Craven produced A Nightmare on Elm Street on an estimated budget of just $1.8 million, a sum the film earned back during its first week. An instant commercial success, the film's total United States box office gross is $25.5 million. A Nightmare on Elm Street was met with rave critical reviews and went on to make a very significant impact on the horror genre, spawning a franchise consisting of a line of sequels, a television series, a crossover with Friday the 13th, beyond various other works of imitation; a remake of the same name was released in 2010.
The film is credited with carrying on many tropes found in low-budget horror films of the 1970s and 1980s, originating in John Carpenter's 1978 horror film Halloween, including the morality play that revolves around sexual promiscuity in teenagers resulting in their eventual death, leading to the term "slasher film" The Texas Chain Saw Massacre of Tobe Hooper. Critics and film historians argue that the film's premise is the question of the distinction between dreams and reality, which is manifested in the film through the teenagers' dreams and their realities. Critics today praise the film's ability to transgress "the boundaries between the imaginary and real", toying with audience perceptions.
| Spoiler warning: The following contains plot details about|
the entire movie.
An unknown person in a boiler room creates a glove with razor-sharp knives embedded in the fingers. High school student Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss) has a disturbing nightmare in which she is stalked through the boiler room by a severely burned figure with the bladed glove on his hand. When he finally catches her, she awakens screaming in her own bed. However, her nightgown has four slashes in it, identical to the ones given to her in the dream by the unknown man's razors, and she is not convinced it was just a nightmare. The next day, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) recalls a nursery rhyme from Tina's description when they meet up with Nancy's boyfriend, Glen Lantz (Johnny Depp). Tina's boyfriend Rod Lane (Nick Corri) shows up as well. Nancy admits she also had a bad dream and all of them dismiss the topic of the nightmare, though Tina is visibly disturbed.
That night, Nancy and Glen go to Tina's house because her mother is out of town and Tina is still troubled by her nightmare. Tina describes the killer in her dream, which intrigues Nancy, who adds to the description having seen the same killer herself, also getting Glen's silent attention. Rod crashes the party and he and Tina have sex while Glen and Nancy sleep in adjoining rooms. Rod also tells Tina he's been having nightmares, but neither of them think about it and go to sleep. Once asleep, Tina is once again stalked in her dreams by the hideous figure, who taunts her repeatedly before attacking. This time, he catches and attacks her. Her struggles awaken Rod who watches Tina get slashed by the glove and dragged up the wall and across the ceiling, screaming his name and alerting the others before she falls dead onto the bed. Because Rod was the only one in the same room as Tina, he is suspected of the murder and is arrested the next day.
While at school, Nancy has a terrifying nightmare in class where she is attacked by the same figure that killed Tina. Nancy leaves the school early and goes to the jail to talk to Rod, who describes what he saw the night Tina was killed, which reminded him of his own nightmares where he was also stalked by the figure wearing the glove. To her shock, Nancy realizes that Rod did not kill Tina and leaves. Later, she begs Glen to watch her while she sleeps so she can investigate her dreams further. Glen hesitates, but accepts. When Nancy goes to sleep, she sees the killer enter Rod's jail cell and suspects that Rod is in danger. When she wakes up, she and Glen rush to the police station only to find Rod dead, hanged by his own bed sheets. Everyone believes he committed suicide, but Nancy and Glen think someone else was in the cell with him.
At Rod's funeral, Nancy's mother, Marge (Ronee Blakley) insists on getting her daughter psychiatric help. However, while at the clinic to evaluate her dreams, Nancy has a violent encounter and awakens with a streak of white in her hair, and a slash on her arm. Much to Marge's horror, Nancy also pulls the killer's battered hat out of the dream with her, which Marge recognizes. Marge begins to drink heavily and installs security bars on all the windows and the door. She reveals to Nancy that the owner of the hat and the burned figure from her nightmares is a man named Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund). Years ago, he was arrested after murdering 20 children, but due to a technicality, he was released. Soon after, the enraged parents of the murdered children took the law into their hands by burning Freddy alive. It now appears that he is exacting revenge from beyond the grave against the parents that killed him by killing their children from within their dreams.
