Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street came about at a serendipitous time in the horror genre. The slasher boom of the late ’70s and early ’80s was in the ebbing phase of its lifespan, devolving into a sea of pale imitations and diluted formulas that stripped the genre of its visceral power. Gore, guts, blood, and boobs replaced creative concepts, world-building, and effective storytelling.
By no means am I denigrating the horror output of the early ’80s. The genre achieved great heights and horror fans were bestowed an embarrassment of riches, and many of the films that came out of this era (even the lesser ones) are near and dear to me.
But I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t note the sharp decline in quality between, say, Halloween (1978), or even under-the-radar gems such as Tourist Trap (1979), and retreads such as Prom Night (1980), The Mutilator (1984), Terror Train (1980), Final Exam (1981), and Pieces (1982). Each of those films has their own unique charm (if that’s the right word) and I enjoy them all for different reasons, but they simply can’t stand toe-to-toe with films like the original Black Christmas (1974) or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) in terms of quality.
That aside, the sheer output of titles in the early ’80s is mindboggling, and fatigue was inevitable after monster hits like Friday the 13th (1980) opened the flood gates.
Enter Craven, who made his name in ’70s exploitation classics The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). Both films are unpolished examples of the type of violence Craven would weave into the backstory of his greatest creation. They each concern unthinkable actions that force the wholesome, all-American family to commit acts of depravity not unlike the villains.
If that rings a bell it’s because this concept is the jumping off point in creating the world and motivation of Elm Street‘s supernatural ghoul, Freddy Krueger (the inimitable Robert Englund). The backstory of Freddy’s character unfolds over the film’s 91-minute runtime, establishing the franchise-defining mythos that continued (though bastardized at times) through the ensuing sequels.
In its heyday, many so-called “pundits” of film virtue ascribed morality codes to the slasher formula, resulting in the misleading “rules” of the sub-genre that Craven would go on to lampoon in the Scream franchise. These rules evolved into a raison d’etra for the impersonators of classic progenitors such as Black Christmas, Halloween, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Characters shifted from relatable youngsters with homework and cheerleading practice to empty vessels entirely preoccupied with sex, booze, and drugs. If they got killed, surely they deserved it.
With the creation of Freddy Krueger, however, Wes Craven shifted the blame from the kids to the unthinkable: their parents.
The tale goes, in brief, that Fred Krueger was brought to trial for the murders of over 20(!) children in Springwood, but the arresting police botched the arrest warrant and he was set free. In turn, the parents took it upon themselves to track him down and burn him alive for his crimes, thus creating the spirit of vengeance hellbent on murdering the remaining children of the parents responsible for his death.
Despite Craven only directing two of the entries (the OG and the excellent Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)) and writing an early draft of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (1987), his themes of parental neglect would be a consistent thread linking the series together even when the plots stopped making sense and became more and more outlandish and ridiculous the longer the series continued. Where critics could point to the immorality of the young protagonists in your typical slasher, they now had to wrangle with the vigilante behavior of the Elm Street parents who burned a man alive after the judicial system failed.
In Craven’s world, the kids are doomed by the actions of their ultimate protectors – their parents, and the police. Fred Krueger may have deserved to burn or rot in jail for life, but the circumstance of his death ultimately endows the specter with untold power to enact his revenge by entering the dreams of the Elm Street children and tormenting and killing them in increasingly surreal, grizzly ways that would make Luis Buñuel take a step back.
The rules of the narrative are well-established within the first few minutes: Tina (Amanda Wyss) awakens from a nightmare to find fresh cuts in her nightgown courtesy of Freddy. With that simple visual, Craven tells us sleep is not safe and whatever happens to you in the dream is physically manifested in the real world.
This is the perfect framework for the horror Craven is aiming for. The kids slumber helplessly in their beds while being besieged by forces out of their control, much like their innocence in the parental scheme that resulted in Krueger’s murder. They’re blameless, too young to even know or remember when the parents took the life of another, which in turn created a metaphysical manifestation of vengeance that would decimate the fictional town of Springwood.
