Something is Rotten: A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)

Nightmare01 “According to Shakespeare, there was something operating in Nature, perhaps inside human nature itself, that was rotten. ‘A canker,’ as he put it. Of course, Hamlet’s response to this, and to his mother’s lies, was to continually probe and dig – just like the gravediggers – always trying to get beneath the surface.” This gloss on the Bard, provided by Nancy’s teacher during English class, forms the thematic bedrock of Wes Craven’s film. Unlike the analogous classroom scene in Halloween, where the literary discussion emphasizes the ineluctable force of fate represented by Michael Myers, Craven’s film foregrounds agency and the quest for the truth.

The teacher continues, “The same was true in a different way for Julius Caesar.” On the blackboard behind the student who gets up to read there is a passage from the play Julius Caesar, although the text he reads, concerning Julius Caesar, actually comes from Hamlet. Why this intertextual hybridization? A closer examination of these two texts will reveal the underlying logic.

The lines from Julius Caesar (3.3.1-4) read: “I dreamt tonight that I did feast with Caesar, and things unlucky charge my fantasy. I have no will to wander forth of doors, yet something leads me forth.” What this “something” is becomes abundantly clear as the student, Jonathan, reads aloud from Hamlet (1.1.125-28): “In the most high and palmy state of Rome, a little ere the mightiest Julius fell, the graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets.” It is precisely “the sheeted dead,” Nancy’s friend Tina, shrouded in a body bag, who comes forth, “gibbering” and calling her name. Her appearance is accompanied by a further quote from Hamlet – although not from the same scene (or even act): “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams” (2.2.273-75). As the student speaks these lines, his voice goes through an unnatural, some might even say uncanny, modulation.

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This dialogue serves as an aural bridge between the world of reality and dream. The line between the two is often and strategically blurred. It is an irony that a film which purports to uncover truth and vanquish evil has such an ambiguous, perhaps even downright ambivalent, structure. Throughout the film, dreams – rather than providing access to a register of truth (be it Freudian or “surrealist”) – are denigrated as “prologue to the omen coming on” (Hamlet 1.1.135), that is to say, dangerous. Being awake, being fully conscious and confronting the truth, is the only way to survive. This could best be described as a “Buddhist” notion of the true nature of reality. In fact, the name or title Buddha translates as “the Awakened One.” According to the Director’s Commentary, dreams are the place “where we are at our most vulnerable.”

The next shot reveals that Tina’s corpse has left a bloody trail – reminiscent of Ariadne’s thread – straight into the labyrinth of the boiler room, where the monster (Freddy) resides at its dark heart. Scenes set in the dream world are full of rotten, or abject, images – self-mutilation (Freddy slicing off his own fingers or slicing himself open to reveal writhing maggots and green pus), blurred boundaries between human and animal (the centipede escaping from Tina’s mouth and slimy eels wriggling at her feet), bodily waste (the aforementioned pus, geysers of blood).

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The dream world is a world of guilt – the collective guilt of the parents of Elm Street manifested as the collective dream shared by their children. It is a question of the “sins of the fathers” being inherited by the children. However, “always trying to get beneath the surface” of things in this case does not equate with entering the dream world. It is not analogous to translating from manifest content to latent; nor is it submitting to the oneiric logic of the realm. Here it entails uncovering “mother’s lies” and entering the dream world only long enough to bring the monster back into the light of reality.

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Making conscious the unconscious, allowing for “the return of the repressed,” is supposed to dis-empower or render impotent the force of evil. And, according to all accounts, this was exactly how the original film was going to end. Nancy turns her back on Freddy, he disappears, and she wakes to find everything is as it once was, that it has all been a dream – that narrative chestnut which is so effective in dismissing the forces of the abject and the uncanny. However, a wrench has been thrown into the machine: evil is not vanquished. Freddy returns to encompass the teens in his (symbolic) clutches – the car’s convertible roof – and to wreak vengeance on Nancy’s mother. The film that begins in a dream reveals itself to end in a dream as well. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep” (Tempest 4.1.156-8).

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What does this say about the pursuit of truth, the desire to “continually probe and dig”? Does it align the film more with reactionary cinema, or with its opposite, progressive filmmaking? To the extent that it calls into question the efficacy of authority figures (parents, police, parent-police), and condemns mob mentality and private justice, it would seem to fall into the latter camp. However, its derogation of the realm of dreams, its insistence on the conscious, ego (or even superego) quality of “awakened existence” seems to fall somewhere in the former. Much as the hybrid nature of its use of Shakespearean texts might suggest, the film is a hodgepodge of elements that simultaneously pull it in different directions.

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About Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins is a writer, film critic and instructor. He is a Staff Critic for Slant Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Nordic Issue of Acidemic Journal of Film and Media. He is currently writing a chapter for an anthology on international horror directors to be published by Intellect Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Mr. Wilkins was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida. He attended Penn State for several years before moving to North Carolina in 1994, where he earned his Bachelor's in Religious Studies and a Master's in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His primary focus is film history, film literacy and criticism, with the goal of bringing obscure, foreign and films that are labeled "difficult" to the attention of film aficionados of all kinds. Other interests and focus of critique include comparative religion, black humor, 19th century European literature, horror and graphic novels. Mr Wilkins lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Tina. Follow @buddwilkins on Twitter.
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One Response to Something is Rotten: A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)

  1. bronsonfive says:

    Love this movie! So good.

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