he will as those who brought him to mob justice either cast him far from their minds or installed in their children a fresh sense he simply cannot be stopped. Truth or lies, none of it will protect Nancy with Freddy grown from exemplar to avatar.
Not to say she’s completely helpless, merely to point out the path forward and through isn’t reliant on protective umbrellas and generational wisdom. It’s Nancy’s own direct experiences which enable her to fight back proper in the climax — escaping an attack shown only from topside in a sleep institute and pulling Freddy’s hat into the waking world, comparing notes with her boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp), arming herself with survival guides and booby traps all round the house — the film’s largely dropped any pretense toward moving like your typical slasher as it enters act three, having successfully Trojan horsed a story concerned with mystery disentanglement and character growth in the guise of a cheapy blood flick. The realization nobody in power is willing or able to help, paired with the revelation her own mother played an unwitting part in making Freddy more than a man by allowing fear of what he represented to rule her heart, these developments do not drive Nancy to despair, but to determination, to leveraging what she believes is a loophole in Freddy’s rules so she can potentially entrap him in the real world with carefully timed waking, and keep him on the outs with 2x4s to the chest and exploding gunpowder lightbulbs until SOMEONE can help. One can tell Freddy’s some inkling of what he faces by the prelude-less swiftness and sheer gory brutality with which he dispatches Glen when Nancy tries to loop the guy in on her plan (vomited in a reverse shower of blood by his own bed, poor bastard), though this show of force only drains the demon his reserve power and leaves him with lesser tricks of spatial warping and teleportation when Nancy consciously invades his space in her dreams. His penchant for protracted torment has taught her too much, made her wise to his manipulations, and while the knife glove will cut all the same should blades meet flesh, she’s made it much, much harder for him to have his fun, which leaves him pissed off and open to further blows once out in the open.
Unfortunately, Nancy’s plan is still dependent on her father and the police coming along to rescue her, and so all beating and reburning Freddy accomplishes is a reignition of his power, enabling him to char Nancy’s mother and subsume her into the mattress, the surface collapsing into eerie lights and solidifying as if nothing happened. From falling for the Home Alone school of self-defense to executing his trippiest kill of the story inside a minute. Metaphysically speaking, Nancy is weak to Freddy when she plays the weak, dependent teenager, ceding even a fraction of herself to someone else’s control and so leaving an opening through which Freddy can force entry, take over as the dominant force in her life, get his jollies by lessening her autonomy and making those who see her as their charge feel helpless. Any kind of strategy which admits he is a frightening, lessening force refreshes the demon, feeds his legend, brings his bladed glove an inch closer to your fluttering eye. It follows, then, her best and ultimate ploy for freedom from these nightmares is rejection — of her victimhood, of her status as a child, as someone who buys into the legend Freddy built in life and continues exploiting in the hereafter, tearing down all his ill-gained power and reducing him to a shimmering fade upon the floor.
Within the framework of all we’ve discussed, the studio-mandated twist ending is honestly kinda crappy. Craven’s first instinct to finish on a happy note and shoot the finale with a dreamy mist to work a “life is all a dream, so seize control of your world in waking life as in sleeping” angle was right, as the sudden reveal Nancy was still dreaming through the whole confrontation and has helplessly fallen under Freddy’s sway despite her firm rejection of his power undercuts all the effort invested into showing how she might grow beyond the sins and terrors of her parents’ generation. Plays into the typical “slasher killer lurches back into frame for one last scare” cliché in a way that’s less shocking final spook, more lame gotcha. It doesn’t do the movie as a standalone entity any favors, reshaping the story from one about a child who learns to stand on her own and becomes her own adult by conquering the unspoken monster her elders unwittingly fostered in the closet her whole life, and into one about a monster man who cheats whenever and however he likes to claim victory as much over the viewer as his prey. Singularly, it’s not satisfying. Never feels good to watch a movie undermine its own message and themes for the sake of leaving the door open a smidgen wider for possible sequels.
For the sake of imprinting the character deeper into the cultural psyche once those franchised sequels actually do come along, though? It’s near-accidentally brilliant, after a fashion. No matter how goofy the writing gets, how hammy Robert Englund is directed to play the character in the future, how much his public profile is reduced to another horror heavyweight who’s good only for tussling with Jason or cameoing on The Goldbergs, there remains this germ of an idea that nothing is nor can ever be enough to truly escape. We know Freddy can do whatever he damn well pleases in dreams and real life alike, know he seems to deliberately limit himself to extend the stalking for little reason beyond enjoying it when they break down and scream, know even an entire movie’s worth of learning and reasoning and preparedness can completely shatter because you’re never quite sure about when you’ve crossed the borders of sleep. Past the mechanics of a fantastical creature only possible in the moviehouse, much the same uncertainty applies to the kind of monster Freddy represents in daily life: the sort who fuel collective nervous shoulder-peeking about predators and manipulators, and hide behind collective unwillingness to truly see when what we’ve spent years building in our heads manifests within our midst. The sort whose potential for social damage lives long after they’ve spilt their last drop of blood, continues down the ages as they leave all shaken by their presence, further entrenched in a fear of going through it again, paving the way for the next, and the next, and the next. You cannot take his power when he’s something bigger than a single exploitative criminal, when he’s the entire trend, capable of blindsiding and leaving a crowd murmuring, “Who could’ve seen this coming? What could we have done to prevent this?” after they’ve faced the same threat in a thousand other guises. Any slasher can bolt upright after taking the definitely final fatal blow and thrive to kill another day. Freddy, I’d argue, still retains some of his power because he literalizes that basest of social fears, of our true powerlessness in the face of those who know how to game the social structure, and render the paralyzing dread they exert over the responsible and innocent alike mere tools in their sick game.
It’s no wonder his further adventures sought to soften his image and render him a market-friendly snarkster. This initial take on Freddy is exactly the kind of creep kids would immortalize in playground skiprope songs, embedding him deep in the psyche of victims many generations to come. Nancy never stood a chance.
(Even though it’d be 100% a better-told story if she did.)
…nine, ten, never sleep again! Another film down, another article open to you in the comments! Thoughts on slashers, their revitalization with this film, Freddy as a cultural fixture, anything at all! Hash it out, just be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the next piece! When we reconvene, it’s the third and final of the 2021 class’ pictures about the American judicial system failing members of a racial minority, this time about a Chinese-American man murdered over anti-Japanese sentiments in Detroit. From 1987, it’s the documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin?, which you can currently access through donation to your local PBS provider. I’ll see you then.
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