When Wes Craven teamed with New Line Cinema head honcho Robert Shaye to make 1984's A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, neither could have predicted it would lead to not only the studio’s most successful film franchise ever, but also one of the genre’s most influential classics. And nobody could have guessed that its young leading man making his film debut, Johnny Depp, would become one of Hollywood's biggest stars.
Credit should mainly go to writer/director Craven and actor Robert Englund, whose portrayal of boogeyman Freddy Krueger fluctuated over the years to match the films’ increasingly silly tone, but he played it straight and sinister the first time out the gate to create a terrifying monster.
Freddy Krueger was a child murderer who was burned to death by vigilante parents years earlier. Now, the teenagers of Elm Street, including nice girl Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), are haunted by nightmares in which they are terrorized by a horribly burned man in a green-and-red striped sweater, felt hat, and razor-sharp blades for fingers. Nancy is smackdab in the middle of the horror; her best friend Tina (Amanda Wyss) is the first victim, and the bloody murders are investigated by her cop father (top-billed John Saxon). It’s also Nancy who realizes that Freddy can only get at them in their dreams, but how long can she stay awake?
Craven’s clever script goes beyond just creating a highly original villain. While gore and gruesome shocks are present, NIGHTMARE isn’t a slasher flick. Its theme of kids trying to stay awake to survive while their parents try to bury their ugly past in their subconscious is intriguing, though the erratic performances (Langenkamp is unpolished though likable, Saxon authoritative, Englund frightening in surprisingly little screen time, Ronee Blakley as Nancy's mom frankly terrible) prevent Craven from developing the subtext too far. NIGHTMARE is a film of rich imagery, bolstered by imaginative in-camera special effects created with more knowhow than money.
Ignore the PHANTASM-inspired ending imposed on Craven by Shaye. Langenkamp and Saxon both returned for the third and seventh movies. Rachel Talalay, the assistant production manager, worked her way up New Line’s ranks to producer and finally director of FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE.