With the Platinum Dunes reboot, as of this writing, just around the corner, Nightmare on Elm Street mania is in full effect. While it’s quite possibly my least favorite horror franchise this side of the Child’s Play films, Wes Craven’s original film still stands as one of the genre greats despite its reputation being otherwise sullied by a string of incompetent, incongruous sequels in which sleepstalking boogeyman, Freddy Krueger, is gradually reduced to a pun-spouting caricature of the vicious killer introduced in the first film. With mind-bending visuals and a truly unique and inspired concept, Craven’s biggest pre-Scream hit turned the genre on its ear, and, now, more than twenty-five years later, the film still stands up to even the unforgiving scrutiny of high definition.
A Nightmare on Elm Street opens with Tina (Amanda Wyss), wandering through a boiler room whilst being pursued by a fedora-wearing, shadowy stranger (Robert Englund). After much taunting, the figure reveals himself to be a horribly scarred, finger-knife wielding maniac, and, as he slashes at her with his bladed glove, Tina awakens in a cold sweat, her nightgown in tatters.
The next morning at school, a shaken Tina shares her dream with her friend Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), who has had a similar nightmare. Nancy assures Tina that it’s just a coincidence, while Nancy’s boyfriend, Glen (Johnny Depp), tells them they’re both crazy, despite the fact that it’s obvious that he’s had a similar dream.
Later that night, the trio reconvene at Tina’s house (her mother is out of town) when their sleepover is crashed by Tina’s gorilla of a boyfriend, Rod (Jsu Garcia). Rod carries Tina off into her mother’s bedroom, forcing Nancy and Glenn to listen to their loud lovemaking from the living room. After Rod falls asleep, Tina is stirred by someone throwing pebbles at her window, and goes outside to investigate. It’s here that she once again encounters the man from her nightmares. Rod wakes up to see Tina being flung across the room by an unseen force, and watches in horror as she’s eviscerated by invisible claws before falling to the bed in a bloody heap. Nancy and Glen rush into the room to find Rod has fled the bloody scene, making him the chief suspect Nancy’s police chief father’s (John Saxon) investigation. Nancy, however, believes otherwise, especially after she’s attacked in her dream by the same man Tina described. Of course, no one believes Nancy, so she does some digging of her own, and reveals a sordid secret from Elm Street’s past; one that’s returned with a vengeance.
I remember seeing A Nightmare on Elm Street in a packed theater on a sweltering Saturday afternoon, and emerging from the theater literally shaking. The very idea of a killer whose hunting grounds were his victim’s own dreams completely terrified me, and I spent the better part of a week sleeping with one eye open and praying for dawn. I haven’t revisited the film since its DVD release several years back, but, now, with New Line’s Blu-ray release, I find myself marveling at just how dark this film really is. When people mention Freddy Krueger, I’m immediately reminded of the ubiquitous, comedy/horror pop-culture icon he became rather than the ferocious, perverse, and genuinely repulsive creation he once was. Watching Nightmare again in anticipation of Platinum Dunes reimagining of the property, I was reminded just why it was Freddy Krueger terrified me so as a thirteen year old, and the genius of Craven’s film was readily apparent. While a few of the special effects sequences are dated, what was done in the practical realm still looks fantastic (I found myself smiling from ear to ear during the sequence in which Freddy pushes through the “liquid wall” above Nancy’s bed- so simple yet so amazingly effective). Nightmare is full of moments like this; little tricks we take for granted in the era of CGI, but, back in 1984, were positively ground-breaking. And then there’s Freddy, himself; his pus-slick, scorched visage, simian-style gait, and growling voice. He’s positively terrifying, here; the antithesis of the slapstick, joke-a-minute megastar he would become, and I can’t help but wonder what his legacy would be were the property handled differently. Of course, I’m probably in the minority, as the Nightmare franchise was wildly successful because Freddy (and, by proxy, Robert Englund) was who he was, and fans of the series wouldn’t have it any other way. As for me? Meh…
New Line presents A Nightmare on Elm Street on Blu-ray in impressive fashion. The 1.78:1 transfer is surprisingly clean and sharp, with just enough grain to maintain the film’s grungy, lo-fi visual aesthete – something I feel is crucial to its overall effect. Facial features and textures are brimming with fine detail, while colors are rich and vibrant. Black levels are spot-on, although in the darker sequences the image does get a touch noisy. Overall, this is a substantial improvement over the DVD version of the film, and, with the inclusion of a wonderfully expressive and robust 7.1 DTS HD Master Audio track, the film has never looked or sounded better.
New Line loads up the release with fantastic extras, including a pair of audio commentary tracks, the first of which is a Craven-led track featuring the director, actors Heather Langenkamp and John Saxon, and cinematographer, Jacques Haitkin. The second commentary features Robert Englund, Langemkamp, Amanda Wyss, as well as a virtual who’s-who of Nightmare cast, crew, and contributors. It’s a busy track, but very informative and well worth a listen.
Featurettes include the excellent retrospective, Never Sleep Again (HD), a lengthy piece that documents the making of the film from inception to critical and commercial reception; The House that Freddy Built (HD), which offers a look at New Line Cinema and how its tent pole franchise turned the little independent studio into a major Hollywood player, and Night Terrors (HD), a short feature focusing on the science of dreams. Focus Points is pop-up feature that allows viewers to access relevant bits from the supplemental features while watching the film. Rounding out the extras are the film’s three alternate endings (HD).
While the 2010 iteration of Nightmare on Elm Street claims to be taking a serious approach to the material, revisiting Craven’s original masterpiece on Blu-ray will remind viewers whose memories are fogged by the lackluster sequels that the first Nightmare was as serious as a heart attack, and one of the most inventive and terrifying horror films of all time. The Blu-ray from New Line does the film justice, with a great transfer, immersive sound, and a fantastic assortment of extras that make this an essential purchase for horror fans. Highest possible recommendation.