Nancy and her friends are having violent nightmares which all feature one common element, a disfigured serial killer with a glove made of razors on his right hand. When one of the group is murdered in their sleep. Nancy realises that she must stay awake and try uncover the truth behind this phantasmic killer Freddy Krueger.
There's a longstanding theory which dictates that if you dream you die, you actually do die, hence you always wake up at the critical moment. Subscribers to this theory believe it has something to do with inherent, subconscious defence mechanisms which prevent you succumbing to the reaper simply because your chosen midnight snack is cheese on toast. And anyone who dismisses it as a whiskery old wives tale is still probably quite relieved to wake with a start after dreaming they are falling from a great height rather than having their scepticism put to the test.
No matter what your position, it's a notion which preys uncomfortably on deep-seated fears. A fact which obviously intrigued Craven, who exploits it to spine-chilling effect in this celebrated mid-80s shocker. Yet being something of a ghoul, Craven's premise is more specific and rather more disturbing. On Elm Street, if you dream you get slashed to ribbons by a partially incinerated psycho with a fistful of razor-sharp metal talons attached to his fingers, you really do get slashed to ribbons by a partially incinerated psycho with a fistful of razor-sharp metal talons attached to his fingers. And pinching yourself isn't going to save you.
A Nightmare On Elm Street was a shot in the arm for the fading teen slasher flick, one which Craven would once again rejuvenate with 1996's Scream. True to form, it centres on a group of hormonally-charged American high-schoolers (among them big-screen debutante Johnny Depp who, spookily, starred in Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands four years later) whose dreams are being infiltrated by a dead child-killer who is intent on bumping them off in extremely grisly fashion. First to go is Wyss who buys it in one of the most memorable instances of post-coital slaughter ever devised.
Craven cuts between Wyss's desperate dream-state struggle with the blade-handed maniac and her boyfriend (Corri), watching in horror as blood-spurting gashes appear on her body and an unseen force slams her against the ceiling. This is only topped by Depp's big scene in which, during an ill-advised nap, two disembodied arms burst through his mattress and pull him screaming into the void. As he disappears, a mighty geyser of blood erupts from the gaping hole in his bed. The Freudian implications of this do not, quite frankly, bear thinking about.
Apart from Depp, the rest of Elm Street's young cast have been largely forgotten. But in Freddy Krueger, played by the diminutive, moon-faced Englund, Craven created an enduring horror icon. With his peeling face, striped jersey and hideous killer mitt, Freddy has taken his rightful place alongside Texas Chain Saw Massacre's Leatherface and the hockey-masked Jason Voorhees in cinema's celebrated chamber of horrors.
Moreover, he has the power to manipulate his environment, a domain in which his victims are at their most vulnerable. The dread of this will not be lost on anyone who has suffered a recurring nightmare or — worst of all — has ever woken in a sweat from one hellish sojourn in the land of nod only to realise they have stepped into another. On the downside, the denouement where Langenkamp lures Freddy into the real world, finally defeating him by the simple expedient of calling him "shit" and turning her back, is something of a let down. Still, she does set him on fire first and there is an absolutely mental shock ending to savour. And if the riotous 80s fashions are occasionally the scariest thing on the screen (Depp's crop-top and jogging pant ensemble is particularly nerve-racking) there is more than enough here to ensure a sleepless night or two — Freddy bursting through the mirror while Langenkamp tries to persuade her reflection that it's all "just a dream"; Wyss in an opaque, blood-smeared bodybag, appearing wraithlike in the classroom as Langenkamp drifts off to sleep; and the eerily prophetic children's song which opens and closes the movie.
And if that isn't enough to put ice in your veins, try this: Craven based the whole thing on a true story. The film stemmed from a series of articles in an LA paper about a group of Southeast Asian kids, all from the same neighbourhood, who died mysteriously in their sleep after a string of vivid nightmares. They probably weren't massacred by a stiletto-fingered sicko in a rugby shirt. But even so, the next time you find yourself back at school with no trousers on and the most frightening thing you've got to contend with is an "A" level physics exam you haven't revised for, count yourself lucky.
What makes Freddy truly terrifying, and an inspired invention on Craven's part, is that he exists not in the real world but in the shadowy realm of dreams.