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Cult Movies: Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street still a cut above standard stalk-and-slash teen horror flicks

A still from A Nightmare on Elm Street showing Freddy Kruger in silhouette
A Nightmare on Elm Street Freddy Kruger is still terrifying after 40 years

A Nightmare On Elm Street is 40 years old. Yes, shocking as that fact may be to those of us who grew up with the dream-invading adventures of the franchise, that blade-fingered, Dennis The Menace jumper wearing nut-job Freddy Kruger has been on the loose for four decades now.

The reputation of the brand may have been dulled by decades of dismal follow-ups, all with diminishing returns, and ill-advised re-boots and re-imaginings, but Wes Craven’s 1984 original is still a genuinely impressive slice of horror hokum.

The premise of Craven’s hugely popular creation leans heavily on that very familiar fantasy film trope of ‘Is everything we’re seeing really just a dream?’, but it takes that theme and runs with it like nothing before or since.

It’s something that Craven himself had toyed with before on lower budget shockers like The Last House On The Left (1972) and Deadly Blessing (1981), but here he pulls out all the stops to create a queasy vision of dream reality that would change the shape of the ‘teenager in danger’ genre forever.

In the character of psychopath killer Freddy Kruger he also created a truly iconic figure of fear for Hollywood’s dark hall of fame.

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For those who’ve never had the pleasure of spending some quality time with the bold Kruger, or for those who’ve managed to wipe his memory from their minds, let me remind you of Craven’s devilishly simple premise for one of the biggest horror hits of the 1980s.

A group of four typical American teenagers are all being tormented by a shared recurrent nightmare in which a long dead local child-molester returns from his grave to terrorise them nightly. Tina (Amanda Wyss) is tossed violently around her bedroom, her boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri) is strangled by a bed sheet and Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) sees her partner Glenn (played by Johnny Depp no less, making his big screen debut) sucked gruesomely into his mattress and spat out in a torrent of blood.

An iconic shot from A Nightmare on Elm Street showing Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) in the bath with Freddy Kruger's bladed glove emerging from the suds between her legs
A Nightmare on Elm Street Bath-time is no fun when Freddy is stalking your dreams

Eventually, it becomes apparent that their trauma is linked back to a neighbourhood child killer Freddy Kruger (played with demonic zeal by Robert England) who escaped the law only to be tracked down by some revenge-crazed locals, including Nancy’s police chief father (John Saxon), who burned him to death in a basement furnace.

Now, through some weird supernatural power, the evil Freddy - all hideous burn scars and bitter one liners - has come back to exert his own revenge on his killers’ families.

It’s all a load of comic book codswallop, really, but Craven unfolds the horror and cranks up the gore with a master’s touch throughout. There are plenty of unlikely twists, jarring jolts and moments of jet black humour to set this offering well apart from your standard stalk-and-slash teen flick.

The sparky dialogue, beautifully stage managed set pieces and nightmarish setting together with Englund’s unforgettable turn as the fedora wearing, wise cracking psycho with a glove of razor sharp blades for fingers, make this a truly great slice of 80s teen horror.

Watch it again this weekend, but remember - don’t have nightmares.

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