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The Enduring Legacy of A Nightmare On Elm Street And It's First Three Films

A concept that found new ways to scare us. A franchise that revitalised and shaped the horror genre. A serial killer that made his way into our nightmares. And it all emerged from the horrific, intelligent mind of Wes Craven. It was A Nightmare on Elm Street. A true dream for horror fans that eventually evolved into a nightmare itself as it transformed into a cultural phenomenon and another commercialised horror franchise. But within the original canon, it remains remembered for the brilliance of its first three films.

It was part of the Golden Age of slashers, which were reviled by critics but beloved by audiences and horror fans. It made them profitable and that’s why studios went after them. But after countless generic slashers and rip-offs that established genre clichés, the slasher formula wasn’t going to become commercially viable for long. Then came Wes Craven, who had a simple yet original idea. What if the slasher was set in the dream world?

Inspired by the phenomenon of the Sudden Unexplained Death Syndrome (“SUDS”), where the traumatic experiences of Southeast Asian Refugees migrating to 1970s America suffered from nightmares of war and genocide and eventually died in their sleep, it brought a terrifying plausibility to A Nightmare on Elm Street’s premise. Sleep is one of our safest comforts, one we need to energise for the next day, and dreams, as forgettable as they are, can be wonderful subconscious explorations of our thoughts, memories, and hopes. That’s also where they can turn horrifying, where our minds work against us with our rooted fears and traumas. Wes Craven’s idea removes the security of sleep, making it just as dangerous and traumatic as the horrors of the real world.

A Nightmare on Elm Street opens with Tina (Amanda Wyss) navigating her empty neighbourhood. It’s empty but serene. She can hear two girls singing a rhyme. A rhyme that warns her Freddy’s coming for her. Then there’s the scraping of knives. She finds herself chased by a scarred figure in a red-and-green striped sweater and dirty fedora, welding a bladed glove. He grabs her, and she wakes up, back into the safety of her bed… only to find slashes on her nightgown. Rattled, she holds a sleepover at her house with her boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri), her best friend Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), and Nancy’s boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp). She confides in Nancy over her nightmare and the figure that pursued her. But Nancy dreamt of the same figure. A weird coincidence, right?

But when Tina dreams again, the figure returns. This time, he seizes her. Back in the real world, she appears to be having a seizure until the large slashes across her chest appear. Then she’s lifted by an invisible force, thrashing around, and all Rod can do is watch helplessly as she bleeds out. Tina, who we believed to be the protagonist, is killed off in the first twenty minutes. Through this cleverly deceiving setup, Craven subverts audience expectations and flips the slasher formula on its head to make it clear that no one is safe.

Nightmare on Elm Street switches focus to Nancy, already struggling with her turbulent home life as her mother, Marge (Ronee Blakley), turns to alcoholism, and her father, Donald (John Saxon), is too distant and busy working on Tina’s murder case. As Nancy encounters increasingly violent dreams with the same figure and her wounds carry over to her world, she realises she is hunted by a killer only in her dreams. Desperately avoiding sleep at every measure, she learns about the figure’s origins and the repressed secrets hiding behind the seemingly perfect surface of American suburbia as she’s forced to navigate personal traumas on her own.

While Craven can’t help but give in to some genre familiarities, particularly the “sex = death” cliché, A Nightmare on Elm Street is more than that. The seemingly unknown nature behind Freddy Krueger only fuels the horror and lack of safety. Even when shreds of his backstory are given to the audience, they do not weaken A Nightmare on Elm Street’s terrifying concepts. Once a human and now a monster lurking in the minds of youths, everything inside him oozes with worms, rot, and filth, all because he eventually became this way. Robert Englund’s performance essentially defines Freddy Krueger by injecting his personality with pure menace and sadism, as if the character gets pleasure from psychologically manipulating his victims’ minds and logic. It’s brilliantly terrifying.

But Craven refuses to neglect his characters in favour of Freddy. He gives them genuine fears and personalities and pays attention to their relationships. Even as it navigates Nancy’s dysfunctional home life, you sense how pure, innocent, and humane she remains. Despite her paranoia, she refuses to give in to Freddy, fighting back and becoming a remarkable final girl. The attention given to the character development only makes the cruelty and helplessness of the kills stand out, where the grotesque violence delivers visceral, harrowing gut punches as reality gives in to dream logic, and the boundaries between reality and dreams become increasingly blurred.

A Nightmare on Elm Street’s transitions between reality and dreams are so seamless that you’re almost convinced these characters aren’t sleeping. The dream world has this alluring atmosphere, made possible through luminous lighting, echoing sound, dreamy synthesisers from Charles Bernstein’s music, and an emphasised sense of the unreal that further the expertise of Craven’s blocking and direction of his set pieces. Interweaving supernatural and psychological horror means Freddy can distort minds and attack through various means, rendering logic non-existent. It isn’t just the dream world that feels like a nightmare. So does reality.

As much as A Nightmare on Elm Street has a tangible grasp on visual atmosphere and mood, it has creatively terrifying ideas, not only on losing the distinction between dreams and reality, but also on teenagers being failed by adults, punished for actions they were never responsible for, and left to fend for themselves in a deteriorating, Reagan-era America. Its ideas resonated back then, and they do now. A Nightmare on Elm Street remains not only the best film of the franchise but Wes Craven’s definitive, timeless horror masterpiece.

Because of A Nightmare on Elm Street’s ability to revitalise the slasher subgenre and terrify a generation of audiences, it was bound for success. So much so that it saved New Line Cinema from bankruptcy and helped it emerge as a major motion picture studio. And with New Line owning rights to the film, a sequel was always going to be greenlit, much like other successful horror films of the era.

Cue A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge.

To read the rest of this deep-dive into the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, head over to the Grapeshot website.


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