I’ll admit it. I’m guilty. I’ve unfairly maligned this franchise because of where it ended up versus where it began. And it’s time that I rectified that situation. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been watching them all over again from the beginning and have come to change my opinion. Well, at least until the fifth film.
The original film was based on a lot of director/writer Wes Craven’s life, as well as Asian Death Syndrome, a medical condition that impacted a group of refugees who had left behind Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, yet were still trapped by nightmares of war. Many of them refused to go to sleep as a result and some even died while sleeping.
He also was inspired by a satirical horror movie his Clarkson University students made in 1968 which was filmed along Elm Street in Potsdam, New York. And the film’s villain, Freddy Krueger, is based on an incident where a young Craven felt like an elderly neighbor was coming after him. The name comes from a childhood bully that kept beating on Craven and it’s not the first time that he used that name, as Krug from The Last House on the Left is also named for this past teenage demon.
Freddy Krueger doesn’t look like any of his slasher brethren. With every other slasher wearing a mask, Craven wanted a villain who could talk and threaten his victims, while striking even more fear into their hearts with his burned and scarred visage. He also based his soon to be iconic sweatshirt on the pattern of DC Comics superhero Plastic Man, but changed the colors to red and green as he learne dd that those were the colors that clash the most in the human retina. And his weapon wouldn’t be a knife, but an entire glove made of them.
A Nightmare on Elm Street – 1984
Upon watching this again for the first time in probably thirty years, I was struck by how European the movie feels. Perhaps it’s the color tones throughout, suggesting the patina of Italian horror cinema (both Fulci and Craven cite surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel as an influence). It could also be John Saxon having lead billing. Or just that it doesn’t feel like any horror cinema that was currently being made in the United States.
The real villain of this piece is not Freddy Krueger — more on him in a bit — but the parents of Elm Street who have allowed secrets and their assumed authority over their children to do unspeakable and unspoken things. All of them are haunted by it, divorced, depressed and self-medicating with over-dedication to their jobs or their addictions.
There are stories that David Warner was originally going to play Freddy, but that’s been disproven. After plenty of actors tried out and failed to win the part, it went to Robert Englund, who darkened his eyes and acted like Klaus Kinski (!) to get the part.
The other feeling I have about this movie is that it owes a major debt — as all horror movies post 1978 do –to John Carpenter’s Halloween. Much like that film, the true horror happens within the foliage of the suburbs, with shadow people showing up and disappearing. Much of the action on the final night happens within two houses. One of the main characters has the ultimate authority figure, a policeman, for a father. And the cinematography by Jacques Haitkin glides near the characters and around them, much like the Steadicam shots that start Carpenter’s film.
The film starts with Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss, who puts the events of Better Off Dead into motion by breaking up with Lloyd Dobler) waking up from a nightmare where a disfigured man chases her with a bladed glove. I loved the way this scene looks, as you could almost consider Freddy off brand here, as his arms grow comedically long and he moves way faster than he would in the rest of the series. Yet by keeping him in the shadows, he’s absolutely terrifying.
When Tina awakens, her nightgown has been slashed and she’s afraid to go to sleep again. She learns that her friends, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp, who left Stamford University to be in this), Glen (introducing Johnny Depp) and Rod (Jsu Garcia, credited as Nicki Corri) have all been having the same dream. To console Tina, they all stay at her parent’s house overnight. But when Tina falls asleep, Krueger is waiting. Rod awakes to find Tina flying all over the room and up the walls — an astounding effects sequence in the pre-CGI era — and he flees the scene after her death.
Soon, Rod is arrested by Lieutenant Don Thompson (Saxon), Nancy’s father. Freddy now starts pursuing her, chasing her as she falls asleep in class (look for Lin Shaye as the teacher) and later in the bathtub, as his claw raises like a demented and deadly phallus between her thighs. Rod tells her how Tina dies and now she knows that the same killer is definitely after her (Garcia’s watery eyes and lack of focus made Langenkamp think he was acting his heart out; the truth is he was high on heroin for real in this scene). She tries to find the killer, with Glen watching over her, but he’s a lout and easily falls asleep. Only the alarm clock saves her, but no one can save Rod, who is hung in his sleep while rotting in a jail cell.
