***************************** Warning****************************** This review contains spoiler material, since I couldn't say what I wanted to without it. I don't think it will much affect anyone's viewing pleasure, but purists might want to skip the following review.
Horror films, like other genre art, must follow certain rules. There is some flexibility in the rules, and they may even be broken, but breaking one of them is an extraordinary event which in some sense comments on the genre rather than just adding a bit of spice. One of the most hallowed rules of the monster pictures is that any monster has a weakness, and, by exploiting that weakness, the heros can triumph. It's OK to tell a story in which the heros are destroyed because they falter or deviate from the required procedure, but if they perform the correct ritual, they succeed. The rule is followed in Dracula movies, in the monster films of the 50's, in The Exorcist and The Omen, in fact in almost all horror films up to the late seventies. A large part of the effectiveness of Halloween was based on seemingly breaking this rule, but in reality it was only bent: the monster couldn't be killed as a normal man was, but no one ever said that he was a normal man. They presumed he was, but monsters are allowed to be deceptive. Halloween's indestructible boogey man falls into the same category as Jewish vampires repulsed by the Star of David rather than a cross. Deception about the nature of the monster is a fair twist.
Lying about it isn't, and that's what Wes Craven does in Nightmare on Elm Street. Craven's major failing in this film is his failure to play by the rules he himself sets up. Craven gives us a hint about how to stop his monster, reinforces the hint later, has the heroine use it, apparently successfully, then arbitrarily and without explanation has the monster come back again. This device is very common in recent horror movies, particularly mad slasher films, where it is practically de rigueur. For obvious reasons, I call it the Carrie Syndrome, and I'll state right out that I've had about enough of it. The Terminator squeezed just about the last drop of creative juice from this concept, and it is now fit only for parody.
Ending aside, and disregarding a few minor infractions of his self-imposed rules, A Nightmare On Elm Street is a good horror film. A child murderer who was incinerated by maddened parents comes back from the dead in the nightmares of their adolescent children. So effective is his return that he can brutally kill the children in their sleep. As long as they remain awake, they're safe, but even a momentary nap propels them into his realm.
Parents always fail to put two and two together in this sort of film, and this time the mathematical illiteracy chores fall mainly to John Saxon and Ronee Blakely, as the parents of a particularly bright and resourceful girl. Saxon and Blakely portray their stupidity fairly well, but this isn't their picture. It belongs to Heather Langenkamp as the teenaged heroine. Her accomplished performance is integral to the film's relative success.
After two of Langerkamp's friends are killed by the maniac, she tries to stave off disaster first by staying awake, then by dragging the creature out of her nightmares and into the real world. Her parents ignore the most obvious signs, such as when she brings back from her dreams, under the observation of scientists, a hat with the murderer's name inscribed. Blakely, conveniently seeking the solace of liquor, makes things worse by installing an elaborate security system on the house, effectively locking the girl in and her police chief father, Saxon, out. Craven thus sets up what should have been the final confrontation between the heroine and the monster.
The most noticeable thing about A Nightmare On Elm Street are the gory special effects. In terms of dismemberments, Craven is a little bit tamer than one might expect, but he makes up for it with flashy, bizarre murder methods. These involve a lot of blood. Craven also has the monster, who sports a glove with long razor blades attached to the fingers, slash himself up once in a while for shock effect. Not a film for the weak of stomach, but they wouldn't even consider going to it, anyway. Technically, the effects are very good. Good photography also helps.
Believe it or not, Wes Craven used to be an English professor, which shows up in some surprisingly good dialog. Craven even manages some biblical allusions, specifically to Jesus' admonitions to Peter, John, and James in the Garden of Gethsemane. His direction is sure handed, as it should be. Craven has had ample chances to make his mistakes in the horror genre (in particular The Last House on the Left, which I still view as the kind of mistake that should end a career), so he should get most things right by now. Craven has a lot of fun with mixing up dreams and reality, perhaps too much, and with surprise appearances of the monster. These latter make much more sense in the context of a nightmare than they do in the average horror film. Particularly good is a sequence in which the heroine dozes off in the middle of a bubble bath . . .
A Nightmare On Elm Street is head and shoulders above trash like Maniac and Friday the Thirteenth - The Final Chapter Until We Think We Can Milk Some More Money Out of You Suckers. It's almost good enough to recommend to those who do not normally patronize horror films. I would have been quite satisfied with it, on its own terms, if Craven had just been willing to forego his final, meaningless twist.
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