Intro to Film
December 17, 1999
A Nightmare on Elm Street
At a time when the stalker movie had been exploited to all ends and the image of mute, staggering, vicious killers had been etched into societys consciousness to the point of exhaustion, a new kid entered the block. The year was 1984 and it was time for a new villain to enter into the horror genre. A villain that was agile, intelligent, almost inviolable yet viscous, and by all means deadly. A Nightmare on Elm Street introduced the distinctive presence of Fred Krueger to the horror industry and to the audience. Freddy Krueger took the center stage and with him a new era of horror films began. This horribly scarred man who wore a ragged slouch hat, dirty red-and-green striped sweater, and a glove outfitted with knives at the fingers reinvented the stalker genre like no other film had. Fred Krueger breathed new life into the dying horror genre of the early 1980s.
Horror films are designed to frighten the audience and engage them in their worst fears, while captivating and entertaining at the same time. Horror films often center on the darker side of life, on what is forbidden and strange. These films play with societys fears, its nightmares and vulnerability, the terror of the unknown, the fear of death, the loss of identity, and the fear of sexuality. Horror films are generally set in spooky old mansions, fog-ridden areas, or dark locales with unknown human, supernatural or grotesque creatures lurking about. These creatures can range from vampires, madmen, devils, unfriendly ghosts, monsters, mad scientists, demons, zombies, evil spirits, satanic villains, the possessed, werewolves and freaks to the unseen and even the mere presence of evil.
Within the genre of horror films falls the sub-genre of teen slasher/stalker films. These teen slasher/stalker films take the horror genre film characteristics into account, however they add more to the formula. More violence, sadism, brutality, and graphic blood and gore are used to increase the terror factor. Sexuality and gratuitous nudity are also key characteristic of many of these films. Imitations and numerous sequels are also a common characteristic of teen slasher/stalker films as well.
A Nightmare on Elm Street and all of the following six sequels fall into its own sub-genre of the teen slasher/stalker sub-genre as well, know as the Nightmare on Elm Street Series. This series of films adds a new dimension to the typical teen slasher/stalker film, depth of character and story. The characters are not there only to be killed, but rather they have distinct personalities, they are independent and intelligent, particularly the female lead characters. The killer, Fred Krueger, as well is not only there to murder his victims. He displays a great amount of wit, sarcasm and intelligence. The audience comes away with a knowledge of each of the characters individual personalities. The storyline takes on a greater depth as well. The story goes beyond the simple gore and focuses more on the psychological terror that lies within and scares society the most. The line between nightmare and reality becomes blurred and the terror is allowed to build up, which results in a tremendous amount of suspense.
Horror films developed over a century ago and have come from a number of different sources: folktales, witchcraft, fables, myths, and ghost stories. The first horror movie was made by Georges Melies, titled The Devils Castle (1896). Another of the early influential films was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). The shadowy, dream-nightmarish quality of this film was brought to Hollywood in the 1920s and continued on into the horror films of the 1930s. Horror entered into the Dracula and Frankenstein era during the early 1930s. The studios took stories of European vampires and mad scientists and created some of the most iconic beings ever known on the screen. Dracula films and sequels were less successful than many of the Frankenstein sequels. Many of the films in the horror genre from the mid 1930s to the 1950s were B-grade films, inferior sequels, or low budget gimmick films. During the 1950s most of the films were cheaply made, drive-in teenage oriented films. To counter the popularity of television, experiments with 3-Dimensional films were made. These low budget films helped to keep the horror genre alive when the larger Hollywood studios turned away. Horror films branched out in all different directions in the 1960s and afterward. Film censorship was on the decline and directors began to frankly portray horror in ordinary circumstances and seemingly innocent settings. Alfred Hitchcock brought out his most horrific film, Psycho, at the start of the decade, which changed the face of horror films. In 1968, the MPAA created a new ratings system with G, M, R, X ratings in part to the violent themes of horror films. In the 1970s the horror genre was subjected to far more violence as well as blood and gore. Slasher films, in which the victims were stalked and killed by mortal or immortal psychopaths, also became popular during this decade, with films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Halloween (1978). This trend carried through to the 1980s as well with films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th , with the sequels to these films carrying them throughout the rest of the decade and into the 1990s. During the 1990s Wes Craven, the writer and director of the original Nightmare on Elm Street, has been credited with bringing the horror genre back to life with films like Scream.The characters in these films are now aware of the history of the slasher horror film and know all the rules. They survive the movie based on their ability to outguess the twists of the formulas in which they are trapped (Mast, Kawin, 553).
The horror genre, as well as slasher/stalker genre, and The Nightmareon Elm Street genre have been influenced by Expressionism, rendering inner states as aspects of the outer world. Masks, madness, and shadows come together in the Expressionist horror film, where the threatening figure is often uncontrollably destructive, sexually aggressive, masked or in heavy makeup, and acting out some culturally repressed impulse (Kawin, 94).
