The Absolute Best Horror Cinema Offered in 2019
2019 was another great year for the horror genre, and while we could have easily listed about thirty movies we’d love to recommend, we decided instead to narrow it down to our fifteen favourites.
We here at Sordid Cinema believe horror transcends explicit gore, jump scares or supernatural content, which is why you’ll soon notice that our list ranges from independent art films to psychological thrillers to parodies to satire and more. Whether you’re a fan of psychological terror, sci-fi dread, traditional slasher flicks, or gory splatterfests, we hope you’ll find at least one movie on this list that you’ll enjoy.
Editor’s Note: In order to qualify, a movie must have been released either theatrically or on VOD in 2019. We are not including any of the amazing horror films we watched at film festivals that have not yet been released. In addition, because it was such a strong year for horror films, we also listed some special mentions below. That out of the way, here are the fifteen best horror movies of 2019.
During the lead-up to Gaspar Noé’s most recent provocation, Climax, he released a one-sheet that’s one the more honest bits of film advertising ever created: “You despised I Stand Alone, you hated Irreversible, you loathed Enter the Void, you cursed Love, now try Climax.” Nothing it says is wrong — each film has its defenders and detractors, but few filmmakers can turn off viewers like Noé. What’s most amazing about his latest is how completely enjoyable it is for the first 45 minutes or so. What follows is peppered with his standard touchstones: sex, sexual violence, regular ol’ violence, and hallucinogenic drug trips. Noé fans will find everything they like about his films here in Climax, but even his usual critics may be seduced by his style — at least until the drugs take hold.
Climax telegraphs where it will go in its opening minutes. After a quick flashforward to future violence, we see a series of interviews with dancers on an old TV circa 1996. The on-screen text suggests the film is based on real events from 1996, but it’s all a fabrication on Noé’s part. His performers are congregated in a dance hall with their choreographer (Sofia Boutella, the film’s only professional actor), who plans to take the troupe on a US tour. In Climax’s first section, they perform a choreographed dance soundtracked with incessant ‘90s dance music. Even the staunchest Noé critics will have trouble finding fault with the voguing (the actors are all professional dancers and YouTubers), but someone has spiked their bowl of sangria with LSD, and the stylish music video soon turns into an even more stylish nightmare.
Noé’s camera is as fleeting and energized as the dancers in front of it. His regular cinematographer, Benoît Debie, plays up the garish club lighting — a candy-colored rave nightmare. There’s a virtuoso sequence toward the end where the camera flips upside down (mirroring its acrobatics in Irréversible), which cleverly dehumanizes the dancers. When looking at faces upside down, our brains struggle to reorient them; we can figure out who the character is through isolated features, but they look foreign, alien. The LSD has warped them into panicky monsters, and the camera allows us to see them in this new light by actually transforming them.
There’s plenty that’s sickening and offensive, including the fate of a child unfortunate enough to be roped into the debauchery, but few Noé films allow the audience to sit back and revel in the music and images quite like Climax. His movies always sit uncomfortably at the precipice of horror, and this one is more delightful than anything in his oeuvre in its first half, and more destabilizing than any of his films (aside from Irréversible) in its back half. Chances are, you’ll have a much better trip than the unfortunate souls on screen — that is, if you don’t vomit first. (Brian Marks)
Though little in the script elevates it above your average SyFy creature feature, director Alexandre Aja’s Crawl offers plenty of tightly constructed, toothy thrills courtesy of some sharp direction and a lead performance that consistently buoys even the more ridiculous bits (and bites). While it may not live up to “you’ll never go in the water again” standards, this is nevertheless breezy horror entertainment that delivers enough murky spooks and gruesome attacks to make audiences think twice about wading in the reedy shallows.
Sporting a simplistic plot that could have just as easily been titled Gatorcane, Crawl sees Florida college swimmer Haley (an incredibly game Kaya Scodelario) trapped in a flooding basement with her father and some bitey reptiles during a massive storm. This type of setup has all the makings of classic B-movie schlock, but Crawl manages a better grade thanks to production values that are a cut above most ‘killer beast’ fare. Aja (The Hills Have Eyes remake, Piranha 3D) creates a creaky, muddy, desolate place for his characters to be trapped in; the dripping dankness is palpable, while the diffused light keeps the water shimmering — and goads viewers into constantly searching for scaly movement.
