Wes Craven Gives a Live Commentary on ‘A Nightmare On Elm Street’

A Nightmare on Elm Street original poster

It has been a year since filmmaker Wes Craven passed away after a long fight with brain cancer. Despite the fact he was 76 years old, it still feels like he left this world far too soon. The following article is about a screening of perhaps his most famous film which I attended seven years ago, and it remains one of the most enjoyable, informative and entertaining screenings I have ever attended in Southern California.

Wes Craven made a special appearance on March 29, 2009 at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica for a special screening of the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” This horror classic was released back in 1984 by the then fledging distributor New Line Cinema, and it remains one of the great horror classics of all time. This screening was sold out as Craven was there to do a live commentary of the film, and he was joined by director Mick Garris who started things off by saying, “I hate those people who talk through the movie!”

What shocked everyone the most was that the 35 mm print of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” was in pristine condition to where it looked like it had never even been run through a film projector before. Both Craven and Garris gave their compliments to the Aero Theater for getting their hands on such a beautiful print, and the audience applauded in agreement.

Garris started off with the question Craven must get every single day of his life: “Where did you get the idea for this movie?”

Laughingly, Craven said the idea for “A Nightmare on Elm Street” came when he was watching late night television, and a story came on regarding a young man who had died after having horrible nightmares. This case led to a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times about the boy and how he told everyone there was a man inside his dream trying to kill him. His father, a doctor, kept giving him sleeping pills to help him rest more easily. But when the police found the boy’s lifeless body, they also found all the sleeping pills his father gave to him underneath his bed. He never took a single one.

Craven also said the film was inspired by a dream sequence he did in “The Last House on the Left” where a character named Weasel has this nightmare where he is strapped down on an operating table with the parents of one of his victims hovering over him in and dressed in scrubs. The husband ends up taking a hammer and a chisel and places the chisel right on Weasel’s front teeth. The hammer comes down with a thrashing blow, and Weasel suddenly wakes up. Craven said when people talk about “Last House on the Left,” it is always this particular scene they bring up which astonishes him. Turns out it stayed with him to the point where someone suggested he make a movie out of a dream. Guess what happened next.

Craven also made it clear that “A Nightmare on Elm Street” was not inspired by any specific episode of “The Twilight Zone.” Instead he said he was trying to establish the world of dreams as he finds them, as we all do, endlessly fascinating. Throughout the movie, he discussed the subject of dreams at length and talked of how they have no rules to them. Dreams seem to revolve around the violence and darkness we experience in the world either through the news or firsthand, and Craven discussed how they seep into our subconscious all the time by saying, “If we were ever fully conscious of all the bad things that were happening to us, it would be too painful for us to handle.”

When Craven he took his script to every studio in Hollywood, he said the executives all rejected it because they found it to be ridiculous. But even as he got more and more broke, he kept shopping it around until he met Robert Shaye, the head of New Line Cinema, at a party in New York. Back then, New Line Cinema existed merely as a storefront in downtown New York, and it would have gone bankrupt had this movie not been successful. Indeed, New Line Cinema will forever be known as the house Freddy Krueger built.

Craven also remarked about how he didn’t know much about signing contracts at the time when he signed with Shaye to “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” Since he was already so broke and filled with doubt of what he could do, he felt he had no choice but to sign the contracts given to him. But what he thought would be a 50-50 situation turned out not to be the case, and from that point on New Line Cinema owned the movie and Freddy Krueger. The realization of this brought forth many hisses from the audience.

But when he was asked to make another “Nightmare” movie, which became “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare,” Craven asked for profit participation in the franchise he did not previously have. Shaye later told Craven he agreed that he was not treated fairly, and the deal between him and New Line got restructured to where Craven got what he rightfully deserved.

Garris pointed out how “A Nightmare on Elm Street” had an amazing cast for a genre film and asked Craven about his casting process. Craven replied he looked for actors who didn’t have a lot of credits to their name in the hope of getting people who could act more naturally. This was actually Johnny Depp’s very first movie, and Craven recalled how incredibly nervous Depp was throughout the shoot. Depp did manage to get a friend of his to help him out, and that same friend got cast as a coroner.

Of all the young actors, the most experienced was Amanda Wyss who played Tina. Amanda also starred in “Better Off Dead” as the girlfriend who thoughtlessly breaks John Cusack’s heart.

In casting Heather Langenkamp as Nancy Thompson, Craven said he chose her because she was basically “solid peasant stock” (the audience was shocked at this description) and looked like an “every woman.” This was what he wanted for this part, and Langenkamp turned in an excellent performance playing a character everyone could relate to. Nancy was also the first of many strong female characters Craven would utilize in his movies.

Garris then asked Craven how he created Freddy Krueger. Craven replied the inspiration for Freddy arose when he came across a homeless guy with a bowler hat who was shuffling his way slowly down the sidewalk, his face a mask of nasty scars. He said the sight of this man creeped him out a lot, and the image of the man stayed with him long after he vanished. The name Freddy came from a kid who Craven said used to beat him up at school, and he was at one time going to be based on a janitor he remembered from school who frightened him and his classmates. He was also adamant that Freddy not have a mask since this had already been done to death in the “Halloween” and “Friday The 13th” movies.

Krueger was also originally envisioned as being older, but this changed when Robert Englund came in to read for the part. Unlike other actors who were reluctant to portray such a dark and evil character, Englund was not intimidated by it and was willing to be serious with the material. Craven said Englund took a great delight in playing Freddy, and his audition convinced him the character did not have to be an old man for it to work. When an audience member asked if there was some sort of sound device or technique used to make Freddy’s voice sound deeper, Craven answered by saying, “Robert’s voice was all Robert’s.”

