It is a true testament to writer-director Wes Craven's genius that many people now first think of Scream rather than A Nightmare on Elm Street upon hearing his name. While Scream certainly re-energized the horror movie genre, A Nightmare on Elm Street revolutionized it entirely when it was released in 1984. Twenty years after the fact, the movie doesn't seem quite as scary as it did originally, but this movie has truly shocked and frightened many a moviegoer over the years, resonated with untold numbers of men and women in a new and undeniably powerful way, drawn in many viewers that had never cared about horror before, and introduced one of the greatest, most popular horror icons of past, present, and future in Freddy Krueger.
When you really look at the genesis of this movie, its incredible success is truly mind-boggling. Wes Craven had already made waves in the business with such horror classics as Last House on the Left, but the script for A Nightmare on Elm Street made the rounds of Hollywood for three years before the relatively unknown New Line Cinema stepped up to make the movie a reality. The total budget for the film was well under two million dollars, and the filmmakers basically worked miracles to make the film as viscerally shocking and beautifully gory as it is. A tremendous cast was assembled: veteran actor John Saxon and newcomer Johnny Depp (in his very first role) are terrific, Robert Englund needs no introduction for his unforgettable portrayal of Freddy Krueger, and a young and innocent Heather Langenkamp delivers a dazzling performance as Nancy Thompson. (Ronee Blakley's performance as Nancy's mother is over-the-top and rather poor in general, but this is essentially the movie's only weakness.) Many people think that Englund carries this film with his brilliant portrayal of the nightmarish killer, and in a sense he does, but for me it is Langenkamp's performance that absolutely makes this movie something way beyond special. I have always been a big Langenkamp fan; she brings to Nancy a mesmerizing sense of innocence, charm, and natural beauty that wins the audience over completely. Freddy is a dark and menacing presence, but he really doesn't get that much camera time in this first film; Nancy is the essential conduit that connects the audience to the horror.
I don't think much is required in terms of explanations or plot summaries here. Freddy Krueger was a murderer of children who was hunted down and burned to death by local parents. He still exists, though, in the world of dreams, and now the teenaged children of the men and women who destroyed him are his targets. Nancy and her friends all begin to see this strange burnt man in an old fedora and a dirty red and olive green sweater in their dreams; Nancy soon learns that whatever happens in these awful dreams also happens in real life. The first victim dies a spectacular death, one that surely poured heaps of shock value on 1984 audiences and which still works wonderfully today. Several other notable deaths follow, and Nancy knows that she alone must face Freddy and somehow engineer a trap with which to snag him. It's not easy killing a dead man who lives in dreams, of course, but Wes Craven built a really beautiful logic into the story that makes it work convincingly.
The special effects of this film are remarkable, especially given the tight budget restraints. The death scenes are powerful and bloody, the atmosphere and look of the boiler room sets in particular are dark and malevolent, everything about Freddy's look and performance are perfect, and even really cheap effects such as the phone tongue and melted stairs work beautifully. The special features included on the DVD are nothing short of superb, especially the commentary by Wes Craven, Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, and director of photography Jacques Haitkin - I learned so much from this commentary (including the fascinating true-life facts that helped give birth to the original idea in Craven's mind), all of which made me all the more impressed with this seminal horror classic. A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the most enjoyable, powerful, and influential horror films ever made, and the transfer to DVD makes this film look better than ever.