In 1984, following the launches of the Halloween and Friday the 13th slasher movie franchises, a new horror series was born. A Nightmare on Elm Street, directed by Wes Craven, debuted that year after being produced on a tiny budget and released by a small studio called New Line Cinema. What followed was one of the most iconic horror franchises of all time and one of the most notable villains in pop culture history–Freddy Krueger.
If you like scary movies even a little, chances are you’ve seen the original A Nightmare on Elm Street and at least some of the many sequels that followed. As interesting as the movie itself, though, is the story behind its creation. With no money to spare, a cast of largely unknown actors, and a director that had never had a hit movie, the original Elm Street film had a lot going against it. However, it had an interesting story that had never been done before working in its favor–a monstrous killer that attacks his victims in their dreams.
We dug back through the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, as well as through the excellent franchise documentary Never Sleep Again: An Elm Street Legacy, and found out far too many secrets about the movie and its creation. Take a look at everything we learned below, then also check out our similar revisitings of the original Halloween and Halloween: H20 – 20 Years Later.
1. The movie was inspired by a true story
In the documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, writer/director Wes Craven admits that the original idea for the film was a series of stories he read in the newspaper about young men dying while sleeping and dreaming. Known as sudden arrhythmic death syndrome, also known as nocturnal death syndrome, it’s a rare phenomenon that was first reported in 1948 when 81 Filipino men died similarly in Hawaii.
2. Why Elm Street?
There are a couple of reasons Craven chose the name Elm Street. Firstly, that’s the name of the main street in Potsdam, NY, where he taught before becoming a screenwriter. It also turns out that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Elm Street in Dallas, Texas.
3. Nobody in Hollywood thought the movie would work
According to Craven, his script floated around Hollywood for three years without studios being interested. Then Bob Shaye, the founder of New Line Cinema, read it and thought it would be a great fit for his studio, which was small at the time. “I thought it was incredibly inspired because it had this great marketing hook that was a familiarity to the entire world,” he said in Never Sleep Again. “Because we all had nightmares.”
4. Johnny Depp was not the first choice for Glen
Long before he was a pirate, Johnny Depp appeared as Glen, the romantic lead and boy next door in Nightmare on Elm Street. According to Shaye, though, he was not the first choice. In fact, Charlie Sheen wanted the role. However, he asked for too much money ($3,000 a week) and the production just didn’t have it.
Ultimately, it was Craven’s daughters that persuaded him to cast Depp, even though he saw the actor as “sickly and pale.” “He’s beautiful,” the director remembers his daughters telling him.
5. It was important to everyone that this wasn’t just a mindless slasher
While movies like Friday the 13th have their place in the horror genre and slasher craze, those making Elm Street didn’t want to create that kind of film. “We would have serious discussions with Wes about, ‘Look, we don’t want this to be another Friday the 13th,'” Nick Corri (Rod) remembered in Never Sleep Again. “‘Let’s really make it psychologically damaging and real.'”
6. Freddy Krueger has some basis in reality.
According to Craven, the name Freddy came from a childhood bully. He also recalled looking out his bedroom window one night as a child and seeing a mysterious man looking back at him from the street. After hiding, the director looked out the window once more and the man was still there, making a scary face at him. “The thing that struck me the most about that particular man is that he had a lot of malice in his face and he also had this sort of sick sense of humor about how delightful it was to try to terrify a child,” Craven said.
7. Robert Englund was not the original Freddy
While Robert Englund is synonymous with the role of Freddy Krueger, he was not the first person cast in the role. It was actually British actor David Warner (Time After Time) set to play the part. However, he pulled out at the last minute over a timing issue, leading to Englund stepping in.
8. The strange inspiration for Freddy’s look
According to David Miller, who was responsible for creating Freddy’s scarred look, the inspiration for the character’s face was pepperoni pizza. One night while out for pizza, “I started playing with the cheese, putting it around the pepperoni, and I actually made Freddy’s face on the pizza,” he said.
9. Initially, Freddy was more than a child killer
Initially, Freddy was created as a character that sexually assaulted children. Not surprisingly, even though he’s a villain, that side of the character didn’t make it to the big screen. However, Craven credited a story in the news at the time for the inspiration. “The McMartin trial was going on endlessly,” he said. “A school for children where the children have accused teachers of molesting them in a very systematic way.”
The case Craven is referencing first began with the accusations in 1983, before arrests were made in 1984. It wasn’t until 1990 that the trial ended. Nobody was convicted and all charges were dropped.
10. Why the glove?
To figure out Freddy’s weapon of choice, the bladed glove, Craven wondered what the earliest weapon people would be afraid of was. “It would be the weapon of an animal,” he explained in Never Sleep Again, adding that the claws of a cave bear scared him. He took that idea to mechanical special effects designer Jim Doyle, who sketched out then fabricated a test version of Freddy’s signature glove.
11. How the glove changed Freddy
According to Englund, putting on the glove for the first time changed his characterization of Freddy. “It’s heavy,” he explained. “When I put it on, one shoulder dropped a bit.” That posture became a signature of the character, with Englund likening it to a gunslinger’s holster at his side.
12. Tina’s horrible death
The camera trickery used for Tina’s death in the film is some of the most impressive in the movie. Her bedroom is actually rotating, with all of the fornitue nailed down. Even when she’s being dragged up the walls and across the ceiling, she’s actually on the floor.