A subplot involving the now-distant daddy-daughter relationship is clumsy, but mercifully takes little time away from the tense cat-and-mouse action; some typical monster physics issues also arise. Regardless, Crawl slithers past any flaws on the muscular strength of its merits. This is a spare, confident creature feature that gets quickly where it wants to go, and doesn’t ease up on the tension. Perhaps not quite apex predator material, but definitely near the top of the summer horror entertainment food chain. (Patrick Murphy)
The Dead Don’t Die
Director Jim Jarmusch has worked in many genres and styles over the last three decades, but The Dead Don’t Die might be his most delightful film. It’s a star-studded zombie comedy that pays equal homage to George Romero and Frank Zappa, in which the characters seem to be aware that they are characters in a movie.
The film has so many fun touches, from Sturgill Simpson’s repetitive, eponymous theme song, to Carol Kane asking for coffee, to Rosie Perez’s TV reporter character’s name being “Posey Juarez.” And I don’t know that I’ve gotten a bigger laugh out of any sight this year than that of the very tall Adam Driver driving a very small smart car. (Stephen Silver)
It: Chapter Two
Where, It: Chapter One uses the fight against Pennywise as a metaphor for the characters facing their deepest fears as they enter adulthood, Chapter Two tackles themes of memory and childhood trauma, exploring the loss of innocence decades after our heroes faced off against the creepy, dancing clown with outsize yellow teeth, a high-pitched squeak of a voice, and a habit of eating kids. And like Chapter One, Chapter Two deals with grief, insecurities, trauma, and guilt. These characters may be older, but they continue to be haunted by their own personal demons, and they have ways to go before they can ever heal.
For better or for worse, It stands out as one of the rare films that have attempted to remain as true as possible to the source material and despite the running time, there’s a lot to like here, as It: Chapter Two oozes with spectacular scenery, stupefying effects, an epic score, and plenty of nerve-jangling scenes that will have viewers shrieking. In between the odd prologue and the disappointing climax is roughly two hours of well-crafted filmmaking and fifty minutes of excess. (Ricky D)
It’s difficult to nail down the exact start of cinema, but historians generally peg it to December 1895, when the Lumières exhibited ten of their short films in Paris. So far, the rising filmmaker Robert Eggers has set both of his feature films in this pre-cinema period, with The Witch taking place in barely colonized America of the 1630s, and his newest, The Lighthouse, occurring sometime around the 1890s. With his first-period horror film, he drew on the style of meticulous (and meticulously slow) period films that began to flourish in the 1960s and ‘70s. But he’s taken a differing approach with The Lighthouse, which finds him working in chilling black and white. Though the settings appear to be a note-perfect (owing to Eggers’ past as a production and costume designer), the style and tone of his latest film evoke the madness-inducing mood of German expressionism. In place of the twisting, snaking sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), he utilizes the rocky coast of Nova Scotia to create an alien world that seems inhospitable to human life.
Robert Pattinson stars as Ephraim Winslow, a mush-mouthed wanderer who has moved to a lighthouse on a remote island for a four-week rotation in which he’ll care for the giant beam and its upkeep. Joining him is the more senior Thomas Wake (an astounding Willem Dafoe), a grizzled veteran of the lighthouse duty who fancies himself the boss, even though they’re ostensibly of the same rank. As in another film that he clearly admires, The Shining (1980), Eggers establishes an immediate sense of dread. We know something terrible will happen — it’s just not clear what that is. He eschews easy scares, or even the kind of harmless jumps that make you chuckle with relief afterward. Instead, he lightens the oppressive mood with plenty of humorous interactions between the salty seadogs (and fart jokes galore). The greatest horror directors often know the maximum amount of humor they can inject without toning down their frights, and Eggers walks that line delicately. Not that his frights are all that piercing to begin with. His two features to date have been masterful exercises in style, and their success depends wholly on whether or not one gets on his wavelength. But anyone who connects to The Lighthouse’s meticulous compositions and deliberate pacing will be richly rewarded by its final bloody moments. (Brian Marks)
Ari Aster’s Midsommar centers on Dani (Florence Pugh) and the slow dissolution of her relationship with distant boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), as they accompany his school friends to remote Swedish festival that soon spirals into a blood-soaked nightmare. The film deserves acclaim for its excellent cinematography, acting performances, and originality. The entirety is shot in a way that lends direct praise to the director of photography Pawel Pogorzelski, but there are several choice scenes throughout Midsommar that are pulled straight from Aster’s screenplay — evidence of how tightly his directing plays into his screenwriting.
