By 1984, the slasher genre was in full swing, but it would take more than another routine monster to displace Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees. So writer-director Wes Craven hit upon a clever notion: A dream demon, Freddy Krueger. The idea was that the monster only existed in the minds of his victims, attacking them while they slept! Kind of makes you afraid to go to bed at night, you know? It was a novel idea, anyway, if not so inventive in its execution, much of the film running to standard fright-flick goings-on.
What "A Nightmare on Elm Street" did more than anything else was create a new horror icon. Freddy, in the person of Robert Englund, became so popular with his burned-out face and razor-blade gloves that he returned in a whole string of sequels. None of them matched the original, of course, because, like the "Friday the 13th" series, everything had already been said in the first film; the rest was rehash. But as I said, the "Nightmare" idea itself was pretty sharp. Freddy, we're told by the heroine's mother, was a child murderer who killed about twenty kids before a vigilante mob of neighbors tracked him down and incinerated him. Now, Freddy has figured out a way to return, in the dreams of neighborhood teenagers, and only by their waking up can they escape him.
Nancy Thompson is the name of the young heroine, played by Heather Langenkamp, the teen whose nightmares seem to trigger the deaths around her. The first to go is her friend, Tina (Amanda Wyss), who is slashed to death after making love with her boyfriend, Rod (Nick Corri). Since Rod is in the same room with her when it happens, he is accused of her murder. The fourth teen is Nancy's boyfriend, Glen, played by Johnny Depp in his screen debut. Glen's main duty is to stay awake while Nancy is sleeping and keep guard over her. John Saxon and Ronee Blakley play Nancy's parents.
The scariest parts of the film are the ones that don't involve any blood or slashing at all, like when Nancy grabs Freddy's hat off his head during a dream and wakes up to find it still clutched in her hands! Now, that gave me the shudders. But, unfortunately, most of the film goes for the obvious: Kill the teenagers, and when in doubt, raise the grossness level. At one point an entire room is drenched, literally painted, with a torrent of gushing blood.
Moreover, it's another of those frustrating horror films where nobody believes the character who experiences anything unusual. Everyone thinks Nancy is crazy when she tells them of her dreams, even when she shows them Freddy's hat. Parents in the movie are especially unbelieving, hardheaded, and detestable, an obvious and typical pandering to what most Hollywood filmmakers believe is a normal teenager's mistrust of all adults.
The image is presented in both widescreen (1.85:1) and standard screen (1.33:1), both conveniently located on one side of dual-layered disc. But here's the deal: In spite of the menu graphics, which explicitly show the standard screen as a pan-and-scan trimming of the widescreen, there is no pan-and-scan present. Instead, there is a widescreen matted from what appears to be the original full-screen camera negative. I took the time to compare the opening frame of every chapter stop in both versions, and in every case the standard size provided more top and bottom image than the widescreen, with exactly the same left-to-right reproduction. So, go with the standard screen, unless you're a purist and insist upon the theatrical ratio.
The picture quality in either format is quite good, bright, well-lit, and probably more colorful than real life. It is reasonably well detailed, with a shiny gloss finish and few signs of graininess, flickering lines, dancing pixels, or jagged edges.
The sound options are Dolby Digital 5.1 Stereo Surround or mono. Uh, wait a minute; let me think about that. Yes, I think I'll go with DD 5.1. Like the picture, though, it is somewhat bright. It is also a bit edgy, pinched, and nasal, with an odd metallic ring on some male voices. Still, it produces a good monaural signal in the back speakers that enhances the spatiality of the sonics.
Among the extras are an audio commentary by the director, Wes Craven, two of the actors, Heather Langenkamp and John Saxon, and the Director of Photography. In addition to the regular scene index, there is a unique "Jump to a Nightmare" menu that takes you instantly to any bad dream of your choice. Nothing but English for spoken language and subtitles, though. A trailer rounds out the regular items. Then there are the DVD-ROM elements that I couldn't access. According to the box information, they include a complete screenplay you can read as you watch the film (presumably on one's diminutive computer screen); a "New Dream World Trivia Game" to test your nightmare knowledge; and up-to-the-minute cast, crew, and trivia information, if that's you're idea of a good time. It's fair value for the money.
"Whatever you do, don't fall asleep!" proclaim the ads. After something like my third or fourth time viewing this film, it was an admonition I found hard to observe. The film is fun, but for me it doesn't stand up to multiple viewings.