Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Movie and DVD Reviews: The best and not-so-best movies available on DVD, and whatever else catches my eye.

Mimsy Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, October 31, 1999

Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep!

Special features

Commentary Track6
DVD-ROM Enhancements2

One of the best horror movies of my generation, up there with “Halloween” in influence, if not in execution, and seemingly heavily influenced by it.

RecommendationRent Soon!
DirectorWes Craven
Movie Rating5
Transfer Quality9
Overall Rating7
  • Enhanced Widescreen
  • Pan and Scan

The widescreen and full screen versions are on the same side. The almost entirely unreadable font obscured this for a moment: I thought I had to choose between the “widescreen” and the ‘evil screen” version. Perhaps some aficionados would claim that’s the correct reading!

This is Johnny Depp’s first appearance. After this, he descended into the depths of hell for a few years, in shows such as “21 Jump Street” on television, before being resurrected in “Edward Scissorhands”. He was good here, but he didn’t really have to do much except fall asleep when his girlfriend asked him to stay awake.

Heather Langekamp also appeared in full sultry innocence in ZZ Top’s “Sleeping Bag” video, back when MTV showed music videos (possibly because this was back when people made music videos). She never really made it much further than this kind of role, although she also never descended to the depths that Depp did. She also appeared in Nightmares Three and Seven. In Three, she returns as Nancy Thompson. In Seven, she appears as herself, in a strange mix of horror, fantasy, and the real world, as Freddy Krueger returns to terrify the actors and director who brought him to life. Heather did a great job here in the first “Nightmare”, and has some interesting stories to tell on the commentary track.

“Nightmare” appears to be heavily influenced by John Carpenter’s “Halloween”. It makes use of psychology to scare you, mainly because it works, but also because they haven’t the budget to do anything else. They used spandex to bend walls, where more expensive movies might use computer graphics. It involves teenagers in high school, whose parents are hiding something from them that the parents think should be forgotten. It eventually becomes up to the teenage heroine to do something about it. And in the end nothing is really solved.

What reminded me most of Halloween was the use of children spouting nursery rhymes at the beginning and end of the film; a close second was the use of high school literature class to highlight the conflict. (Director Wes Craven says that he copied that passage down while scouting out a high school to see what high schools were like. It just struck him as being serendipitously perfect. I believe him; as a writer I see that sort of thing happen all the time. I think that most of the time we miss such coincidences unless we happen to be thinking just the right thoughts when they happen.)

Of course, after having sex is a good time to die, as in Halloween. But as in Halloween you’ll die even if you don’t have sex. All that really matters is that you are friends with the heroine.

I don’t find the similarities with Halloween to be stealing. Both Halloween and Nightmare reinvigorated the horror genre. In “Nightmare on Elm Street”, Wes Craven, consciously or subconsciously, bypasses the copies and goes back to the original. And builds on it. Halloween introduced the strong female victim/hero, a female victim who does not need a man to save her. In the end, the only reason she needs Dr. Loomis is because, in Illinois, concealed weapons permits are very difficult to acquire. She manages to fend off the attacker and save the children with no assistance from Loomis, and we can believe that she probably stood a fifty-fifty chance of escaping yet one more time. In “Nightmare”, Wes Craven takes the female victim/hero and makes her proactive. Nancy Thompson doesn’t wait for Freddy Krueger to come after her. She goes after him. And while she requests assistance from the authority figures in her life, she doesn’t depend on them at all. She knows that boys lie.

John Carpenter’s terror, the “shape”, was relentless, apparently human with an inhuman face, but not particularly bright. It was his insensitive relentlessness that provided terror. Wes Craven’s Freddy is even more human: unlike Michael Myers, we know what created Freddy, and it wasn’t pretty. And Freddy is an intelligent adversary.

Wes Craven also adds the element of another world, one with different rules than our “real” world. In this case, it is the dreamworld that Krueger lures the children into. This wasn’t completely original. You can see similarities in “Phantasm”. But in “Nightmare”, you can believe the director/writer knows why things are happening, even if you don’t have the foggiest idea yourself.

The real terror in the film is the terror of not knowing what is dream and what is reality. We believe that Wes Craven knows, but we’re not sure. I’ve certainly experienced dreams of waking. Some scenes appear to be real because they are missing the “extra features” of dreams. In dreams we find nothing odd about an extra stairway in the basement that leads even further down into a steam tunnel.

The story is pretty simple: kids are dying, the police think one of Nancy’s friends did it, but she (and her friends) are having these strange nightmares, and whenever they describe them to an adult, the adult gets a strange look and then it passes and the adult tells them they should go to sleep. Believe it or not, this is based on real events, or at least real news stories (which may or may not have any resemblance to real events).

The commentary is a good one, and appears to be taken from the laserdisc. They occasionally talk about how good a transfer it is “for the laserdisc version”. Which is fine, because the commentary is about the movie, not about the time the commentary was made. Why redo something like that when the effort could be put into making another part of the DVD better? That’s one of my bigger complaints, that often this sort of material is available and just isn’t used. The cast information is a bit more iffy, however. The text parts of it seem to have been written a long time ago. Cast information, of course, is time-dependent, and the text makes it sound like they’re just starting works they finished on years ago.

Another cool feature is the ability to jump to any “nightmare” scene.

The DVD-ROM portion of the disc was a bit weird: it required a desktop rebuild on my OS 8.6 Mac, and I had to search out the startup file. (Go to the “newline” folder and double-click the “index.htm” page.) These are the same folks (PCFriendly) who made the “Matrix” DVD-ROM, and honestly they don’t seem to do much towards making this stuff user-friendly. They do too little when it comes to making it useful, and too much when they don’t need to. Once you get in you get the screenplay—and then discover that (for me, at least) the links to each page don’t work, because they used incompatible Javascript code (which generates errors) rather than simple links. Even worse, they later use Visual Basic, which besides being prone to security problems doesn’t work on any version of Netscape. They’re lazy when it will help the reader, and they work really hard when it will hinder the reader. (When you get to the script, hold your mouse button down over the script itself, and choose “New Window with this Frame”. You can then change the chapter number by hand in the “Location” or “URL” box up top of your browser. Silly to have to do this, however, when a simple link on their part would have done it for you.)

Anyway, the movie is a good one, and, like its predecessor “Halloween”, spawned a number of imitators. I recommend seeing it even if you normally dislike horror movies, as this is an example of one done well. If you rent rather than buy, make sure you’ll have enough time to watch both the movie and the commentary.

Recommendation: Rent Soon!

DirectorWes Craven
ActorsHeather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, Johnny Depp, Amanda Wyss, Nick Corri
Spoken languageEnglish
Special FeaturesCommentary Track, DVD-ROM Enhancements
More links

If you enjoyed A Nightmare on Elm Street…

For more about horror, you might also be interested in Alien, Dead By Dawn, Halloween, Scream, The Evil Dead, and Hell House.

For more about Johnny Depp, you might also be interested in Edward Scissorhands and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

For more about Wes Craven, you might also be interested in Scream and Scream 2.