Nancy’s mom Marge (Ronee Blakley, who was married to Wim Wenders, sang backup on Dylan’s song “Hurricane” and is also in Altman’s Nashville) takes her to a sleep clinic, where Dr. King (Charles Fleischer, Roger Rabbit’s voice) tries to figure out her nightmares. She emerges from a dream holding Freddy’s hat to her mother’s horror. Soon, she reveals to her daughter that the parents of Elm Street got revenge on Freddy Krueger, a child murderer after a judge let him go on a technicality. In a deleted scene, we also learn that Nancy and her friends all lost a brother or sister that they never knew about.
While Nancy is barred up in her house by new security measures, Glen’s parents won’t allow him to see her. Soon, he’s asleep and is transformed into an overwhelming fountain of blood. Nancy falls asleep after asking her father to come in twenty minutes. He doesn’t listen and she pulls Freddy into our world. On the run, she screams for help until her father finally comes to her aid, just in time to watch a burning Freddy kill his ex-wife and them both disappear.
This is an incredibly complex stunt where Freddy is set ablaze, chases Nancy up the stairs, falls back down and runs back up — all in one take! At the time, it was the most elaborate fire stunt ever filmed and won Anthony Cecere an award for the best stunt of the year.
Nancy then realizes that if she doesn’t believe in Freddy, he can’t hurt her. She wakes up and every single one of her friends is still alive, ready to go to school. As the convertible hood opens up in the colors of the killer’s sweater, she realizes that she’s still trapped by Freddy, who drags her mother through a window.
In Craven’s original script, the movie simply ended on a happy note. Producer Robert Shaye wanted the twist ending so that the door was open for a sequel, something Craven had no interest in. Four different endings were filmed: Craven’s happy ending, Shaye’s ending where Freddy wins and two compromises between their ideas.
Obviously, the series would continue. And the follow-up would be one that left many unsatisfied.
A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge – 1985
With Craven stepping aside, Jack Sholder (Alone in the Dark, which was the first New Line movie before the original Elm Street and The Hidden) was selected as the director and David Chaskin was selected to write this (it was his first Hollywood script and he’d go on to write I, Madman and The Curse).
Chaskin’s theme for the film — which until the documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy he would always say was just subtext — is the main character Jesse (Mark Patton) coming to grips with his homosexuality. Patton struggled with his anger over this film for years, as he felt betrayed as the filmmakers knew that he was in the closet. Between this role and playing a gay teenager in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, he feared being typecast at best and labeled at worst. Yes, in 1985, this was the world that we lived in.
Chaskin claimed in interviews that Patton just played the role too gay, but Patton bristled at that claim. The emotional stress led Patton to quit acting for some time to pursue a career in interior design. That said, Chaskin claims that he has tried to reach out and apologize to the actor over the years.
Director Sholder has said that he didn’t have the self-awareness to think that the film had any gay subtext, but an unfilmed scene almost had Krueger slide a knife into Jesse’s mouth. Makeup artist Kevin Yagher talked Patton out of filming that scene for the sake of his career.
Years later, Patton would write Jesse’s Lost Journal, a series of diary entries that would set his feelings — and his character’s — straight, pardon the horrible pun.
The sequel starts with a dream sequence where Jesse Walsh (Patton) dreams of being stuck inside a school bus with Freddy at the wheel. Jesse’s circle of friends include Lisa, who he’s friends with but too shy to ask out, and Grady (Robert Rusler, Sometimes They Come Back), a frenemy that seems more like a crush.
Jesse has moved into Nancy Thompson’s home, which was on the market for five years after she was institutionalized and her mother killed herself. His family has Clu Gulager from Return of the Living Dead as his dad, Hope Lange from Death Wish as his mother and a little sister that he bothers when she’s trying to sleep.
Lisa and Jesse discover Nancy’s diary, which explains how ridiculous the house is to live in. It’s always 97 degrees, birds attack you at will before they spontaneously combust and your parents accuse you of setting it all up.