For instance, a simple scene transition from a city apartment to an airplane bathroom is instantly transformed into a remarkable shot; the camera floats seamlessly overhead as Dani is transported onto a transatlantic flight. The direction works in tandem with Pugh’s performance, preventing her character from fully escaping the constant panic attack that threatens to overwhelm her.
Later on, the effects of drugs used throughout the film are echoed in the scenery and camera movements, creating a disorienting climax. As characters’ faces blur and colors appear to ooze through the screen, Aster’s directing style is simultaneously powerful yet purposefully disconcerting, which might as well be the thesis for Midsommar itself.
Although the dialogue is less overtly dramatic than that of Hereditary (Aster’s film debut), the passive death of Dani and Christian’s relationship is painted with a delicate but knowing hand. During press for Midsommar, Aster disclosed that he wrote the screenplay in the aftermath of a nasty breakup. While certain liberties are taken with his story (the bear carcass, for one), personal trauma is written all over Midsommar. For anyone who has lived through a slow and inevitable breakup, the depiction of Dani and Christian’s relationship cuts close to home, and is even palpable from their first scene, in which Dani talks to him on the phone, pleading for reassurance as she downplays her anxiety.
It’s also worth noting that Pugh’s portrayal of a young woman grappling with an anxiety disorder is visceral in every scene. Whether it’s shown through primal screams or a quiet, unending hum, Pugh embodies her anxiety — as well as her battle to dampen it at every turn — perfectly. While the early plot development of Dani’s mentally ill sister killing herself and both of their parents is a symptom of a disappointing trend in horror films to make synonyms of the concepts “crazy” and “evil,” the rest of Midsommar does an enviable job of validating Dani’s anxiety. When the climax finally allows Dani to fully feel everything, and ultimately shed those worries for a new life, the moment feels earned. In short, Midsommar is by no means flawless, but it’s a welcome entry in an art form that’s quickly running out of creative corners to turn to. It’s beautiful, it’s disgusting, and above all it’s cathartic; all the traits of a modern horror film destined for cult status. (Meghan Cook)
Luz is directed with such care and such precision, that what could have been a simple chamber drama ends up being one of the best-directed and best-edited films I’ve seen all year. It really is an incredible achievement given how much mileage the cast and crew get out of a small budget. Even more impressive is that from my understanding, Luz began as a student film, and was Tilman’s thesis project while attending the Academy of Media Arts Cologne. Not bad for a first feature!
The story of Luz is a relatively simple one (even if it is told out of sequence, using a series of vignettes), but if you’re open to films that twist the conventions and bend the language of image and sound in creative new ways, you won’t want to miss this. Tilman Singer’s take on demonic possession is a breath of fresh air, and Luz is a real treat for fans of vintage horror cinema (in particular, the experimental Giallo genre). The fun of watching Luz is admiring how Tilman and his very talented team rely on old tricks of the trade used before the age of computers and digital effects. (Ricky D)
One Cut of the Dead
A giddy, hilarious, invigorating celebration of the spirit of movie-making, Shin’ichirô Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead cleverly plays with technique in carefully crafting a bonkers story of a micro-budget film crew tasked with shooting a C-level zombie pic in an abandoned warehouse. Things start going wrong, blood starts splattering, and the ragtag group of goofballs must come together to overcome a maniacal director, bad improv, severed arms, method acting, axes to the head, untimely slips, and zombie vomit in order to come out on top and survive until the credits roll. The result is simply one of the most entertaining movies about making movies that you will ever see.
The one-take opening act might catch viewers off guard, as in addition to the spurting neck bites, flailing hatchets, and the obligatory sprained ankle, audiences also might notice how awkward the whole thing comes off. Odd looks, wonky camerawork, jerky timing, and strange asides remind one of late-night horror schlock. And yet…there’s no doubt that even the most gracious horror audiences will get the feeling that something isn’t quite right, and be wishing that there was a bit more. Luckily, the real fun is just beginning.
Suffice to say, as One Cut of the Dead begins to flesh itself out, that ambitious (if somewhat clunky on the surface) opening pays off in such a supremely satisfying way that many viewers will immediately want to immediately re-watch it in order to spot little moments that they initially missed. A cast of unknowns admirably puts their passion on full display, all the way through a resoundingly satisfying end. From the expert crafting of its revelations to the blatant love for filmmaking’s cavalcade of catastrophes, One Cut of the Dead is a wonderful treasure that needs to be seen by anyone and everyone who delights in both the magic on screen, and the passion behind the scenes. (Patrick Murphy)
The notion that pain and suffering make for great artistry is an idea as old as art itself. However, few films use that conceit to as chilling an effect as The Perfection.
