Wes Craven was known for making a very particular kind of film before the release of his groundbreaking classic A Nightmare on Elm Street. The Last House on the Left was a shocking debut, announcing a harrowing new filmmaker in a way that could not be ignored. The Hills Have Eyes was no easier to stomach, pushing both the content of Last House and its resonant themes even further. For their differences of story and setting, the two are incredibly similar movies. Both are savage, brutally realistic tales of families being victimized and seeking just as vicious—if not more so—justice on their attackers. They were tales of extreme horror, for sure, but movies that firmly had their feet planted in the realm of realism. If anything, they wallowed in it.
Craven’s attempt to branch out into the realm of fantasy with the DC Comics adaptation Swamp Thing was unsuccessful to an almost career destroying degree. And that made it harder to produce the original script that he ideally wanted to get made right after. The early 1980s were not a shining highlight in the director’s career, with much of it relegated to TV work with only a few impressive examples of his craft—like Deadly Blessing—shining through. All while doing this work to stay afloat in the entertainment industry, he took this script to every studio in Hollywood, and each and every one of them told him “no.”
None of them were sold on the concept alone. The idea of a monster that could kill people in their dreams didn’t scare any of the executives he pitched it to. In fact, it didn’t even win over his friends. Sean Cunningham, who had already directed the massively successful Friday the 13th and produced Craven’s Last House on the Left, had read the script and told Craven that he didn’t buy the idea because he believed that audience would understand the difference between dreams and reality and there would therefore be nothing to be afraid of. Craven was so sure that this idea could be a hit, but nobody else was, at least until he took it to Bob Shaye and New Line Cinema.
That film, of course, was A Nightmare on Elm Street.
And hindsight is clearly 20/20. Not only was the feature a total success, but it spawned one of the most lucrative and iconic franchises in horror history and introduced audiences to a seminal modern boogeyman named Freddy Krueger. Even still, what might be most impressive is Craven’s complete confidence that the idea could work. Dreams were not new to horror at the time, nor the idea of entering them—Dreamscape, in fact, came out the very same year—but the idea that not just a killer, but an irredeemable monster of a man, could enter someone’s most vulnerable space, become an intruder in their sleeping mind and use their adolescent fears and anxieties against them, he knew what made that terrifying and exactly how to execute it.
Even Fangoria was not initially sold on the idea of Elm Street. In an early set visit, the writer fears Craven might be abandoning horror for fantasy. But where most filmmakers would say that they never imagined their little indie moving becoming such a hit, Craven does not hesitate in that interview to suggest he’s working on his masterpiece.
It is. And he knew it. A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the best horror films of its decade. It is both so visceral and so smart and it works on so many different levels. It never feels heady, even though it’s full of huge ideas. In many ways, A Nightmare on Elm Street is something of a mainstream art film. The concept and visuals are occasionally deeply surreal, but it’s grounded by its characters and the surprisingly straightforward nature of the plot. Elm Street centers on a teenage cast of characters, but they’re far from generic slasher victims. Each of them is believable, vulnerable, and afraid in their own ways, and that’s what makes it so easy for us as an audience to fear for them.
Craven always had a gift for working with teenage characters, both as a writer and director. He would obviously go on to prove this again with Scream, but it is incredibly evident in A Nightmare on Elm Street. In fact, from the fully-developed characters to the very nature of the plot, Elm Street might very well be among the most teenager friendly movies ever made. After all, every teenager feels like their parents can’t be trusted, that there’s hypocrisy hiding behind the “I know better than you” attitude that most parents adopt. And in A Nightmare on Elm Street, they’re completely right. The parents of Elm Street are responsible for everything that is happening, they’re withholding knowledge that their children could use to survive, inadvertently causing the deaths of their own sons and daughters in their unwavering belief in protection without communication.
This is partially what makes Nancy such a strong and dynamic heroine. She has no real mentor figure, she receives no help from her parents until it’s pretty much too late. Most final girls in horror, especially at the point when Elm Street was released, have no idea of what’s going on around them until the final twenty minutes of the film. With Nancy, it’s the complete opposite. She’s intimately aware of what’s happening, and the more sure of it she becomes, the more she tries to warn everyone around her, to no avail. She can basically see the deaths of her friends and family coming, but she’s powerless to stop it. The strength of her character is perfectly embodied in the third act, when Nancy knowingly enters the dream realm after booby trapping her entire house in preparation for Freddy, walking into the classic final showdown with the monster, but knowingly exactly what she is in for and going in anyway.