A Nightmare on Elm Street was written and directed by Wes Craven. The movie was released in 1984 and challenged the typical slasher genre film of the time in many aspects. The movie begins with the haunting childrens song, One, two Freddys coming for you /Three, four, better lock your door / Five, six grab your crucifix / Seven,eight gonna stay up late / Nine, ten never sleep again. A teenage girl wanders around a dark boiler room in only her nightgown, as a screeching is heard as knives are scratched against the pipes. A badly burned man wearing a dirty hat and striped sweater with knives for finger grabs her from behind and she then wakes up screaming in her bed, it was only a dream. Not long after this, the same girl is in another dream where she is being chased by the same man, he catches her in the dream and in reality she is thrown around the room in a state of unconsciousness and stabbed repeatedly by an attacker that can only be seen in her dream.
The film is already different from the typical slasher/stalker film in that the terror is taking place in both the dream state, as well as in reality. The basic plot resembles other slasher films in that a scary, strange entity is stalking teens in order to kill them. The setting is dark and spooky with a foggy appearance. As in many horror films a character who is thought to be one of the main characters is killed off early on and that is where the similarities end. The plot of this film gives a reason as to why Fred Krueger is after these teenagers. The parents of these teens who live on Elm Street had gotten together, captured him and burned him alive because he had gotten out of jail, charged with murdering children, on a technicality. Now as his revenge he must kill the children of all the parents that were involved in his murder, by stalking them in their dreams. By making Freddy Krueger the result of a dark secret in the neighborhood, the motivation is much deeper than the average slasher film. Although Freddy is a horrible villain, his crimes existed in the past. The teenagers parents are now responsible for the reawakening of the terror because they committed an act just as horrible and as a result, their children must now pay for their sins.
The nightmare world is connected to reality, which effects the visual style of the film. This allows for anything to happen, there are no limitations. While other villains are restricted to real world laws of physics, Freddy Krueger can do anything when looking for people in their dreams. There are no physical limitations to what he can do. This also allows the filmmakers to do things in terms of effects that had not been done before, such as when Freddy pushes through the wall and knocks the crucifix over Tinas bed onto the floor. Weaving the reality sequences with the dream sequences so that the audience did not know which was which also had an impact on the visual style of the film. Some of the dreams appeared so realistic that when it was cut to reality or switched back into a nightmare it added even more surprise to the where the story was.
The characters in this film are also very different from the typical characters in a slasher horror film. These characters have personalities and are intelligent. Nancy ,the female lead character, is a particularly strong character in the film. She is not about to let herself be killed by Freddy. She fights back by trying to stay awake drinking coffee and taking caffeine pills. She also discovers ways to go into the dream state and learn about it without being killed. She even manages to find a possible way to bring Freddy into reality from a dream and sets him up to be killed. Nancy redefines the role of a victim in this genre of film. She does not just run from the attacker to get away, nor does she try and hide from him. Rather she goes right into the killers world announces that shes there by screaming out Krueger, Im here, captures him herself by going after him, fights back and destroys Krueger for the time being by not fearing him and standing up to him.
Freddy Krueger also redefines the typical role of a killer in this film. The typical stalker was one that never spoke, was unimaginative, and vicious, that captured their victim by chasing them down to a dead end. While Krueger is scary and dangerous, it is his wit and intelligence that really come through. He has a brain and knows how to use it, he uses all the tricks of the trade to lure his victims to him and is very cunning while he does it. He uses sarcasm and plays with the minds of the victims, for example when Krueger transforms himself into a high school girl hall monitor and asks Nancy where her hall pass is. This is not the typical image one would have of a killer but this lets the audience know that he is lurking about just waiting to make his move.
The film also deals with certain thematic concerns, such as the role of parents and the police in society. The parents in this movie are not interested in what their children are telling them. Nancys mother, who is an alcoholic, wont believe her when Nancy tells her about Freddy. Nancys father, a police officer, doesnt show up to help Nancy when she brings Freddy out of her dream into reality, even though he said he would be there. Nancy believes that something might happen to Rod while he is in jail and she asks the police to check on him. The police dont check up on Rod and he is murdered in his cell by Krueger. The parents feel that there is no problem because they think that they solved the problem by killing Krueger themselves. The parents wont listen to their kids, which is a common theme in many movies.
A Nightmare on Elm Street adds to the horror genre, by bringing into light the psychological aspect of horror, which can be much scarier than blood and gore. It brought a new perspective to the typical horror movie and allowed for serious character development. Therefore, it became possible to battle the killer, it became an issue of the mind, not over who was bigger or stronger. The movie gave motives for the plot and made it interesting and intelligent It also made a connection between what society fears and the reality of those fears.
In an time when the horror film had become little more than a mindless game of cat and mouse, with excessive amounts of blood and gore, Wes Craven brought hope to the genre. A Nightmare on Elm Street intelligently probed into the audiences fear of nightmares and combines that with the fear of being trapped within a nightmare in order to create a very intelligent thought-provoking movie that helped to redefine the horror genre.
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Kawin, Bruce. How Movies Work, University of California Press, 1992.
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