Wes Craven’s ‘The Last House on The Left’ Remains a Highly Disturbing Cinematic Experience Years Later

The Last House on the Left 1972 poster

“To avoid fainting keep repeating,

It’s only a movie

…Only a movie

…Only a movie

…Only a movie”

Exploitation movies, or “video nasties” as they are called in certain countries, have a power most do not have. They shock even the most jaded and seasoned of movie fanatics, and they burn into your subconscious in a way which cannot be undone. A lot has been written about Wes Craven’s “Last House on The Left” and of the impact it had on audiences upon its release. Like Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible,” it’s a movie I was bound to see at some point. Many would prefer to stay far away from movies like this, but I don’t want to be like everyone else. I don’t want to be put off watching a movie just because it shocks more than half the world. Who am I to talk or criticize a particular movie if I haven’t seen it anyway?

“The Last House on the Left” was Craven’s directorial debut, and he made it with future “Friday the 13th” director Sean S. Cunningham on a very low budget. While many of Craven’s later movies deal with horror on a fantasy level like “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” this one deals with the horrors of real life. It deals with real people and situations any of us could fall victim to. While it was made back in 1972, it still has the power to completely unnerve anyone who sits through it to this very day. Even though I had a pretty good idea of what was in store, this movie proved to be a true endurance test more than others of its genre. And like many horror movies of the past, it just had to be remade years later.

To dismiss “The Last House on The Left” as pure exploitation is not altogether fair. There is extreme violence, naked bodies and a lot of blood and gore, but there is more going on here than what we see on the surface. Throughout Craven’s long career, he has made movies which work on an intellectual level as well as a visceral one, and this one is no exception. Craven said he made this movie in response to the Vietnam War which was going on at the time. I can certainly see that, but I think it also deals with the death of the 1960’s as well as the destruction of innocence. This film also deals with humanity at its most depraved and animalistic and of how no one can ever go back to who they once were. Everything is changed when the movie is over, and so are we for having watched it.

This movie’s story is somewhat inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s “Virgin Spring,” and it follows two teenage girls, Mari and Phyllis, as they head into the city to go to a concert. While in town, they decide to score some grass and go to a total stranger named Junior who ends up taking them back to his place. But what the ladies find instead are a couple of escaped convicts and their girlfriend who proceed to torture them to their last dying breath. You can see why the tagline fits the movie so perfectly. You have to keep reminding yourself this is only a movie as everything we are forced to witness is all too evil to process right away.

As this twisted family of psychos viciously rape and torture the two girls in the woods right near where one of them lives, it is intercut with scenes of one of the girl’s parents baking a cake and preparing a birthday party for her. There is an innocence on display in these scenes with the parents, and it serves to make all the sheer brutality even more disturbing to sit through. You don’t watch a movie like “The Last House on The Left” as much as you experience it, and movies don’t get much bleaker than this one.

Once the group has finished their dirty work, their car breaks down and they end up staying as guests of one of the girls’ parents who just welcome them into their home, completely unaware of who they actually are. They even take the time to make dinner for their guests and give them wine to drink. You would never ever see that happening today, ever. Perhaps it was the custom of people in the 1960’s to be hospitable to total strangers.

During the evening, however, the wife discovers a necklace one of their guests is wearing as being the same one she and her husband gave to their daughter before she went off with her friend. This leads to her discovering bloody clothes in one of their suitcases, and she and her husband rush off to the lake where they find their daughter dead. From there, both carry out bloody revenge against their guests, and it leads to one of the bloodiest conclusions ever in a motion picture.

To watch a movie like “The Last House on The Left” is to witness how brutal human nature can get, and it makes you wonder how someone could do something so incredibly. It’s easy to see why Craven saw this movie as a response to the Vietnam War. We went into that country and raped it without much thought of what would happen to us, and this conflict bled deeply into our country and its citizens. This war been covered in many movies like Brian De Palma’s “Casualties of War” and “Redacted” as well as Oliver Stone’s “Platoon.”

You have to give the actors a lot of credit here as they don’t play their characters as much as they inhabit them. Medals of bravery should be given to both Sandra Cassel and Lucy Grantham who play Mari and Phyllis as both are forced to suffer indignities no human being should ever endure. They are beaten, humiliated, stripped naked and violated in the worst ways imaginable.

But it’s not just the girls who die, the killers do as well, but not just in the literal sense. There is a perverse ecstasy they take in degrading their hostages, but killing them off leaves them with nothing much in the way of emotion. Seeing the looks on their faces after killing the girls proves to be one of the most fascinating moments in “The Last House on the Left” as we can see how each has lost any chance at redemption they could ever hope to get.

