Sunday, May 17, 2015

Book Report: Nightmare on Elm Street


I've never been much of a dreamer.  I mean that literally.  I've always slept pretty deeply and I rarely remember any dreams that I may have had the night before.  There's one dream that I had as a kid that's always stuck in my mind, though.  The star, as I'm sure you've surmised from the topic of this post, was Freddy Krueger.  But the dream itself wasn't what was so memorable.  It was the fact that, for perhaps the first and last time, I realized I was dreaming and woke myself up.  The problem, though, was that I was exhausted and I knew I was going to fall asleep again soon.  And when I did, sure enough, that "Bastard Son of a Hundred Maniacs" was waiting for me.

I can't imagine I'm the only one with such a story.  If there were a Mount Rushmore of slasher icons, Mr. Krueger would be up there along with Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Leatherface (let the arguments commence).  I don't think there's a single horror fan out there who hasn't seen Freddy's work, and I doubt there are many even outside of horror circles who haven't at least heard of him.  So for this book report, I'm going to take a look at the making of a horror icon, and talk a bit about how he captured (and scarred) the imagination of millions.

Synopsis (per Google):

Several Midwestern teenagers fall prey to Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), a disfigured midnight mangler who preys on the teenagers in their dreams -- which, in turn, kills them in reality. After investigating the phenomenon, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) begins to suspect that a dark secret kept by her and her friends' parents may be the key to unraveling the mystery, but can Nancy and her boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp) solve the puzzle before it's too late?


In the early 1980s, Wes Craven was looking for his next big project.  Raised as a fundamentalist Christian, Craven began his career as a teacher of English Literature.  Eventually, though, Craven shifted to making films. and in the seventies he'd already had a few noteworthy movies such as The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes.  However, he was having trouble breaking into the mainstream.  This was true of most horror auteurs during this time, as the genre was often stigmatized, with critics like Sieskel and Ebert vilifying slasher films.

Craven had a script, however, based on a concept that he'd read about in the L.A.Times in which a young man died in his sleep after prolonged periods of trying to stay awake.  "There were two little details to this newspaper story that I swear to God could have been written by a great screenwriter,” recalled Craven. “One was that after the son was dead, the mother went into his closet and there was a Mr. Coffee in there, filled with black coffee. The parents also found the stash of sleeping pills, of which he hadn’t taken any."

From this seed, Craven created the script for A Nightmare on Elm Street.  He pitched the story to countless production companies without success for almost three years, until he eventually found Bob Shaye and New Line Cinema.  New Line had originally started as a distribution company, pushing out films such as John Waters' Pink Flamingos.  Shaye wanted to test the waters of production, however, and Craven's script presented him the opportunity to do just that.

One of the key aspects from the start of production was that this was not to be just another slasher flick.  Craven wanted casting director Annette Benson to find strong characters, not people who would just "fall down."  Heather Langenkamp was chosen to play Nancy, who Langenkamp views as a survivor, but for all her strength "the only one she's able to save is herself."  Amanda Wyss was cast to play Tina, who Wyss described as not being strong like Nancy.  Rather, Tina is a girl trying to find ways to feel good and escape the pain of her home life.  Jsu Garcia won the role of Rod, but at the time he was working under the name Nick Corri.  Garcia was passing as Italian because he was told at the time that Latin actors wouldn't make it in Hollywood.  John Saxon, already a veteran actor, brought some name recognition to the movie when he was cast as Nancy's father.  For the role of Glen, Craven went against the "big and athletic" description that the script originally called for, and hired a small, sickly looking actor named Johnny Depp.

Then, of course, came the matter of casting Freddy Krueger.  Originally, Craven pictured an older man for the part, but as he started auditioning older actors, he found that all of them, perhaps due to their age, had an inherent kindness that just didn't fit the part.  So when he auditioned Robert Englund, a younger actor who had recently received notoriety from his stint in the TV miniseries V, one of the things that Craven noticed was how much Englund seemed to relish the menace he portrayed.  This reminded Craven of one of the influences for a character, a disfigured homeless man who once shuffled by Craven's bedroom window when he was a young boy.  The man leered up at Craven, and continued to do so with a mean smile as if he really enjoyed scaring the young Craven.

Having cast his villain, Craven then had to settle on his look.  For Freddy's make-up, effects artist David Miller drew his inspiration from pepperoni pizza.  One day Miller was pondering the make up design while eating a slice, and, deep in thought, and he molded the cheese around the pepperoni to create the texture that we see on Freddy's face.

