Why is it that inexpensive old horror movies look creepy and atmospheric while inexpensive new horror movies just look cheap? Just about every spine-chiller we now consider a 'classic' was once a struggling production on the verge of imminent disaster - including Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween and many others. Now, for some reason, the credit-card-maxers look like they were constructed out of the discarded plastic; but back in the day filmmakers could turn a few dimes into some dynamite entertainment.
Wes Craven's career has been marked by many of these low-budget masterpieces; his first two films, Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, were canonized in recent years as genre luminaries, and the latter movie was successfully remade. But A Nightmare on Elm Street holds a special place in movie history, not only because of its own production struggles, but because Craven created the kind of mythology that doesn't disappear when the last dollar is spent. The recently-released Infinifilm Special Edition finally pays proper tribute to this venerated horror classic - and further, proves that a great filmmaker requires imagination, not money to create true and lasting suspense.
While there were certainly dozens of movies that terrified me as a kid (hell, Thriller scared me blind), A Nightmare on Elm Street was a special case. The first time I saw it - well, part of it - was during a junior high sleepover, when I walked in just as poor Tina was getting turned upside down, and soon enough, inside out; suffice it to say that I did not rest easy that night. Some years later, I saw the rest of the film, whose core concept unfortunately scared me even more: a former child molester and murderer returns from death by immolation to terrorize suburban white kids by targeting their emotional and physical weaknesses.
All of adolescence is emotional and physical weakness, for goodness' sake! Dreams were once a safe haven, or the land where I'm a viking; but now, thanks to Wes Craven and a scarily effective Robert Englund, they were another perilous gauntlet for my overactive imagination to survive.
Notwithstanding personal anxieties about Freddy Kruger, the idea for the movie is nothing short of brilliant, exploiting basic horror movie conventions (like weapon-wielding maniacs) but adding innovative, deeply psychological twists (giving said weapon-wielding maniac access to his victims nightmares). Craven's visual sense, never better on display than here, elevates slasher-movie iconography to art: Tina's death, the first in the film, is both brutal and balletic, setting the stage for more truly unforgettable set pieces as Freddy's reign of terror continues. And while the film doesn't flinch from the viscera of each bloody clinch, it doesn't exploit it either; as much gore appears in the film, flooding sets with tidal waves of blood and burning characters to cinders, none of it feels superfluous in the context of the story.
Ultimately, however, the question still remains how a movie like this one can look so authentic and effective while its successors look strung together and shallow. Is it true that the preponderance of CGI and effects work has taken much of the imagination out of the movie industry? Or that filmmakers just don't know how to stretch those shoestrings as far as they once did? Whatever may be the case, we should nonetheless be thankful that so many of these original ventures succeeded so conspicuously; because without them, we wouldn't be able to tell the genre's chaff from its wheat - and in fact, we would probably have only chaff to choose from.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is by any definition a movie masterpiece, a work of art that transcends convention, genre, and even time. Craven may or may not return to such artistic heights ever again - indeed, some of his most recent work is more than enough to get him thrown out of Hollywood permanently - but personally speaking, I prefer the days when he had less cash and more creativity. That is, when I am actually able to get through the end result and still sleep at night.
Score: 10 out of 10
A Nightmare on Elm Street is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) preserving the aspect ratio of the film's theatrical exhibition. The transfer on this disc is vastly superior to previous DVD editions, offering restored and remastered picture taken from the original film negative: even with the film's moody, shadow-filled cinematography, the action is cleaner and clearer than ever before, showing exactly what Craven and co. originally intended.
During Tina's death scene, for example, the atmospheric cinematography is remarkably clear, fully utilizing the external light source to illuminate just enough of the action to make it an intense, dreamlike experience for both the characters and the audience. But whether the sequences are deep in Freddy's boiler-room lair or in the shiny hallways of the kids' high school, this disc delivers immaculate picture quality.
Score: 9 out of 10