Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) presents a unique take on the slasher/stalker subgenre as it questions reality with the implementation of veracious nightmares throughout the narrative. Additionally, a door is opened with the underscored killer, Freddy Kruger (Robert Englund), as his supernatural origin opposes anteceding existential killers of the subgenre. Analogous to previous slasher films such as Halloween (1978), Craven’s film proves worthy of its similar subsequent laudable franchise. However, during the time of A Nightmare on Elm Street’s release, the slasher film model had been stretched thin with repetitive exploitation of the framework. From less recognized films such as Prom Night (1979) to highly praised films like Friday the 13th, the narrative of the film model was becoming more quotidian with each new release. It was up to Craven to resurrect and restore the viewer’s faith in the sadistic subgenre. Through Freddy Kruger’s introduction to the established slasher film structure, Craven provides his viewers with the antidote to their boredom. While Craven intermittently relies on special effects to construct his killer’s full transcendent potential, Jacques Haitkin, the cinematographer, artfully complements these effects by contextualizing colors and sound; pressing the significance of key scenes on the viewer. As a result, the terrifying film grossed $25 million in the United States box office while leaving the horror fan-base with a venerable killer who would be a mascot of the genre for years to come.
In retrospect, the film’s structure follows traditional stalker conventions by adhering to film theorist Vera Dika’s highlighted binaries in her essay “The Stalker Film,” in order to create a complex narrative questioning dreams versus reality. However, Kruger’s character builds upon previous killers with a unique approach, creating an equivocal reality by manipulating his victim’s subconscious. While past killers such as Halloween’s (1978) Michael Myers have shown stalker-like characteristics through their gradual approach toward prospective victims, Craven augments this approach with the addition of Freddy’s unparalleled occult characteristics. Within an early scene, the viewer is placed in Tina’s (Amanda Wyss) second nightmare where Freddy Kruger is introduced to cinematic horror to a greater extent. Freddy’s inauguration is a thrilling reward for horror fans as he slowly cackles his way out of the shadows while extending his wingspan nearly fifteen feet implicitly declaring, “Welcome to my nightmare!” Freddy continues to savor Tina’s terror as he slices two of his own fingers off in front of her, establishing his invulnerability. The early presentation of the killer allows Craven to inform the audience that Freddy is not your traditional stalker: instead, he is endowed with various abilities that are used to strike fear into both the viewer and Tina as she desperately tries to escape what her subconscious has seemingly created.
The film’s cinematographer, Jacques Haitkin, does a brilliant job of adding to the dreams-versus-reality quandary by embellishing his scenes with strategically placed colors. Beyond the horrifying elements of gore within Tina’s second nightmare, Haitkin employs multiple shades of blue within the mise-en-scene to emphasize the dreaming state that she is in. Moreover, he employs similar blue patterns later in the film while Nancy is drifting into sleep at the Katja Institute for the Study of Sleep Disorders. As the observing doctor articulates Nancy’s progression through the sleep cycle, the scenes transition from a light blue to a slightly darker hue with each stage. This development is particularly intelligent as light blue generally denotes a state of relaxation while dark blue and black may be used to represent a cold, harsh atmosphere. Once the doctor informs the characters that Nancy should be dreaming, such dark blues and blacks flush the scene, presaging the imminent nightmare. Conversely, as Nancy is woken, Haitkin institutes an array of vibrant colors and high-key lighting to hyperbolize the sudden return to reality; evoking a transitory sense of relief in the viewer.
As the film progresses, the distinguishability between a nightmare and actuality become more muddled. Craven creates this state of perplexity by implementing scenes that refrain from showing Nancy fall asleep. Following a sleepless night, Nancy finds herself struggling to stay awake while in class. Without any direct indication that Nancy has fallen asleep, the camera shows her appearing to lazily look over to a medium close-up of Tina’s recently deceased bloody corpse inside of a clear plastic body-bag whispering her name. Though it soon becomes apparent that Nancy has slipped into a dream state in class, the viewer is never made aware of the transition until she abruptly wakes up shrieking in her teacher’s arms. Following this scene, Craven continues to blend dreams and reality without immediate signification as he builds toward the zenith of the film.