Charlotte (Allison Williams) was a child prodigy cellist. She learned from a world-renowned instructor, and could be playing in concerts today if she hadn’t been forced to take care of her terminally-ill mother. Now, years later, her mother has passed and Charlotte hopes to regain her glory. There’s just one problem: someone has taken her place. Lizzie (Logan Browning) is now the belle of the ball, and if Charlotte wants her place back at the head of the class, she’s going to have to get nasty.
With enough twists and turns to keep things remarkably fresh for its 90-minute runtime, The Perfection is a great piece of original horror for an October night. Just note that this one isn’t for the squeamish, in terms of both subject matter and gruesome violence. (Mike Worby)
Ready or Not
Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who are collectively credited as Radio Silence (V/H/S, Southbound), Ready or Not has a lot to offer in wit, style, and entertainment. It feels tailor-made for a midnight audience, as the bloodthirsty relatives arm themselves to the teeth in a wedding night filled with crossbows, shotguns, decapitations, a car chase, and a level of gore I didn’t expect given the marketing. The climax is especially memorable — an all-out gore extravaganza that left the audience laughing hysterically.
There’s a lot to like here, from the score by composer Brian Tyler to the cinematography by Brett Jutkiewicz, but the reason this film works so well is because of the talented cast they’ve assembled, most notably Alex’s alcoholic brother, Daniel (Adam Brody), who serves as the family’s moral core. And of course, there’s also Samara Weaving, (Mayhem, The Babysitter) who pretty much sacrifices her body in blood-soaked scenes of action and terror. The actress is fully dedicated in her role, turning into her own version of Ripley while tearing apart the upper-class society, their ridiculous traditions, and their silly superstitions. (Ricky D)
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Movies depicting the scarier side of life aren’t often made for teens, and either skew too young (Goosebumps) or older (Hereditary). Still, there’s a space in the market out there for horror that rides a fine line between condescending and inappropriately gory. With Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, director André Øvredal (Troll Hunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) manages to walk that tightrope, albeit with few wobbles.
The plot is fairly generic — a group of friends discovers a sinister-looking book in the local haunted house, demise ensues — but it’s simply a by-product of the genre; what makes this movie work is the imagery and scares that come when the book starts to write itself, going after each teen in turn. Pushing the boundaries of its PG-13 rating, the young cast is violently turned into scarecrows, covered in spiders, and chased by a terrifying creature called the Jangly Man, with segment having unique and disturbing imagery.
It may not go down in history as one of the best horror movies of all time, but with some decent scares, captivating images, and a good cast (Zoe Colletti as lead Stella, in particular, is excellent), it’s a thoroughly enjoyable and refreshing ride. (Veronica Cooper)
One of those films that sticks long after, even if you’re not sure why, Starfish‘s story of a woman coming to terms with the death of her friend — as well as the appearance of inter-dimensional portals that bring stalking beasts to the streets of a small mountain town — is more about mood than motives, willing to test boundaries by going to some weird places. It’s also strangely hypnotic, even during unbroken shots of its protagonist simply staring straight ahead, or trippy fourth-wall-breaking moments like a visit to the film’s own set (more unsettling in context than it sounds).
Much of this is due to wide compositions that capture the loneliness of the post-apocalyptic environment, yet also manage to convey the safety and comfort of familiar surroundings. The use of effects can also be particularly startling in their quality, whether portraying frightful, stalking beasts or magnificently beautiful, towering behemoths (there are inklings of The Mist in its mix of terror and awe). Rarely is there not something to look at, no framing that highlights an object of interest. Anchoring all of this is Virginia Gardner, who seems strangely grounded and otherworldly at once. Though her character is not especially talkative, Gardner’s nebular face is often the most fascinating thing on screen, conveying just enough pieces of her puzzle to lure viewers into her quest, all while never overplaying her hand.