The gimmick for Freddy's weapon was a challenge for Craven, who wanted something ancient.  When he went to Jim Doyle, the man who would go on to invent the glove as we see it today, he told Doyle that the glove should invoke man's oldest fears, which Craven visualized as something like a claw that one would find on a bear or other predator.

The weight of the glove actually gave Englund a tilt to his stance, which made him think of it as a gun/holster, as if he were a gunslinger.  He kept this in mind as he developed his portrayal of the character.  The arduous make-up process also gave Englund opportunity to develop Krueger, as the continual prodding and fidgeting of his face by the artists allowed him to project his agitation in character.

Filming was an intense process due to the fact that there were 80 effects shots during the 26-day schedule.  Amanda Wyss, in particular, went through a lot to achieve the effects required for her character.  For Tina's death scene where she gets dragged on to the ceiling, a rotating room was built to create the illusion that up was down.  "The first spin around it felt like I was falling, even though I was on the floor," explained Wynn.   "Then I felt that if I wasn't falling, everything was going to fall on me. It was terrible. We had to stop. The terror in my death scene was 75 percent."

Even after her death scene, Wyss continued to be put into uncomfortable situations as she spent much of her remaining screen time in a body bag: "I freaked out in the body bag. It wasn't a "stunt" body bag — this was a low-budget film, so somebody went to the morgue, got a [real] body bag and poked some pinholes in it. There's no inside zipper on the thing, they just zipped me in. I was just like, "Seriously?"  In addition to the body bag, Wyss spent a considerable amount of time covered in fake blood, eels, and centipedes.

Another difficult scene to film was Glen's death scene, in which he is pulled into a hole in his bed by Krueger.  One early idea was for Glen's body to come back up out of the hole, hit the ground, and shatter.  The idea that was ultimately used, however, was for a torrent of blood to come out of the hole in the bed.  The rotating room from Tina's death was used again, but the crew spun it the wrong way, causing a "2-inch tsuami" of blood to wash over the whole area.  One crew member even received an electric shock.

The pressure of creating a successful movie led to some tension between Shaye and Craven.  Investors that Shaye had lined up suddenly backed out, so Shaye was forced to pay crew members out of pocket to keep them on set while he found more long-term funding.  At the same time, Shaye, who clearly had a lot riding on the project, would frequently attempt to give notes on the story. Craven, however felt that Shaye should stick to his role in the business side.

One such argument was over the sequence in which Nancy's feet get stuck in a viscous substance while being chased by Krueger.  The effect was an idea of Shaye's, who got it from a nightmare of his own.  Craven was less than enthusiastic about the idea, and it became a point of contention between the two.  Eventually, however, they came to an agreement as they recognized that they were both working toward the same ultimate goal of getting this movie made.  Craven accepted the scene, and even allowed Shaye to direct the sequence as a show of good faith.

Eventually, Craven had a finished product to begin shopping around for distribution.  After trying all major studios, however, Shaye could not find any takers.  So, he decided to release it directly through New Line, which was a very big gamble.  While all profits would go to New Line, if the film was a failure then it could very well mean the end of the company.  On November 9th, 1984, A Nightmare on Elm Street made it's premier.    Within the first weekend, it made $1.45 million, recouping it's $1.1 million budget and then some.  By the end of it's theatrical run, it made $24 million, and a franchise was born.

"A Cruel Clown"

One of the reasons why Freddy Krueger is such an effective villain is because he presents such a vast contrast to the silent killers of his era.  Whereas Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers silently stalk their victims with sudden, brutal kills, Freddy likes to relish in the fear he causes before the death.  His victims know their demise is coming, and that's where Freddy takes his true joy.  "Freddy was always a cruel clown," said Englund," I remember using that phrase with Wes once—it’s a term from Roman theater. He cracks jokes, and takes the culture, and the fears, weaknesses and flaws of the kids, and throws it back in their face.”

We see the "clown" at work in several instances in the movie, particularly when Freddy wears the eviscerated face of Tina to torment Nancy while he's chasing her.  "That's some black humor," argued Englund.   "It's a dark, dirty, nasty joke to play on somebody, to put the skin of their best friend over yours."

