A Nightmare on Elm Street: Infinifilm Edition Review

”The vision of a dream and the experiences of my waking state are so much alike that I am completely puzzled and I do not really know that I am not dreaming at this moment.”

Rene Descartes, 1641

Dreams trouble people. Indeed, the problem of dreams has been troubling mankind since the earliest civilisations; what are they for; where do they come from; what do they mean? In antiquity, it was believed that dreams were messages from the gods which offered advice and warnings. Later, dreams were seen as, alternately, either offerings from God or delusions from the devil. By the late 19th century, Freud was suggesting that dreams, far from originating in Heaven or Hell, mirrored the desires of the dreamer. Even now, there are millions of words written about dreams and how to interpret them. This isn’t surprising of course, considering that we spend such a large proportion of our lives asleep, laying ourselves wide open to whatever reveries or nightmares may come upon us.

Consequently, dreams have been a fertile subject for cinema. The irrationality and illogicality of dreams has been used to fuel the imagery of such groundbreaking films as Caligari and L’Age D’Or. The director of the latter film, Luis Bunuel, relished dream imagery and incorporated it into most of his work, notably the surreal fantasies The Discreet Charm of the Borgeoise and The Phantom of Liberty. Other key European directors such as Bergman and Fellini have used dreams to add symbolic weight to their films – the opening of Wild Strawberries being a key example, and the atmosphere of dreams has been used to compelling effect by independent filmmakers such as the Quay Brothers.

But it is horror which has made best use of dreams. There are memorable example of nightmares in films such as Dead of Night, An American Werewolf In London and The Exorcist, while films like Paperhouse have burrowed inside the whole relationship between dreams and reality. However, when it comes to exploring the implications of a fundamental question – how real our dreams are - then we can look to one film in particular: Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Inspired by newspaper reports of a group of Cambodian refugees who appeared to have died while dreaming, Craven decided to create a film about the ultimate nighmare; one which has the power to kill. His simple plot, in which a dead child killer named Fred Krueger returns to haunt the dreams of four young friends, is a peg upon which he can hang this intriguing notion.

Wes Craven is a very bright individual and he has the ability to make scary movies which don’t insult your intelligence. They don’t always work but a Craven film frequently offers a little bit extra that marks it out from the usual genre fare. In recent years, this has been seen through his adventures in postmodernism with New Nightmare and the Scream movies. What marks out A Nightmare On Elm Street is Craven’s decision to play it dead straight. His teenage girls are engaging and believable – they’re neither doped-out morons, simpering nerds or sex-crazed bimbos – and they relate to adults with a kind of hesitant, puzzled affection. The relationship between Nancy and her father is nicely understated and there’s a particularly touching moment when Nancy’s English teacher – played by Lin Shaye, wife of New Line supremo Robert - expresses her sympathy for the grief-stricken teenager by giving her a brief touch on the back. Heather Langenkamp is instantly likeable as Nancy, creating a strong female character who never begs our sympathy and is sufficiently plucky to fight back without the aid of one of the two rather gormless men in her life – wastrel Rod (Corri) and cute but dim Glen (Depp). Nancy is placed into a small town context which is brilliantly designed to be closely observed without being too specific – it’s as much an ‘every-town’ as Haddonfield in Halloween or Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life and that’s part of Craven’s method. In rooting the film in a believable context with a believable heroine, he ensures that the scares are just a little bit too close to home to ever be really comfortable. This, incidentally, is a lesson never learned by the various makers of the Friday the 13th films; they used the same insular, isolated setting and then peopled it with a collection of stereotypes. Craven doesn’t make this mistake and as a result, his film is considerably more effective.

The structure is also rather unusual compared to the teen slasher movies which had been clogging up cinema screens and, subsequently, video rental shelves. Although there is the Ten Little Indians element of watching one character after another fall victim to a macabre death, Craven deliberately introduces some other devices to keep us on our toes. He throws us straight in at the deep end with a dream sequence to establish the rules – i.e. that there are virtually no rules – and then, having set-up a kind of teen comedy, he does a Psycho and kills off the girl who we identified with in the opening sequence and who seemed like a likely heroine. His pacing is steady, building up to big shock scenes without finding it necessary to constantly use fake scares to keep our interest. The film is also intellectually stimulating in its somewhat Gnostic notion - returned to at length in New Nightmare - that evil gains its lustre only from people believing in it.

The nightmare scenes are visually imaginative – kudos to DP Jacques Haitkin - and feature some resourceful special effects which were done on the cheap but don’t look like it. The mix of fantasy and reality works particularly well in the sequence at school when Nancy becomes distracted during a reading (about dreams) from Julius Caesar and sees Tina (Wyss) in a body bag. Places of safety become threatening – much mileage is gained from the famous sequence in the bath, an image which Craven earlier attempted, unsuccessfully, in Deadly Blessing. The dreams lead up to the killings and very nasty they are too. The slaying of Tina is remarkably bloody for a mainstream film and the killing of Glen is equally grotesque. But the killings are effective because they are relatively sparing and the ground for the bloodletting is carefully prepared. In later films, where there are deaths every fifteen minutes or so, the shock effect vanishes in favour of giggles.

Craven’s trump card is, of course, Freddy Krueger (Englund) or, to give him the name used in this film (and I think it is significant), Fred Krueger.

