Bye Bye, Freddy!
Elm Street creator Wes Craven quits series
By Dann Gire
Published in Cinefantastique, Volume 18 Number 5.
The third sequel to Wes Craven’s breakthrough horror film NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is already in preparation, but without any assistance or blessing from the creator of the original. Craven, who took the evil spirit of a scarred child molester named Freddy Krueger and turned him into the Darth Vader of the ’80s, will not be part of the creative team behind NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4, which New Line Cinema plans to release August 19. Personally, Craven said he is happy not to be associated with the series anymore.
“I detach myself from it entirely,” Craven said of the series.”Artistically, I think the first film was an intact, whole film and it makes the statement I started out to make. I never intended to make a sequel. NIGHTMARE 2 I discount. NIGHTMARE 3 I thought was an interesting step up, although I would have made it much darker and more complex than it ended up being. I’m not interested in participating in anymore. I read the script [to No. 4]. I don’t even think it’s worth going into because they [New Line Cinema executives] were not happy with it and they were going to change it drastically. The script I saw was written by William Kotzwinkle. He’s obviously a gifted writer. But when they had problems with the script, they came to me and my partner Bruce Wagner to rewrite it.
“Bruce and I thought if we were going to be approached, we should be approached as artists of the original material,” continued Craven. “So, New Line went off to do some more work with the script they had. They never really contacted us again. That’s their way. They come and they go. They’re nice people, but it doesn’t look as if I’ll have anything to do with the making of NIGHTMARE 4.”
The fall-out between Craven and the business interests behind the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET phenomenon, namely producer Robert Shaye, can be traced back to the end of the first movie when Craven was more or less forced to abandon his artistic vision for the sake of Shaye’s marketing strategy.
“The first NIGHTMARE was my film and I controlled it all the way through except for the last few minutes,” Craven said. “I ended it in the script this way: the heroine turns her back on Freddy. He leaps for her and he goes screaming off into nothingness. She comes out of the house the next day. Her friends pull up to the curb in the car, the whole street is in fog. The kids drive off into the fog and you never know if the whole thing is a dream or not. You don’t see Freddy or the Freddy car. It’s like a full circle. You start in a dream, you end in a dream.”
But Shaye had other ideas about the ending. He wanted a CARRIE-like jolt plus a “hook” to hang a sequel on. So, the final NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET inexplicably and ridiculously resurrected Freddy in time for him to pull the heroine’s mom, Ronee Blakely, through the window in her front door and cart away screaming teenagers trapped inside a convertible car. Shaye originally wanted Freddy to be driving the car, but Craven refused. “I had gone three years with that film,” said Craven about the original’s development. “Nobody would back it. I was flat broke. I had to borrow money to pay my taxes. I was absolutely down and out. Bob Shaye was the only person willing to back it and raise the money. He told me, ‘Look, this is a partnership. Give me this one thing. Give me a hook to hang on the end for a sequel.
That and some jump at the end.’ It was a compromise. I felt I owed him that because he had seen the value of the film. He had raised the money. Sometimes you make a compromise and years later you say, ‘I’m sorry I did it.’ On the other hand, there might not have been any NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET at all if I hadn’t done that. So, the end of my compromise was that I would not have Freddy sitting in the front seat. I will not have him driving that car.”
In Craven’s mind, having Freddy Krueger at the wheel signified the victory of his evil over the powers of good, a concept he couldn’t abide by. At best, the ending of Craven’s film is ambiguous and the fate of the screaming teens is never determined. (In fact, the heroine, Heather Langenkamp, returned for some more Kruegerizing in NIGHTMARE 3.) Craven had no idea what was about to happen to his small budget creation. Shaye put NIGHTMARE 2 into production without Craven’s input. And Shaye got some minor revenge against Craven. “I didn’t like the second script,” Craven said. “I thought it was a silly script. There was not a clear-cut hero who remained intact. Freddy coming out of (the hero] really violated the viewers’ ability to identify with him. I suggested they make the girl across the street the hero. I thought it would have been much wiser to make her the central character. I also thought they brought Freddy too much into the realm of reality and put him in situations in daylight where he was diminished. You want Freddy to be always threatening and overpowering. But when he’s running around a swimming pool with a bunch of teenagers who are all bigger than he is, he starts to look really silly.”
“There were a lot of events in the picture that I felt were just disconnected and had no real reason for being there,” continued Craven. “There were characters in the story making really asinine conclusions. There was a thing where a canary goes crazy, dives at them and blows up and somebody says, ‘It must have been a gas burner left on.’ That sort of thing left no logical trail for me to follow. The capper was that Bob Shaye, who had always wanted me to have Freddy at the wheel of the car at the end of my film, put it in NIGHTMARE 2. Sure enough, Freddy’s driving the bus at the end. So, I didn’t feel the film represented my vision.”
