Nightmare on Elm Street, A (US - BD)
Chris tries desperately not to fall asleep as he finishes up his review of the film...
Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) lives on Elm Street in a quiet suburb of Springwood, Ohio, close to her boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp), best friend Tina (Amanda Wyss) and Tina’s boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri). Nancy’s dreams are haunted by a horribly scarred man in a dirty red and green sweater who wears deadly blades on his right hand and wants to take her to the oppressive heat of his boiler room lair. She initially passes it off as nothing more than a series of incredibly lucid nightmares, but when she discovers that all of her friends have been having the same nightmares Nancy starts to wonder whether something more sinister is responsible for their dreams.
When Tina has a particularly disturbing nightmare she asks Nancy and Glen to stay over at her house to keep her company. Rod crashes the sleepover and ends up taking Tina to her mother’s bedroom for some alone time, while Nancy and Glen head to their separate rooms. During the night Rod awakes to the sound of a hysterical Tina pleading for help as she is flung around the room by an invisible force. He watches helplessly as she is murdered, before running from the house as Nancy and Glen break down the door to find Tina’s mutilated corpse. Due to their stormy on-off relationship Rod becomes the prime suspect in her murder, but after a number of dreams in which she is stalked by the malevolent figure Nancy begins to suspect otherwise.
After unsuccessfully trying to convince her policeman father (John Saxon) that someone or something else was responsible for Tina’s death, an increasingly desperate Nancy is eventually able to extract the truth from her drunken lush of a mother (Ronee Blakely). Ten years previous the parents of Elm Street banded together and trapped accused child murderer Fred Krueger in his boiler room hideout before burning him alive, and now Krueger returns from beyond the grave to exact his revenge on the children of Elm Street as they sleep. As one by one her friends succumb to Krueger Nancy realises that she must take the fight to the enemy if she is to survive, but how can she fight her dreams?
Those of you not particularly interested in the self-indulgent nostalgic ravings of an amateur reviewer might like to skip this section and move on to the technical appraisal, largely because the next couple of paragraphs are just going to be about my Elm Street experience. I can clearly remember watching the film for the first time in my early teens, courtesy of a guardian who had a rather cavalier attitude towards BBFC certification. I wasn’t really into horror films at the time, but one of my school friends (with similarly lax parents) raved about it and I didn’t want to feel left out. To this very day I still associate the musty smell of the old VHS tape/rental box with the film and it brings memories of my childhood flooding back. I’m not afraid to admit that I found the film quite scary at first viewing, mainly because I was completely taken with the film’s premise. We all need to sleep, so what could be scarier than facing a homicidal maniac in your dreams?
That first viewing prompted many more rentals of both the original and the sequels, and it’s fair to say that for a time I became quite obsessed with Freddy. I think a lot of it was to do with facing and overcoming my own fears, but I have to admit that the ‘son of a hundred maniacs’ had a certain perverse charisma that kept me coming back for more. What that says about my mental condition I don’t know (or maybe I don’t want to know). Throughout the course of the series Freddy made the successful transition from villain to anti-hero and subsequently became the real star of the show, unfortunately at the expense of Craven’s vision. I was largely unaware of this at the time, but looking back on the series it’s plain to see that things drifted too far away from Craven’s original film. I still have a soft-spot for the Elm Street sequels—with part three being my personal favourite—but by part five things were starting to get a little tired and part six is the worst of the bunch by quite some margin (yes I’m including homoerotic fantasy that is Freddy’s Revenge in that).
By the time I reached my mid twenties I hadn’t watched one of the original Elm Street films for years. I did manage to catch Wes Craven’s New Nightmare on VHS—having missed its theatrical outing thanks to my friend’s insistence that we see Timecop instead—but I don’t really count that as a pure sequel. Imagine my joy when I learned of the existence of a mammoth boxed set containing all seven films and a bonus disc full of documentaries and featurettes. It cost me a fair whack to import it (about £60 if I remember rightly), but I considered that a bargain for something that would bring me so much pleasure. Watching those DVDs breathed new life into the series and reminded me why I fell in love with them as a kid. I didn’t own anywhere near as many discs then as I do now, so I more than got my money’s worth out of the set, but although I enjoyed the sequels it was the original that I returned to time and time again. Since then I regularly pull that disc out of the collection and fire it up as I fall asleep, sometimes watching the film, at other times just listening to the commentary. As you can imagine, I was pretty fucking stoked at the prospect of getting my hands on a high-definition version of the film, and this needlessly verbose, tautological preamble brings us neatly to the review of said disc.
As previously mentioned I’ve owned The Nightmare on Elm Street Collection since the early days of DVD. After years of watching the film on VHS that DVD set was a revelation, presenting the film in widescreen with vastly superior image quality and digital audio. Looking back on that release now it’s hard to believe it was all crammed on to a single-layered DVD-5, or that it looked as good as it did. Of course things move on and 2006 saw the release of an ‘Infinifilm’ edition with a superior transfer, but I never picked that one up. In either case, the DVDs can’t quite cut it in today’s high-definition world, so it was with great interest that I popped the Blu-ray into my player.
