A Nightmare on Elm Street opens appropriately enough with a nightmare.
Tina dreams she is stuck in some wonky, steam-filled boiler room while Freddy Krueger is stalking her. Of course, Tina has no idea who Krueger is, or what he’s doing, just that he’s terrifying and got sharp nasty razors on his fingers. Fun dream!
She screams herself awake and her mother busts through the door, checking dutifully on Tina before admonishing her to cut her nails because she could seriously hurt herself. Tina looks down to four slash marks cut through her nightgown in horror.
Unsettled, Tina puts on her best pink bandanna and heads to school. If you’re going to be terrified of the boogeyman, you’d better do it in style, yo.
Tina meets up with Glen and Nancy, her two friends, and briefly discusses the creepy nightmare and that burned-up dude in the sweater and fedora. They both kind of laugh it off and go into school. Losers.
Later that night, Tina has a little slumber party over at her house where she invites Glen and Nancy and we are introduced to her jerk and a half boyfriend, Rod. You can tell just by his name what a complete tool he is, and he shows up in true jerkface style, scaring the hell out of everyone by scraping a yard implement across a metal shed, reminding Tina of that nightmare.
Rod immediately steals Tina away to go have sex, so there’s your first clue Tina’s doomed. Cliché, but true. Glen puts the moves on Nancy and is totally, harshly denied. Ouch. Poor young, normal looking, pre-Tim-Burton Johnny Depp. Rod and Tina eventually quiet down and go to sleep, but not before Tina has one last spooky nightmare.
Freddy catches Tina and it’s all downhill from there, as Tina gets the business end of Freddy’s Ginsu knife glove, while outside of the dream Rod the Tool looks on in, er, horror as Tina gets carved up in real life.
Here’s where Nightmare sold me when I was a kid – a bloody, slashed up Tina goes sliding up the wall and writhes on the ceiling before being dropped like a rag doll on the bed and falling on to the floor. Even years later it’s still a really nifty special effect that looks just as good as it did eighteen million years ago, unlike some of the special effects in the movie.
Rod freaks out; goody-two-shoes Nancy freaks the hell out when she and Glen burst in the door after Tina screams enough to bring people from China running. The cops show up and Rod the Tool runs away, surprisingly showing evidence of more than three brain cells by putting two and two together that the cops will suspect him of trying to cut Tina into julienne slices.
The focus of the movie shifts to Nancy, who’s got a cop for a father and a raging drunk for a mom. Her parents are seemingly picture-perfect, and Nancy’s dad is not thrilled that she was at a sleepover with boys there (OH MY GOD) and then his concern focuses to “Oh hi, someone got killed here, are you okay, honey?” A little dysfunctional, methinks.
And now, Nancy’s having nightmares…
Nancy makes a little side trip to the jail to discuss the creepy dreams with Rod the Tool, who then tells her how exactly Tina died. This conversation doesn’t make Nancy feel any better, since she keeps having really terrifying dreams – at school, in the bathtub – and barely eludes Freddy each time. Even more upsetting is the fact that she keeps seeing Tina in a bloody bodybag, making strange requests.
After another freaky dream in which Nancy can see Freddy entering Rod’s jail cell, she hauls ass down to the jail and begs her dad to at least check on Rod. He and a deputy do…but shockingly, they’re too late.
Thus, Rod suffers what is arguably the lamest death in the Nightmare franchise and undoubtedly is altogether fitting for his character. Freddy hangs Rod the Tool to death with his own bedsheets.
Rod takes approximately fifteen seconds to die. I’m not sure if Freddy’s just that effective, but I’m more inclined to believe the weight of Rod’s own jerkiness forces him to shuffle off the mortal coil that quickly. Nancy being All That Is Good tries to save him, but fails.
Frustrated and understandably exhausted, Nancy doesn’t understand what’s going on. She tries to tell her parents that the scary burned man is responsible for Tina and Rod’s death, but her mother’s so busy steeping her liver in vodka that it seems like she barely understands basic English, and Nancy’s dad always looks vaguely disconcerted, like that dreaded sleepover with the boys was some sort of horrible gateway for Nancy to visit her friends in jail and go completely whacko.
Nancy’s mother is finally desperate for some help and takes her to a dream clinic. The dream clinic does really nothing substantial to help Nancy, but hey – Nancy gets some free drugs and she pulls something nifty out of her dream.
Her mom clearly recognizes the hat, but turns to Mr. Smirnoff and Mr. Stolichnaya for assistance in her times of trouble. Nancy examines the hat and discovers that the label inside denotes the hat’s owner as one Mr. Fred Krueger. Confronting her mom with the fact that she at least suspects that her mother knows something about Krueger, her mother has that ages-old, treasured talk with her daughter.
