Nightmare on Elm Street, A (New Line 1984)
By the time he made A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984, director Wes Craven was no stranger to horror films, having already collaborated with Sean Cunningham on The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), although his career in motion pictures had been a relatively late development in his professional life.
Craven had a burning desire to tell a story inspired by the real life mystery reported over a series of articles in the LA Times, about the deaths of three Southeast Asian young men, who had fled to the US from war torn Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In a phenomenon later dubbed Asian Death Syndrome, each had experienced terrifying dreams which led to them eschewing sleep, only to die in their slumber when they eventually succumbed to their bodies’ need for restoration.
Glen (Johnny Depp) ignores girlfriend Nancy’s warnings and falls fatally asleep in A Nightmare on Elm Street (New Line 1984)
Intrigued and moved by the tragic and mysterious events surrounding these deaths, Craven endeavoured to make his movie by hook or by crook. “Nightmare was written after I’d done two films back to back,” he later explained. “I’d made enough money on them to take six months off, so I wrote and refined the script, A Nightmare on Elm Street.”
Nobody in Hollywood wanted to know. Having hawked his idea around many of the bigger players, a disillusioned Craven eventually found some interest from Robert Shaye of New Line Cinema, a tiny 16mm distribution company. “I said I thought that sounded fantastic because it had an element that I’m always looking for which is something that all audiences can relate to,” Shaye later recalled. “Everybody of course can relate to scary dreams and nightmares.”
Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) astounds Dr King (Charles Fleischer) and mother Marge (Ronee Blakley) as she pulls Freddy’s hat out of her dream at the sleep clinic in A Nightmare on Elm Street (New Line 1984)
The central ‘monster’ of the piece was crucial to its success, and Craven turned to several personal experiences for inspiration for Freddy Krueger: “Freddy was the name of a kid that used to beat me up quite frequently,” he mused. The final piece of the jigsaw was provided by a lingering childhood memory of an old man, probably inebriated, standing outside his bedroom window, staring fixedly at him in a dishevelled fedora, pretty much identical to the one Krueger eventually sported.
For the important aspect of Freddy’s facial appearance, the director looked back to the fiend’s forerunners, namely Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. “By that time Halloween and Friday the 13th had come out and they both were very powerful and successful films and they had somebody in a mask,” he later revealed. “At a certain point I thought, kill him in a fire and he can have a mask of just scar tissue, and then he’ll be able to be articulate.”
For heroine Nancy Thompson, the thinking was that she should be strong, smart, intelligent and pretty, and the choice of twenty year old ingenue Heather Langenkamp proved perfect. “It was one of my very first jobs at all; I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into,” she would later recount with a wry smile, adding that Thompson is the role she loves and identifies with the most.
When David Warner, the first choice for Krueger, had to back out of the project, an audition was arranged for the star of TV series V, Robert Englund. “My buddy smoked, and he’d ridden over with me,” the actor remembered. “I’d used some ash from the ash tray in my car, which was an old make-up theatre trick, and put a little bit of circles under my eyes – looks very, very real, you can fool people with it. I just sat there and stared back at Wes.”
Freddy (Robert Englund) displays his indestructibility in A Nightmare on Elm Street (New Line 1984)
Convinced, Craven gave him the role, and Englund went on to make the character his own, with no other actor playing him (apart from stunt doubles) throughout the original franchise’s entire tenure.
The finished movie belies its ultra low budget and protracted, difficult gestation, and prevails as one of the most original and groundbreaking horror pictures of the last forty years. Truly terrifying upon its initial release, it still has the power to disturb audiences today, despite Freddy Krueger’s now almost legendary celebrity status, oftentimes tinged with camp, comedic overtones in later entries.