Freddy Kruger has become such a ubiquitous figure in pop culture people often forget what made him an icon. In the first film, the jokes are few and far between and he is a genuinely unique and scary figure. Every Halloween there are hordes of Freddys walking the streets in various forms (child Freddy, sexy Freddy, dog Freddy, etc.), and his oft repeated one-liners are known to those who have never seen the series. While the later sequels made him into a dark but silly clown, the first film is straight horror.
Freddy was always the most frightening of the iconic 80s slashers, because there was no way to escape a killer who can enter your dreams. The other classic villains play upon primal anxieties and take on large, stone-faced forms. Freddy has a personality, and literally dives into your subconscious to handpick the deepest fears. In the first Nightmare on Elm Street, he is a trickster god rather than an evil stand-up comedian. Kruger gains strength by tormenting his prey before going in for the kill. The original movie improves upon the slashers that came before; it provides more than one-dimensional characterization for both its heroine and villain.
The plotline is fairly simple: knife-clawed killer Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) stalks four teenage friends through their dreams. Tina (Amanda Wyss) is afraid after having increasingly intense nightmares featuring the same villain, so Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and Glen (Johnny Depp, in his first film) spend the night after her mother leaves town. Tina’s boyfriend crashes the party, and the two work on “comforting” each other. The boogieman returns, and Tina is brutally murdered simultaneously in her dreams and in the real world. While the others are dismissive or fearful, Nancy is thoughtful and inquisitive; early on she realizes the unusual coincidence of all four having similar dreams featuring the burnt, sweater-clad figure. Her friends start dropping like flies and it’s up to Nancy to stay awake, figure out who Freddy is, and how to stop him.
The ingenious special effects are a welcome break from the CGI-laden horror flicks of the current age. Lack of time and budget often breed creativity, and there are a couple of major death scenes that are just as scary and shocking today as they were in ’84. Some scenes look cheesy (like the arm extension), but overall the make-up and important sequences are good.
Although it gets lumped in with other slashers, Nightmare is more about the sins of the parents being visited upon the children, rather than the typical themes of “sex and drugs are evil” (and punishable by death). They are murderers, and responsible for creating Freddy. Ultimately, this is a revenge story. While the young people he terrorizes are innocent, their parents are not and the children must pay the price for their parents’ crime.
While the adults’ intentions may be good, they are all bad parents who have succumbed to drinking, drugs, or self-absorption. The teenagers are attempting to take some kind of control over their lives, and are forced to seek help from each other because of their parents’ inability to protect them; eventually, Nancy must take matters into her own hands. She is the best of the final girls: a strong, intelligent, survivalist in the making who is unwilling to go down without a fight. The genre as a whole often gets a bad rap for misogynistic overtones, rather than each film being taken on its own merit; Nancy is a prime example of how slashers can feature an empowered female lead.