This is a refreshing update of the slasher formula, but that’s really something that the film as a whole excels at as well. By 1984, the slasher cycle had pretty much run its course. Since Friday the 13th in 1980, there had been dozens of films following the same basic premise. There were new slashers opening almost every weekend. For a while they were incredibly successful, but mostly due to their relative sameness, that success burned out almost completely. Studios had even seemed to recognize that this trend appeared to be on its way out. When Elm Street was released, Paramount had already made the decision to end their lucrative Friday the 13th franchise with the fourth installment, The Final Chapter. Naturally, they turned their back on this decision when they saw the box office receipts.
Craven was well aware of the slasher tropes and formula when he wrote A Nightmare on Elm Street. But he wanted to subvert them, to take an interesting approach to those themes in a way that would allow his film and his killer to stand out. He understood that these characters were typically masked, but elected to give his villain a mask of scar tissue to allow him to speak and be able to not just show more personality, but be able to torment and humiliate his victims in ways that Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees could not. Knowing that killers traditionally carried a signature weapon, Craven gave Krueger a claw simply because he rightfully believed it was probably the first weapon that humans ever grew to fear. But this also shows Krueger’s innovation and passion for killing, something that also makes him stand out from the likes of Michael, Jason or Leatherface. Krueger takes a clear and sadistic glee in everything he does and that’s evidenced right from the opening sequence.
When we witness Krueger constructing his glove in the opening moments, it’s in stark contrast to the way we see Michael’s impassioned grabbing of a knife at the beginning of Halloween. Even though we don’t see him in full, the work we’re seeing makes it clear that this is not someone who just decides to kill on a whim. This is someone incredibly invested in what he’s doing, someone who’s putting time and effort and even a degree of artistry into the slaughter of innocents. Krueger’s signature weapon is not something he picked up and decided to use, it’s something he designed and spent hours building himself.
Even the backstory, a crucial element of any slasher, is different from most similar features of the time. In pure Wes Craven fashion, it’s much more morally gray, and it sets up a theme that would reappear in several of the director’s films playing on the idea of capitol punishment and the notion that two wrongs don’t make a right. Krueger was a completely irredeemable murderer in life, from the information we’re given, but this was also a horrible thing that was done to him. The parents of Elm Street took justice into their own hands and they burned Krueger alive, but it didn’t solve anything, in a couple of different ways. On the most obvious level, it only made things worse because it allowed Krueger to come back for revenge through the dreams of their children. But even beyond that, it’s clear that the parents had trouble dealing with what they had done even before Krueger’s return. It had to be a contributing factor in Nancy’s parents divorce, and in general, her mother is barely coping with what they had done to the point that it has driven her to alcoholism.
These themes are touched upon in Craven’s very first film, The Last House on the Left, when the scene lingers on after Mary’s parents have taken their revenge to show just how utterly hollowed out they are by what they’ve done. They’ve avenged their daughter, but it hasn’t brought her back, and they’re left with absolutely nothing, not even themselves. While Last House is a blunt and realistic interpretation of that theme, Elm Street internalizes it and explores it more broadly in a way that is much better suited for the subject matter.
Whether it be on a thematic, story or filmmaking level, A Nightmare on Elm Street completely subverts the slasher norms of the era. Even from the opening, audiences were not entirely prepared for what they were going to see. From Halloween to Friday the 13th, Prom Night, The Burning, The Prowler and so many more, audiences had seen teenagers dissected with every garden and kitchen tool imaginable. I can only imagine the shock on viewer’s faces, not knowing what they were going to expect, seeing those four razor slashes appear on Tina’s stomach and watching her dragged slowly up the wall by an invisible entity before being dropped back onto the bed and landing in a pool of her own blood. As fantastical as this showstopper of an opening death scene might be, it’s shot as bluntly and graphically as anything in The Last House on the Left or The Hills Have Eyes. It’s the perfect way to announce that people would not be in for the same teen horror experience they’d become used to.
And fans clearly got the message, too. In subverting these slasher tropes and themes, A Nightmare on Elm Street completely reignited the sub-genre. ‘80s slashers can pretty much be defined by pre- and post-Elm Street. Before 1985, they followed the model set forth by the likes of Halloween and Friday the 13th. But afterwards, as Freddy launched his own franchise and grew more and more popular, things changed to reflect that. Killers were given more personality and the kills became more outlandish. There was even a little more focus on the teenage characters and their anxieties. Even though it became more of a trend for the sequels, killers started dishing out puns and quips as if they were as vital to the job as the murder itself.
Wes Craven’s idea that no studio wanted to buy became one of the biggest juggernauts in horror history. Freddy Krueger stands comfortably toe-to-toe with the likes of Frankenstein and Dracula. This is a character that will without a doubt resonate for generations to come, and there are a lot of people that deserve the credit for that, from Craven to Shaye to (obviously) Robert Englund, but it’s all because of that original concept and the way Craven was able to so thoughtfully reinvent the slasher sub-genre that A Nightmare on Elm Street was given the chance to become the absolute classic that it became.