Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Studio Line: New Line Cinema - The first word in terror from the creator of Scream

From modern horror master Wes Craven comes a timeless shocker that remains the standard bearer for terror.

Nancy (Langenkamp) is having grisly nightmares. Meanwhile, her high-school friends, who are having the very same dreams, are being slaughtered in their sleep by the hideous fiend of their shared nightmares. When the police ignore her explanation, she herself must confront the killer in his shadowy realm.

Featuring John Saxon and Johnny Depp in his first starring role and mind-bending special effects, this horror classic gave birth to one of the most infamous undead villains in cinematic history... Freddy Krueger.

Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Robert Englund, John Saxon, Ronee Blakley, Heather Langenkamp, Amanda Wyss, Johnny Depp
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, standard 1.33:1; audio English DD 5.1 & Digital Mono; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 25 chapters; rated R; 92 min.; $24.98; street date 8/22/00.
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Wes Craven, Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon and director of photography Jacques Haitkin; "Jump To A Nightmare" Scene Navigation; Original Theatrical Trailer. DVD-ROM Features: Read The Screenplay While You Watch The Film!; New Dream World Trivia Game -- Test Your Nightmare Knowledge!; Up-to-the-Minute Cast, Crew, Trivia Info and More!
Purchase: DVD | The Nightmare on Elm Street Collection | Freddy's Favorites: Best of A Nightmare on Elm Street - Soundtrack

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/B-/C

Boy, were the 1980s a prime period for horror films! This genre enjoyed success on a level it hadn't seen in years - if ever - as megahits like Friday the 13th and Halloween spurred the whole "slasher" subgenre, and lesser lights such as Hellraiser and Child's Play did big business as well. (And yes, I know that Halloween came out in 1978 - close enough to the 1980s for my little hypothesis!)

What was probably the most successful horror series of this period emerged in 1984, when the first Nightmare On Elm Street picture appeared. While clearly these others series did very well, I don't think any of them quite permeated popular culture to the degree of Nightmare, especially as represented by its rather horrific villain, Freddy Krueger. Just as I'll always find it amazing that a song about anonymous homosexual sex has become fare suitable for singalongs at ball games and bar mitzvahs ("YMCA"), I think it's odd that Krueger - who is arguably the most vile of the villains of the era - has become so... so... well, cuddly!

That really didn't happen until Nightmare had spawned a few sequels, however, and Freddy started spewing more and more wacky catch phrases. Very little of the "fun" Freddy is on display in the first film. Actually, as someone who hadn't seen the original film in many years, it's fairly surprising to see what a relatively minor role Freddy plays in the picture. While he's essentially the catalyst for all the action, we don't see all that much of him, and when he IS onscreen, he's much more roughhewn and less stylish than he would later become.

All of which is much more appropriate to the character. After all, this is a school janitor who murdered children! There seems to be nothing flamboyant or intelligent about Freddy here; he's just a psychotic loser, basically. While the later Freddy certainly was more fun - which he probably HAD to be to make further films watchable - I really liked seeing a more realistic depiction of the character.

Well, as realistic as it can get for a movie in which the antagonist kills people in their dreams. Far-fetched as it may be, Nightmare does probably the most intriguing plot of its genre and era. What Jaws did for the ocean, Nightmare did for sleeping, for God's sake! Better be careful, or that catnap could do you in! It's a tremendously clever premise that certainly affects an audience on a deeper psychological level than does a killer doll, for example, or another anonymous slasher.

While I found Nightmare to remain a good movie and one that provides some effective thrills and scares, I don't think that the execution quite lives up to the premise. That's partly because of the high quality of the idea, and it also occurs because of the limitations of the genre; Nightmare definitely adheres to all the horror stereotypes that writer/director Wes Craven would later mock so wonderfully in Scream.

I think Nightmare can be somewhat hard to watch these days simply because of the historical perspective. After six sequels and the intense way that Freddy permeated our culture, it's virtually impossible for me to watch the film with any sort of fresh viewpoint, especially since the horror genre got so bloated and tired as the 1980s became the 1990s; that kind of film was pretty passe before Scream put some life into it.

Still, despite my semi-blasé outlook, Nightmare manages to hold up pretty well. I admittedly felt a little bored early on, but once the action really got going, it drew me in and kept me interested. I found the film's climax to be surprisingly effective and exciting.

None of this occurs because of the quality of the acting. Across the board, I thought the performances were BAD; nothing here transcends the film's low budget origins. I always thought that Heather Langenkamp was a cutie, but her acting leaves something to be desired. Actually, she gets a little better as the film continues - she pulls off the action sequences that dominate the movie's ending pretty nicely - but she usually seems fairly wooden and artificial. Johnny Depp certainly has built a pretty decent career for himself, but none of that seemed apparent from his debut here; he's an attractive presence that offers nothing. And so it goes, down the line.

As for Freddy himself, Robert Englund provides perfectly good work, but as I mentioned earlier, Freddy isn't quite the presence you might expect him to be based on his fame and popularity. Englund doesn't have to do much more in the role than hack and slash and deliver the occasional menacing line. While I prefer this more vicious Freddy as a villain, the later Freddy certainly was more entertaining and (I assume) enjoyable to play. Still, at least Englund does a better job in the role than do his castmates.

Despite the poor acting, Nightmare remains one of the true classics of the horror genre, and it maintains a surprisingly high number of exciting and scary sequences. As usual, New Line have done a fine job of bringing the film to DVD, though it doesn't quite compete with topnotch products like Blade or Boogie Nights.