The fact that Freddy operates in someone's dreams gives him a unique ability to play these kinds of "jokes," and it allows Craven to explore the things that dwell in our subconsciousness. Says Craven, "I like exploring the human psyche, especially its uncharted and irrational aspects.  There's so much in the human consciousness that doesn't fit into consensus reality."  Lin Shaye, sister to Bob, explains how such an exploration is so unnerving in A Nightmare on Elm Street:  “On some level, your dreams are all you have as an adolescent, and the fact that there’s a subversive element that won’t allow you to dream, except when it's filled with fear and pain, is a very powerful theme. The film sits in a very eternal place for a lot of people."

"Sins of the parents being visited on the children."

Another common theme of Craven's work that appears in A Nightmare on Elm Street is family dymanics, and how youth are forced to make their own way without the assistance of their parents:  Craven:  "The issue of young people taking over for their parents is particularly key [in my work]...That sort of rite of passage where the younger generation triumphs and takes its place over the older is what many horror movies are all about."

In the case of A Nightmare on Elm Street, the teenage protagonists find themselves being targeted due in part by the actions of their parents, who took the law into their own hands to take revenge on Krueger.  While their actions are certainly understandable, and perhaps even justified given the circumstances, they still directly lead to their children's predicament.  Additionally, the parents provide no support in the situation.  For example, when Nancy is about to have her showdown with Krueger, her mother is drunk and essentially playing the role of the child.

When A Nightmare on Elm Street was remade in 2010, the writers teased the idea that the parents were even more responsible for the children's predicament, as the script leaves in question Krueger's guilt as a child killer before the parents burned him alive.  At the end of the movie it's revealed that Krueger was indeed guilty, and I believe that an opportunity was missed.  Suppose Krueger had been innocent before the parents killed him.  What if their actions were solely responsible for the eventual torture and deaths of their children?  I think this would have introduced a complexity to the story that would have justified a remake rather than just proving that producer Michael Bay was simply trying to make a buck.

Fun Facts:
  • The actor who played Glen, Johnny Depp, had a few minor hits after A Nightmare on Elm Street, with parts in films such as Private Resort, Nick of Time, The Ninth Gate, and, most recently, a small part in Kevin Smith's movie Tusk.
  • The inspiration for the name Freddy was a bully who tormented Craven as a child.
  • David Warner, who you may recognize from other genre films such as The Omen and Time After Time, was once signed on to play Freddy.  
  • A simple marionette technique was used to pull off the extended arms effect from Tina's death sequence.  Crew members had long poles with string attached to the ends of the fake arms extending from Englund.
  • Bob Shaye's sister, Lyn, plays the English teacher in the scene before Nancy's dream sequence in school.  She's had a varied career as a character actor, including other horror films such as Insidious as well as comic fare such as There's Something About Mary and Kingpin.  
  • Heather Langenkamp now runs a make-up effects studio, called AFX Studio with her husband, David Anderson.
  • The red/green sweater was based on an article that Craven read that said red and green were the most difficult for the brain to process when shown side by side.
  • Heather Langenkamp kept the phone prop with Freddy's tongue after filming wrapped.


In the 30 years since the original A Nightmare on Elm Street was released, an entire industry has been built around Freddy Krueger.  There have been nine more movies, including sequels, a crossover with one Mr. Voorhees, and the aforementioned remake.  There are video games, comic books, action figures, and a variety of other Freddy swag.

New Line Cinemas has had an illustrious history since it's breakthrough hit.  Perhaps one of the biggest successes after A Nightmare on Elm Street was the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I mention this because I think it's important for horror fans to know.  This way, the next time a snobby film nerd starts talking down their noses about horror, remind them that the existence of Middle Earth as an on-screen entity owes it's existence to a burned madman in an ugly sweater and a fedora.

Further Reading:

Banka, Michael.  "Interview on Elm Street:  An Interview with Wes Craven."  Cinéaste.  Vol. 17, No. 3 (1990), pp. 22-25.

Farrand, Daniel and Andrew Kasch.  Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy. 1428 Films.  May 10, 2010.

Fortune, Drew.  "The Dream Journal:  Reflections on the 30th Anniversary of 'A Nightmare on Elm Street."  Entertainment Weekly Online.

Grow, Kory.  "Bedtime Stories: Behind the 10 Most Shocking 'Nightmare on Elm Street' Scenes."  Rolling Stone Online.  October 30, 2014.

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