While the original Nightmare on Elm Street is justifiably considered to be a horror classic, it's also far from perfect. Sandwiched between Wes Craven's mid-career clunkers like The Hills Have Eyes Part II, Deadly Friend and Shocker the first Freddie flick is tainted somewhat by the same shlocky qualities that characterized some of those other films.
One of the most effective ways a horror movie can build tension is with a spooky soundtrack. Now, granted I know it was the Eighties, but Nightmare's hideous synthesized score has to be one of the worst I've ever heard. Occasionally it's offset by a genuinely-eerie, note-spare piano riff heralding a dream sequence, but it always seems to get trampled by what sounds like a possessed keyboard locked on "demo".
The performances are also pretty scattered. Although charismatic and cute in an unconventional Eighties sorta way, many of Heather Langenkamp's line readings are pretty bizarre. On those rare occasions in which she gets a chance to convey frantic horror and panic she acts as if she's trying to find her way out of an Ambien stupor.
Also distracting is her physical inability to keep her mouth closed during every scene single she's in. I'm being serious here: just watch the film and count how many times she just stares slack-jawed off into empty space. I'd suggest making a drinking game out of it but I don't want anyone to die from alcohol poisoning.
It's really amazing how her performance veers between overwrought, understated, absent, self-conscious, and then inexplicably spot-on at times. Clearly she isn't completely terrible since she still manages to generate a ton of sympathy for Nancy. And let's face it, Heather Langenkamp is a helluva lot more genuine, interesting and easy-to-relate-to than the interchangeable, immaculate-looking and decidedly forgettable starlets that populate today's modern horror films.
Ronee Blakley, who plays Nancy's mom in the film, also gives a pretty baffling turn. I seriously hope that Blakely was a method actress and her poor showing can be blamed on the prodigious vodka bottle that she's frequently seen taking a belt from. What else could explain those endlessly-distracted deliveries and the oddest emphasis choices since Bela Lugosi played Dracula?
Mercifully, the film does have some strong showings to make up for this. As expected, John Saxon is quite good as Nancy's protective cop dad. It's actually kind of a pity that Amanda Wyss buys the farm so early since she's a pretty capable actress and I can't help but wonder what she could have done with the lead role if she'd been given a chance. And then there's L'il Johnny Depp, replete with pompadour, cut-off jersey and alligator-tagged dress shirt, who displays an instinctive aptitude for his craft even at the ripe old age of twenty.
Finally, Robert Englund proves that less is more when it comes to our main man Freddy Krueger. Compare the fleeting sightings of our favorite ethereal bogeyman in the first Nightmare film to future entries in the series. By the time we were subjected to the notoriously dreadful "Power Glove" bit in The Final Nightmare, he'd become about as scary as your average pervy uncle. They don't even seem like the same characters.
But here, in his debut appearance, Freddy doesn't crack wise like the boogeyman equivalent of Jack Parr. Instead he's a fleeting, barely-glimpsed, super-creepy malevolent force of nature who's sense of humor is decidedly coal-black. In fact, the character only begins to lose his impact when Craven makes the mistake of showing him full-body, awkwardly wrestling with Heather Langencamp in the film's denouement. Things get even goofier when Freddy falls victim to Nancy's Home Alone-style booby-traps, apparently cobbled together with MacGyver-like speed and efficiency if we're to believe the film's ludicrous time line.
The thing that makes Freddy and the Nightmare films so great is how the film-makers can really screw around with the concept of reality. Since necessity is the mother of invention, some horror flicks can really benefit from having a microscopic budget. But with the first Nightmare on Elm Street I can't help but feel that Craven's lack of funds prevented him from realizing some really epic set pieces. This sort of surreal, unbridled creativity would have to wait until 1987's Dream Warriors.
To make matters worse, 80's-era horror film directors could never have anticipated the future proliferation of high-definition home video, which is mercilessly cruel to the props, makeup and effects of the time. In spite of this, Craven did manage to come up with some pretty cool and disturbing imagery. As long as you don't hit the "pause" button, Freddy's "extend-o-arms", the "tongue phone" gag and Nancy becoming mired in her home's mud-like steps are all super-creepy.
Pity the cynical, cash-grab 2010 remake did nothing except substitute contemporary-looking, interchangeable mannequins in the lead roles in a misguided effort to make the story more appealing to modern audiences. So many more interesting things could have been done. I highly suggest that fans re-visit the original Nightmare on Elm Street, without the rose-colored glasses provided free of charge to every fourteen year old kid who watched it back in the day. You'll be amazed by how much potential a modern remake could have exploited.