The budget for “A Nightmare on Elm Street” was around $1.8 million, but a big chunk of financing fell through two weeks into the shoot, putting the cast and crew in a position where they would not get paid. But once Shaye explained the situation to them all, not one crew member left the set. When the movie opened, it earned back its $1.8 million budget in just one weekend.

Craven also described how the special effects were created and what inspired them:

  • During the scene where Nancy falls asleep in her high school English class and sees Tina being dragged away in a body bag, the trail Tina leaves behind her was inspired by the slime trails left by snails.
  • When Nancy gets stuck on the stairs while running away from Freddy, the goo she steps in was actually oatmeal.
  • When the centipede comes out of Tina’s mouth, it apparently got lost on the set and the bug wranglers couldn’t find it. When the crew broke for lunch, none of them came back.
  • When Nancy cornered Freddy in the downstairs basement and set him on fire, the man doing the stunt was Craven’s racquetball partner.
  • In regards to the montage of Nancy setting up the traps to take Freddy down, the book she uses as a manual was actually a World War II manual on booby trapping.

Craven didn’t hesitate to bring up the constant fights he had with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). When Tina’s bloody body, after being dragged over the ceiling, is dropped on the bed, the splash of blood when she landed was quite enormous. The MPAA asked him to cut down the scene to avoid an X (now NC-17) rating. Craven recalled these experiences as both very painful and never ending for him as they occurred with just about every film he made (“Music of the Heart” might have been an exception).

Those fights with the MPAA continued on with “Scream,” and Craven admitted he was baffled why none of the members realized that it was a satire. They even suggested the third act be completely cut, and this illustrates one of the many horrendous suggestions the MPAA comes up with when they judiciously give ratings.

One audience member asked Craven why he used teenagers instead of adults in the movie, and he replied very simply, “Adults would never have watched it.”

One of the funniest moments of the evening was during the scene where Freddy attacks Nancy’s mother, and how her burnt corpse descends into the mattress beneath her. Craven didn’t even try to hide the fact this was one of the least successful special effects in the movie. Regarding John Saxon, who played Nancy’s father, and his expression in the scene, Craven said, “John’s not upset that his wife just died. It was the special effects that tore him up!”

Charles Bernstein composed the movie’s unforgettable and unnerving score, and Craven praised his work as Bernstein had very little money to work with. Craven said he wrote the “1, 2, Freddy’s coming for you” poem, and Bernstein put music to it and took it from there.

As the evening continued on, we got to know more about Craven more as a person. In regards to his career as a horror filmmaker, he told Garris it was all a roll of the dice. When his good friend Sean S. Cunningham asked him to make “The Last House on the Left,” Craven remembered telling him, “I don’t know anything about making a scary movie.”

The audience was also surprised to learn Craven was not allowed to see movies as a kid, and it was not until much later that he finally got the nerve to sneak out of his parents’ home to see one. He credits “To Kill a Mockingbird” as the movie which changed his life and said the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” frightened him to death and left him in an unnerved state for months. But even after he had kids of his own, Craven said he never really changed as a director or in the kind of films he made.

When a movie of his opens in theaters, Craven said he always gets out of town as soon as possible. Life can get very miserable if your movie turns out to really suck. When Garris asked Craven if he got to see “A Nightmare on Elm Street” when it opened, Craven made it clear he hates watching his movies in a theater because he is usually driven mad by problems with the sound and projection.

There has never been any doubt Craven is an extremely intelligent filmmaker and human being. To hear him talk about the themes embedded in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” as well as the importance of horror movies made this live commentary all the more fascinating. Freddy Krueger became so popular with audiences because bad guys are far more interesting than the good guys. Another way of looking at this is of how the devil is more interesting than God because he is not bound by any moral obligations, and there is no rule he is not willing to break.

The way Craven sees it, horror is good for you as it forces you to deal with the chaotic. While other filmmakers are busy making “torture porn” movies, which Craven is not a fan of, he said he never tries to make horror look cool. Eventually, we all have to deal with the chaos of life, and we cannot spend the rest of our lives hiding from reality. If you watch the news, violence surrounds us in our everyday lives and gets deeply rooted in our subconscious mind. Horror films are affected by current events of the time they were filmed in

One of the best points that Craven made was that if you don’t know what darkness is inside of you and turn a blind eye to it, then you are in deep trouble. You cannot hide away from your dark side, and you need to be fully aware of what extremes people will go to in order to survive.

In the end, this is what makes Nancy so brave; she is the only one in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” capable of dealing with reality. This is in direct contrast to Nancy’s mother, Marge (Ronee Blakley), an alcoholic who hides vodka bottles in different parts of her house. She also becomes overly protective of her daughter by having metal bars put up on the doors and windows. Her way of dealing with reality is not healthy, and it is endemic of the other characters as they are handling it very well either. But in the end, kids need to know they have allies in their parents, and Nancy manages to find one in her father.

“A Nightmare on Elm Street” still holds up after all the years despite the dated styles and special effects. Garris said he loved how everything keeps building up and of how there is an increasing sense of dread throughout. This movie taps into those terrifying dreams we all had when we were young, and this is just one of the reasons why it remains so terrifying to this day; it deals with the never ending fascination we have with dreams, and it creates a world for them to exist where anything can happen.

Rest in peace Wes Craven.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2015.

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