In A Nightmare on Elm Street, high school football player Glen (Johnny Depp, in his movie debut), his girlfriend Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and two schoolmates have been having disturbing dreams about a badly scarred man in a hat and garish striped sweater who's stalking, taunting, and trying to kill them with a custom-made glove that has knives in the fingers. After a ghastly murder, Nancy manages to pry the truth from her mother (Ronee Blakely).
Years ago a child-killer named Freddy Krueger prowled their neighborhood and was released from jail on a legal technicality. The grown ups set his dwelling on fire, burning Krueger alive, and concealed their act of vigilantism. Of course, those same grown ups now have no clue that the renewed "nightmare" on Elm Street is the vengeful ghost of Freddy (Robert Englund) hunting and tormenting their sleeping offspring.
Common Sense Media Review
Part of this film's success was that writer-director Wes Craven made it at a time when banal, bloody copies of Friday the 13th (starring hockey-masked Jason) commonly filled theaters. Any teen-themed horror film that was even halfway original and imaginative would have stood out refreshingly, and this one did. A Nightmare on Elm Street's cast of teenage characters was a shade more sympathetic and well-drawn than Jason's victims.
The dream-attack gimmick (which is never really explained as clearly as it should be) makes for lots of shock scenes and visual surprises, teasing viewers about what is or isn't really happening, and filmmaker Craven also plants more sophisticated seeds of unease. Parenting and family life -- touchstones of reassurance and protection in horror movies like Poltergeist -- aren't sources of comfort here. Mothers and fathers killed Krueger and covered it up, and now the villain is punishing their children for it rather than them -- the old sins-of-the-fathers biblical warning (in slasher-movie clothing).
Wes Craven blurs the boundaries between dreams and reality in his groundbreaking, artery-slashing piece of mid-Eighties horror. Bookended by the infamous kiddies’ rhyme (‘One, two; Freddy’s coming for you…’) much of the key action takes place in a terrifying variety of dreams capes that any child (or adult, for that matter) would do best to avoid. Of course, obeying Horror’s Third Law of Motion, no one does this, and most are picked off one by one in a selection of horrific treats; slayings which are made all the more unpleasant by the knowledge of Freddy’s unsavory past.
In between the murders are some stunning special effects (the scene where Freddy threatens to burst through a bedroom wall is a stand-out) and genuine characterizations of our sleepless teenage crew of Freddy fodder. Add to this a truly repulsive anti-hero-in-the-making and the eery ease with which Craven can turn dream into reality, and you’re left with a modern horror classic.