Prime amongst the parental perpetrators is Marge Thompson (Ronee Blakley) and her estranged husband, Lt. Donald Thompson (John Saxon), the parents of the film’s protagonist, Nancy Thompson (horror goddess Heather Langenkamp). We only see glimpses of other parents throughout the film, all of whom seem to harbor the inner torment of the unspeakable crime they committed years ago in different ways, but never verbalize it.
All the parents in the franchise are guilty of neglectful behavior in one way or another, but it’s Nancy’s mother, Marge, who seems to bear the burden more than most.
In the wake of their crime, her marriage dissolved and she resorted to alcoholism, which is a running subplot that plays parallel to the terror Nancy and her friends face whenever they succumb to the sandman’s sleepy call. The closer Fred Krueger gets to Nancy, the more Marge denies the past and finds solace in a two-gallon jug of vodka.
To follow that thread a little further, Marge’s behavior and peculiar choices throughout the film toe the line of over-protective parent or complicit terrorizer. She is routinely drinking and/or hilariously drunk, rendering her useless as a lifeline for Nancy, and is constantly taking Nancy’s coffee away or blatantly telling her to stop drinking it and get some sleep despite Nancy insisting that sleep is the enemy.
You could argue that Marge is in a perpetual dream state due to her alcoholism, a sort of distortion of reality in the vein of a surreal dreamscape. If we watch the film through that filter, we can start to place her within the surrealistic imagery of the nightmares and her ultimate goal becomes clear – Nancy.
This is telegraphed to us early in the film. In one of the film’s most iconic shots, Freddy menacingly pushes his face through the wall above Nancy while she slumbers in Tina’s bed, as if he’s enamored with Nancy and covets her above all. At the same time, he is tormenting Tina in arguably the most terrifying sequence in the entire film, climaxing in Tina’s grotesque murder.
This action signals a major plot point of the film – Nancy will be left for last. As the protagonist of the film, she encounters Freddy the most times, which points to her strength (“I’m into survival” she tells Glen late in the film) as well as Freddy’s enjoyment in tormenting poor Nancy. The other kids are dream-stalked by Freddy as well, but he ultimately kills them fairly quickly. Not so for Nancy.
I’ve often watched Ronee Blakley’s performance as Marge with amusement because the choices she makes range from hysterically forced to sadistically macabre. But this appears to be a conscious interpretation of Marge’s role in the overall story. There are moments when I watch her acting and think, “Does she even know what movie she’s in?”
For instance, the revelatory exchange between Marge and Nancy when she details the events that led to the local PTA murdering a town psycho begins with a peculiar acting choice. Nancy enters the house after finding out her mother has had bars installed on the windows and angrily demands to know the reasons for, what appears to be, her incarceration. In a moment of sheer WTF-ness, Marge responds to her daughter’s anger by casually sauntering into frame and calmly asking Nancy to join her in the cellar for story time while robotically lighting a cigarette in a way that accentuates every single step of the process.
It’s the first moment of reality where you can start to see the surrealism bleeding into the natural world of the film.
And then we find out why.
Marge proceeds to serenely recap the events of Freddy’s murderous history and the legal misgivings that led the parents of Elm Street to take justice into their own hands. She then reveals that she still has a souvenir of their crime: Freddy’s signature razor glove.
She also utters the undeliverable line, “He can’t get you now. He’s dead, honey, because mommy killed him.”
The plausibility of her keeping such incriminating evidence is beyond comprehension unless we consider Marge as an avatar for the villainous killer. She physically posseses the weapon responsible for murdering Nancy’s friends and 20+ other kids years ago!
What reason does she have for keeping the razor glove? And why put bars on the windows if she truly believes Freddy is dead?
