Yesterday, I made the case for two less-than-stellar films (When a Stranger Calls and Amusement) that nevertheless contained standalone sequences amounting to miniature genre essentials. As atonement for directing you towards two films so hit-and-miss, I’ve decided to toggle the order a bit and spend today focusing on a dyed-in-the-wool horror classic: Wes Craven’s near-perfect A Nightmare on Elm Street. (Also, quite frankly, there are a few kind of daffy choices coming up in the next week, and I want to harvest some goodwill before you all start questioning my love for the genre.)

Born as it was in the slasher era, Craven’s magnum opus has spawned an endless series of sequels and remakes, a fact that would lead the uninitiated to believe that Nightmare and its central villain, the indomitable Freddy Kreuger, rose from the same well that the Jasons, Michaels, and Leatherfaces of this world crawled out of. Not so: we can debate for hours the quality and scariness of those other series, and how it relates to Krueger and the immortal Nightmare series, but Craven’s film is actually a razor-sharp parcel of supernatural, psychological horror. Those other guys just seem immortal because every few years, some enterprising filmmaker retcons the ending of the last flick and resurrects them to hack away at the young and the sex-crazed again; Freddy Krueger haunts your dreams. Not figuratively: he actually lives in your dreams, and kills you there.

It’s a scary concept, particularly when you consider that Craven was inspired by a documented rash of unexplained Taiwanese sleep deaths. After all, we’ve all entered the world of strange, surrealistic, terrifying nightmares — I’m terrified almost nightly by the specters that chase me down the world’s most horrifying water slide — and Craven’s visual flair brings those nightmares to life in all their ominous, completely bananas glory.

Working with what is essentially a shoestring budget, Craven and cinematographer Jacques Haitkin create a nightmarish, surreal world where anything can happen. Existing as he does in dreams, Robert Englund’s wonderfully devious creation Krueger can bend physics to his will: since Nightmare rarely makes it clear when its characters are awake or simply walking through dreams, unpredictability rules the day. There are so many iconic visual flourishes in this film that it’s a marvel to behold: the geyser of blood after a character is sucked into his bed, for example, or that wonderfully scary sequence where Krueger’s arms slowly stretch out to impossible lengths, shot in a dark, foggy silhouette. Craven nails the particulars of the world he’s created, and the result is a film with imagination, smarts, and scares to spare — perfect Halloween viewing.

Extra Credit: Fortunately for those who can’t get enough Freddy, A Nightmare on Elm Street boasts the best set of sequels of any of its contemporaries. This is, of course, all relative, and roughly 2/3rds of them are still basically dreck; still, after a lackluster Part 2, Freddy rebounds in a big way with the stellar third installment Dream Warriors. It doesn’t beat the original for pure scares, but the visual component of the series is ramped up considerably, and there’s an agreeable undercurrent of wicked humor. (Plus, early screen work from Laurence Fishburne and Patricia Arquette!) The fourth chapter, The Dream Master, isn’t as good, but almost works due to an influx of enthusiasm and of-the-moment (read: delightfully, unmistakably ’80s) filmmaking. You can skip the others unless you’re a completist, but if you go for it anyway, there are fun moments here and there: the M.C. Esher-inspired climax of fifth installment The Dream Child, for example, or the fun meta angles of movie-within-a-movie Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

More 31 Days of Halloween:
Day 1: May
Day 2: The Night of the Hunter
Day 3: The Descent
Day 4: Night of the Demons
Day 5: Them
Days 6 & 7: Night of the Living Dead // Dawn of the Dead
Day 8: Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
Day 9: A Tale of Two Sisters
Day 10: When a Stranger Calls // Amusement

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