The late David Hess gives us one of the most despicable and vile villains in movies as Krug Stillo. There is no redeeming value to this character, and he sinks even deeper into a moral black hole when you realize he controls his son, Junior, through the use of drugs. Hess also did the music score which, to put it mildly, sounds utterly bizarre.

One other important thing to note is this is not the kind of movie where you cheer on the good guys. When the parents get their revenge, there is no joy to be taken in it and you are as emotionally drained as they are when the screen fades to black. Many people complain about the unspeakable violence in this movie, but then they go out to see the latest action extravaganza which features dozens of exploding limbs and severed body parts (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Don’t get me wrong, I like those movies as well, but it is hypocritical to get furious at one violent movie while excusing another one.

I should also add that one of idiotic cops we see in this movie is played by Martin Kove, the same actor who would go on to play Kreese in “The Karate Kid” movies. Kove seems to have been the only actor here to come out of this movie with a successful acting career.

With all the unpleasantness surrounding “The Last House on The Left,” why would I give it a positive review? Because it stands out from the average exploitation fare of the time, and there was a good deal of thought put into it. No, it is not enjoyable to sit through, but not all movies are meant to be enjoyed. Craven doesn’t hold anything back, and he gets to the ugliness humanity has to offer the innocent and the unsuspecting.

It says a lot about a movie when it can still retain its power to shock and unnerve audiences even decades after its release. “The Last House on The Left” belongs in the same company with the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” as neither have lost any of their visceral power. You don’t like unpleasant movies? Stay miles away from this one. For those willing to endure it, just remember it’s only a movie …Only a movie …Only a movie …Only a movie …With an utterly bizarre music score!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘The Last House on the Left’ (1972)

Even in this day and age, people still complain of how Hollywood doesn’t do enough to warn them of how infinitely disturbing certain movies are. Regardless of the specific descriptions the MPAA lists in an R-rated movie such as graphic violence, nudity, blood, and gore, many still insist more needs to be done to warn audiences, and that’s even though they were warned extensively beforehand. Heck, you can have the whole movie spoiled for you when you visit its Wikipedia page as it often contains a plot synopsis of everything which happens. Regardless, parents still drag their children to movies they have no business watching at such a tender age just because they won’t spend the money to hire a babysitter.

I bring this up because the trailer for the 1972 exploitation horror movie “The Last House on the Left” does what most trailers these days never bother to do; warn prospective audiences of a seriously disturbing motion picture which will arrive in a theater near them very soon. The narrator speaks ominously of how the house rests on “the very center of hell,” and the musical stings are enough to send shivers down the spines of the most jaded filmgoer. And of course, there is the line of, “To avoid fainting keep repeating, it’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie.” These days, this refrain may seem laughable, but when it comes to this cult classic, this is a really good piece of advice to keep in mind.

It’s a relatively short trailer, but it shows how Wes Craven, who made his directorial debut with this one, shot “The Last House on the Left” in a documentary style to where it felt like we were watching something real and not staged. The only actors we see here are Sandra Cassel who played Mari Collingwood and Lucy Grantham who portrayed Phyllis Stone. These characters are put through absolute hell, but we do not see the full extent of their hell in the trailer. Instead, we get glimpses of the pain and torture they are put through, and it forces us to imagine the worst things they have been forced to experience. For myself, this trailer made me infinitely intrigued to check this movie out as it seemed like the kind most audiences would be quick to avoid. Having seen it, I can assure you this is not the easiest cinematic experience to sit through in the slightest, and you have to give credit to those who put this trailer together as even they were more than willing to make this point very clear to even the most adventurous of movie goers.

I love how “The Last House on the Left” trailer does an effective job of warning its prospective audience about how disturbing a movie this will be for them. These days, I tempted to think any studio releasing it would be much more focused on starting a cinematic universe regardless of its highly disturbing material. Just think of what could have been: “The Next to Last House on the Left,” “The Last House on the Right,” “The First House on the Left,” “The Last House to be Demolished on the Left,” etc. The possibilities may be disturbing, but they are also endless.

The Last House on the Left 1972 poster

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 – Dream Warriors’

Back when this particular horror sequel was released, Freddy Krueger was still a very frightening character. The burnt serial killer had yet to devolve into a stand-up comic, and just the thought of him hiding in the shadows of your dreams waiting to strike was enough to leave you unnerved. It’s a shame we have not yet seen a scene in any of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies where a teenager goes up to someone suffering from insomnia and tells them, “I envy you.”

