By 1983, only a forgettable quickie (House on Sorority Row) and classic franchise revival (Psycho 2) represented the slasher genre in the year’s top 100 domestic grossing films. Slasher film fatigue had officially set in. The world had seen seemingly everything the silent-but-deadly slasher villain had to offer and officially grown tired of it. After all, there were only so many ways to film someone being stabbed, only so many holidays/notable calendar events (e.g., Halloween, Friday the 13th) to be exploited. The slasher craze was as dead as a Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers victim.
Enter Freddy Krueger to save the slasher film from itself.
Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street arrived in November 1984, delivering not just an instant-franchise but a complete game changer for the slasher genre. These films could actually be supernatural and visually inventive, using tricks like rotating rooms to brilliant, but horrifying effect. Your villain need not be a madman chasing kids in the woods but instead a grim jokester taking many forms and literally haunting dreams.
Personally, Friday the 13th was the series I liked as a kid because I could rationalize my way out of being scared by it. Nightmare on Elm Street? That shit scared the hell out of me. Beyond the bizarre imagery I never could shake the film’s elemental terror: If I got to sleep, will Freddy get me?
Now, as an adult, I look at the films through a different lens. The original Elm Street and its various sequels are a testament to the work of wildly ambitious young filmmakers continually doing so much with so little, and it all started with Wes Craven and the bizarre case of Cambodian refugees dying in their sleep.
Here are 13 things you might not know about the original Nightmare on Elm Street, as gleaned from the franchise retrospective documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, the earlier Never Sleep Again documentary produced for the Elm Street Blu-Ray and various other sources:
1. The idea of dying in your dreams was inspired by something that actually happened
In the late 1970s into the early 1980s, the LA Times ran a series of articles exploring the phenomenon of multiple male Khmer refugees from Cambodia mysteriously dying in their sleep in the Los Angeles area. Over a three year period, three members of this group of refugees died in the same exact manner: They’d have a nightmare, refuse to sleep for as long as they could stay awake, and then fall asleep only to awake screaming before experiencing sudden death.
It was the third article that really grabbed Wes Craven’s attention. As he told Never Sleep Again:
“There was this young man whose father was a doctor. They had come out of a relocation camp. He was having nightmares, and he was telling his family, ‘There’s something after me, and I’m afraid if I don’t stay awake it will kill me.’ This kid decided he was going to stay awake. Sleeping pills his father had demanded he take were found under his pillow. He hadn’t taken a single one. There was a coffee pot in his closet full of black coffee with a long extension cord that he’d hidden behind curtains. One night the family was watching a movie and he fell asleep. The father carried him upstairs and put him in bed. Everybody goes to bed, and the middle of the night they hear screaming and run into his room. Before they get to him he is dead. I knew I had to do a movie about that.”
Craven read the articles and assumed these young men must have been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder considering their ordeal living under a dictator in Cambodia. He didn’t know for sure, though. In fact, no one did. There was no clear cause of death in any of the cases, and the autopsies revealed no signs of heart failure. The mystery of it all is part of what it made it so intriguing.
It’s since been deduced, however, the refugees were suffering from a genetic mutation unique to Asian men of a certain age whereby something goes wrong with the genes controlling the ion levels in the heart. It’s called Asian Death Syndrome, under the umbrellas of Sudden Unexpected Death Syndrome (SUDS) and Brugada
2. Freddy Krueger’s name, clothes, and glove are based on Wes Craven’s childhood bully, a scary hobo, and a cat’s claws, respectively
People often forget the original Elm Street only ever uses the name “Freddy” in the “one, two, Freddy’s coming for your” nursery rhyme. Otherwise, he’s referred to as “Fred Kreuger.” Either way, the name comes from two sources: 1) Fred (or Freddy) is the name of Wes Craven’s childhood bully; 2) Kreuger is an extension of Last House on the Left’s lead character Krug. Plus, as Craven told Never Sleep Again, “Kreuger sounded very German and reminded me of one of the big warplanes in Nazi Germany.”
Sticking with the “Craven using the shit that used to scare him as a kid” theme, Freddy’s signature fedora is simply the same kind of hat a drunk hobo was wearing while walking down the street outside of Craven’s childhood home. Somehow, the hobo sensed Craven’s presence and stared up at him with a bugged eyed expression. When the young Craven recoiled in fear and then waited a minute before peaking out again to see if the man was still there he was greeted with that same bugged eyed expression almost as if the old drunk was getting off on scaring him.
The sweater, on the other hand, came from a far more cerebral place. Craven read a 1982 Scientific American article saying the two most contrasting colors to the human retina are red and green. So, he put those onto a red surface, abandoning his original plan to go with a red/yellow color scheme ala DC’s Plastic Man, whose elasticity was similar to Freddy’s ability to change. The version of the sweater they ultimately went with, of course, didn’t extend the stripes to the sleeves. That didn’t happen until the sequels.
As for the glove, Craven put his Masters Degree in writing and philosophy from Johns Hopkins University to good use and looked into academic studies on primal fears in the human subconscious. He knew his killer needed the perfect weapon, but he wanted to put some psychological thought behind it. What he found was a wealth of evidence suggesting that across all cultures human beings are innately afraid of animal claws.