If we circle back to Marge’s behavior throughout the film, we start to see a pattern of malice that ultimately aids Freddy in his definitive quest to kill Nancy. Which makes me question the duality of the character.
Marge’s inherent guilt over the crime she committed, along with the downward trajectory of her life since Fred Krueger’s murder, creates an alter-ego to channel her resentment at the children for the unspeakable action she had to partake in. It’s something that festers in her for years after, eventually culminating in the birth of the ultimate boogeyman.
It’s telling that Freddy doesn’t make an appearance in dreams immediately following his death, looking to wreak swift vengeance. No, that doesn’t occur until the children have grown, which is something I’ve often questioned.
Why did he wait until they were teenagers to attack? What was he doing for the decade or so between his murder and his reincarnation as a supernatural dream demon?
It doesn’t add up unless you consider the incubation period of Marge’s horrifying guilt and despair over committing such a terrible crime. It slowly eats away at her, destroying her life until the children become capable young adults. Then the burned ghoul is conjured up to don the glove and sweater once again.
While we are presented with other examples of broken homes through the cast of supporting characters, Nancy’s parents are featured most prominently, and it also appears to be the only scenario where the child lives with a single parent. As such, we would assume Nancy is more vulnerable. Because not only does she have one less protector in the house, but the divorce has also excised a universal symbol of protection from her home: her father, a police lieutenant.
We’re not given any backstory concerning the circumstances that led to the divorce, so the film remains ambiguous about placing any blame for the marital dissolution. But one can certainly assume the aftermath of burning a man alive for his unpunished crimes would drive a wedge between a couple.
Nonetheless, this could be viewed as clever positioning on the part of the antagonist, much like Marge constantly insisting that Nancy get some sleep, or putting bars on the windows and installing locks on the INSIDE of the house, which prevents Nancy from getting out or getting help when she needs it.
“Locked. Locked. Locked! I locked it all up! I had to, Nancy, you are going to get some sleep tonight if it kills me”, Marge mutters in a drunken haze when Nancy tries to leave the house to meet up with her boyfriend, Glen, who lives across the street.
The moment is played partly for humor and partly to worsen Nancy’s plight, but the plot mechanism points to malicious intent on Marge’s part. Locking Nancy in the house prevents her from pairing up with Glen prior to the climactic battle, effectively bettering Freddy’s chances of defeating them. Craven needed to create this inescapable environment for the final showdown between Nancy and her attacker, but it blatantly points to a kind of cage match between Nancy and her mother.
And then there’s the sentence capper from the quote above: “Nancy, you are going to get some sleep tonight if it kills me“, a strong indicator of not only Marge’s willingness to die in the final showdown with her daughter, but also a hint at her active participation in the battle.
As the third act begins, Nancy learns that Glen has been liquified by Freddy, in large part due to the efforts of Marge to keep Nancy isolated and the machinations of Glen’s parents to ensure Nancy is unable to contact Glen. The result of these parental decisions is gruesome, and Nancy devises a plan to face this assailant head-on.
The chronology of the climax is structured in a way that points to an inevitable battle between child and parent, and not just a razor-gloved boogeyman.
Once Nancy is resolute in her choice, she first must attend to her mother, who was last seen in a vodka stupor on the sofa. Nancy effectively takes her upstairs and puts her to bed, a moment where Marge decides to put the booze down and allow Nancy to tuck her in to sleep.
Before parting, Nancy makes a point of telling her mother, “I love you”, knowing she’s likely saying these words to her for the final time.
In a film where restorative sleep has been corrupted into a deadly arena for murderous villains with endless possibilities for terror, it is, in fact, perfect storytelling that Nancy would place her adversary in the ring prior to the final battle. This fight isn’t just between Nancy and a spirit of vengeance, it’s mom vs. daughter.
The film has been building toward this climactic battle, and Nancy’s run-ins with Freddy escalate at the same pace as her increasingly tense interactions with her mother do, culminating in both going to bed to settle the score in the dreamscape. When it’s time for the fight to begin, Nancy calls dad, who’s across the street mopping up Glen’s remains, to say she’s going to nab the killer, herself. With mom and daughter physically locked in the house together, it’s time to rumble.