Between Haitkin’s use of colors to identify states of consciousness and Craven’s guileful oscillation between dreams and reality, the film’s cinematographic infrastructure produces a terrifying but confounding end. As Nancy seemingly wakes from her nightmare, she expects Freddy to be with her after her attempts to pull him out of her nightmare. While she sits up from her bed, the mise-en-scene is decorated with shades of light and dark blue hinting that she may have awoke from a dream within a dream. In contrast, after Freddy pops up with a startling jump-scare, Nancy is curiously able to harm him when she shatters a vase over his head. The competing elements in this scene are initially bewildering but are settled once Nancy realizes she is simply in another dream. However, the persevering paradox continues into the final scene. With Freddy surely destroyed, Nancy and her mother venture outside into an apparently beautiful day; fooling the viewer into breathing a sigh of relief. To the viewer’s demise, Craven disquietingly ends his film shortly after Nancy gets in Glen’s (Johnny Depp) convertible with her previously lost friends. Just as stability was thought to have returned, the car’s top, covered in Freddy’s patented red and green stripes, seals Nancy and her friends in as she desperately shrieks for help. The unsettling interchange between dreams and reality tenaciously taunts the viewers until the final fade to black; creating an opening for what later becomes a historical franchise within the horror genre.
Though A Nightmare on Elm Street solely appears to be a film of superficial horror and entertainment, it is not without an allegorical narrative bolstered by Freddy’s supernaturality. While many horror films have been known to call attention to socio-political issues, Craven appears to construct a more personal message through the film’s scattered biblical references, the most prominent of which is Freddy’s self-declaration to Tina exclaiming, “This! Is God.” Additionally, Craven implements more subtle spiritual citations with the sacred lamb running through the opening scene and the crucifix that falls from Nancy’s wall. It is no secret that Craven was raised in a strictly Baptist home, but few realize his latter internal struggle with his Christian beliefs. The concept of Freddy’s existence in the film may be closely related to Craven’s intrinsic conflict through a humanistic principle displayed by religion; being the more belief in something, the greater level of societal influence it displays. For such pervasive values to survive the test of time, they require humans to believe just as the film’s young community believed in Freddy; eventually bringing him to full capacity by the film’s end.
While Freddy may not serve as a biblical or satanic figure himself, he does represent the radicalism beliefs may foment. In both history and contemporary society, it is not uncommon to identify instances where a group’s extremists have negatively impacted a civilization. By addressing such occurrences, Craven does not seem to intentionally abhor religion, but conveys his ambivalence to the concept. Following the opening scene, Craven ignites the four underscored high schooler’s belief in Freddy as they trade similar accounts of their haunted dreams from the previous night. As Tina becomes more fearful of Freddy, her subconscious construction of him grows as well, allowing him to ravage her dreams and ultimately kill her. This model of belief, resulting in a character’s death, appears to follow suit as Nancy’s friends begin to fall victim to Freddy’s wrath. Though this occurs on a small-scale in the film, similar scenarios of greater proportions can be recalled throughout human history. The power of belief can often be overwhelming: and perhaps, the existence of Freddy represents the dangers that beliefs, religious or political, may impose on both past and present societies.
Wes Craven and Jaques Haitkin’s collaboration to produce a pioneering film with supernatural effects, but wily cinematographic elements to uphold the verisimilitude of the film is unprecedented within the slasher film subgenre. The resulting production produces a refreshing film not only for the subgenre’s fanbase, but for the horror genre collectively. Moreover, Craven’s subtle inclusion of human’s confliction of belief adds to the allegorical substance of the film, avoiding the trite narrative engineered for superficial horror the subgenre was generating at the time. While the deceitful ending echoes that of Friday the 13th’s ending, Craven leaves absolutely no room for catharsis as Nancy’s mother, Marge (Ronee Blakley), is ripped through the window of her front door just before the screen fades to black. The iconographic ending serves as a reminder of the film’s inescapable conundrum of dreams versus reality leaving the viewer to question much more than the location of the surviving killer as done in previous slasher films. As a result, Wes Craven’s translation of the slasher film model through A Nightmare on Elm Street is a must see for anyone interested in a complex narrative awaiting interpretation.
Dika, V. (1990). Games of terror: Halloween, Friday the 13th, and the films of the stalker cycle. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
Turner, L. (2015, August 31). Wes Craven: Where horror met religion. Retrieved May 8, 2019.
Worland, R. (2007). The horror film: An introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
— Levi R. Schmillen, Film Blogger