“A Nightmare on Elm Street”: The modern master of the splatter film genre highlights our 1986 horror movie feature

By on October 21, 2016

In our “Night Flight at the Movies: Horror” film feature, which originally aired on April 4, 1986 — you can see it streaming now on Night Flight Plus — announcer Pat Prescott introduces the classic supernatural horror flick from 1984 A Nightmare on Elm Street by calling it a “modern master of the splatter film genre.”

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A Nightmare on Elm Street — originally intended by its director Wes Craven as a stand-alone film, not a franchise — was released in November 1984, and it proved to be a game-changer, in more ways than one.

The low-budget thriller — which stars Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, Ronee Blakley, Amanda Wyss, Jsu Garcia, Robert Englund, and Johnny Depp in his feature film debut — was rejected by all the major film studios before going on to become one of the single most influential horror film of the 1980s.

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Craven — who died last year (be sure to read our tribute post) — said the concept for the film came from his own youth in Cleveland, and from his interest in both serial killers and dreams.

He’d come up with the idea of a killer who could attack his victims in their dreams, additionally inspired by the dark, fantastical paintings of late 18th/early 19th-century Spanish artist Francisco Goya, and from dark, fantasy-based Gothic literature by writers like Edgar Allen Poe.

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He’d even written a research paper on dreams at Wheaton College, where he completed his undergraduate in English and Psychology, and while he attended the college he’d lived on an Elm Street, which ran past a graveyard, and Craven has said that it had at least partly inspired the screenplay’s name.

Craven also kept a diary of his own dreams and became so adept at remembering them that he soon developed the ability to control them — and he’d also thought that the film should be seen through the eyes of teenagers, as he’d had some trouble in his own teen years that had apparently still haunted him.

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Even after he’d proven himself as an accomplished filmmaker who could turn an enormous profit with low-budget controversial films, Craven still faced difficulty in getting a studio interested in attracting interest in his project.

Craven’s film tells the story of serial killer Freddy Krueger, who haunts the dreams of a group of teenagers in the fictional Midwestern town of Springwood, Ohio (the town’s name was never mentioned). The teens quickly learn that death in their dreams means death in reality, and the kids on Elm Street begin dying in spectacularly gruesome ways.

Nancy Thompson — played by Heather Langenkamp — tries to explain that a scarred madman with knives for fingers is responsible for the murders, but her alcoholic mother, Marge Thompson — played by the always awesome Ronee Blakley — and her stubborn father (the reliably good John Saxon) refuse to listen.

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Eventually she learns the identity of her stalker: he turns out to be a child molester that their parents dragged away and burned alive after he was released from prison on a legal technicality (later, the decision was made to turn him into a child murderer who had murdered twenty kids in order to avoid being accused of exploiting a spate of highly publicized child molestations which had occurred in California around the time the film went into production).

When Nancy confronts her mother with the truth, she turns their suburban tract home into a virtual prison, putting bars on the windows to keep her daughter safe. It’s too late, of course, because Freddy is already inside the house, and no one is safe.

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One of the interesting backstories in the film — originally included by later edited out for some reason and now included as an “alternate” scene on DVD releases — was the fact that Nancy wasn’t always an only child and (spoiler alert!) it turns out that Freddy Krueger was, in fact, the man her mother Marge and the other Elm Street parents had tracked down to his filthy boiler room — where he would take his victims — and doused him with gasoline, burning him alive.

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She even shows Nancy that she still possesses Freddy’s murder weapon of choice, his glove with knives for fingers, and explains that Freddy had killed the older sibling she never knew about, and he had done the same to her friends older siblings.

Craven has said he named his villain Freddy after his worst enemy in junior high school, a bully who tormented him on a regular basis, and came up with the surname Krueger as a variation on Krug, the sadistic villain of his film The Last House on the Left.

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During the film’s production, Freddy was dressed in a striped red and green sweater, which Craven said was based on the DC Comics character Plastic Man (Craven chose to make Krueger’s sweater red and green, after reading an article in Scientific American in 1982 that said the two most clashing colors to the human retina were this particular combination).

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All of the major studios ultimately passed on A Nightmare on Elm Street — Disney, somewhat unbelievably, had thought of turning it into a children’s film, and Paramount were interested for a time, but also passed, believing it was to similar to another film they were developing at the time, Dreamscape (1984) — and eventually Craven brought it to New Line, who at the time were a film distributor, not a production company, and they were struggling financially.