Following this sequel, he ceased to be scary and became more of a cut-up than anything else, and we had to wait for “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” to see him as a truly threatening presence once again. But I never forgot what a haunting character Freddy was back in the 1980’s, and what I love about this teaser trailer for “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors” is it seizes on how fearful we were of him to where we didn’t even need to see his face to know he was just around the corner. Just hearing that little girl singing “1, 2, Freddy’s coming for you” was enough to make your hairs stand on end. And once we got a look at the model of Nancy Thompson’s old house which resides on Genesee Avenue on Los Angeles, my eyes went wide upon the realization this was indeed a trailer for another “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie. And then the hand with the claws burst out of the model, and I wanted to hide my eyes from the screen…

This teaser trailer for “Dream Warriors” remains one of my favorite trailers as it proved to be one of the scariest ever, and it piqued my interest in a character I would become more intrigued with as I got older.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 Dream Warriors poster

Sandy King Revisits John Carpenter’s ‘Body Bags’ at Cinefamily

Body Bags Blu-ray cover

Remember John Carpenter’s “Body Bags?” It was a horror anthology containing three stories: “The Gas Station” which has a female college student working a graveyard shift and getting terrorized by a serial killer, “Hair” about a hair transplant which goes horribly wrong, and “The Eye” where a baseball player loses an eye and gets a new one from a recently executed murderer. Many see it as Showtime’s answer to HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” as it featured Carpenter as a creepy-looking and deranged coroner who introduces the three stories while drinking formaldehyde as if it were a martini, and it looked like the start of a wickedly demented series. Was it meant to become a series, or was it simply intended to be a single movie? These questions were answered by Sandy King, the producer of “Body Bags” and Carpenter’s wife, when she dropped by Cinefamily which showed 1993 horror anthology as part of its Friday Night Frights series.

King told the audience Showtime originally wanted a 3-story movie and that it was supposed to be a one-shot movie for her and Carpenter. As soon as they were done, they would be off and running to their next project. King remarked how anthology movies were very hard to finance as they were typically not successful at the box office, so bringing one to a cable channel like Showtime made more sense. When it was finished, Showtime then decided they wanted to turn it into a series, but King explained why she and Carpenter decided against it.

“We shot it in California, mostly in Los Angeles, which allowed us to get a lot of the great cameos with Wes Craven, Sam Raimi and Roger Corman,” King said. “Showtime, however, wanted to lower the budget and shoot the series in Canada, and we felt the amount of money they were putting into was not going to be enough to get it right. Plus, shooting in Canada would have made it enormously difficult to get the cameos we got. So, we basically told Showtime thanks, but no thanks.”

“Body Bags” was in many ways a family affair as it involved King and Carpenter working with people they worked with in the past. King had previously worked with Bobby Carradine and Stacey Keach on the Walter Hill western “The Long Riders,” and she had worked with Mark Hamill as well. Peter Jason has appeared in many of Carpenter’s films, and he even used his own car for his appearance in “The Gas Station.” As for the cameos from Craven, Raimi and Corman, she reminded the audience that the horror community is a small and tightly-knit one as everyone knows each other in it.

Carpenter has never seen himself as much of an actor for those who have listened to his various commentary tracks on the movies he has done. After making a Hitchcockian cameo at the beginning of “The Fog,” felt he would be better off behind the camera instead of in front of it. Still, King said she wanted him to play the Coroner in “Body Bags” and that it actually didn’t take much to convince him. She also described Carpenter as an “inner looney” to where he allowed himself to let loose, with the help of Rick Baker’s makeup, on set. Also, Carpenter did not direct himself as the Coroner as King said a friend was brought in to handle his performance and to make sure he hit all his marks. Truth be told, casting him as the Coroner was very inspired.

King said she and Carpenter worked on “Body Bags,” “In the Mouth of Madness” and “Village of the Damned” all in a row. It was originally planned that Carpenter would direct all three stories in “Body Bags,” but as he was already in post-production on “In the Mouth of Madness,” she said Carpenter told her he couldn’t direct all three. To this, she replied, “Okay, we’ll get Tobe.”

The Tobe she was referring to was Tobe Hooper, director of the horror classics “Poltergeist” and the infinitely terrifying “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Getting Hooper to direct “The Eye” was a bit tricky as he was very disturbed by the material which had a husband attempting to kill his pregnant wife, but King told him it would be fun and that he could make it work. She also said it was fun to watch Hooper do comedy as he had a cameo at the end with Tom Arnold in which they play two morgue workers who perhaps enjoy their jobs a little too much.