Or at least that’s the rather flattering explanation for the glove. The blunter and likely more accurate story is simply one day while worrying about what weapon to pick for Freddy Craven noticed his own cat unsheathing its claws and thought, “Say, that’d look cool as a glove.”
3. Freddy’s face was inspired by pepperoni pizza
Originally, Craven wanted Freddy’s skull to be visible through the head as well as pus to be seeping out of the sores. It was his make-up artist, David B. Miller, who dissuaded him of this notion since in 1984 such a thing was entirely too impractical, even if they somehow used a combination of a live actor and puppets
Miller examined photographs of burn victims from the UCLA Medical Centre for inspiration, but the ultimate template for Freddy’s face came from somewhere far simpler and innocent, as Miller told Never Sleep Again “The final design for Freddy was based on pepperoni pizza. I was at a restaurant one night, and I was having pizza, deep in thought. I started playing around with the cheese, putting it around the pepperoni, and made Freddy’s face in the pizza.”
4. They were all breathing in asbestos
For the various boiler room sequences, they used the basement of the Lincoln Heights Jail’s power plant. It had the creepy atmosphere they were going for, but something seemed a bit off. The pipes had all been wrapped in an insulation that had broken apart and allowed mysterious substances to creep out. A year later they learned the place had been closed down for asbestos, the same asbestos they had likely all been breathing in during the week they spent filming there. That’s low-budget, guerrilla filmmaking for you.
5. Heather Langenkamp beat out over 200 actresses for the role of Nancy
At the time, Langenkamp was an unknown as were many of those she beat out for the role. However, here are four Nancy hopefuls who eventually become very well known:
6. John Saxon was the “name” the financier demanded
According to Elm Street co-producer Sara Risher, “One of the conditions, when we got the rest of our money from our financiers, was that we needed to have a name, at least a name or two so that we could sell the picture to foreign. That’s why we were so excited John Saxon was willing to do it. He was quite a well-known name at that time.” I’ll personally always remember him from Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon.
Saxon’s was the biggest name attached to the picture, but not the only one. His on-screen ex-wife was played by Ronee Blakley, a country singer/actress who’d been nominated for an Oscar a decade earlier (for Robert Altman’s Nashville).
7. Johnny Depp owes his big break to Wes Craven’s daughter
Prior to making his film debut in Nightmare On Elm Street, Johnny Depp, who has now made so much money playing Jack Sparrow that he owns a literal island, was a struggling musician supporting himself by selling ballpoint pens over the point. Nightmare was his big break, but if not for Wes Craven’s daughter it might never have happened.
Depp went through the traditional casting process, rehearsing his lines on the side with friend Nicholas Cage, and had made it into Craven’s final three choices for the part, but the director was leaning toward the other guys, one of whom was someone with enough credits to be considered a marketable name. Then, as Craven explains in Never Sleep Again, “My daughter said, ‘Dad, it’s Johnny Depp,’ I said, ‘Really, but he looks kind of sickly and pale,’ and she said, ‘Oh, he’s beautiful.’ And that was it.”
8. Tina’s death was realized using a rotating room ala Fred Astaire
Since Wes Craven wanted something really big and fantastic for the film’s first death, his production designer suggested using a rotating room, a trick which famously made it seem like Fred Astaire was dancing up the walls in Royal Wedding (1951). So, everything in the bedroom set was nailed down. The cameraman was latched into in an airplane seat attached to the wall. The room was then rotated by several burly men off-camera (as opposed to the rotation being mechanized). Amanda Wyss (Tina) was either crawling or being dragged, but she never really left what was for her the floor. At one point, it became so disorienting that she demanded to be let out of the room. When Craven entered to calm her down, he, too, became instantly disoriented.
They later used the rotating room for Johnny Depp’s death, but the weight from the fake blood caused the room to spin uncontrollably. By the end, much of the blood had exited out and fallen onto the crewmembers who had been rotating the room, but this was a one-shot deal. Luckily for them, the footage they got looked even cooler than they imagined.
9. Freddy was originally supposed to be a child molester
In the 2010 remake, they made it far more explicit that in life Freddy was a child molester. Though not necessarily a popular story decision, it’s actually more in keeping with Craven’s original concept. The only reason he backed away from it was a series of child molestation cases erupted in California during development and production of Nightmare on Elm Street, and he didn’t want to be seen as insensitive or exploitative.
10. That was Bob Shaye’s sister playing the English teacher
We probably all know Lin Shaye now for her roles in the Farrelly Brothers movies Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin, and There’s Something About Mary, or for her more recent turn in Insidious. However, there she was back in 1984 playing an unnamed teacher in Nightmare on Elm Street.
Other notable bit players in the film include Wes Craven’s ex-wife as a nurse, Charles Fleischer (aka, the future voice of Roger the Rabbit) as a doctor and Daryl Hannah’s brother as the student reading in front of the class when Nancy has the dream about Tina in a bodybag.
