Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep...
A Nightmare on Elm Street was first released in 1984 by New Line Cinema, being written and directed by Wes Craven. Since its inception, it has spawned seven sequels, a TV series and a remake of the original film. It has also managed to invoke more fandom and fanaticism than any other horror franchise in history.
As an extremely avid movie geek, I too have been a part of that fandom since I was an eight year old just getting into movies. I owned all of the films on VHS and bought all of the magazines, posters, comics and soundtracks that I could get my hands on. Like most people, I also had the obligatory Halloween costume: the hat, sweater and glove combination. I even went so far as trying to build my own Freddy glove out of soda cans, steak knives and work gloves. I was later amused to find out that I wasn’t the only one doing these things. People from all over the world have been constructing Freddy gloves in their basements and garages and selling them over the internet for many years. There haven’t been too many film franchises that have driven people to this seemingly maniacal and obsessive behavior, and that level of fandom shouldn’t be taken for granted. [Read on here...]
Looking at the Nightmare series today in retrospect, you realize just how interesting the films really are. Being developed and executed under different directors has given each entry in the series its own distinctive flavor and feel, which was also accomplished using very little money. Even without a so-called big budget, you never get the feeling that they were made by mostly inexperienced filmmakers or financed by a fledgling movie studio. They have the look and feel of A level films and deliver on much of the same level. They all have their pros and cons and aren’t considered by the general populace as masterpieces of the genre, but they’re far too quirky, fun and inventive to be ignored or forgotten very easily.
The Nightmare series also introduced the world to one of cinema’s most popular and enduring icons: Freddy Krueger. Robert Englund’s masterful portrayal as the dark and sinister dream demon who was burned alive by the parents of his victims during his homicidal rampage as a human being has always been a sort of iconography of great character acting. The original approach of the character couldn’t have been any more primordial: he invades the dreams of his victims and kills them in their sleep. He’s quite vicious yet relishes what he does, making him more of an anti-hero to audiences than a villain. As the sequels followed, Freddy became less of a ruthless and terrifying night stalker and more of a figure of fun that would throw a joke or two in during his deadly spree in teenage dreamland. He became so overexposed that it was difficult to find him scary anymore. Ultimately, it didn’t matter much to the public and audiences lined up to see him dish it out to a whole new set of teenagers, sequel after sequel. Freddy’s menace and attitude combined with the fedora, the red and green sweater, the glove and the burned flesh all combined into an indelible image that has embedded itself into popular culture, making the Nightmare series not just merely a set of slasher films, but a culture-defining ethos that will live forever.
With all of that in mind, let’s take a look at the entire series film by film. To do that, we’ll need to start at the very beginning...
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Wes Craven, who was fresh off of the mildly successful Swamp Thing (with the grindhouse classics The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes already under his belt) had crafted the story of A Nightmare on Elm Street on his own, but no one in the industry had any faith in it. The main inspiration for the story came from three non-correlated articles in the L.A. Times about individuals whom had died due to Brugada Syndrome (otherwise known as Sudden Unexplained Death Syndrome). Craven found the articles intriguing and soon developed a script based around the idea that people could die in their dreams. Even his closest colleague Sean Cunningham (director of the original Friday the 13th) didn’t believe that the idea was scary enough to be made into a successful film.
After several failed attempts at getting studios interested in the script, things were looking grim for the project. That is, until Craven met Robert Shaye, an independent film distributor who was looking to finance a film that might generate a healthy profit for his distribution company New Line Cinema (no more than a one-room office in Manhattan at the time). Shaye recognized the potential in the project and felt very strongly that an audience could relate to the material because everyone goes to sleep at night. With their partnership formed, Craven and Shaye set out to seek funding for it and gather together the talent to get it made.
Originally, Craven had envisioned Freddy to be a much older man, but found that the energy and stamina needed to portray him could only be found in younger men. British actor David Warner (The Omen) was originally cast in the role but left the project due to other obligations. Craven soon found what he was looking for in a young Robert Englund. Fresh off of the hit TV series V, Englund was the top candidate for the role. As a classically trained actor, he brought a swagger, stance and personality to the part, while also being able to reach into his inner dark recesses to make his character both sinister and nasty. Craven also found a great protagonist in Heather Langenkamp, whose ‘girl next door’ persona, as well inner strength, gave Freddy his greatest and most memorable opponent, Nancy Thompson. With the casting complete and all of the remaining pieces of the puzzle in place, principal photography was soon underway.
