Among director Wes Craven’s earliest films, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) represents a breakthrough.
Craven, a former English teacher with a Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins in writing and philosophy, cut his teeth in the film industry in the early 1970s by editing and directing hardcore pornography. He rose to prominence with THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) and later, THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977) — films legendary for their savagery, unrelenting ferocity, and bleak nihilism.
For NIGHTMARE, Craven drew inspiration from a series of articles published by the LA Times on young Khmer immigrants who complained of having vivid nightmares and refused to go to bed. Later, those men died in their sleep. While this story formed the basis of the original film, it’s only foundational. NIGHTMARE is more heavily influenced by themes already explored in Craven’s films, but truly succeeds because it uses them to support a much more powerful message.
NIGHTMARE, like Craven’s earlier works, explores the intersection between sexuality and violence, and also looks at its impact on society and the family. One of the major struggles captured in NIGHTMARE is also generational, depicting one generation as it tries — and ultimately fails — to make the other believe its point of view.
When Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), the teenaged protagonist of the film, tries to uncover the awful truth about Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), she first confronts her mother (Ronee Blakely). Initially, her mother doesn’t even acknowledge Krueger’s identity. Nancy’s just making him up to cope with the loss of her best friend, Tina (Amanda Wyss), who everyone believes was murdered by her boyfriend, Rod (Nick Corri). It’s only with further prodding that Nancy’s mother confirms that Krueger isn’t a fantasy at all, that he was real and the townspeople of Springwood burned him alive years ago for preying on their children. They torched him in his boiler room and have kept it a secret ever since.
However, her previous rejection of him works as a form of gaslighting. By denying Krueger’s existence, and suggesting that Nancy herself has conjured up this boogeyman as a means of dealing with her grief, she opens her child and others up to further abuse. In NIGHTMARE, adults are as much a part of the problem as Krueger is, becoming an enemy collective that bears warm milk and warmer lies. To get their children to finally sleep, the parents assure them that they have nothing to fear. Yet by refusing to say anything, the parents of Springwood have created a culture of silence, which allows the crimes to continue.
Krueger’s murders in the first film — beyond being deeply iconic for their brutality — may also be seen as indicative of something more. We never get to see Krueger stalk Rod or Glenn (Johnny Depp) in his boiler-room nightmarescape. Their deaths are quick and happen in real-time, for us to observe only as they occur. Neither one of them ventures into the boiler room. Both men become the victims of violence, but we never get to experience their dread.
For Nancy and for Tina, the nightmares are different: drawn-out, predatory and sexual. Rod’s death, even when Krueger appears, is through Nancy’s lens. Within the nightmare, Krueger plunges the girls into darkened spaces, where they’re forced not only to wander in fear, but to flee deeper into the shadows, until whatever breadcrumbs they might have imagined they left behind, to help them find their way back home, are swept away in the terror.
In his original script, Craven envisioned Krueger as a child molester, not just a child killer, and while molestation is never explicitly mentioned in NIGHTMARE, it hangs over every pillowcase and murky crevice in the boiler room. Broken toys and rising flames line the path to Krueger in these nightmares, and the girls — Tina especially — are half-undressed, in sleep clothes that suggest a girlish, even antiquated innocence, far outgrown on their teenaged, now fully developed bodies.
Tina’s murder replicates the act of rape, in a way that no other murder in the film — or even the series, discounting the death of Julie (Tracy Middendorf) in WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE — dares to explore. She rouses from the bed she’s shared with her boyfriend, believing herself free of the nightmare at last and safe in his presence. Instead, as she’s drawn outside of her safe zones by a mysterious sound, she comes face-to-face with the monster that has stalked her all these nights, realizing only too late that she’s been hunted, through the dream and her waking reality, the entire time. By the time he digs his razor-clad glove into Tina’s flesh and tears her from her bed, it’s too late for her. He’s leapt from the nightmare and penetrated her most intimate surroundings.
Sexual violence is a major theme of both LAST HOUSE and HILLS, something which Craven’s early experience in pornography might have helped inform. In LAST HOUSE, which was based on THE VIRGIN SPRING (1960), two young girls on the way to a rock concert are raped and murdered by a family of degenerates. In retaliation, the parents of one girl kill the family members. In HILLS, a clan of hill-dwelling cannibals prey on an unsuspecting family during their vacation, slaughtering and raping the women, until the menfolk hunt them down and murder them all.
As NIGHTMARE continues, Krueger’s attacks on Nancy are increasingly erotically charged and non-consensual: his tongue darts out from her phone as she cradles it; his glove rises up from her bathwater, between her bare legs; her carpeted stairs turn into quicksand, meant to trap her body firmly in place, for him to seize it at last. But unlike Tina, Nancy becomes vividly aware that the nightmare will bleed into reality unless she takes matters into her own hands. She also knows her attacker by name, a privilege Tina never gets, and this knowledge allows her to become more empowered as the film goes on.
For Craven, it feels like coming full circle. The women in his previous films are largely passive and victimized because of it. Their youth makes them easier to hurt and turns them into cautionary tales. If the young girls in LAST HOUSE just never wanted to go to that rock concert, maybe they wouldn’t have gotten attacked, right? Except in NIGHTMARE, youth is power, allowing the film’s heroine to see through her family’s gaslighting tactics and the deceit that has been upheld by the town. Her youth fuels her rebellion against that society and gives her the courage of conviction to find her own way.
Eventually, Nancy will have to succumb to sleep, but that realization doesn’t weaken her — it mobilizes her. No one believes she’s telling the truth, so she has to stand alone. By weaponizing her immediate surroundings, she’s able to weaken Krueger, her nightly intruder, once he follows her back into her bedroom. But unlike in Craven’s previous films, violence isn’t enough. If anything, it perpetuates the cycle of abuse, allowing Krueger to gain entry into her mother’s bedroom and prey on her, same as he did with all the others.
And therein lies the rub: vigilante justice (especially in response to sexual violence) is the cornerstone of Craven’s early work, but in NIGHTMARE, it doesn’t fly anymore. From Krueger’s origin story to Nancy’s own failed attempts to take out Krueger with direct aggression, we see the nasty consequences of it and the message is clear. Vigilante justice might seem like justice, but it isn’t — it’s just more bloodshed.
What ultimately saves Nancy from her attacker is her own strength: her willingness to break the town’s culture of silence and stare down her attacker. She looks him right in the face, with no weapons, and holds him accountable for his crimes. Then she walks away. He tries to attack her, but he can’t do it anymore, because she’s effectively taken away all of his power.