11. They ran out of money two weeks before production was supposed to start
New Line got its start when Bob Shaye used his copyright law knowledge to swoop up Reefer Madness and distribute it to college campuses throughout the ’70s. By the time Nightmare on Elm Street arrived, New Line’s business model was still built around distributing cult and foreign films other people had made. They had only produced three of their own movies to that point, none of which turned into hits. So, as you’d expect from an independent film company they were constantly struggling for money, and they were far from Craven’s first choice. However, as is so often the case with classic movies everyone else in town turned him down. Bob Shaye and New Line were the only people who believed in him and saw the potential in his Elm Street script. They just didn’t have the money to produce it.
As John Burrows, Nightmare‘s production manager, told Never Sleep Again, “[Bob] raised the money, basically, I’m sure, from his own money and from friends and family. Then he was looking for the major investor. Smart Egg was going to advance him a million dollars for the picture. A week later he called him and told me they dropped out.”
This was two weeks before they were supposed to start filming. It forced Bob to tell Craven and everyone else to simply go home and await his call, trusting, of course, he’d be able to find a new source for the $1 million they’d been planning on. That wasn’t good enough for Burrows, though, who feared they’d lose their crew. So, he paid them out of his own pocket, charging nearly $9,000 on credit cards. Even then, Craven assumed the film was dead.
But Bob wouldn’t give up, telling Never Sleep Again, “We had one final meeting with Media Home Entertainment. A guy named Joe Wolf owned that company and they were big home video distributors. Finally, I made a deal where Joe Wolf could take over the whole movie if I didn’t get my commitment together in three-four weeks. I managed to then go to the Smart Egg guy and browbeat him into agreeing to put up the last few hundred thousand dollars.”
12. They finally ran out of money a week before the release date and couldn’t pay the film lab which was producing the reels to be played in theaters
Toward the end of the 32-shooting schedule, Shaye became a permanent fixture on set, constantly rushing Craven and crew to get their shots as fast as possible. It was enough that Craven’s old buddy and ex-Friday the 13th filmmaker Sean Cunningham voluntarily subbed in to handle some second unit directing duties. Though it wasn’t entirely spelled out to them, the cast and crew understood this sudden rush to the finish line meant they were actually running out of money. The unmistakable panic over their dwindling funds was so great that when Langenkamp injured her foot during one scene and had to leave for the hospital to receive stitches Shaye heartlessly pleaded with her to simply stick around and tough it out.
Of course, they did manage to finish filming with just enough money leftover to cover their five-week editing costs and subsequent marketing efforts. There was one crucial payment, though, they failed to make. I’ll let Sarah Risher take it from here:
The week before [Elm Street] was supposed to open the lab we were using wouldn’t release the negative because they hadn’t been paid. We didn’t have the money to pay them. Bob somehow worked out some kind of deal to pay the lab all of their costs.
13. They filmed 4 different endings, and then just basically used all of them
In Wes Craven’s vision, the film would end with Nancy discovering it was all just a dream, leaving her to happily drive off to school with her very-much-so-still-alive friends and boyfriend. In Bob Shaye’s vision, the ending needed to have one final scare and sequel set-up because in 1984 that’s what all horror movies did. Craven resisted this idea, but relented, partially because he felt he owed Shaye considering everything the producer had done to actually make the movie possible. Their effort at a compromise, though, resulted in mass confusion.
What if when Nancy gets in the car she’s stunned to see Freddy at the wheel?
Filmed it. Hated it.
What if when Nancy gets in the car with her friends Freddy somehow possesses the vehicle and traps the kids inside with a striped convertible top, their anguished cries for help going unnoticed by Nancy’s blissfully unaware mother?
Hmm. Better, but it feels like it needs more.
What if Nancy and her friends drive away safely, with a red convertible top down, but Freddy attacks her mom back at the house through a hole in the door?
Wait. Hold on. Why did we lose the part about Freddy possessing the car?
Okay. We’ve got it now. What if Nancy and her friends are taken away in the possessed car with the striped top-down AND Nancy’s mother is attacked by Freddy AND we close with him somehow pulling her body through the door entirely?
Even that, though, was debated on set. Shaye simply didn’t see the need for the final shot of Freddy pulling Nancy’s mom through the door. When Craven insisted Shaye told them they only had time to do it once. They’d have to use whatever they got on that one shot or drop the idea entirely. What they got is what we see in the finished film.
- Nightmare on Elm Street made back its budget in its $1.27 million opening weekend from just 165 theaters. It would go on to gross $25.5 million domestically, which would be like $60 million at current ticket prices. The unique thing from this point forward for the Nightmare series was the next 3 films would make more than the one which preceded it, unlike Friday the 13th, which never managed to match the grosses of the 1980 original.
Next time, we’ll tell you how everyone involved with Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge swears up and down they were completely obvious to the film’s obvious homoerotic subtext.
You can use the following links to check out all of our other “13 Things…” lists: Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Freddy Vs. Jason, and the 2010 Nightmare on Elm Street re-make.
Sources: Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, The similarly titled but entirely different documentary Never Sleep Again on the Nightmare on Elm Street Blu-Ray