Producer and studio head Robert Shaye — who was a Midwesterner, like Craven, having grown up in Detroit and graduated from the University of Michigan in 1960 — had founded New Line out of his tiny Manhattan, NYC apartment.

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Shaye had had some initial success distributing foreign films and documentaries (like Jean-Luc Godard’s 1968 Rolling Stones feature Sympathy for the Devil) and he’d even distributed the campy cult favorite Reefer Madness, the 1936 anti-marijuana film that was a “Night Flight” favorite too.

Shaye’s New Line had split off into specialty divisions that focused on certain types of films, but they really needed to make the next level financially in order to survive, a move which required that they become a bonafide production house that made films that the majors wouldn’t touch, and that’s where A Nightmare on Elm Street came in, just in the nick of time.

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Shaye agreed to produce Nightmare despite the fact that he was, at the time, laying off employees and struggling to pay the company’s bills. He poured all of the money he had left into the film’s production, believing that if Nightmare failed, it would take New Line down with it.

Craven had wanted thirty-six full days for shooting, but he had to make due with just thirty-two, and he had to make it all work on a budget of less than $2 million. The film, incidentally, was primarily financed on the strength of two actors — John Saxon and Ronee Blakley — who both had a proven track record after having both appeared in a handful of successful films.

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Much of A Nightmare on Elm Street was shot in and around the Chicago area, and suburbs, such as Arlington Heights, a northwest suburb of Chicago, where interiors were lensed; at Elk Grove High School in nearby Elk Grove Village, which was used for exteriors and establishing shots; and in the historic neighborhood of Jewel Park, a 1920s-built upper middle class suburb in the village of Barrington, Illinois, where Linden Road — a winding street with spacious two-story homes — portrayed Elm Street itself.

Other notable Chicago area locations included Bluff City Cemetery, a late 19th century Gothic cemetery in Elgin; Powell’s Bookstores in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood; Michael Reece Hospital in Chicago; Hawthorne Pharmacy in Cicero; and the ultra-modern Orland Park Police Station in Orland Park, the first LEED (Leadership in Environmental Design) Gold Certified Police Station in the U.S.

Still more memorable scenes were shot in Gary, Indiana, at the city’s historic City Methodist Church, an abandoned 9-story English Gothic church, certainly one of the most cinematic, creepy locations ever captured in a horror film.

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Craven — and Shaye, who was on set acting as director, at times, which caused Craven a lot of grief, apparently — shot during school hours, and enlisted hundreds of students and teachers to become background extras for the various sequences shot at the high schools.

Production wrapped in July, and the film was rushed during post-production to get it ready for its limited theatrical release on November 9, 1984, opening in 165 cinemas across the country.

A Nightmare on Elm Street received critical raves and proved to be a box office success right out of the gate, grossing $1.2 million during its opening weekend. It went on to earn over $25 million initially, and has since gone on to make more than a billion dollars in revenue since it was first released in 1984.

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It also went on to make a significant impact on the horror genre, spawning a franchise consisting of a line of sequels, beginning with 1985’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, Part II: Freddy’s Revenge — also featured in our “Night Flight at the Movies: Horror” special from 1986 — was an even more remarkably rushed production, since it was slated to come out less than a year later, on November 1, 1985, due to the success of Craven’s film.

When Freddy’s Revenge was released, we see that the adults on Elm Street have continued to ignore the warnings of their kids, and Freddy has essentially replaced them as a surrogate authority figure: at the end of the film, Freddy crashes a backyard BBQ, hovering over the teens, telling them “You are all my children now.”

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Freddy’s Revenge was directed by Jack Sholder and starred Mark Patton, Kim Myers, Robert Rusler, and Robert Englund again as Freddy.

Last year, Night Flight’s Social Media contributor Kara Jean posted a blog about Freddy’s Revenge, in which she told us how the film “unknowingly” made Hollywood history (be sure to click on the link and read the whole thing):

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 was the first, albeit inadvertently, blatantly homoerotic mainstream film of its genre. From the glaring subtext of set design, to an historically awkward solo dance sequence, to a terrifying erotic run-in with a leather-clad gym coach set in a gay S+M club, the gloriously homosexual nature of the very premise (Freddy is desperate to enter a young man’s body), is something to be revered.”

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Be sure to check out “Night Flight at the Movies: Horror” and see clips from the additional horror films we discussed back in 1986, over on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.