I know what you’re thinking. “Realism in A Nightmare on Elm Street? He must be crazy!” Well, maybe I am, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.
It probably seems contradictory to talk about realism in a film about a villain that only exists in dreams but can kill people in real life especially when so many other horror films deal with threats that are more grounded in reality.
Making an old idea new
Speaking on the DVD commentary track of the New Line Home Entertainment DVD, author and film historian David Del Valle notes how Nightmare differs from other horror movies of its era when he says, “For Nightmare on Elm Street [sic], the thing that makes it so unique is that up until this film, we did not have a supernatural presence in horror films anymore. We had Michael Myers, we had Jason Voorhees, we had Norman Bates, but these were all flesh-and-blood characters that, even though because of the franchise they didn’t die, it wasn’t because they were a monster…. The whole idea of the supernatural element in horror films had just pretty much dried up. And then Wes Craven came up with this, this amazing character, this dream-demon called Fred Krueger” (00:18:20). With Krueger, Craven reawakened the dormant sub-genre of supernatural horror.
So what role could realism possibly play in a film which not only centres on a dream stalker, but which is often set in dreams as well? For starters, director Wes Craven and his crew decided to make those dream sequences as realistic as they could, which meant keeping special effects to a minimum. They used a fairly subtle device to distinguish between the dreamscape and reality: dream sequences featured wisps of smoke, while real-world sequences were sharp. It’s a technique that has become cliché today, but as special effects designer Jim Doyle points out, at the time of the film’s release in 1984, “Nobody had ever done that kind of thing before” (00:37:39).
Similarly, cinematographer Jacques Haitkin made no major adjustments to his camerawork while filming the dream sequences, which gave the entire film a consistent visual style. “I didn’t get into trying to be really overly creepy. What’s scary is when stuff is a little real,” he explains. “I wanted to get enough naturalism in there so that it felt like it could really be happening. If it’s too artificial, stagy, that’s not a good thing. We didn’t go so far; that was a big debate, because if you jumped into ‘dream mode,’ you wouldn’t transition into there and have the scare” (00:37:58).
Next time we’ll get into how Craven tried to use the film’s cast and characters to bring some realism to the film, and in the process we’ll touch in his thoughts on female characters in horror films and how he likes to direct his actors.
What do you think? Did Freddy freak you out way back when? How do you think Nightmare compares to Craven’s many other contributions to the horror genre? What hits you harder: supernatural horror (like Nightmare) or “real-world” horror (like Halloween or Scream)?