It was great fun to watch “Body Bags” on the big screen and with an audience at Cinefamily, and it was especially nice to see Sandy King drop by and talk about its making and development. She even brought some Shout Factory Blu-rays of Carpenter’s movies to give away, and this writer was lucky enough to win a copy of the one for “Body Bags.” For Carpenter fans, the Blu-ray is a must as it features a great commentary track, a wonderful making-of documentary, and a trailer for the movie as well. It had been out of print for years, and the previous DVD released by Artisan Entertainment gave us a severely edited version which took out a lot of things like Craven’s inspired cameo and some especially gruesome moments. “Body Bags” may not be epic filmmaking, but it sure is a lot of fun for horror fans.

Poster and trailer courtesy of Shout Factory.

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Mad Monster Gives ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street 3’ a Highly Entertaining Anniversary Screening

Dream Warriors Mad Monster Poster

On Monday, August 13, 2012, the Chinese Theatres in Hollywood presented a screening of “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors” in honor of its 25th anniversary. This event was put together by Mad Monster, a monthly genre print magazine made by and for the modern monster fan, and they ended up giving us quite a show. They had several giveaways of signed posters and tickets to horror conventions, a costume contest which had the audience cheering loudly for those best dressed, a musician doing an acoustic version of the Dokken theme song “Dream Warriors” and the evening culminated with the appearance of the sequel’s co-stars Rodney Eastman and Jennifer Rubin.

Eastman played Joey Peterson, the mute patient who refuses to speak or sleep after experiencing horrific nightmares. Rubin portrayed Taryn White, a former drug addict who also suffers from nightmares and is harassed by male orderlies at the hospital she is at. Both actors were asked if they were aware of the other “Nightmare” movies before they were cast in this one.

“I was 19 and I came of age during the era of the original slasher movies,” Eastman said. “I had almost given up on acting and this audition came to me out of the blue. I was excited to be a part of it, but it still felt like just another low-budget horror movie. It was not an iconic movie then like it is now.”

As for Rubin, she said, “I knew of the other two ‘Nightmare’ movies, but I did not see either of them before I auditioned for this one.”

Eastman and Rubin were then asked if anything happened during filming; like if any actors fell in love with one another or some other gossipy stuff. Both Eastman and Rubin had the same answer to that question, “No.”

When this sequel was released, it lifted the “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise out of cult film status and into mainstream commercial success. Eastman and Rubin were asked if they were surprised by this sequel’s success.

“I had done the ‘Never Sleep Again’ documentary, and after that people were jumping out at me from the bushes,” Rubin said. “I had no idea it was for this film.”

“I was blissfully unaware of the world around me back then,” Eastman said. “It’s only in retrospect that I see the impact it has had. I wasn’t stopped in the streets and no one jumped out at me back then.”

Eastman got to reprise his role of Joey in “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master,” and he was asked by an audience member which he preferred more; being in “Part 3,” or getting killed in his water bed in “Part 4.” Eastman made his answer crystal clear, “I prefer ‘Nightmare 3’ over the water bed death scene. Plus, Patricia Arquette was the hottest girl in that movie.” Then he remembered that Rubin was standing right next to him and quickly added, “I mean Arquette was the sexiest actress on set next to Jennifer here.” Of course, by then, the audience agreed it was a little late for Eastman to find forgiveness.

One audience member asked the two actors if they ever got to meet the members of Dokken. Eastman replied he, unfortunately, didn’t have the pleasure of meeting them, but Rubin ended up telling a funny story regarding the 80’s heavy metal band. “Their mail ended up coming to a house that I was house sitting at the time,” Rubin said. “So, I took the mail to their house, and it turns out there was nobody home.”

When asked what it was like working with Robert Englund, the actor who gave life to Freddy Krueger, Eastman said it was pretty incredible and went on to describe him as one of the smartest, most entertaining and brilliant conversationalists he has ever met. He also added that Englund was a wild man back in the 80’s. Rubin agreed with what Eastman on that, and she also had this to say about another important person in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise, “Wes (Craven) was weird!”

All in all, this was an endlessly entertaining evening for fans of “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.” Granted, the screening of the movie elicited many laughs which were not present when it came out in 1987, and it’s safe to say that certain parts of it have not aged very well. But none of that mattered because everyone came to have a great time at the movies, and that’s what they got.

Poster artwork by Christopher Ott.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 Dream Warriors poster

“Sleep

Those little slices of Death

How I loathe them.”