These elements add up to a fascinating cinematic experience. A.T. White’s debut is an opaque, meandering film definitely more interested in exploring inwards than reaching for the philosophical cosmos, but though its frigid atmosphere and sparse narrative can sometimes be hard to penetrate, there’s something magnetic at play here — a sci-fi siren’s song that lures viewers in with an engaging lead performance and often stunning visuals. (Patrick Murphy)
Tigers Are Not Afraid
Issa López immediately sets the stage for her latest film, Tigers Are Not Afraid, with an opening text screen detailing the horrific loss of human life in Mexico’s ongoing drug war. The voices of schoolchildren enter the soundtrack, as they recount the creatures and heroes of fairy tales. Moments later, their classroom falls into chaos as gunfire begins to thunder outside, and bullets perforate the walls over their cowering heads. The dichotomy is striking, and purposeful; ‘What use are fairytales to these children?’ the film seems to demand. ‘What business do princes and genies have when we’re confronted with such brutality, such callous disregard for life?’ Tigers Are Not Afraid spends the rest of its runtime grappling with these questions, and the result is one of the best and most urgent fantasy films in recent memory, destined to be a classic among fans of socially-charged fantasy and horror. It stands alongside works like Pan’s Labyrinth in contrasting the fantastical and the brutal, but speaks in its own voice from the first moments to the last. (Thomas O’Connor)
Jordan Peele’s Get Out was a smashing hit back in 2017 — a biting satire on racial tension in America that won Peele an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and was one of the most talked-about and commonly dissected horror films of the decade, catapulting the first-time director firmly into the spotlight. Now, two years later, Peel has returned with his sophomore effort, the physiological thriller US, that pits an endearing American family against a terrifying and uncanny opponent: doppelgängers of themselves.
Where Get Out took a simple premise and turned it into a brilliant allegory for what it’s like to be black in America, Us structures itself as a home invasion thriller that touches on issues of class, capitalism, gender, and on the lasting effects of trauma and/or mental illness. It’s a smorgasbord of terrifying sights, sounds, and images, with a climax that will likely leave audiences with split opinions. For some, the reveal will enhance the experience, but for others, it will leave a bitter taste in their mouth. Regardless of where you stand, US demands to be seen a second time, as it is the sort of film that will be over-analyzed for years to come — something the best horror movies all do. (Ricky D)
Dan Gilroy’sVelvet Buzzsaw is a quirky, quasi-ghost story involving cursed paintings that terrorize an already cutthroat Los Angeles art scene. Those able to parse the pseudo-intellectual gibberish will find some bloody genre thrills beneath a savage critique of self-obsessed artists, vapid dealers, and elitist tastemakers. Brightly shot and darkly funny, this cultural roast may seem like low-hanging fruit, but Gilroy’s sharp dialogue coupled with off-beat performances from his stellar cast keeps things zipping devilishly along even when the story gets bogged down in trying to explain its own silliness.
Involving the discovery of a series of haunted paintings that are picking off elitist tastemakers like it’s back in style (did it ever leave?), Velvet Buzzsaw finds snooty art critic Morf Vandewalt (an entertainingly mannered Jake Gyllenhaal) poking his nose in search of answers. Much of the fun of Velvet Buzzsaw is watching him interact with the comfortable bubble he and his cronies have blown for themselves, then be forced to deal with outside forces they don’t understand. Cocktail parties are rife with the kinds of people who would blindly applaud the Emperor’s new clothes, wannabe geniuses desperate to lap up any scraps from the table of their gallery masters, all the while conniving their own ascent. In one wickedly funny moment, a gruesome murder scene is obliviously mistaken for an installation; reality is checked at the door for these people.
Determining exactly why these people are biting that dust is like looking at an impressionist painting up close, but viewed from a distance, Velvet Buzzsaw is a skillful romp. The brush strokes might be too broad for those who like their slices more incisive, but outsiders curious about this specific world will find much to revel in. Dan Gilroy has painted another part of his town red, slathering satire over slaughter. It may not be art, but I know what I like. (Patrick Murphy)
‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood
A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.
Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.
When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.
Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.
Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.
Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.
History of ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ – the Movie that Made me a Movie Buff
Wes Craven intended Nightmare to be an exploration of surreal horror as opposed to just another stalk-and-slash horror movie, and not only did Nightmare offer a wildly imaginative, inspired concept, but it was a solid commercial genre entry for the dating crowd. Elm Street was New Line’s first genuine mainstream cinematic venture (after Alone In The Dark), and made the company a huge pile of money. The film was shot in 30 days at a cost of roughly $1.8 million, but it made back its figure and then some on opening weekend. New Line Cinema was saved from bankruptcy by the success of the film, and was jokingly nicknamed “the house that Freddy built.”
Perhaps the most influential horror film of the ’80s, Craven’s 1984 slasher about a quartet of high school kids terrorized in their dreams by a torched boogeyman in a fedora hat and dusty pullovers spawned countless sequels and even a TV series.