The DVD:

Nightmare is presented on a double-sided DVD. One side shows the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, whereas the other offers a fullscreen version of the movie. Overall, the image looks very good. Overall, the image looks pretty good. At times it seems a little flat and slightly soft, but that's not surprising for an older film shot on a very low budget. Sharpness was usually adequate despite some soft sequence. I found the picture to appear generally sharp and to be clean. I detected only light grain, and no other source concerns were visible. Though the film features a fairly muted palette, colors look accurate and appropriate, and both black levels and contrast were decent. Neither excelled, but both were generally fine. Nightmare is a fairly dark film, and the image represents that environment acceptably well. This was a more than adequate transfer.

In regard to audio, Nightmare presents two options: the original mono mix, or a remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 version. I went with the latter when I watched the movie. I found the 5.1 mix to be surprisingly effective; usually these remixes aren't terribly well done, but Nightmare comes to life nicely. The front sound stage dominates and does so very convincingly; the remixers were able to position sounds well across the front three channels and they even pan pretty well at times. Not much audio comes from the rears; we mainly hear rare ambient sounds, occasional "crash-bang" noises during the action scenes, or (most of the time) the movie's cheesy synthesizer score back there.

Speaking of which, the music is the only aspect of the soundtrack that actually sounds pretty good; it packs a decent sonic punch. Dialogue and effects, however, usually sound pretty bad. They definitely are negatively affected by the film's age and low budget, as they often appear harsh and distorted. Speech is almost always easily intelligible; it just doesn't sound very good. Despite this (probably inevitable) flaw, I still found the 5.1 mix of Nightmare to be surprisingly good.

Probably the most disappointing aspect of the Nightmare On Elm Street DVD stems from its relative lack of extras. Through their wonderful "Platinum Edition" series, New Line have produced some of the best DVDs on the market, but they unfortunately chose not to make Nightmare one of their supplement-packed extravaganzas.

I found this especially disappointing because the materials already exist from the 1996 laserdisc special edition release of Nightmare. I never owned it, but from what I read, it included deleted scenes and many other interesting materials that didn't make the cut here. New Line are also releasing the Nightmare Collection, a package that includes all seven films plus an eighth DVD that features a myriad of supplemental materials. It remains to be seen if all the extras from the LD will appear on it. Anyway you look at it, I really think they should have been on the DVD version of Nightmare on its own.

The supplements that appear on this DVD all seem adapted from the LD. The DVD includes a running commentary from writer/director Wes Craven, director of photography Jacques Haitkin, and actors Heather Langenkamp. This track clearly comes from the LD, since the participants frequently discuss laserdiscs, and Langenkamp once mentions that it's been about twelve years since they made the film.

The commentary is dominated by the contributions of Craven and Langenkamp. Haitkin also frequently chimes in, but Saxon seems to be largely MIA. Nonetheless, it's a pretty good track. The participants mainly focus on the technical aspects of making the film but they also contribute some interesting anecdotes and background information. Most fascinating is Craven's discussion of the factual origins of the story.

To be honest, however, I would have liked some additional discussions of story aspects. For example, I'd like to have some idea how Krueger became semi-reincarnated as this dream monster. It's implied that he's getting his revenge on the parents who killed him, but how did he do this? Maybe this will become more clear in the sequels, but I would have enjoyed some back story about that. I also would have liked some additional explanation of the ambiguous ending; maybe I'm just a rutabaga with glasses, but I did not get it. Well, I'll be watching and reviewing the box set soon; maybe I'll find some answers there!

In addition to the commentary, the DVD offers the standard theatrical trailer plus biographies for Craven and five actors (notably not including Depp and Englund). Interestingly, while these folks' filmographies are up to date, the biographies all come from the original 1984 press kit! I thought this was a very fun twist on the typical biographies and I really liked it.

The DVD also provides a twist on the standard "chapter search" function (which is also present). In the "Jump to a Nightmare" section, you can immediately access any of the scenes that involve nightmares. I don't know how often I'll use this, but I thought it was a pretty cool variation on that theme.

Finally, Nightmare includes some DVD-ROM content. It features the screenplay, a "Dream World Trivia Game," and "up to the minute cast, crew, and trivia information and more!" (The latter requires internet access.) Since I continue to lack a DVD-ROM drive, I cannot comment on the quality of these features. I'd like to get a look at the script, however, since from what I hear, it offers additional material cut from the finished film.

A Nightmare On Elm Street isn't a perfect film, and it's probably not the best horror film ever made. However, it offers possibly the most clever and intriguing theme of any movie in its genre, and despite many flaws, it remains an exciting and provocative little picture. New Line have done a pretty nice job with the DVD release of the film; although it lacks many supplements, they were able to make the movie look and sound better than ever. For horror fans, this purchase is a no-brainer; it's a must-have. For anyone else who just wants to see what all the fuss was about, it's also a strong addition to a DVD collection.

Addendum: as noted in the text, A Nightmare On Elm Street can be purchased individually or as part of an eight-DVD box set called The Nightmare Collection. This package includes all seven Nightmare films plus an eighth DVD called "The Nightmare On Elm Street Encyclopedia" that apparently includes extensive supplemental materials. As of September 1999, this box set is the only way to obtain any of the Nightmare films other than the first one. The Nightmare Collection lists for $129.98.

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