Shot in Los Angeles in less than 4 weeks at break-neck speed, the filmmakers did their best to utilize the talent and tools at hand to make something special. Even with its meager budget, A Nightmare on Elm Street managed to pull off some wonderful visual moments and fantastic mechanical special effects (Tina’s death scene leaps to mind). The film also cleverly blurred the line between dreams and reality, leaving the viewer not quite sure if the characters were awake or asleep. Freddy himself was left in the shadows and often obstructed from view so that the audience never got a really good look at him, which allowed the audience’s imagination to fill in the holes (a Hitchcock device that turned out to be very effective).Although the cast and crew got along well during filming, it was Wes Craven and Robert Shaye who often had heated disagreements over budget and story content. Shaye felt that the original ending was all wrong and that audiences shouldn’t go out with a happy ending, but instead with a big scare and twist. It’s a decision that forever affected the history of the franchise (even though there were no thoughts of it actually becoming a franchise at that point). Craven wasn’t happy with the changing the ending, feeling that it was demeaning to the rest of the film (as well as a bit confusing on a story level), but compromised on his producer’s demands. And although the matter was settled, the relationship was strained thereafter and Craven wouldn’t return to the director’s chair until much later in the series.
On November 9, 1984, A Nightmare on Elm Street was independently released by New Line Cinema in a limited engagement and a week later nationwide. The word of mouth on the film quickly spread and helped push it into becoming a success, turning a profit almost immediately. This signaled to Robert Shaye that there could be a gold mine in the character of Freddy Krueger. A sequel was soon rushed into production to cash in on the original’s popularity and, eventually, help give New Line Cinema a boost into the majors.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge
After the fallout between Wes Craven and Robert Shaye, it was clear that Craven had little interest in returning for a sequel. Jack Sholder, who had directed Alone in the Dark for New Line three years prior, was cutting together trailers for the studio during development on Freddy’s Revenge and was offered the job of directing the film. A fresh face in the make-up department, Kevin Yagher, was also brought in to redesign Freddy’s make-up, taking over for makeup artist David Miller. Yagher would go on to work on the makeup effects for the next two films in the series. However, the most troubling bit during the casting process was that Robert Englund wasn’t brought back to play Freddy… at first. An uncredited extra was used instead with the idea that he would be overdubbed later. At that time, both the Friday the 13th and Halloween series had managed to turn a profit without bringing the same actor back every time to play Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, respectively. Because of Englund’s impact on the character, this couldn’t be accomplished with Freddy Krueger. Once filming had begun, the mistake was quickly realized and Englund was brought back on board.
However, that wasn’t the only problem that plagued the shoot and eventual release of Freddy’s Revenge, but it was the only one that got solved to everyone’s satisfaction. Taking a close look at the film, you can clearly see that no one had a clear vision of it becoming scripture for a fan base. Everything about it, from role reversals of the characters, major script issues and some terribly-executed special effects (except for Jesse’s transformation), shows that it was meant solely to be a quick cash-in and wasn’t given more time in the development process. Other problems with the film were inherent in the original script itself. In the film, Freddy literally metamorphosizes through the character of Jesse and steps into reality to do his dirty work. According to the mythology of the series, Freddy is always in a dream no matter what. To have him running around at a pool party terrorizing teenagers rubbed not only fans the wrong way, but even Englund himself.
For years, the most-talked about subject having to do with Freddy’s Revenge was the role reversals of the lead characters. Usually in the series (and most other horror films), the protagonist of the story was played by a woman. This time around, they chose instead to make the lead a male, which caused the homoerotic subtext of the story to be heightened without it meaning to be. Screenwriter David Chaskin recently admitted that he had intended for there to be just such a subtext, but nowhere near as prevalent as what wound up in the final film. According to the filmmakers themselves, no one had even an inkling that it could be looked at as a story about a young man coming to terms with his sexuality. It was an issue that wasn’t addressed until many years later, but nevertheless, it remains a hot topic amongst fans.