-Edgar Allan Poe

As soon as you see the above quote which opens “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors,” you know Wes Craven is back on board in some capacity. After directing the original, one of the all-time great horror classics, he bailed out of the first sequel which he felt betrayed the logic of Freddy Krueger’s character and how he existed in the realm of dreams. This third entry ended up defining the look of the rest of the series until “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” came along. This one brought forth a Freddy who, while still scary, was more of a stand-up comic with one-liners flying out from his charred face in rapid succession.

“A Nightmare on Elm Street 3” starts off with the character of Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette, in her film debut) having the first of many nightmares. Freddy’s attack on her is made to look like she tried to commit suicide, and it gets her thrown into a psychiatric hospital with others suffering from serious mental health issues. Of course, when doctors try to give her a sedative to help her sleep, she naturally freaks out and grabs a knife to fight off those who don’t have a clue as to what she’s really up against. This is where she meets up with Nancy Thompson, played once again by Heather Langenkamp.

We learn Nancy has since gone to graduate school where she studied extensively about the nature of dreams. Here she gets assigned to this psychiatric ward where young teenagers are being stalked by the man with razors for fingers. They are being cared for by Dr. Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson) who has long since gained their trust, but he has yet to realize how he can really help them. Nancy sees right away it has everything to do with Freddy, and when she shares this information with the kids they stand at attention and are shocked to realize they have all been dreaming about the same person.

With a budget of around $5 million dollars, the special effects are more impressive than you would expect them to be. It’s always a gas to see what people can do with very little money. There’s one great effect where Freddy comes to life as a marionette, and he immediately returns the favor to its creator by pulling out the veins in his arms to use as strings. Ouch! The sets never reek of cheapness, and the imagination put into this movie is always on display as we see the dreams of the different characters and the forms they each take.

Bringing Craven back to help write the screenplay was a smart move, and he changes the formula to keep it from being just another single kid being chased by Freddy. Also, these kids fight back to stay alive and prepare themselves a lot quicker than the others did in the previous films. One of the screenwriters on “Dream Warriors” is Frank Darabont who later made one of the greatest movies ever, “The Shawshank Redemption.” There is a good amount of work done with the characters here to where they are not your usual one-dimensional horny teenagers which make up the average “Friday the 13th” movie.

The movie also digs deeper into Freddy’s past to make us see how he came to be. Before this film, we knew he was a child murderer who was brought to court but got off on a technicality, and he was later burned by the parents of the town. Dr. Neil Gordon is visited by a mysterious nun who informs him Freddy’s mother, Amanda, was accidentally locked in an insane asylum with the most mentally unstable people one could ever find, or hope to avoid, on the face of the earth. Amanda was raped over and over, and this led to the conception of Freddy who, as the nun puts it, is “the bastard son of a hundred maniacs!” This would make a great title for a movie.

Unlike other horror movies, you care about the characters and what happens to them. Most of these slasher movies have stock characters you hate and root for to die. In all fairness, it makes watching them more fun to watch in a theater, but here the characters, while dealing with obvious stereotypes, are interesting in their own way. Some are geekier than others (don’t get me started on the “Wizard Master”), but they are more real than your average teenagers dealing with ballistic hormones.

“Dream Warriors” is also proof of how wet dreams never end the way we want them to. One of the characters has an understandable crush on a nurse, and he ends up getting seduced by her. Some people get so lucky, but not this kid. What happens to him gives new meaning to the term “tongue-tied.”

Also in the cast is Laurence Fishburne who did this movie before “Boyz N the Hood.” He plays male nurse Max who is one of the more down to earth characters you could ever hope to find in a horror movie. The great John Saxon also returns as Nancy’s father, Lt. Donald Thompson. His character figures prominently in the film’s climax as they find that the only way to defeat Freddy is by burying his remains in consecrated grounds.

It’s hard to believe this was Patricia Arquette’s first film. She has since gone on to a successful career and appeared in great movies like “True Romance,” David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” and “Boyhood” which won her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She creates one of the more sympathetic heroines in a horror movie who has a mother that, of course, does not understand what her daughter is actually going through. No one does initially, but if they did, there wouldn’t be a movie.

And, of course, we have Robert Englund returning as Freddy. In many ways, this was the last “Nightmare” movie where Freddy felt like a truly threatening presence. Just the thought of him was scary, and you didn’t need to show much of him to prove that. After this movie, he became more of a standup comedian than anything else. We had to wait until “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” for him to come across as a viciously scary presence again. Still, Englund embodies this character in a way no one else could.

While Freddy ended up having an artistic downslide from here, “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors” is still one of the best movies in this long-running franchise, and it’s always fun to revisit this entry whenever it is showing on cable.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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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.