Firstly, the film’s 1080/24p VC-1 encoded transfer has been slightly opened up from its 1.85:1 theatrical ratio to 1.78:1. What this means is that you’re seeing a hair more picture information at the top and bottom of the frame; just enough to completely fill the screen of your HDTV. Although I’m generally against altering films’ aspect ratios, my dislike usually comes from instances where serious cropping has occurred or the mattes have been opened to such a degree as to destroy the composition of the original image (such as going from 2.35:1 to 1.78:1). Thankfully the ‘damage’ caused by such a small change in ratio as found here is largely inconsequential, and it’s likely that many people will lose the additional information to overscan unless their TV has a 1:1 pixel mapping function. In any event, you’re not going to miss anything and the additional information doesn’t cause boom mics to pop into shot.
With that out of the way it’s time to comment on the rest of the transfer, and what a transfer it is. Historically New Line titles have been victims of the overzealous use of DNR, which digitally obliterates fine detail in favour of a waxier look more akin to video than film. Thankfully this release does not suffer from excessive filtering and retains a natural layer of grain throughout. I’m incredibly grateful for this, because removing the grain would have robbed the film of much of the eighties atmosphere that I love. Colour rendition is also greatly improved and seems to mirror the Infinifilm disc, so I’m assuming it came from the same master. Flesh tones are far more natural now, without the red push that afflicted the 1999 DVD release. Elsewhere the palette seems to have been shifted more towards the blues during the night-time sequences giving everything a colder look, while daytime and interior scenes appear positively vibrant on occasion.
Contrast also appears to have been given a boost as the sky is now a bright, light blue instead of the darker blue from the original DVD release, although highlights are occasionally blown-out. The image is a little brighter than the ‘99 release and reveals more shadow detail than it did before, but not at the expense of black levels. Of course no low-budget eighties film is ever going to be perfect—image stability wavers at times, there are a few scenes where focus is a little too soft, and there's also a bit of dirt on the print—but for my money this is a great transfer of a much-loved film and one that makes me very glad that I didn’t decide to import the Canadian Alliance Atlantis release (which does suffer from DNR issues). Now there’s a first, a New Line/Warner title having less DNR than the same title in another region. Long may it continue!
The primary audio soundtrack for this release is a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 affair. The disc also includes the film’s original Mono soundtrack (more on that later), but I chose the 7.1 for review purposes because I was curious about the quality of the remix given some of the complaints about the Infinifilm DVD. After years of watching the VHS and the subsequent DVD (usually with the original Mono track) the first thing that struck me was the way in which the additional channels have been utilised to add a ton of atmosphere. Right from the opening dream sequence the mix impresses with its use of discrete and atmospheric effects, be it the dripping water and hissing pipes of the boiler room, or Freddy's raspy breath and screeching claws. There are also plenty of other disconcerting effects used to ratchet up the tension, including animal noises (buzzing insects and slithering eels), wind, and the eerie cries of Nancy’s recently-departed friends. I'm a firm believer that music is one of the key ingredients in Elm Street's success, and Charles Bernstein's omnipresent electronic score is given plenty of room to do its thing as it comes at you from every angle. The iconic, dream-like title theme is responsible for a lot of the tension and synth stings are used to great effect during the jumpier sequences.
Unfortunately in spite of all the positives there were a number of issues that detracted from my overall enjoyment. The first of these will probably be evident to anyone who watches the film, and it relates to the dialogue. Although generally comprehensible it is quite low in the mix, which results in a number of instances where characters’ lines became indistinct. There are also a few scenes where certain constituents of the track have been prioritised to the detriment of others. One of the best examples occurs at around 41:30 when Freddy attacks Nancy in her bedroom, as one part of the score completely overwhelms the rest of the track with a sort of ‘siren’ effect. Because I’m pretty familiar with the film I also noticed that the clacking sound of Freddy’s claws was almost inaudible during this scene, and that’s not the only example of elements being buried in the mix, or indeed disappearing entirely (the ripping sound as Tina tears Freddy’s face off is totally absent and the splash as she hits the bed is truncated, among numerous other things). There are also a few moments where fidelity is lacking, but this at least can be attributed to the source material.
Now if you’re not particularly familiar with the film it’s entirely possible that you could sit through the whole thing without noticing that anything is awry. None of the above issues ruin the experience of watching A Nightmare on Elm Street, but I’d be remiss in my duty as a reviewer if I failed to mention them. On the whole I still feel that the remix has something to offer in terms of bringing the film into the modern age, but with a little more care and attention it could have been even better. It's a real shame...
Thankfully, as previously mentioned, the disc also includes the original soundtrack in Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono. This is another advantage over the Alliance Atlantis disc and a major boon for hardcore Nightmare fans and audio purists alike. Now I’m sure there will be those among you who will turn their noses up at the thought of listening to a film in plain old Mono, but one has to remember that it is how A Nightmare on Elm Street originally played in theatres and it's actually a very atmospheric way to experience the film. The best part is that it doesn’t have the balancing issues of the remixed track and as far as I can tell all of the effects that were missing or buried in the remix are present and correct in the original Mono. In any event I recommend that you watch the film with this track at least once for that authentic eighties experience. I’d really like to see the inclusion of original soundtracks become standard on all catalogue releases, especially when remixes continue to be plagued by issues like the ones outlined above. It’s just a pity that it’s presented in lossy Dolby Digital and not one of the lossless formats, but having said that it’s probably no worse than was heard in theatres back in 1984.