Craven and Wagner came back on board for NIGHTMARE 3. The experience only further alienated the artist from any further association with the film series. “I came up with the idea for NIGHTMARE 3 and co-wrote it with Bruce Wagner,” Craven said. “I took an executive producing credit. My understanding was that I would be asked about things all along. I would be brought into the casting and have a real creative part in the picture. The reality was that New Line Cinema never really contacted me after they had the script. They changed it quite drastically in some ways. The director and a friend of his rewrote it and changed the names of all the characters and rewrote several key scenes of their own so they could get equal credit on the billing and equal points [in the profits]. A lot of reasons I agreed to do the picture were taken away.”
Perhaps the strangest aspect of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET phenomenon is how moviegoers, mostly young people, have accepted Freddy Krueger as a true celebrity, a pizza-faced killer that people love to hate. The character made a star out of classically trained actor Robert Englund, who undergoes four hours of makeup each time he plays the deformed razorblade freak. “Freddy” is in hot demand for personal appearances. The most popular costume in America last Halloween was a Freddy disguise, complete with plastic razors attached to a glove. In January, a new novelty rock album, Freddy’s Greatest Hits was released. It featured such brain dead tracks as “Do the Freddy” and “Down in the Boiler Room.”
Even Craven admits to being astonished by the mainstream acceptance of a character whose claim to fame was raping, killing, and burning the bodies of children. “I just felt that Freddy was the paradigm of the threatening adult,” Craven said. “Freddy stood for the savage side of male adulthood. He was the ultimate bad father. It’s a sickness where youth is hated. Childhood and innocence is hated. And it’s attacked and exploited and he tries to snuff it out. From the very beginning, that’s how I saw him. He’s the most evil human being you can imagine, someone who goes after children.”
Craven credits Freddy Krueger’s incredible success directly to Shaye, who now owns all legal rights to the character and can do virtually whatever he sees fit with it. “Part of Shaye’s genius in marketing was to soften Freddy and make him a little bit more of a buffoon,” said Craven “Now in a sense, he’s embraced by younger kids. And they can make fun of him. In a way he’s dangerous and in a way he’s a joke. It’s probably safer to deal with him that way. In his first incarnation, he was just terrifying. I’m sure they’ll make seven or eight movies. They’ll make as many as they can. As business people, why not? That’s obviously allowed them to expand the company and make other movies. That’s the business side of making movies. It’s called a franchise.”
“I know Bob [Shaye] always had the feeling that there should be more humor in the movies,” continued Craven. “He thought the first one was too dark a vision. His idea is that kid’s want to laugh and have a good time. It’s not a secret that he talks about this kind of movie as ‘a good cheeseburger.’ It should be a formula that you determine and you crank them out and kids go to them like a fast food. But I don’t think that way, which Bob Shaye would call a darker, less humorous way. I would call it more important and serious.”
One of the most unusual things about Craven is how he gets creative inspiration from dreams. Craven credits his own nightmares to be the basis for THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977) and scenes in DEADLY BLESSING (198 1) and THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, his most recent film which was a hit for Universal earlier this year. The key to Craven’s success at tapping into his own psyche began in college when he wrote a research paper on dreaming. Part of the project required Craven to record his own dreams. He became rather proficient at it. “In the course of that semester, I got better and better at it,” he said. “I was recalling four to five to six dreams a night. I would spend a lot of time during the day just writing them down. By the end of that semester I stopped, but I retained the facility to recall my dreams. It’s difficult for everybody, unless you start doing it. Once you start, your mind becomes adapted to it. The trick is that we all can do it. We all remember our dreams during a flash period just after we wake and just before we have a cup of coffee. If you write down the bare bones of the dream, the chances are that you can write it all down.”
Besides inspiration, dreams play an important role in all of Craven’s films, especially in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. “The cinema lends itself to dreaming,” said Craven. “It is in a sense a dream itself. People go into a dark room very much like a bedroom. They see phantasmic images on a screen that aren’t really there, it’s part and parcel of dreams.”
“I think horror films serve the same function that nightmares serve in the human consciousness,” continued Craven. “They are a vent for disturbing, but very powerful and important thoughts. I call them boot camp for the psyche, especially for young people. I think films process very powerful primal fears and trepidations. Teenagers see things very clearly, sometimes frighteningly clearly. They’re going through a process of reevaluating their country, their mother and father, looking at their youth and seeing that they’re about to be adults, deciding what to do about sex and drugs, what to do with lives and careers. It’s a tremendous mine-field in their lives.”
“Horror films are a playing out of some of those things on a very primal level. It’s life and death, blood and guts. But people come out of it at the end. There’s a sense of exhilaration. They survive.”