This is known as the talk about how your parents barbecued a freed child killer and hid all evidence that he existed. Time to grow up, Nancy!
Basically, Nancy’s mom tells her that yes, Fred Krueger was a real person and he terrorized Elm Street like crazy, abducting and killing children. When he was arrested and then freed on a technicality, the Elm Street parents got their barbecue tongs and their lighter fluid and went lynch mob on Krueger, hunting him down to the boiler room where he liked to take his child abductees and basically had a Fourth of July style celebration, except less patriotic and more vengeance-filled. Either way, there were probably sparklers involved.
Nancy’s mom assures her that Freddy is no threat to her anymore because “Mommy killed him”. Cheery! Nancy clearly can see that her mother’s practically sweating booze at this point and her dad’s no longer home, so clearly it’s time to take matters into her own hands.
But before she can do anything, idiotic Glen, who has not listened to a word anyone says or has not even noticed the stench of denial and vodka tonics coming from Nancy’s household, falls asleep.
And gets sucked into his own bed.
I like to think of the vomiting blood as just a little extra bonus, you know?
So Nancy booby traps her house and plans to fall asleep, yank out Krueger, and let him meet his second death via sledgehammer, exploding lightbulb or any of the 1,001 ways she’s figured out to booby trap the house. She tucks her mom into bed with an enormous bottle of liquor and sets off to go find Freddy.
And find him she does! And she successfully pulls him into the real world, where she sets him on fire (again) and runs to beg her dad to come save her and her mom. Nice.
However, Freddy has other plans.
He attacks Nancy’s mom by falling on her, essentially using himself as the human torch and then disappears, leaving behind a charred skeleton thing that descends into the Great Blue Space that lives in your bed, apparently.
But Freddy’s not done yet, oh no! For the umpteenth time, he comes back – but Nancy tells him, “You suck, Krueger and I’m not afraid of you anymore”. Okay, so I’m paraphrasing but you get the point. He then dissolves into some blue sparkly glitter or something and disappears.
So guess what? What you just watched was totally what happened, right? No! Fake! Psych! IT WAS ALL JUST A DREAM.
Gotcha! Nancy’s friends are still alive, and so is her mom, although her mom vows to give up the drinking.
But lest you think Freddy Krueger is a figment of anyone’s imagination…he locks Nancy in her friend’s car and then sucks her mom through a window.
A Nightmare on Elm Street scared the hell out of a lot of people. It planted a small seed of doubt that the monster in the closet that your parents always told you wasn’t real actually was real, and moreover, that monster was out to get you and everyone you know. It certainly didn’t help that a lot of little thing combined made Fred Krueger an iconic image. The red and green sweater, the hat, the burned skin, and the glove made Fred Krueger memorable, but not as memorable if Robert Englund hadn’t played him. Krueger’s given here a smidgen of a sick sense of humor, which is expounded upon (sometimes to death, if you’ll pardon that) later on in the series. Krueger is at once accessible but terrifying.
One of the other things that I always found fascinating about Krueger is that he’s actually very firmly rooted in reality; before his death, he’s a twisted child killer who masquerades in public as a normal everyday citizen but turns out to be purely psychotic. Not just that, but the Elm Street parents, who seem saccharine and typically suburban, turn out to be a bunch of vigilantes who had no problems setting a man (albeit a very sadistic murderer) on fire, hiding his remains, moving one of the local cops and his family into Krueger’s old house and then covering up the fact that he ever existed. That’s pretty messed up, man. It’s not the first time Craven actually pointed out the flip sides of this – Last House on the Left does something similar with some parents, if I recall correctly.
It’s actually a very simple movie that comes down to good versus evil, but gives you an unsettling feeling long after you leave it. Krueger became so popular through the franchise that it spawned merchandise out the wazoo – toys, games, hotline numbers, TV shows and TV specials. I remember a time when the Freddy Krueger costume was all the rage to have for Halloween, which schools promptly banned.
The lasting power of all this is basically that Freddy Krueger is part of the larger appeal of horror movies – fear is a very powerful thing, and scary movies let you burn off some of that visceral, deep-seated emotions contained with everyday horrors. Krueger, in a lot of ways, is a personification of greater fears that I think appeals to people because it takes scary concepts and makes them a little more palatable and a little fun. It creates a method in an odd way of visualizing a scary concept and then in an odd way, dealing with it through focusing on that visual.
It’s something that I think is one part of what has made Krueger so infinitely terrifying to people, even after he should have long passed his expiration date. Freddy vs. Jason, which I’m not including in the Nightmare series, is proof of this, I think – people are still willing to spend cold, hard cash to watch Freddy terrorize other people on screen.