Wes Craven's A Nightmare On Elm Street is making its debut in high definition with a worthwhile Blu-ray edition. The 1984 original is a true survivor of its era, a teen slasher movie that transcends the genre by hinting at something deeper than high school kids getting diced up by a psycho. If you've managed to avoid the movie over the years, perhaps jaded by the reputation Freddy Krueger gained from the endless sequels, this is a highly recommended release.
The plot is cleverly constructed, with Krueger (Robert Englund) haunting the dreams of Elm Street's teenagers right from the start of the movie. Rather than settling for making Krueger a simple madman, the reasons for his actions are revealed as the story unfolds. The fear of recurring nightmares is already easily relatable, so the very concept of a nightmare that can actually kill the dreamer is chilling. But as we find out who Krueger really was before these bad dreams began, and why he has chosen this group of victims, the story becomes even more unsettling.
Having seen the movie many times over the years, I forget just how little Freddy Krueger is actually seen. His presence is utilized only to inspire terror. The sequels gave Robert Englund more and more room for humor, to the point where there eventually wasn't anything remotely scary about the character. Most of the sequels do offer something in the way of entertainment value. At their best, such as parts three and seven, they are quite imaginative. But ultimately the very first one remains the scariest.
That's not to say everything is perfect. Wes Craven's storytelling is excellent, but his dialogue – at least in this movie – often leaves something to be desired. Much of what these characters say to each other is very perfunctory. What makes matters worse is the sometimes wooden acting. Heather Langenkamp, as the movie's protagonist Nancy, has a knack for playing fright very convincingly. But that doesn't stop some of her lines, particularly campy clunkers like "screw your hall pass," from sounding awkward. Ronee Blakley is especially atrocious as Nancy's mother. Blakley's face remains a mask of inexpressiveness throughout. The reliable John Saxon delivers passable work as Nancy's cop father, but isn't given much to work with.
Even for those who detest horror movies, the big draw will be the feature film debut of Johnny Depp as Nancy's boyfriend Glen. Depp was barely an adult when Nightmare was made. He handles his part just fine, delivering his lines more believably than most of the cast. While it's hard to glimpse the brilliance of his later career, for his fans this first leading role is essential viewing.
A Nightmare On Elm Street looks better on Blu-ray than it ever has before. Considering the format, it seems this should be a foregone conclusion. But many '80s movies still seem exceptionally dingy and drab on Blu-ray. This isn't the case, thankfully, as Nightmare presents a detailed 1080p high definition transfer. The nightmare scenes throughout the movie, generally quite dark, have been murky in previous standard DVD editions. Here they finally look sharp and well-defined. The blacks are solid while the colors, especially the very prevalent bloody reds, are realistic. Freddy's makeup, seen fleetingly for the most part, is easier to appreciate than ever before thanks to the added level of visual clarity provided by this strong transfer.
As for the audio, the main attraction is the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. To my ears, there wasn't a truly noticeable sonic upgrade from the Infinifilm standard DVD from a few years ago. It sounds just fine, but don't expect any revelations. Dialogue is upfront and intelligible. Occasional sound effects from the rear channels give a nice jolt. The somewhat garish synth score is very prominent in the mix. This works well because, as dated as it is, the score's unsettling creepiness works best when it's loud. The score is a very dominant element overall but never makes the dialogue secondary.
Most of the extra features were previously available on the Infinifilm standard DVD. There are two group commentaries. One features a smaller group consisting of Wes Craven, Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, and director of photography Jacques Haitkin. For me the smaller group is preferable than the second commentary, which adds a bunch of other participants including additional actors and technicians. It's so rare to find a truly compelling track that maintains a high level of interest the whole way through. I actively dislike watching a movie while people talk over the soundtrack, even if those people actually created the movie. Sampling these tracks didn't give me a compelling reason to listen to them in their entirety, but truly patient Nightmare fans will glean a lot of information.
Luckily there are some very good featurettes carried over as well. For my money, a well produced making-of is usually preferable to a commentary track. "Never Sleep Again: The Making of A Nightmare On Elm Street" is a 50-minute piece that covers all aspects of the movie's creation through interviews and archival footage. It's an informative, comprehensive look at the movie's production. "The House That Freddy Built: The Legacy of New Line Horror" takes a look at the impact the Nightmare series had on the success of New Line studios. It's a good, though fairly superficial, 20-minute piece. Less interesting is "Night Terrors: The Origins Of Wes Craven's Nightmares," which briefly delves into the interpretation of dreams and nightmares. "Alternate Endings" consists of a trio of subtly different versions of the movie's final scene. They are fairly underwhelming, but worth a look.
New to the Blu-ray edition is a feature called "Focus Points." When watching the movie with this feature activated, an icon appears on screen every time there is supplemental footage. Clicking 'enter' on your remote will take you to a brief featurette relating to that part of the movie. There is no shortage of opportunities to click, as the icon comes up quite frequently. Unfortunately, there seems to be a shortage of material that isn't already contained within the disc's other features. I generally hate this type of feature. When I watch a movie, I want to do just that. I don't like being taken out of the movie in order to watch a snippet of additional information. These clips are not accessible any other way. I must admit, I got tired of trying to sit through the movie waiting to click a button on the remote. Especially when so much of the material turns up in the longer featurettes. I can't recommend "Focus Points" as an enticement to get this release.
A Nightmare On Elm Street remains a classic horror film and holds up to well to repeated viewings. Longtime fans may find themselves disappointed at the relative lack of brand new features, but the visual upgrade makes the Blu-ray a fantastic addition to anyone's horror movie collection.