A friend and I recently watched the documentary Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (2006), which was a bit of a disappointment in that it did not take an analytical enough perspective, but it predictably made us want to go back and watch some of the original films it featured.
A Nightmare on Elm Street was one of the most talked about films when I was a kid, though I don’t think I saw the full film until I was in junior high school, and my reaction at the time was just “oh, so this is what everyone is talking about it.” I was probably scared in some of the boo! moments, but didn’t think it was especially scary. Seeing it again after so many years was a disappointment because as a work of cinema, I don’t think it really measure up to the iconic status it continues to hold after more than a quarter of a century.
There are certainly some interesting ideas that went into the film. Wes Craven was inspired by a series of articles in the L.A. Times about Hmong refugees in America who had witnessed the horrors of the Pol Pot regime first hand, and were suffering from terrible nightmares based on their experiences, driving them to go without sleep for long periods of time. Several of these men died suddenly in their sleep. One of the youngest victims of what dubbed Asian Death Syndrome was a teenager whose father was a doctor who had given the boy sleeping pills. After he died, the unused pills were found under his pillow and a pot of black coffee was found hidden in his closet, giving Craven an image that would be starting point for his film. By taking inspiration from this real-life case, he was able to tap into a basic human fear—our powerlessness over the need to sleep, where we lose control to our dreams.
The setting of film is also inspired. The generically named street could be in virtually any small American town. But it is also small town America in decline, with divorced parents and alcoholic mothers lurking behind the white picket fences. As Robert Englund, who plays Freddy Kreuger, has said in interview, “Freddy attacks white-bread America.” The teenagers have also inherited the problems left by their parents, as they are stalked in their sleep by the child killer whom their vigil ante parents burned to death.
I know there are fanboys out there who would be more than happy to argue this point until their dying breath, but I think the problem with Elm Street lay with Craven’s direction. He has often said in interviews that he did not set out to become a horror director and did not initially feel any connection to the genre, and I for one think that it shows. The idea of an undead killer entering the dreams of teenagers is intriguing, but the concept would best lend itself to psychological horror, rather than a slasher flick. There is also the point that it would have made more sense for Freddy to have appeared differently to each individual dreamer. Craven could have gained a lot by borrowing from the Val Lewton school of “the less you see the scarier it is.” Just a few silhouettes and sounds of footsteps, properly handled, would have made for a much more terrifying than the slightly campy villain who giggles manically while entreating a teenage girl to watch as he cuts off his own fingers.