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A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET – Charles Bernstein

November 13, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

nightmareonelmstreetTHROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The world was introduced to the iconic horror movie character Freddy Krueger in 1984 in the film A Nightmare on Elm Street, written and directed by Wes Craven. Set in the fictional Midwestern town of Springwood, Ohio, the plot revolves around several teenagers who are stalked and killed in their dreams (and thus killed in reality) by Krueger, who appears to them as a horribly burned man wearing a red-and-green hooped sweater, a battered hat, and a glove with knives attached to its fingers. The teenagers are unaware of the cause of this strange phenomenon, but their parents hold a dark secret from long ago. The film starred Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, Robert Englund as Krueger, and Johnny Depp in his feature film debut, and was a massive critical success; along with John Carpenter’s Halloween, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, and Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street is considered one of the most influential and important horror movies of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The film spawned an astonishing eight sequels (including a crossover with Friday the 13th and a reboot in 2010), but none of them truly captured the raw, visceral terror of the original, which tapped into deep-seated fears about the nature of dreams versus reality.

Director Wes Craven had already made several successful cult horror movies prior to A Nightmare on Elm Street, including The Last House on the Left in 1972, The Hills Have Eyes in 1977, and Deadly Blessing in 1981, the latter of which boasted a score by a very young James Horner. For A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven turned to the versatile 40-year old composer Charles Bernstein, who had achieved some critical acclaim during the previous decade for his work on films such as White Lightning, Mr. Majestyk, Gator, Love at First Bite, The Entity and Cujo. As was the general style for comparatively low-budget horror scores at the time, the music for A Nightmare on Elm Street is electronic in nature, but, despite the limited sound palette of the score as a whole, it still manages to develop and maintain a sense of eerie creepiness.

The main theme of the score is a ten-note melody which has an unnerving, music-box quality to it. As Krueger is a child-murderer, it makes sense that Bernstein’s main melodic idea would have a child-like, nursery rhyme feel, but throughout the score it’s twisted and distorted, and played in a series of odd keys, which instead of conveying innocence conveys perversion and horror. A secondary motif, which is directly linked to Freddy’s physical presence in the dreams of the children, appears as a tick-tock tone which has a mocking, neener-neener, playground taunt aspect to it, and is derived from the skipping game rhyme sung by children in the movie: “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you; three, four, better lock your door; five, six, grab your crucifix; seven, eight, better stay up late; nine, ten, never sleep again”.

These two thematic identities play a prominent role throughout the score. The main theme is the first thing you hear, in the “Prologue,” and it features again in the “Main Title,” and in later cues such as “Rod Hanged/Night Stalking,” the deceptively pretty “Sleep Clinic,” “Terror in the Tub,” with peculiar echo effects in “School Horror/Stay Awake,” and in the watery “Lurking,” before coming to its conclusion in the film’s climax, “Final Search”.

Similarly, Freddy’s mocking motif is generally heard whenever Freddy is on-screen, and is often accompanied by vocal effects, created by Bernstein himself, who recorded himself with a microphone and then digitally manipulated the recording after the fact. Both the motif and the vocals feature in cues such as the “Main Title” (whispering the name ‘Tina’), “Laying the Traps,” the aforementioned “Rod Hanged/Night Stalking” (singing disturbing la-la-la noises), “Jail Cell” (breathing in your ear), and “Sleep Clinic,” and make for decidedly sinister listening.

The action and suspense music, of which there is a fair amount, tends to be less melodic, and more rhythmic and textural in nature, presenting layer upon layer of electronic and synthesized tones which play off each other to create the sense of malevolence in Freddy’s world. Some of the textures and ideas are, by today’s synth music standards, quite simple, almost quaint, but despite their unsophisticated nature, they successfully convey a dream-like otherworldliness that accentuates Freddy’s nightmarish origins, and cues such as “Dream Attack” and “School Horror/Stay Awake” are effective in this regard. In addition, cues like “Laying the Traps” and “Terror in the Tub” have some funky, almost pop/rock beats that are unexpectedly cool, but other cues are less interesting, comprising mainly of a series of elongated tones overlaid by industrial sound effects, pulses and stingers that are effective but not especially remarkable.

The score for A Nightmare on Elm Street has been released by Varese Sarabande several times: initially on LP in 1984, and then as part of a 2-for-1 CD release alongside Christopher Young’s score for A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge in 1989, before being released as a standalone album in 2005, with better artwork and slightly cleaned-up sound. As is the case with many 1980s soundtracks, especially ones which make prominent use of synthesizers, the music runs the risk of sounding terribly dated to contemporary ears, but Charles Bernstein’s inventiveness on A Nightmare on Elm Street makes it one of those rare scores which is iconic, and deeply rooted in it’s time, but still has some interesting things to say, in compositional terms.

It’s a shame that Charles Bernstein’s mainstream career sort of dwindled away in the late 1980s and 1990s; he worked on a couple of more popular horror films, April Fool’s Day and Deadly Friend, and was nominated for Emmy Awards in 1993 and 2000, but has since become much more involved in academia and administration, having served on the boards of AMPAS, the Motion Picture Academy, and the Society of Composers and Lyricists for many years. A Nightmare on Elm Street will likely remain the most memorable and lasting film score of his career, and for this reason alone is a worthy addition to any collection.

Buy the Nightmare on Elm Street soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prologue (0:33)
  • Main Title (3:32)
  • Laying the Traps (2:05)
  • Dream Attack (1:19)
  • Rod Hanged/Night Stalking (4:42)
  • Jail Cell (1:12)
  • Confrontation (1:40)
  • Sleep Clinic (2:25)
  • Terror in the Tub (0:57)
  • No Escape (2:15)
  • School Horror/Stay Awake (4:02)
  • Lurking (1:02)
  • Telephone Terror (1:07)
  • Fountain of Blood (1:03)
  • Evil Freddy (0:49)
  • Final Search (3:57)
  • Run Nancy (1:04)

Running Time: 33 minutes 44 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-6689 (1984/2005)

Music composed and performed by Charles Bernstein. Recorded and mixed by Jeff Vaughn. Album produced by Charles Bernstein.

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  1. November 14, 2014 at 7:38 am

    So in a grudge match between this and Harry Manfredini’s “Friday the 13th,” which gets the nod from you?

  2. November 14, 2014 at 3:57 pm

    This score. I was never a huge fan of the Friday the 13th scores, even though they’re more orchestral.

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