Nancy tells this to Glen, who advises her to turn her back on her fear and to take the energy of the killer away from him, but she plans to pull Freddy from the dream world where she and Glen can stop him. However, both Glen and Nancy's parents lock them inside their respective houses, keeping them from meeting. Glen later falls asleep and is killed when Freddy pulls him into his bed and he is regurgitated as a geyser of blood. Still unable to get her father (John Saxon), a police lieutenant, to believe her, she tells his deputy Don to break down the door of her house in 20 minutes and then goes to sleep to hunt down Freddy.
Nancy finds Freddy in her last few minutes of sleep and grabs hold of him when her alarm goes off, waking her. When she doesn't see him at first, she thinks she's gone crazy, but Freddy eventually appears, and the two face-off. Nancy proves to be a match for him, setting up several booby traps and making him fall into every one, then lighting him on fire and trapping him in the basement before calling her father. Don arrives with other policemen to put out the fires. He and Nancy then follow a trail of footsteps up to Marge's room and discover Freddy smothering her with his flaming body. They knock him out but he disappears, leaving Marge's body vanishing slowly into the bed. Nancy sends her father from the room and turns her back as Freddy rises from the bed. She proclaims she is no longer afraid of him, causing him to lose his powers. Freddy lunges forward but vanishes as she walks out of the room.
Exiting the bedroom, Nancy steps out into daylight from her front door and her mother appears well and sober, promising to stop drinking as her friends pull up in Glen's convertible. Suddenly, the roof of the convertible clamps shut—the material an exact match to the pattern of Freddy's sweater—and the car starts moving of its own accord. The film ends with Nancy screaming as she is driven off with her friends as Freddy drags Marge through the front door's window.
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- John Saxon as Lt. Don Thompson: Nancy's father and local police lieutenant.
- Ronee Blakley as Marge Thompson: Nancy's alcoholic, but caring mother.
- Heather Langenkamp as Nancy Thompson: Nancy Thompson is an intelligent teenager that has recently been plagued by eerie, sadomasochistic dreams of a man in a dirty green and red sweater, later revealed to be Fred Krueger.
- Amanda Wyss as Tina Gray: Tina is Nancy's best friend and is also being traumatized by Krueger in her dreams.
- Nick Corri as Rod Lane: Rod is Tina's boyfriend who is charged with her murder, as he was the only one present during her death.
- Johnny Depp as Glen Lantz: Glen is Nancy's boyfriend and is also experiencing eerie dreams, although he does not react strongly to them.
- Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger: Krueger is a child killer who kills at least twenty children over a decade before the film takes place. Furious, vengeful parents burned him alive in his boiler room hideout when he was released from prison on a technicality (an improperly filled out search warrant). Now, it appears he is manipulating the dreams of their children to exact his revenge from beyond the grave.
- Ronee Blakley as Marge Thompson
- Leslie Hoffman as Hall Guard
- Amanda Wyss as Christina "Tina" Gray
- Nick Corri as Rod Lane
- Joe Unger as Sgt. Garcia
- Charles Fleischer as Dr. King
- Joseph Whipp as Sgt. Parker
- Lin Shaye as Teacher
- Mimi Craven as Nurse
- Jack Shea as Minister
- Ed Call as Mr. Lantz
- David Andrews as Foreman
- Jeff Levine as Coroner
- Donna Woodrum as Mrs. Gray
- Paul Grenier as Boyfriend
- Ash Adams and Don Hannah as Surfers
- Shashawnee Hall, Brian Reise and Carol Pritikin as Cops
- Kathi Gibbs, John Richard Peterson, Chris Tashima and Antonia Yannouli as Kids
The task of creating Krueger's disfigured face fell to makeup man David Miller, who based his creation on photographs of burn victims he obtained from the UCLA Medical Center.