The majority of the climax has Nancy dragging Freddy out of her dream and besieging him with DIY booby-traps she’s fashioned throughout the house. The grand finale to Nancy’s funhouse of pain is a gasoline bath and a lit match, a moment that was foreshadowed earlier in the film in a heated exchange between Nancy and Marge.
While undergoing tests in a sleep clinic at her mother’s insistence, Nancy manages to pull Freddy’s hat out of her dream and into reality. Afterward, she has an altercation with her mother at home in which Marge attempts to gaslight Nancy by telling her she’s “sick” and “imagining things”.
The argument culminates with Nancy grabbing the bottle of booze out of Marge’s hand and slamming it on the kitchen floor, shattering the bottle and spilling its contents at Marge’s feet.
Jumping back to the final fight, we see this action mirrored when Nancy corners Freddy in the basement and proceeds to smash a bottle of flammable liquid on him before tossing a lit match at his feet, setting him ablaze.
The first bottle smashed was a warning. This time, it’s for real.
Lt. Thompson is finally alerted to something amiss at his daughter’s house when smoke starts pouring out of the windows, courtesy of a fiery Freddy stomping through the house.
When the cops break down the door to put out the fire, they find flaming footsteps leading up to Marge’s room. Nancy and dad give chase and when they open the bedroom door, they witness Freddy’s incandescent form attacking Marge in her bed. This is the first major departure from Freddy’s modus operandi, which, up until that point, has not included any of the parents responsible for his death.
The questions really begin to mount after dad puts the flames out and pulls the blanket away to reveal only the burnt, skeletal remains of Marge descending into a hellish chasm in the middle of her bed. (It’s just as crazy to type as it is to watch.)
And just like that, Marge has shuffled off this mortal coil and the abyss neatly closes back up with no sign of Freddy. Nancy and Lt. Thompson react to this in much the same way the audience does – with a collective, nearly audible “HUH??”
As dad exits the room to attend to more fires in the house, Nancy stays behind knowing the fight isn’t over. The metaphorical forging of Freddy and Marge is actualized via their fiery convergence and subsequent descent into the nightmare pit.
The door has barely closed when a figure begins to rise out of the bed in the background behind Nancy. The figure is covered in a bloody substance, stretching the sheet to its utmost limit before slashing out of the birthing sac. This is now the metamorphosis of the physical Marge and her metaphysical avatar – Freddy.
The kicker occurs during the coda after Nancy has eviscerated Freddy by turning her back on him. She exits Marge’s bedroom and immediately finds herself on her sunlit porch with no sign of the horrors she just experienced.
Nancy remarks, “It’s bright”, and suddenly Marge walks out onto the porch looking fresh and sprightly.
Then they have the following exchange:
Nancy: “Feeling better?”
Marge: “Oh, I feel like a million bucks. They say you’ve bottomed-out when you can’t remember the night before. You know, baby, I’m gonna stop drinking. I just don’t feel like it anymore. (beat) Did I keep you awake last night? You look a little bit peaked”
On top of the hilarious “bottomed-out” line, this is more language from her own lips indicating that mom has been the cause of Nancy’s nightmares.
The final moments show Glen and the rest of Nancy’s friends, alive and well, pulling up in Glen’s convertible to drive her to school. Before they get to drive away, the convertible top crashes down over them, revealing Freddy’s familiar red and green pattern.
Nancy immediately recognizes the trouble they’re in and turns to mom to plead for help. Marge responds with an delighted smile and an ominous wave telegraphing her complicit participation in Nancy’s terror.
Wes Craven knew a knife-wielding maniac would not suffice for the type of supernatural horror he conjured up. His methods required something more refined than your standard slasher fare, and what better place to find horror than within your own family?