November 16, 1984.
Where are you when the first Nightmare came out? Me? I’m working at Movies Twin in Santa Fe. It’s a quaint (even for the time) twin theater in De Vargas Mall at the edge of town. A handful of us are on staff that night, the night before the film’s release. We’re a bunch of eclectic, hyper-active teenagers, excited about that night’s screening, because. as anyone who’s worked in a movie theater knows, it’s routine to screen any newly assembled film before it opens to make sure the projectionist put the reels together right. In this case, we’re the projectionists, so we’re checking out our own work when we sit down in the theater just after midnight, popcorn and nachos in laps, giant, brimming Cokes on the floor. Since everything’s done manually at Movies Twin, Erik runs up and hits the projector motor switch, turns on the xenon arc bulb, taps the sound button (which also opens the heavy, red curtains) opens the dowser and lowers the house lights.
And we’re off on the ride of our lives. We’re aware, of course, we’re about to watch a horror flick, but we have no inkling that it’s to be a bit of terror so primal and effective that it would still resonate twenty-two years later.
By the time the credit sequence is over, we’re edgy.
Ten minutes in and we’re beginning to suspect this isn’t your average slasher flick.
And then seventeen minutes in comes Tina’s death scene. It’s a tour de force of suspense, gore and shock. As Krueger attacks her in her dream, her body spins like a top in mid-air, wrenched about by unseen forces, showering blood on her boyfriend who watches in shock and disbelief from the corner of the room. This is the defining moment for us. All bets are off. We’re at Wes Craven’s mercy, defenseless and whimpering.
I don’t remember much after that. I think we all passed out from fear.
Since then I’ve seen it a dozen times. It’s full of classic moments that, to this day, still resonate, still terrify. By today’s standards, where theater of the sadistic reigns supreme, the gore is tame. But at minute forty, a dreaming Heather Langenkamp is treated to a horrific vision of Amanda Wyss in her bodybag, bugs crawling from her mouth and worm-laden ooze sloughing out of her body into a delectable pool at her feet, and damn, it still works.
“This is just a dream, it isn’t real!” exclaims Nancy. If only it were so.
Forty-eight minutes into the movie comes what I think of as the “Exorcist” sequence. It’s time to bring science into the scenario. Nancy checks into a sleep clinic. We’re pitting science against the supernatural. This doesn’t have the brutal sparity and clinical horror of its counterpart in The Exorcist, where Regan checks into the hospital and undergoes her battery of tests, but it works towards our desire to find a rational explanation, and then robs us of that by confounding it.
Minute fifty-two. It occurs to me that maybe she SHOULD join her mother in hitting the Grey Goose. Alcohol robs the drinker of dreams. If she went to bed drunk, she might not reach that R.E.M. stage that seems so dangerous.
Minute 80. We’re setting up Johnny Depp’s notorious death scene, and Nancy delivers the tagline, “Whatever you do… Don’t. Fall. Asleep.”
Minute 92. Man, I wish I had Johnny Depp’s hair. Just for a little while, so I could scratch my head vigorously and then watch it fall back into place.
Seven minutes later Freddy pulls Mr. Depp into his bed and showers the room in blood, one of the film’s more spectacular effects. It’s the ol’ rotating room trick, not unlike that one where Fred Astair dances on the ceiling, only with less of a melody.
And just a word of advice? If John Saxon ever promises you he’ll be at your house in twenty minutes, don’t believe him, even if within those twenty minutes you somehow manage to turn your house into a cross between Grimtooth’s Traps and Home Alone.
To this day, there isn’t a horror movie in existence that fills me with more bloody, brutal, nostalgic warmth. The acting is clumsy, the dialogue is wooden, the effects show signs of age. But this is movie-making from a slightly more innocent time. Craven and company were working without a net, outside the plush confines of an established franchise. Their eyes were open, and the thing they made is a slice of bloody beauty.
In its opening weekend the film pulls in $1.27 million. In 2006 dollars, that’s…well, not a lot. This wasn’t a franchise yet. But its budget was about $1.8 million, so I guess it almost paid for itself way back in 1984. Imagine what it’s pulled in since then. Freddy Krueger became a worldwide phenomenon. Twenty years of VHS, DVD, laser and ancillary profits have poured in. Thousands of people dress up as him every Halloween.
It was money well spent.
That year it was nominated in the category of Best Horror Film by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films. Also nominated were Gremlins, Dreamscape, Firestarter, and Titan Find (renamed Creature.)
As for the sequels? Well, check back starting tomorrow. We’ll get into them, one by one.