One great thing Nightmare offered, perhaps more than anything else, was a new horror star in Robert Englund. Englund based the physicality of Freddy on Klaus Kinski’s performance in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979), making Freddy one of the most recognizable modern horror villains: vicious, but with a sense of humour as sharp as the blades on his gloves. The horribly barbequed man with the ragged slouch hat, dusty red-and-green striped sweater, and metal gloves with knives at the tip of each finger, had not yet become the ridiculous wisecracking clown of the sequels. Here he says very little, and when he does speak, his words are powerful for its brevity – and oh those infamous razor gloves scraping against metal is enough to send shivers down your spine.
The inspiration for the character of Freddy came from several sources in Wes Craven’s childhood. The name, Fred Krueger, came from a schoolmate of Craven who had bullied him for several years and Freddy’s appearance was inspired by a hobo lurking around Craven’s house, who Craven spotted from his bedroom window one night at the age of ten. But the basis of the film was inspired by several newspaper articles printed in the LA Times on a group of Khmer refugees, who were suffering disturbing nightmares, and refused to sleep – with the most extreme cases leading to actual death in the throes of horrific nightmares. Medical authorities called the phenomenon Asian Death Syndrome.
“I don’t know who he is, but he’s burned and he wears a weird hat and a red and green sweater, really dirty. And he uses these knives, like giant fingernails… “
This was the film that introduced the world to Freddy Krueger, a monster who exists in his victims’ dreams and preys on them in the vulnerability of sleep. The idea behind the glove was a practical one on Wes Craven’s part, as he wanted to give the character a unique weapon, but also something that could be made cheaply and wouldn’t be difficult to transport. The end result brings a macabre ghostly figure throughout – indeed, precisely what nightmares are made of.
In addition to offering the visceral thrills that are necessary in a genre entry, Craven’s screenplay works on several levels. Here the idea of sleep as the ultimate threat is ingenious and incredibly insidious. Craven masterfully disguises dreams as reality and vice versa, and the idea that injuries sustained in dreams also exist outside helps to further blur the already murky distinction between the two. The primary element that elevates A Nightmare on Elm Street above many other slasher films is that the storyline invites intellectual observation: At times, we’re aware that the characters are trapped in a dreamscape, but there are times when we are not, and there are occasions when we suspect they’re awake and they are actually asleep – as if the children are in a never-ending state of hypnagogia.
The ultimate revelation however is that Freddy is really the byproduct of parental vigilantism. The teenagers in the film are paying for the sins of their parents —and thus the brute is determined to exact revenge in using their children as his victims. Nightmare has been described as a reaction to the perceived innocence of American suburbs: parents in the film’s fictional suburb dispose of Krueger and hide any form of his existence in an attempt to build a safe environment for their children. There’s a clear generational divide in A Nightmare on Elm Street, with the children trying to stay awake both figuratively and literally and the parents continuing to ignore the situation, utterly avoiding taking responsibility for their hideous actions. They instead bury their memories of the crime they once commuted so deep down inside, it remains lodged in the far reaches of their brain, where we can also find their declarative memories. As a result, the sins-of-the-father biblical warning (in a slasher-movie setting) have allowed Krueger to amass incredible power in his nightmare world – power he uses to exact his revenge. More so, Freddy’s actions have been interpreted as symbolic of the often traumatic experiences of adolescence. Sexuality is ever present in Freudian images and is almost exclusively displayed in a threatening and mysterious context (i.e. Tina’s death visually evokes a rape, Freddy’s glove emerges between Nancy’s legs in the bath, a centipede crawls out of the mouth of one of the victims and finally a mattress swallows up Johnny Depp only to ejaculate him immediately after). The original script actually called for Krueger to be a child molester, rather than a child killer, but somehow the idea was lost in the process of shooting.
Craven claimed he wanted someone very “non-Hollywood” for the role of Nancy, and he believed Langenkamp met this quality. Depp was another unknown when he was cast; and initially never intending on auditioning. Instead he was only tagging along with friend Jackie Earle Haley (who went on to play Freddy in the 2010 remake), yet it was Depp who got the part of Glen instead. Nightmare was both the feature debut and breakthrough for Depp and a stepping stone to bigger things to come.