Krueger is a triumphant character, an unapologetic, dyed-in-the-wool monster whose sadistic glee in killing his innocent victims is reprehensible. In this first instalment, Freddy is certainly given some blackly funny one-liners but he’s not the vaudeville joke that he becomes in later episodes. If he’s even remotely comic, it’s because he’s a satyr and has a satyr’s lust for vice. But there’s never any doubt that he is both evil and dangerous and our sympathies are placed squarely with the brave and resourceful Nancy. In the part which made him famous, Robert Englund is ideal; he has the fatal charisma and the steely determination of single-minded malevolence. He’s helped a great deal by the superb make-up and the simple costume which was deliberately designed to include the clashing shades of red and green. But it’s the body language and the voice which win the day. Englund’s is one of the defining performances of 1980s cinema and a good example of how an actor who, most of the time, is merely competent, can be superb given the right part.

The question of how you get from evil Fred Krueger to cuddly old Freddy Krueger is an interesting one and sums up the difference between the original Nightmare on Elm Street and the majority of its sequels. The later films are playing variations on a theme and, lacking imagination, the filmmakers decide to make the human characters little more than ciphers. Consequently, the only interesting figure is Freddy and he becomes the de-facto hero. So you end up with a situation where the audience is idenfifying with the child-killing scumbag and willing him on to murder as many people as possible, and the ultimate irony surely has to be that Freddy soft-toys were marketed successfully to schoolchildren. In contrast, Craven’s original film is dark and scary, emphasising, through Krueger’s refusal to lie down in his grave, the enduring nature of evil. It’s significant that he fought against the current ending of the film, wishing to avoid the possibility of a sequel. Ultimately, New Line won out but Craven deserves some credit for only coming back onto the series as a major creative force when he was given the chance, in New Nightmare, to make Freddy genuinely nasty again.

The Disc

New Line have issued A Nightmare on Elm Street before but this Infinifilm Edition is their latest effort. In many ways it is the best yet but I do have certain reservations about the set.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. It is the MPAA 'R' rated version and is still missing a couple of seconds here and there, notably the splash of blood when Tina hits the bed. In some respects, the transfer is excellent with crisp detail and some rich colours - but this may well be the problem. Compared to transfer on the old R2 release, the colours are considerably different with a preponderance of blue. To some extent, this is a matter of preference but I think I prefer the way the older transfer looks. Some people have been saying that the old transfer was DP approved and is consequently the correct look for the film. In general, the new transfer offers slightly more detail and is somewhat brighter.

There are three soundtracks on the disc, two of them new. To be honest, neither of the new remixes is much cop and it's hard to see any significant advance over the old 5.1 remix. The DTS-ES mix is disappointingly uneventful. There is one major problem with the remixes, however, going beyond my generalised distaste for tracks which mess around with the original soundtrack. As a post on DVD Talk has revealed, several things are missing from the remixes and from what is allegedly the 'original mono track'. These are mostly some of the 'stinger' sound effects but some other effects are missing too. The mono track contains the ripping sound when Tina removes Freddy's face but not the other omissions. This indicates that the mono track is simply a downmix from the remixed 5.1 track and not the original track at all. In other words, soundtrack-wise, the disc is a mess.

The first disc contains two audio commentaries, the Infinifilm features, a fact track and a variety of DVD-ROM features. Be warned that, upon putting the disc into your PC, you will be directed to an InterActual DVD player which is more irksome than anything else. This allows you to play the trivia game or use the Script-to-Screen feature.

‘Infinifilm’ allows the viewer to go, in the words of New Line, “beyond the movie”. Basically, like all such features, it’s a souped-up version of the ‘Follow the White Rabbit’ feature from The Matrix. Every few minutes, a blue box pops up allowing you to access a brief documentary clip, a deleted scene, alternate takes or a sequence from one of the other films in the series. This is quite enjoyable with a couple of caveats. Firstly, a considerable number of the features can also be found on the second disc documentary, Secondly, the features are only accessible through the Infinifilm viewing and although scenes can be accessed from a separate Infinifilm menu, you can't see what they are, just the scene in which they appear.

The two commentary tracks are both good although there is inevitably some duplication of material. The newer one features Wes Craven, Robert Shaye, Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, Amanda Wyss, Ronee Blakeley and co-producer Sara Risher. This is a cut and paste commentary and is full of interesting information. The archival commentary features John Saxon, Langenkamp, Craven and DP Jacques Haitkin. This is a jolly affair and probably less informative but it's more fun to listen to. There is also a fact track which plays as subtitles over the movie.

The main feature on disc 2 is a 50 minute documentary about the making of the film. This is pretty comprehensive and contains interesting interview material with Wes Craven, Robert Shaye and some of the cast and crew; Robert Englund is particularly eloquent, as you’d expect if you’ve seen him interviewed elsewhere. Sensibly, the documentary is broken down into segments and can be watched either piece by piece or in one go. If you've watched the Infinifilm version of the film, some of the documentary will be familiar.

We also get two shorter featurettes. "The House That Freddy Built" is about the story of New Line horror movies, suggesting that without Nightmare, there would have been no Lord of the Rings. This is interesting enough although even just one clip from The Mangler is quite obviously one too many. "The Origins of Wes Craven's Nightmares" looks at the series and is far from essential although it does contain some material about the sequels which is more depressing than anything else. There are also three alternative endings - the best of which is the 'Happy' ending which was Craven's own preference. Finally, along with the original trailer, there is a trivia challenge which requires you to answer five questions correctly to avoid being gutted by Freddy. Sadly, there are very few different questions so once you've played a couple of times then you're unlikely to come back to it.

The film has optional subtitles. Sadly, the extra features do not.

This new Infinifilm edition should have been a no-brainer purchase. But the problems with the soundtrack and the controversial new transfer make it hard to enthusiastically recommend, especially if you already own the box set.

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