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Week of Wes: “A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET”

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When talking about the work and legacy of Wes Craven, where does one begin? For many, the logical starting point would be Craven’s shocking years in horror exploitation, such as LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT or THE HILLS HAVE EYES. But when you’re talking about the influence of a horror maestro whose career spanned over 40 years, where else should you begin than with A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET?

FANGORIA does not need to tell you that A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is a classic of the genre. The world at large can tell you A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is a classic of the genre. Go to any Halloween costume shop and chances are that you’ll find a Freddy Krueger get-up among their aisles, and if you don’t, it’s because someone has already bought it. Freddy Krueger was not just a cultural icon of his time, but is a cultural icon of our time as well, with the character parodied as recently as the first season of RICK AND MORTY.

But A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is more than just a pop culture phenomenon with a 30+ year legacy. The film, made for only $1.8 million by then-newcomer New Line Cinema, was essentially an independent film with a terrifying and high-concept story, and with no major stars attached as well. In fact, the only marquee name dropped out before filming had ever began, as British acting great David Warner was originally supposed to fill the glove of Freddy Krueger before settling on the then-unknown Robert Englund. And Craven himself was not necessarily the hottest property in town either: at 43 years old, his status as a surefire exploitation director waned following the underperformance of SWAMP THING and DEADLY BLESSING, with his previous project being a TV film called INVITATION TO HELL.

However, for Craven, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET had all the ingredients to be something very special: the concept had never really been explored before in a horror film, could speak to audiences of any age and the film followed the structure of the then-popular slasher genre. There was an aura of familiarity to the narrative that balanced the risk that came with the original, untested story, especially one that very lightly treaded the moral implications of its villain. And then there was the setting: not only could Freddy get you anywhere, but he could get you in the suburbs, in your home and in your school.

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And when A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET became the indie success story that it was destined to be, the film did great things for Craven as a filmmaker, who soon became one of the most sought-after directors in the studio system. In the age of the slasher, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET was one of the few films of its era that was not only a commercial success but a critical success as well.  Meanwhile, the film also cemented the careers of Robert Englund, Johnny Depp and Heather Langenkamp, while giving John Saxon a much-needed career boost. And, as we all know, the film would launch one of the most beloved and iconic film franchises in horror history, one that continues and remains relevant to this day.

However, as much of a boon NIGHTMARE would be to Craven, the film’s success did come with a fair share of downsides as well. The film’s evolution into a franchise remained a point of contention for Craven, who had both creative and financial disputes with New Line Cinema that remained unresolved until nearly ten years later when Craven was asked to direct NEW NIGHTMARE. Meanwhile, Craven- a versatile director in his own right who has influenced by the likes of Hitchcock- found his career immediately covered in the shadow of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, being unable to make a film outside of the genre until nearly 15 years later with MUSIC OF THE HEART. And then there was the personal disappointment with watching Freddy Krueger, a child-murdering psychopath in the original film, descend into a cartoonish character who adorned lunchboxes, toys and even a Cryptkeeper-esque anthology hosting role.

Yet even in light of those obstacles, NIGHTMARE remained one of Craven’s most proud moments, and afforded him the opportunities to tackle many different avenues of the genre. Craven was never ashamed of his position of a horror maestro, even if it was a mantle he never quite intended on wearing. It’s perhaps that long-lasting love, through the best and worst of times, that makes Craven’s passing sting that much more, especially considering how many horror masters have fallEN out of the love with the genre. But above else, Craven and NIGHTMARE became synonymous with one another, and when it came to the influence the film had on fans and filmmakers, the director was unafraid to celebrate Freddy’s birth with the rest of the horror world

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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