A Nightmare on Elm Street has a powerful sense of surrealism – both visually and thematically – that more than makes up for the movie’s horror hokum.
Written and directed by Wes Craven, the film takes a diabolically ingenious conceit – a killer (Robert Englund) who murders teens in their dreams, so that they’ll never awake – and dramatizes it with ghastly, insidious imagery. The menacing figure stretching out from a wall over a bed; a body bag being dragged down a school hall; the killer’s signature blades arising in the bathtub between the heroine’s legs. These sights aren’t simply shock effects. Woven somewhere between the movie’s dream scenes and its “real” ones, they have the true terror of an unshakeable nightmare.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is a feat of considerable formal ingenuity. At first, we’re fairly clear when virginal teenager – there’s that hokiness – Nancy Thompson is dreaming. As the movie goes on, though, the dream world and the actual one begin to intertwine. When Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) asks her boyfriend (a baby-faced Johnny Depp, amusingly cast as a jock) to watch over her as she sleeps, he pops up in her ensuing dream as an ineffectual guardian.
In these scenes, Nightmare resembles less the slasher silliness of the Friday the 13th films than the narrative inventiveness of Charlie Kaufman efforts such as Adaptation and Being John Malkovich. These movies toy with us by puncturing our rational understanding of reality; Nightmare does it in a more malevolent manner.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is decidedly anti-art – at one point, a teen dozes off while reading Shakespeare – yet it still manages to rank among the top horror movies of all time. Despite its genre shlockiness, Nightmare, like 2009’s Paranormal Activity, brilliantly taps into one of our primal fears: the vulnerability we feel when we’re asleep.