A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, directed by Wes Craven)
Version reviewed: The excellent Region 1 DVD inside the boxset.
I'm not a huge fan of Wes Cravens films prior to "A Nightmare on Elm Street". I think "Last House on the Left" is only on paper an exercise in sadism - in practise it's an exercise in jarring tonal shifts that don't work. "The Hills Have Eyes" is a classic for what it is, but I don't get a huge urge to watch it ever, "Summer of Fear" was a minorly interesting TV movie, "Deadly Blessing" was an interesting retread of "Hills Have Eyes" and "Swamp Thing" was a bizarre, but not unenjoyable, comic book adaptation.
So I really have no idea where this came from. Craven's previous films had some interesting ideas in them - decay of personal civilisation, role of family, religious-influenced imagery - but nothing hugely conceptual. "A Nightmare on Elm Street" changed all that. Being both of and immensely superior to the slasher movement, it's inspiration seems obvious at first, then conceptually perfect in practise. Twenty-five years after this film, none of it's seven sequels have come close to anything resembling this films' power - and a 2010 remake looks unlikely to either.
The story is...available on Wikipedia for you to look at. The characters aren't drawn in any significant detail throughout the film. I'm not sure of the intent of this, but in practice it feels like the assumed-familiarity of a dream and the film is a lot better for it. All of the young characters are portrayed as just normal kids (as opposed to the two-dimensional stereotypes that would appear in the sequels), with Heather Langencamp's Nancy ultimately arising as a heroine that is both unlikely and perfectly plausable in retrospect. In other words, she's not the most immediately engaging character, but her strength of conviction is on display right from the beginning. Freddy Krueger (here just "Fred") is kept bathed in shadows, only slim facets of the profile of his face ever on significant display. His voice is very different to how it would appear in subsequent films - he says around twenty words in the entire film, all deep and sleezily mumbled. He doesn't joke around in this film - his taunts seem cruel as opposed to the sub-Cryptkeeper punning of later films.
The idea of a supremely evil force, tied to both the physical (slasher) and metaphysical (supernatural) modes of horror, returning from the past to torment the children of sin in suburbia is a simple but brilliant premise for a horror film.
I must single out for praise Charles Bernstein's score. It isn't fantastic all the way through (the track labelled "Run Nancy" on the soundtrack that plays, unsurprisingly, whenever Nancy seems to run in the film is dreadful), but is frequently timeless and brilliant. Compare the score here, which incorperates a signiture melody along with dreamlike synth groans, with the template Harry Manfredini score for "Friday the 13th".
The big acheivement here, what pushes it into the realm of "greatest horror films America has ever produced", is to marry the fast American narrative style with strong dream inspired imagery and a palpable feeling of dread. I tell you, when the American narrative drive is tied to something compelling, it's unstoppable.