Actress Dee Wallace once called me a wimp (I met her briefly at a horror film convention) for saying that I hated it when her character is killed off in Wes Craven's 1977 horror film The Hills Have Eyes. But I don't care. I'm sticking by my statement: I can't watch The Hills Have Eyes after that scene where the crazed mutant family kills several members of a mundane Ohio family en route to California. It's too gruesome, too callous. Wes Craven had directed another film prior to Hills, called Last House on the Left (1972), which is an unwatchable exercise in cruelty. This is the common denominator of just about every one of his horror movies: they demonstrate an unmitigated sense of cruelty toward the innocent victims by the various murderers and monsters.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which remains one of Craven's most commercial thrillers, is no different. In it, a group of teenagers are all terrorized by a maniac in their dreams. That maniac is named Fred Kreuger. He's memorably adorned in a dirty red and green striped sweater and a fedora, has a burnt, scarred, hideous, face and wears a makeshift contraption on his hand that gives him knives for fingers. (He's like a homicidal Edward Sciossorhands.) Kreuger, who's played with a convincing amount of gleeful deviousness by Robert Englund, is the chattiest of the unstoppable killers of the 1980s. (This admittedly small club of franchise horror movie villains includes the imperturbable Jason Voorhies and the monomaniacal Michael Myers.)
One of the few redeeming things about A Nightmare on Elm Street is the charming chemistry between Nancy, the heroine (played by Heather Langenkamp), and Glenn, her boyfriend (Johnny Depp, making his film debut), who lives right across the street from her. Nancy is a valiant heroine, and Langenkamp has a likable gaucheness. She doesn't seem that experienced as an actress, but this isn't necessarily a negative. In a horror movie, you need a certain level of "natural" acting from the lead girl. It makes her seem like a regular person, not a star. Craven's whole movie seems determined to give Nancy a bad time, and that's an unpleasant feeling, but Nancy doesn't let it defeat her. She's a determined protagonist.
Craven, who also wrote the screenplay, apparently got the idea for his movie by reading about a boy who was plagued by bad dreams, and eventually died, presumably of exhaustion. The idea of dreams--which are so fascinating, so mysterious--becoming places of doom in real life, is certainly interesting, and the film does tap into that fascination, but it's not pleasurably exciting. There's not much fun here, except the kind that's had at the audience's expense. It fills you with dread.
With John Saxon and Ronee Blakley as Nancy's divorced parents, Amanda Wyss and Nick Corri as her friends, and Charles Fleischer in a small role as a dream specialist at a scientific institute. ★½