Despite all of its problems, Freddy’s Revenge was still released on November 1, 1985 as is, and was a greater financial success than the first film. It was snubbed by critics and unfortunately left a bad taste in the mouths of fans, and both the success mixed with the negative reactions to it indicated two things to Robert Shaye: that this could be an on-going franchise and that they also had to try harder in delivering a better quality product to the growing fan base. Both came to fruition in the next film but Freddy’s Revenge continues to be held up as the red-headed stepchild of the series. It wasn’t a completely wasted effort, but the final product is plagued with problems ranging from the script, the special effects and just the overall execution. Regardless, most feel that it’s still worthy enough to be a continuation in the string of pearls, even if it doesn’t shine quite like what came before or after it.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors
When Robert Shaye and company decided to venture into doing a third Nightmare sequel, they decided to go back to the man who created it. Wes Craven, along with screenwriter Bruce Wagner, were brought asked to write a treatment for a third film with the possibility of Craven directing. The script that was eventually delivered was one of the more controversial approaches in the history of the series, but it had enough interesting ideas worth pursuing. Deciding that the treatment could use some fresh blood, the studio hired the writing team of Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont to come in and give it a spit and polish, while Russell was hired to direct.
The final shooting script that was handed in had more of a biting satirical edge while still retaining a strange and horrific framework. Ultimately, Dream Warriors was the first entry in the series that pushed Freddy into more comedic territory. They even went so far as to have a scene of a young girl watching TV, and as she watches, Dick Cavett transforms into Freddy and kills Zsa Zsa Gabor. It was actually a strange foreboding for what happened with Freddy in the real world later on. Chuck Russell has admitted on several occasions for being partly responsible for bringing out Freddy’s funny side but never feeling like it was a mistake, despite the detractors.
Dream Warriors was also the first film in the series to give Freddy a deeper backstory. By this point, audiences were well aware that he was the product of vigilante justice, but what was unknown was everything leading up to that. The inclusion of a backstory wherein Freddy was the son of a young nun who had been raped by hundreds of mental patients at an asylum only made him much more interesting and less two dimensional than his low budget counterparts. The film was also the first sequel to have such a rich and diverse cast. The first two films had featured mostly simple, middle class, white teenagers from the suburbs. This time around we’re introduced to a wheelchair-bound geek, a mute, a former heroin addict, and for the first time, a black teenager. The cast was also rich with talented veteran actors like Craig Wasson, as well as new talent like Patricia Arquette, the latter of which went on to have a successful career afterwards. Also returning to reprise their roles from the first film were Heather Langenkamp and John Saxon. Despite the difficulty of working with a first time director in a mostly tense working environment, the cast managed to pull off wonderful performances that tend to stand out more so than other films in the series. The film also contains an array of some very impressive practical and visual effects. There are some fantastic and interesting death sequences along with some very clever special effects on display in this film.
To coincide with its technical prowess was a set of sympathetic victims that we actually cared about. They’re set up early on as troubled teens who are seemingly suicidal and treated as if they’re just crying for attention or losing their marbles altogether by the adults. Setting the story in a psychiatric hospital and following their plight only curries sympathy for them and we hope that they succeed, even if Freddy is the star of the show and we want him to succeed, as well. It all works extremely well, even if some of the sequences do stray into cheesy territory at times. Had the film not given its characters a proper build-up, it could have easily been laughed off of movie screens and made it difficult to pick up the pieces afterwards. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.
Released on February 27, 1987, Dream Warriors was a huge success, making even more money than first two films. Most fans believe that it’s the best sequel of the series, and I would have to agree with that. It contains everything you could want in a sequel without going overboard with poor story mechanics, thinly-drawn characters or heaping buckets of gore. The film turned Freddy Krueger into a household name, and in the interim, the merchandise to go along with it. The revenues that kept coming in helped in building New Line Cinema into a full-fledged movie studio. However, the success was only minor compared to what came next.