Jan 22, 2012

A Nightmare On Elm Street:

Nancy's Crazy Alcoholic Mom

A Nightmare On Elm Street
Wes Craven
Wes Craven
Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund,
Ronee Blakely, John Saxon,
Johnny Depp

If Nancy Doesn't Wake Up Screaming She Won't Wake Up At All...

New Line Cinema wasn't referred to as "the house that Freddy built" for nothing. Originally a small distribution company, New Line took a chance in producing Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street and was rewarded with a franchise cash cow. There were six sequels, a television series, a Nintendo game, a Fat Boys rap video, a bunch of creepily inappropriate children's toys based around a child murderer and implied pedophile, a crossover film and a remake. Paramount Pictures must have kicked itself blue for going with Dreamscape instead.

After a cool title sequence, Nightmare focuses on a group of four friends all being terrorized by similar nightmares. We initially focus on Tina (Amanda Wyss) who dreams of being chased through a boiler room by a demonic burn victim in a red and green sweater and knives on his fingers. These nightmares have really started to freak Tina out. Her boyfriend Rod (Jsu Garcia) and best friend Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) show up for a sleepover and Nancy drags her boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp) along. It's to this film's credit that, we're only about fifteen minutes into the film before the villain makes his move.

Tina's dreaming and wandering around a dream version of her neighborhood when the man with the claws shows up, pulls some reality warping moves just to mess with her, then attacks. Back in the bedroom, her boyfriend watches in helpless terror as some invisible force tosses Tina around the room and cuts her to ribbons. This meshing of reality and nightmare is a large part of what makes Nightmare innovative and stand apart from many other horror films of the time. The nightmare conceit allows Craven to play around with some surreal and disturbing visuals, the bit with the phone leaps to mind. Although Craven seems to want to play with the audience's confusion over what is dream and what is reality the script is grounded in a solid internal logic that Craven never deviates from. He manages to keep the audience on it's toes without having to cheat. Well, not until the end when everything falls apart... but we'll get to that.

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Rod is soon fingered for Tina's murder. He's arrested by Nancy's police lieutenant father (John Saxon) and thrown into the slammer. Nancy has a series of frightening, very convincing and somewhat lewd nightmares that lead her to believe that something strange is going on and that Rod might be innocent. She burns herself in one of these nightmares and finds that this burn has carried over into reality. The significance of which is not lost on her. There is no way she's going back to sleep. We are finally introduced to the film's main antagonist, no not Freddy Kruger, Marge... Nancy's crazy alcoholic mom.

No sooner than it's established that Nancy's nightmares are lethal, in comes her mom who tries everything in her power to make Nancy get some sleep. She will spend the whole film doing this. And getting drunk. Marge is played by Ronee Blakely (she was also in Nashville and would later appear in A Return to Salem's Lot). My initial reaction to her performance was that it was astonishingly, remarkably bad even for an 80's horror film. A performance somehow wooden enough to use as kindling yet paradoxically histrionic at the same time. Like a screaming tree stump. She makes some bizarre choices here. Choices that I used to chalk up to a poor attempt at portraying alcoholism. Though, to really sell the alcoholic mom bit, she should have insisted on a scene in which she comes on to Johnny Depp. Over the years however my appreciation for Mrs. Blakley's performance has grown. On the DVD commentary someone remarks that it's like she's acting in a completely different film, I agree, a David Lynch film. I can't help but think that this movie would have been improved if everyone but Heather Langencamp had delivered similarly bizarre performances. It would have lent the film an even more dream like quality. In any case, Blakley nearly upstages Robert Englund as the most unsettling thing in the film.

"Johnny Depp is mine, you hear me mom? MINE!"

Nancy decides to go on a reconnaissance mission into dreamland to see if she can find out anything useful. She enlists the aid of Johnny Depp and tells him to stay awake while she has a look see so he can wake her up if anything goes wrong. Nancy dreams about the town and ends up at the police station where Rod is being held. She watches as the man with the claws enters Rod's cell and starts to strangle him with the bedsheets. She's spotted and attacked. Nancy is chased back to her bedroom where she struggles with the dream demon and woken in the nick of time by her alarm clock. Of course, Johnny Depp has fallen asleep because he's totally useless. As pissed as Nancy is at her boyfriend she lets it go realizing that it's now a race against time to save Rod. They burst into the police station and Nancy alerts the cops to the pending murder stressing the need for speedy action. Naturally, this just makes them move even slower.


At Rod's funeral Nancy describes the man in her nightmares to her parents. They exchange meaningful looks hinting that they know a lot more than they're letting on. Marge takes her to a dream clinic for help. Despite being physically cut during a nightmare and pulling a piece of physical evidence out of nowhere while being observed by lab technicians, Marge is convinced that there ain't nothing wrong that a good nights sleep won't fix. They have a confrontation during which Marge stubbornly refuses to admit any knowledge about the man who's name is sewn into that hat she pulled out of her nightmare. Fred WHOger? Nancy goes to see Johnny Depp who continues to be useless.Time for the showdown. Nancy's been boning up on some survivalist literature and mom's turned the house into a prison. And gotten drunk. She finally fesses up about Fred Kruger being a child murderer who got off on a technicality and that her and some other parents went all vigilante and burned him alive. Marge got to keep the claws for some reason.

Insert Michael Jackson joke here.
Now all that's left is to booby trap the house and wait for mom to pass out. In the his commentary, Craven discusses the problem of how to have his heroine defeat a villain like Freddy. As an intangible supernatural force that lives in dreams, you can't just bash his head in with a rock. He solves this problem early on by establishing that Nancy can pull things out of the nightmare world giving them substance. Having Nancy pull Freddy out of her nightmare  in order to confront him is an elegant solution keeping with the film's theme of remaining  awake to the threat of evil. Dragged into reality, Freddy seems robbed of his supernatural power, succumbing to Nancy's Home Alone booby traps. Nancy is able to get the drop on Freddy. Setting him on fire is an appropriate coup de grace.

Then script then scatters it's carefully constructed internal logic to the four winds by tacking on a couple of false endings. Nancy and her dad go back into the house to witness Freddy dragging Nancy's mom into Hell or something through a ghostly portal in the bed. Everything returns to normal and Nancy gets to tell her dad I told you so. But wait, Freddy's still hanging around. So Nancy defeats him by turning her back on him and ignoring him. This robs Freddy of his power, making him disappear and undoing all of the evil shit that he'd done during the film. So you defeat Freddy by ignoring him? This is just what Nancy's booze addled mom has been telling her during the entire film. Just ignore the problem it'll go away, get some sleep and shit will be better in the morning. Up until this point, Nancy's character is a smart, resourceful heroine precisely because she disregards this advice. Now it seems that she's unwittingly been giving Freddy his power this whole time by.... being too inquisitive and not letting sleeping dogs lie?

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Another ending is tacked on to this one indicating that Freddy has not been defeated. By all accounts this was foisted on the film by the producer and seemed engineered solely to pave the way for sequels and wasn't Craven's decision so he gets a free pass on that one. Despite kind of blowing it at the end, A Nightmare On Elm Street is a good film with some fresh ideas. Robert Englund portrays a more menacing less stand up comic Freddy in this initial outing, possibly Freddy's most demonic incarnation until Freddy vs. JasonNightmare also features some genuinely disturbing effects set pieces bound to stay with you. Certainly a cut above most other horror films of that time.

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