Nightmare is the story of the courage and resourcefulness of one extraordinary girl. At the age of 19, Langekamp portrays one of the most perfectly realized and well-expressed teenagers/heroines of the 1980s. The best slasher films all have realistic heroines, and Langenkamp ranks as close to the top as Janet Leigh or Jamie Lee Curtis. As Nancy, Heather Langenkamp is closer to Alien’s Sigourney Weaver than to Halloween’s Jamie Lee Curtis: quick-witted, adventurous and courageous, and willing to enter into Freddy’s realm even when she knows he has the upper glove. Nancy and Freddy are incredibly well-matched: during the climax, she even uses a few survivalist techniques to turn the tables on Freddy. Her character is one of the greatest “final girls” in the history of slasher films, and goes on to reappear throughout the franchise in the only two solid sequels (A Nightmare On Elm Street 3, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare).
Visually, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a real treat hovering somewhere between gothic, supernatural imagery and the typical 80’s slasher fare. Cinematographer Jacques Haitkin’s work here is innovative and atmospheric, capturing a malevolent mood with light and shadow, most notably in the surrealistic basement scenes set around the furnace. Like so many films of this genre, its artistic ingenuity is intensified with various bloody set-pieces and visual effects. A Nightmare on Elm Street boasts several impressively conceived and well executed dream/kill sequences. During production, over 500 gallons of fake blood were used for the special effects production. The special effects, most of which are low-tech, are surprisingly effective, and this was the first film to use a breakaway mirror.
Craven’s probing of the waking/dreaming barrier results in some memorable kill sequences. Tina’s (Amanda Wyss) death scene, which featured her trashing across the ceiling, was partly inspired by the movie Royal Wedding (1951), which was the first movie to use a rotating set. The set here slowly spun to allow her to roll into position, with a camera bolted to the wall and a cameraman strapped into a chair beside it, which turned in tandem with the room. It’s important to remember that this was a low budget film shot in 30 days. For the two shots where Rod (Jsu Garcia) and Tina reach out for one another, Tina is actually lying on the floor and Garcia is hanging upside down with his hair pasted to stay flat.
FX man Jim Doyle was responsible for designing and constructing the ingenious full-scale gyro rotating room which was again used for Johnny Depp’s kill. For the famous blood geyser sequence, the furniture, cameraman, director and actor were fixed in place, and the room would spin upside down, thus allowing the rigged room to appear right side up while thousands of gallons of fake blood would seem to gush, erupt and ejaculate from the bed. On the DVD commentary, Wes Craven remarks that the room spinning the wrong way was like a “Ferris Wheel from hell.” This scene was partly inspired by the elevator scene in The Shining. Particularly effective is the scene where Nancy is attacked by Krueger in her bathtub and pulled under the water into a pitch-black pool leading to a back alley chase where Freddy stalks her. To achieve this effect, the tub was put in a bathroom set that was built over a swimming pool. During this underwater sequence Heather Langenkamp was replaced with a stuntwoman. Also worth noting is the “melting staircase” as seen in Nancy’s dream, which was created using pancake mix and directed by Friday the 13th director Sean S. Cunningham (who is uncredited). Finally, the sequence in which Freddy is set on fire, shot in one long take (with several cameramen), featured one hell of an elaborate and dangerous stunt by stuntman Anthony Cecere (who won best stunt of the year for it).
Finally I just couldn’t end without mentioning Charles Bernstein’s spare score, the musical cues, synthesizers, creepy sound effects and the film’s unforgettable children’s rhyme – which is all perfect for the material – eerie but never overwhelming.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is tailor made for those who like their scares evened with thought-provoking ideas – something that is a rarity in this genre. Yes, there are plenty of shocks, but there’s something much more: a psychological fantasy thriller that tears away at the barrier of dreams and reality, making us think twice before settling in for a good night’s sleep. The film may be a bit rough around the edges for the new generation, and multiple viewings do tend to expose its low-budget origins, but Nightmare is still to this day dark and forbidding, chilling and incredibly unnerving – a near masterpiece of independent genre filmmaking.
35 Years Later: ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ is an Important, Dark Dream
It’s hard to believe that Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is still relevant horror. Sure, it was a foundational film for its time, and spawned a massive-yet-under-performing franchise, but modern horror is almost an entirely different type of genre, and Craven’s nightmare can tend to feel a bit dated and powerless.
However, that doesn’t mean that A Nightmare on Elm Street isn’t important. At the time of its release, the entire slasher genre was slowly breathing it’s last, dying breath. Box office numbers were low, and studio interest was waning, primarily because of market saturation and media hysteria.
On the surface, Craven’s film seems like an average, schlocky horror flick. On sleepy Elm St., Boogeyman Freddy Krueger exacts his revenge on a group of young teenagers; by entering their dreams, the monster picks them off one-by-one in gruesome and suggestive fashion.
