I sort of feel bad for the horror fans who grew up a little too late to really appreciate the scariness of Freddy Krueger. Oh sure, you could (temporarily) ignore all of the A Nightmare on Elm Street sequels and focus only on Wes Craven's classic original ... but I was actually there. I was privy to the dark cruelty and disturbing malevolence way back in 1984, when there was only one Freddy Krueger movie to talk about -- and boy was it a scary one.
And then the sequels hit. Freddy got jokier, the kills got more elaborate, and the scares got flatter with each successive entry. I'll gladly admit that the series found a little footing with Part 3 (Dream Warriors) and again in Part 7 (New Nightmare), but for the most part I have no interest in the colorfully garish, creatively gruesome, and instantly forgettable Elm St. sequels. As far as I'm concerned, Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the best horror films of the 1980s -- which puts it on a playing field with Friday the 13th, Re-Animator, The Thing, Hellraiser, The Fly, both Evil Deads, and probably a dozen other classics you can think of. Sequestered from its sequels and stripped of Freddy's quip-happy comedy crap -- good gravy is this one scary film.
Back at the very beginning, you see, Wes Craven was intent on creating a horror villain who'd be both iconic and memorable -- but also just plain old scary in a deep, dark, primal way. He's not THE boogeyman, but only one of many that we do emotional battle with in our younger years. He's half a "monster" that would scare a small child, and he's half a grown-up predator who definitely has some real deviance in mind. So he's not only a hellish creature who would stalk and kill you ... he's also something a whole lot creepier than that. Other slashers seems to save the "virginal girl" for last, but only Freddy makes you wonder if there's not something a little more carnal to be dealt with first.
The plot is a simple one: a small group of high-school friends are plagued by nightmares in which one central figure appears. Already it's a nifty concept. How can different people dream about the same stranger? During the day we're dealing with shocked parents and pissed-off policemen, but at night the teens makes their own plans. Like in tons of classic genre films, the adults are lost (or worse, directly responsible) whereas the kids are on the ball. Or at least one of 'em is, and that's good ol' Nancy Thompson, a plain, sweet girl who slowly manages to put the Freddy Krueger mystery together. Her friends are not as lucky.
Arguably the cleverest component of Craven's script is that Freddy can only get you while you're sleeping. This allows for ample exposition and slight doses of relief during the daylight hours, but (as any insomniac can tell you) late at night is when we're the most sensitive, the most vulnerable, and (of course) the sleepiest. And once our poor victims drift off to Snoozeville, that's where Craven dons the director's hat and delivers some truly unsettling scares. (To this day I can still remember the chills I got on the back of my neck when Fredddy stretches his arms out to a disturbingly absurd length. It's the sort of simple, twisted imagery that could exist in any of our own nightmares.)
Cap it all off with some fine performances (Johnny Depp! John Saxon! Robert Englund!), a creepy score, a small sense of humor that never deflates the scary stuff, and (as mentioned) a concept that combines basic horror with some smartly philosophical ideas, and you've got a true "modern" classic of the genre. It's got surface-level shivers, and they're really good ones, but the meat of the movie lies within the sneaky subtextual stuff -- and like most nightmares, those moments can be "translated" a variety of ways. It's really too bad that this mid-'80s demon was turned into such a jokester in the subsequent (and numerous) sequels, but as long as I've got an uncut and good-looking version of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street to call my own, then Freddy Krueger will always have a place in the Horror Villains Hall of Fame. Based on just the original film.
Mr. Krueger makes his HD debut in the form of New Line's brand-new blu-ray release, and the news is great, good, and slightly disappointing. The "great" is the visual presentation, which is easily the best this film has ever looked. Even with its (appropriate) '80s grain and intermittently low-budget look, A Nightmare on Elm Street looks like a million bucks on blu-ray. Krueger especially comes off well in HD, what with his nightmarish contortions, shadowy presence, and enjoyably icky visage. The audio is certainly top-notch as well, and while I'm no expert in the aural realm, I can say that I played the flick LOUD ... and I enjoyed every last note on the score and every creepy drip-drip-drip of Freddy's boiler room nightmares.
The "good" is the large and impressive package of supplemental features. You'll get a pair of audio commentaries that include over 12 participants combined; three outstanding mini-documentaries (Never Sleep Again, The House That Freddy Built, and Night Terrors); deleted scenes and alternate endings; and a few other odds and ends. Tons of well-produced and fascinating material, no doubt, but all of this material was produced for the previous ("Infinifilm") DVD release. And since most ardent horror fans already own that DVD, it's "slightly disappointing" that there's nothing truly "new" on this blu-ray release. There may, in fact, be a few new snippets that can be found on the clunky "click the icon while you watch the movie" feature, but since I have next to no patience with these activities (and since there's no itemized list of the "icon accessed" material), I'll leave those little surprises for you to discover.
So the question is this: do the (unquestionably) improved audio/visual presentation warrant another $20 investment if you already have the film (and all the goodies) on a standard DVD? In most cases I'd say no, but after seeing Freddy's scariest exploits brought home in high-definition beauty, I'd have to go the other way: This is a blu-ray for every horror freak's collection. Remakes, sequels, and pop culture aside, this is a fantastic horror film that still holds up resoundingly well today.