Warner Home Video has assembled a fairly strong collection of bonus material for this Blu-ray, although most of it appears to be replicated from the Infinifilm release. Even so, compared to the only available Blu-ray alternative—yes it’s that Canadian disc again—this is a clear step up.
Filmmaker’s Commentary: This is the commentary track featured on the DVD releases of the film. Participants include writer/director Wes Craven, actors Heather Langenkamp and John Saxon, and cinematographer Jacques Haitkin. I’ve listened to this track numerous times over the years and it’s still an enjoyable commentary. As one would expect Craven has the most interesting stories, but the other contributors all pitch in with their own recollections to make for an entertaining piece.
Cast and Crew Commentary: This commentary track features a host of original Elm Street cast and crew, including writer/director Wes Craven, New Line Cinema founder Robert Shaye, actors Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, Amanda Wyss and Ronee Blakley, producers Sara Risher and John Burrows, cinematographer Jacques Haitkin, composer Charles Bernstein, editors Rick Shaine and Patrick McMahon, mechanical special effects designer Jim Doyle, special makeup effects artist David B. Miller, and film historian David Del Valle. As you’ve probably guessed this is one of those ‘patchwork’ commentaries where all of the participants are recorded separately and then stitched together to form one cohesive track. These tracks can often be a little dull compared to commentaries where the participants are recorded together, but this one is actually pretty good and provides a wealth of information about the film.
Focus Points: When activated this option presents the viewer with an on-screen icon at various points throughout the film. If you press enter on your remote you're taken to a behind-the-scenes segment that pertains to the scene you're watching, although from what I could tell a lot (all?) of it was culled from footage available elsewhere on the disc. It seems a bit pointless to interrupt the flow of the movie for something that you can watch in another featurette.
Never Sleep Again (49:55 HD): This is the longest and most interesting of the behind-the-scenes material. It's basically a lengthy making of documentary that covers everything you could conceivably want to know about the film, from the genesis of the story up to and beyond its production and cultural impact. Along with the interviews and alternate takes there's plenty of exploration of the effects, cinematography, editing and music. Okay, so a lot of the anecdotes have been endlessly recycled over the years, but there's only so many ways to tell the same story and I found this to be an engaging piece.
The House That Freddy Built (22:47 HD): This is a neat little featurette that charts the rise of New Line Cinema and explores the role played by the Nightmare franchise. It includes interviews with all of the principal players from the first movie and contains a lot of clips from all of the films, along with some other famous New Line titles (such as Critters, Blade, Se7en and Friday the 13th).
Night Terrors (15:58 HD): This featurette focusses on dreams and their various interpretations as discussed by scholars. It explains that some ancient civilisations believed dreams were communications from the gods and explores some of the theories postulated as to why we need to dream. Craven himself pops up from time to time to offer his take on things, specifically relating to the newspaper articles that inspired the original film.
Fact Track: This is your standard pop-up fact track that provides trivia for all the hardcore Nightmare fans. The information is a little sparse for my liking, but I did learn a thing or two.
Alternate Endings (04:56 HD): There are three alternate endings on the disc—the scary ending, the happy ending and the Freddy ending—which can be viewed individually or via a 'play all' function. They're all pretty similar, but the 'Freddy' ending was a new one on me, although I’m glad it wasn’t used.
I was surprised by how well A Nightmare on Elm Street still holds up to scrutiny some twenty-six years after its original release. Sure the effects are a little dated and a lot of the acting is a fairly amateurish (to say the least), but its premise of a killer stalking you in your dreams is both relatable and terrifying. It’s always been one of my favourite horror films and every time I watch it I’m transported back to my early teens and the feeling of nervous anticipation as I slid the VHS tape into the player.
Thankfully this Blu-ray release is a bit of a step up from VHS and easily represents the most audio-visually attractive version of the film I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. Honestly, there were moments when it felt like I was experiencing Elm Street for the very first time, such is the visual quality presented by this Blu-ray. The remixed DTS-HD track isn’t quite as impressive, but the presence of the original Mono largely negates any criticism I might levy against the disc’s audio. Throw in a generous helping of interesting supplemental material and you have yourself a pretty great package that’s sure to delight the film’s legions of fans.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 16th April 2010
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, Dolby Digital Mono English, Dolby Digital Mono French, Dolby Digital Mono German, Dolby Digital Mono Italian
Subtitles: English SDH, French, German SDH, Italian, Italian SDH, Dutch, Korean, Spanish, Greek
Extras: Audio Commentaries, Documentary, Featurettes, Focus Points, Fact Track, Alternate Endings
Easter Egg: No
Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, John Saxon, Ronee Blakley, Amanda Wyss, Nick Corri
Length: 91 minutes
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