But there’s so much more to it than “bad guy chops up kiddies in their dreams.” Many years down the line, A Nightmare on Elm Street is still an important piece of cinema that opened doors for personality-driven slashers like Child’s Play and Scream. In doing so, Craven’s vision blends genres to bring new life to the psychological horror genre of the 80s.
Breaking the slasher formula
It’s no secret that A Nightmare on Elm Street is absolutely oozing sexual transgression, but it does so in interesting ways. Like many slasher films of the era, it plays upon the societal fears of promiscuity amongst the youth, and offers thrilling retribution for their actions. This is solidified very early in the film when Linda and Rod (the first to die) hook up during a sleepover and are punished by death at the hands of the dream killer.
But A Nightmare on Elm Street breaks from tradition to create something a little more frightening. Although Glen makes the mistake of advancing on Nancy, she turns him down. In fact, their relationship is a shining example of a caring and respectful teen couple. Contrary to the slasher formula, Glen is still brutally murdered by Freddy, even though he broke no boundaries, leaving Nancy alone as the chaste final girl.
It’s this fact that makes the film not about punishment for the transgressions of youth, but retribution for the actions of their parents. Sure, A Nightmare on Elm Street feels like a very slasher-esque and retains a lot of the genre’s hallmarks, but there are the darker elements of inherited sin and pedophilia that lurk underneath.
It’s this notion of the “something” the parents have “done” to their children that creates the film’s unique nightmarish quality. Either naïve, absent, or alcoholic, the parents open the door for a horror to steal the innocence of their youth. That, combined with Freddy’s overt sexual advances on Nancy, make for the darkest piece of all.
Adding a dash of fantasy
A crucial development by A Nightmare on Elm Street is its blending of the fantasy and slasher genres. While previous horror films tended to keep the narrative grounded in reality, Craven’s work uses fantastical imagery to provide an otherworldly quality.
While there had always been slight supernatural elements to genre staples like Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street uses dreams to open up new vistas for the genre and new dreamscapes to explore. This provided an entirely new playground for Craven to bend the laws of cinema and create interesting twists that keeps audiences guessing.
In doing so, Craven places a much heavier focus on using a special effects team to create inventive uses of set. While borrowing much of these images from sci-fi and fantasy films, the director still brings a greater usage of these stunts into a genre normally known for its portrayal of stark reality.
A little humor in horror
A Nightmare on Elm Street is also notable for its interesting use of comedy to punctuate the darker subject elements. Although not an overtly funny film, the sinister playfulness of Freddy’s character comes across as almost slapstick at times. While probably not intentional, it’s the cat-and-mouse game that Freddy plays with Nancy that is disgustingly humorous, and Englund’s movements and facial expressions somehow blend horror and farce together to disorient the audience.
It honestly feels like Craven may have taken some inspiration from a film that makes brief cameo in A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Evil Dead. While not intentionally funny, Raimi’s low-budget work married humor and the grotesque in interesting ways, and Campbell’s portrayal of Ash borrowed much from his comedic background.
It’s this new personality-infused villain that offered such a breath of fresh air to the genre at the time. By making Freddy a fleshed-out personality instead of a silent, hulking behemoth, Craven reached the psyche of audience in new ways. This personality-driven horror eventually became an important part of the genre in the late 80s, opening new avenues for writers to expand the slasher concept with characters like Chucky and Pennywise.
Future of the franchise
Unfortunately for Freddy’s personality, later entries into the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise have transformed his character from a cold-blooded killer into an murderous jester, offering goofy one-liners and wisecracks while butchering teenagers in ridiculous ways. It all started when Craven lost control of his character by turning down a sequel, and the horror icon began spiraling down from a nightmarish villain into a parody of the genre itself.
It’s interesting how the later films in the franchise actually make the original A Nightmare on Elm Street feel more comedic than intended. There is an almost diluting factor to Freddy’s character that has happened over time that makes him seem less like the stuff of nightmares and more like a Scary Movie stand-in.
That being said, the 2019 franchise reboot does a spectacular job of blending these two realms together, making Freddy back into a frightening force that occasionally still drops a horrifying one-liner here and there. By replacing Englund and taking a new direction, the film offers a glimpse of the gritty, realistic horror that the franchise still has the capacity to offer. Although Freddy might take breaks from stalking teens, the time is always ripe for another Nightmare on Elm Street film. There are still plenty of dark dreams on the horizon.
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