Meanwhile, Jesse is dealing with all sorts of strangeness, like a sadistic gym teacher who really likes to go to punk clubs and get whipped. One night, a dream takes him to that bar and the gym teacher makes him run laps in the middle of the night. That gym teacher is played by Marshall Bell, who was George in Total Recall, the host for Kuato. Freddy possesses our hero and the coach gets clawed up in the shower. The cops find Jesse wandering the highway naked, which doesn’t seem all that weird to his mother.
Lisa and Jesse go to Freddy’s lair in an abandoned factory, then she has a pool party. Yes, I just wrote that sentence. At the party, they kiss and have perhaps the most awkward make out session ever, until Freddy causes changes in Jesse’s body that make him run to Grady for help. Yes, he gets so upset about making up with a girl that he runs to his male crush, only to transform into Freddy in an astounding practical effects sequences and kill Grady. He returns to the pool party and lays absolute waste to the partygoers as Freddy before getting chased off by multiple shotgun blasts.
Only Lisa’s love — and kisses — can bring Jesse out of Freddy. But it’s all for nothing, as the nightmare from the beginning becomes real and their schoolbus turns into a deathtrap. Even though their friend Kerry (who has the best outfits in the movie) tries to calm them down, Freddy’s claw emerges from her chest.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors – 1987
After the much-criticized second installment (I actually really enjoyed it, as it has a lot of European flair and its subject matter seems like a middle finger in the face of teenage boys who would seem to be its biggest audience), Wes Craven returned to write the inspiration for this script, which was originally about the phenomenon of children traveling to a specific location to commit suicide (think Japanese murder forests).
Frank Darabont and Chuck Russell took that direction and convinced New Line that the series should go further into Freddy’s dream world. The success of this film proved that A Nightmare on Elm Street would be a franchise, as this film made more than the first two movies put together. The team would go on to create 1988’s remake of The Blob before Darabont went into making Stephen King adaptions and Russell would direct The Mask, The Scorpion King and Collateral.
Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette) is obsessed with the abandoned house on Elm Street (which one assumes is the last house on the left), making papier-mâché sculptures (which makes for a great compressed credit sequence, showing headlines of what has gone on before) and dreaming of Freddy chasing her. She awakens from her nightmare to discover that she’s slicing her own wrists as her mother Elaine (Brooke Bundy) has to interrupt her sleepover date to save her daughter’s life.
Kristen ends up in Westin Hospital, run by Dr. Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson, Body Double), battling the orderlies and doctors who want to sedate her. Check out a young Laurence Fishburne here as orderly Max Daniels! She’s eventually helped by the new therapist — Nancy Thompson! — who recites Freddy’s nursery rhyme to her. Continuity be damned, Nancy’s grey streak is now on the opposite side of her head.
We meet the rest of the patients, who will soon become the Dream Warriors: Phillip the sleepwalker (Bradley Gregg, Class of 1999), wheelchair-bound Will (Ira Heiden, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark), streetwise Kincaid, actress Jennifer (Penelope Sudrow, After Midnight), the silent Joey and Taryn, a former drug addict (Jennifer Rubin, who is also in a movie that totally rips off this one, Bad Dreams).
The Dream Warriors is pure entertainment. Freddy makes his move toward being more of a joking character while transforming into a snake, a TV set, a gigantic puppet master and even turns his fingers into drug-filled hypodermic needles. Kristen can pull the rest of the teens into her dreams, which they’ll need as Freddy and all of their doctors are pretty much against them.
Dr. Neil learns from Sister Mart Helena the true origins of Freddy, the bastard son of one hundred maniacs, and how he can stop him. Enlisting Nancy’s dad (John Saxon returns!), Neil digs up Freddy’s bones, which are still deadly, while Nancy tries to save as many of the kids as she can within the dreamworld.
The film puts an end to Nancy’s saga while setting things up for a new cast of characters to do battle with Freddy. At least that’s what you’re supposed to think, as A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master pretty much wipes the slate clean within the first ten minutes. We covered it not long ago, so follow the link to read more.
We’ll be back soon to cover the rest of these films! Don’t fall asleep!