Thirty-Day Movie Challenge: Day Six

Thirty Day Movie Challenge:

Day Six:  Favorite Horror

A Nightmare on Elm St. (1984)
Directed by: Wes Craven
Starring: Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, John Saxon
By Gabriel Ricard

It still bugs me a little that I’ve been to three horror movie conventions in my life, and not a single damn one of them included Robert Englund. He’s been one of my favorite actors for as long as I can remember, and his presence is welcome in any movie. He’s also always struck me as underrated. There’s a lot more to Freddy Krueger than terrible jokes and an ugly hat. I’ve always like Freddy more than any movie monster and that’s because of Englund. Even the worst Elm St. film at least has what I feel is a great actor in of the great cinematic villain roles of all time. I’ve always found that entertaining enough to at least enjoy movies as terrible as Freddy’s Dead or Freddy vs. Jason.

That’s probably why the good Elm St. films are amongst my favorite horror films. They don’t have to just rely on Englund’s considerable charisma as an actor. They have good casts, fantastic, enduring special effects (made all the more remarkable by how low the budgets for those films tended to be) and stories that usually had a lot more energy, humor and creativity going for them than most horror film franchises (especially in that era). The first one is the best example of this, and it also has the benefit of still being genuinely creepy. From the film’s ferocious beginning Craven establishes an oppressive, dooming atmosphere for those wretched teenagers of his. Freddy is clearly in control of this universe from start to finish, even when his chief protagonist, Nancy (the amazing Heather Langenkamp) seems to gain an edge as she slowly comes to learn more about him. A Nightmare on Elm St. is Freddy’s world, and it’s almost always an accident when anyone gets away from it alive. The first film does a better job of making us believe that than anything that came after it (six sequels, a TV series, a crossover with Jason Voorhees, a disappointing remake, a ride at Disney World, an assortment of cookies and other snackables and the scariest damn children’s doll ever created). It’s a dark, grim ride that would never be properly duplicated ever again.

These two are so cute together. It’s actually kind of sickening.

There’s a reason why New Line Cinema is known as “The House That Freddy Built”. Before A Nightmare on Elm St. became a runaway hit in 1984, the studio was known for distributing midnight movie classics like Reefer Madness. Wes Craven’s mediation on the death of innocence, the potential for dreams to be as harmful as reality and the consequences of revenge and mob mentality (I can’t imagine why either of those things wouldn’t work out—I love mobs or any opportunity to upgrade my TV and get some new shirts). Craven’s best films are often obsessed with the notion that we’re never safe, and that any attempt to try and change that is pretty futile in the long run.

Or A Nightmare on Elm St. is just a movie about a guy who kills a bunch of teenagers. You can just look it at that way, too.

Choosing this was not a huge, difficult stretch of the imagination. Horror has been one of the great, long-standing influences on my writing and even with some of my acting. Being able to work for a horror movie website and being able to meet so many of my favorite actors/directors/etc is still one of the highlights of my writing career. I miss being able to ramble about horror films, and I miss the wonderful atmosphere of those conventions.

It goes back further than that. I remember as a child going to the video store in Lake Cowichan, B.C. (the good one) and being transfixed by the box art for the rather large horror section the store boasted. I suppose it’s not a huge surprise that I had nightmares all the time. More often than not my imagination over what the movies might be about based on their artwork was far more elaborate and frightening than the films themselves. Freddy Krueger was one of the exceptions. He was exactly as terrifying as I imagined he would be.

The effect the Elm St. films had on me was pretty profound, and I would imagine those effects continue to this day. I have to say it again. I don’t think it gets much better than Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger. I’ve never been obsessed with meeting people whose work I admire, but I do wish I could meet the guy just to tell him that I borrowed heavily from Freddy when playing Bob Ewell in a production of To Kill a Mockingbird. It was kind of hard not to find parallels between two. I also wanted to convey menace as best as I could, and there are few actors who are better to draw that kind of inspiration from than Englund. God knows if I was actually successful, but it was awfully fun to pretend I had any business trying.

The first film is the one I’m the most likely to hit up, whenever I feel like watching something I’ve admittedly seen entirely too many times. Wes Craven gets an insane amount of mileage out of his miniscule budget. I really do believe that all of the film’s visuals punches retain the ability to be eerie and impressive.  The movie also benefits from a better-than-average cast for a 1980’s horror film (John Saxon is another actor who has saved a lot more bad movies than the ones he did that actually knew how to use him properly).  The other teenagers are more than just victims to serve a fantastic story that was a decidedly clever twist on the slasher genre it helped create. For the most part they’re actually worth giving a damn about.

This is probably *not* the story of Captain Jack Sparrow. Just saying.

It’s astonishing to me that this was turned down by pretty much every major studio in Hollywood. New Line got a juggernaut of a hit from risking pretty much everything they had on at least making back its 1.8 million dollar budget.  I don’t blame them a bit for turning Freddy Krueger into a surprisingly-marketable anti-hero (even if the downside of that was the character being seriously diluted and changed across each sequel). The sequels can be fun in their own way, but I’ll take the force of this film’s atmosphere over anything those others have to offer. It’s gritty, bleak and features what is easily Englund’s most sadistic, menacing portrayal of Freddy. That’s the main draw here in spite of everything else contributing something to this film’s status as one of the best horror movies of all time (it’s also appeared on several notable lists of overall great movies).  There’s no cruel humor to be found here. Freddy is pure evil in classic makeup (created in this film by David Miller and improved upon in future films). The only shame is that Englund didn’t get to use more of that sadism in the sequels.

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