13. The makings of a horror icon
While the role of the English teacher in the movie is one of the most memorable, the actress who plays the part was cast in an interesting way–she’s the sister of producer Bob Shaye. Prior to Elm Street, Lin Shaye appeared in a handful of projects, most of which were TV movies. She’s since gone on to have a very busy career with dozens of roles–including playing a major part in the Insidious franchise.
14. Let’s talk about Freddy’s sweater
According to Craven, he chose red and green for Freddy’s sweater based on an article he read that claimed those two colors were very difficult for the human eye to see side-by-side. “I literally made him into a sort of a painful optical effect,” Craven joked in Never Sleep Again.
15. What Craven gave up
To get this movie made, Wes Craven had to sign over the rights to the franchise to producer Bob Shaye. That’s why there are still a number of Nightmare on Elm Street movies, even though Craven only directed two of them.
16. How that bathtub shot happened
The shot of Freddy’s glove coming up between Nancy’s legs in the bath is iconic. More went into it than you might think, though. The bathtub isn’t actually a bathtub at all–the bottom has been removed and it’s been attached to a tank. It’s actually special effects designer Jim Doyle’s gloved hand that comes out of the water, while Heather Langenkamp, who plays Nancy, sits on his knees with her feet on his shoulders to balance.
17. About Rod’s hanging
This was a movie shot on a small budget over a short amount of time. As such, most of the visual effects are little bits of trickery that could be done cheap and quick. For instance, when the sheets snake around Rod’s neck to hang him, that was actually shot in reverse. What you’re actually seeing is a sheet wrapped around his neck being pulled away.
18. One of the most iconic shots only cost $5
In the scene where Nancy answers the phone and Freddy tells her that he’s her boyfriend now, an incredibly gross tongue grows out of the bottom of the phone and licks her face. It’s a startling image in the movie, but according to Craven it was a visual effect that only cost $5 to build.
19. One crew member got electrocuted
As explained in Never Sleep Again, a crew member was actually injured while filming the scene in which Depp’s character is sucked into his bed, resulting in a geyser of blood. The scene was shot in the same spinning room as Tina’s death, allowing someone to pour a massive bucket of blood through the bd. However, when it hit the light on the ceiling, it immediately became electrified, shocking the crew member.
The calamity didn’t end there, though. So much red water settled on the bottom of the room that it sloshed back and forth, making the room start to turn. As such, the water came into contact with more lights, shorting them out, and ultimately poured out the window.
Thankfully nobody was seriously injured and it resulted in a very interesting shot.
20. Freddy burning was filmed in one take
According to the movie’s crew, the scene of Freddy being set on fire, running up the basement stairs, and then falling back down them was shot all in one take.
21. Even the star of the movie doesn’t understand the ending
As great as A Nightmare on Elm Street is, its ending is a bit confusing. Why does the skeleton of Nancy’s mother disappear into the bed? Why does Nancy simply turning her back on Freddy defeat him? If that’s all it takes, how does he come back so many times–including at the end of this film? Honestly, these are questions even the actress who played Nancy didn’t have the answer to.
“Nothing really makes sense at this point,” Langenkamp admitted in Never Sleep Again. “It’s a confusing scene because, with the ending we now have, it doesn’t quite make sense. You know, if I turn my back and that’s supposed to be a successful solution, then the fact that Freddy comes back means I failed.”
According to Craven, producer Bob Shaye wanted a hook at the end to tease a sequel. The director admits he never thought there could be a sequel, but agreed to add the final scene anyway after arguments with Shaye.
That final scene was shot multiple ways, including one in which Freddy is driving the car the kids are riding in–which sounds a lot like the opening scene of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2.
Ultimately, they settled on Depp’s character in the driver seat with the car essentially driving itself, as the camera pans to find the little girls skipping rope–an idea of Craven’s that became a hallmark of the franchise.
22. Craven regretted teasing the sequel
While a hook for a sequel was producer Bob Shaye’s idea and Craven went along with it, the director ended up regretting it. Speaking to Vulture in 2014, he explained, “Do I regret changing the ending? I do, because it’s the one part of the film that isn’t me.”
For what it’s worth, Shaye aso admitted that his own father thought the ending made no sense. “When I showed the film to my dad at a screening, he said, ‘The ending is weird,'” Shay remembered. “I told him about the awkward compromise Wes and I had made. He said, ‘It’s not good. You gotta change it.’ I said, ‘Dad, I can’t.'”
23. How Robert Englund views the film
According to Englund in Never Sleep Again, he sees the entire film as something of a premonition of Nancy’s. She sees the chaos and evil that is about to unfold and the final scene of the movie, in which her friends are alive and Freddy makes himself known, are the actual events. Of course, if true, the movie isn’t playing out like the events she dreamed anyway.
24. One, two, Freddy’s coming for you
That little rhyme that the kids sing while jumping rope was actually written by Langenkamp’s boyfriend at the time, who was a musician. The composer liked it and worked it into the movie’s score.
25. Freddy has nightmares too
You might not remember this, but Freddy Krueger wasn’t just a big screen monster. The character was also spun-off into his own TV series. Freddy’s Nightmares, also known as A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Series, was a horror anthology show, in which Krueger would introduce spooky stories and serve as an overall host. It only lasted two seasons, but it did manage to feature some fairly notable names before they were famous, including Brad Pitt, mariska Hargitay, Kyle Chandler, and Lory Petty.
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