The Nightmare Directors
They keep finding these talented directors, and they keep coming in and doing a wonderful job.
By Marc Shapiro and Michael Gingold
Robert Englund has been playing Freddy Krueger for so long that the consensus is that he could probably direct himself.
Not so says Englund.
“There are certain sequences where I kind of know what to do,” says the actor, “but I do have a tendency to sometimes go over the top or be too subtle. I definitely need help and, luckily for myself and the Nightmare series, the directors we’ve had on these films have all been very talented.”
The A Nightmare on Elm Street films have, indeed, been blessed with some unique directorial talents. From Freddy creator Wes Craven through the current installment’s Stephen Hopkins, directors have contributed monstrous abilities and individual visions of what A Nightmare on Elm Street should be.
The original A Nightmare on Elm Street was turned down by every studio in town before New Line Cinema decided to back Wes Craven’s vision of a dream killer. The company was rewarded with a film that effectively probed the heretofore untapped realm of the subconscious as a viable horror source and unleashed the most diabolical terror titan to date in the guise of child killer Freddy Krueger.
Craven’s directorial approach mixed expressionistic dream sequences with shaded mood and tone, and the result was the first chapter in a continuing Nightmare on Elm Street mythology.
“I have always felt that Freddy is the ultimate symbol of the threatening adult,” says Craven. “Freddy is the ultimate bad father who attacks youth and innocence. He’s the most evil human being you can imagine, somebody who goes after children.”
“Everything that’s good about the Nightmare series and mythology that transcends them we owe to Wes,” applauds Englund. “Everytime we do a scene, Wes’ idea of what Nightmare is becomes deeper and richer. We owe Wes all of that.”
Craven, whose credits include The Hills Have Eyes, The Serpent and the Rainbow and the upcoming Shocker, feels that the first Nightmare film was “not only a film of great craft and imagination,” but a film that broke new ground in terror cinema.
“What the first Nightmare film did was to spawn a new kind of horror directing, one that expanded the envelope of what reality and illusion are. It began a new direction of horror films, hallucinatory terror that is not restricted by day to day reality. The first Nightmare on Elm Street expanded the boundaries of reality.”
And it was a reality that Jack (The Hidden) Sholder punched up in his directorial turn on A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. Sholder’s version took the Nightmare odyssey into a highly charged sexual arena and brought Freddy, figuratively and literally, out of the shadows and into the light. Under Sholder’s direction, the imagery is sharper and the tone more over the top.
“I went into Nightmare 2 knowing I had no choice but to top the original,” says Sholder. “There are blood and graphic scenes of violence, but we took great pains to make it a different kind of horror movie.
“We tried to avoid the obvious ‘boo’ kind of scares,” Sholder adds, “the one-dimensional blood and guts things that, by now, are totally expected by the audience and don’t have the impact that they once did. We used a lot of ‘woo’-type scares, things that you know are coming, but that don’t come off in quite the way you expected them to.”
Freddy Krueger entered new territories under Chuck (The Blob) Russell’s direction in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Gone to a large extent were the grim themes that populated the first two Nightmare films. Freddy cracks wiser, the imagery takes its first giant steps toward the surrealism that will populate future films and the dream sequences took on a slam-bang, right-to-the-gut quality.
“As I was doing that movie, I was thinking, ‘I’m going to be ruined for future films because what can be more fun than to creep up on an audience with this terrific device of dreams?'” Russell recalls. “In Nightmare 3, you never know whether you’re in a dream or not.”
Russell claims he seized the opportunity in Nightmare 3 to fully explore all sides of the dream world. “With Nightmare 3, we dealt more with the actual nightmares from Freddy’s point of view,” he notes. “With the first two films, the nightmares were based in the real world. People would fall asleep and Freddy would appear. In the Dream Warriors, we went deeper into Freddy’s territory. The characters are lured into the dream world where Freddy forces them to confront their deepest fears.”
“Chuck really beat me up,” Englund recalls. “He worked me so damn hard! But he certainly turned the corner in terms of turning the Nightmare movies into hallucinogenic gonzo kinds of films.”
Russell offers that gore was an important element of the third movie. “But we went to great lengths to make the fantasy deaths much more interesting than the literal slasher deaths. We also did more with the characterization than had been done in previous Nightmare films.”
New Line Cinema took a rather daring step forward with A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master when they tagged relative unknown Renny Harlin to direct. For, despite a filmography highlighted with the films Prison and Born American, Harlin’s prevailing attitudes ran contrary to the Elm Street bible.
Harlin saw Freddy as a heroic character rather than a killer. To his way of thinking, Nightmare 4’s script wasn’t so much a horror film as it was a coming of age story. His film style? A dizzying array of light, shadow and MTV-style camera tricks.
Nightmare 4 rolled Harlin’s creative dice and came up seven. The film, a continuation of the Dream Warriors storyline, delivers an overall unnerving effect. The tried and true Freddy elements are in place.
“I knew going in that, if nothing else, this movie had to look great,” says Harlin. “I spent a lot of time trying to emphasize the visual side of things in the most exciting way possible. I utilized a lot of light and shadow and focused those elements into an overall feel that emphasized the creepy tone of Nightmare 4.”
Harlin found a taker in actor Englund during the course of filming Nightmare 4.
“Renny had a great eye for all facets of the Nightmare world,” says Englund. “He’s hip to the rollercoaster ride and the action that these films must have, and he just naturally zeroed in on the sick and the offbeat things that a less subtle director might miss. He has an instinctive feel for what is downright scary.”
Harlin was initially reluctant to cut the cake on a fourth Nightmare film. But he read between the lines and found a great deal that challenged him.
“I felt Freddy Krueger’s status as a hero was something that could be exploited in an arty, action-oriented way,” he explains. I succeeded in capturing the essence of the Nightmare films in a truly scary way.”
Stephen Hopkins, whose suspense film A Dangerous Game brought him to the attention of New Line, appears to have attempted the impossible with A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. For openers, he’s doing Part 5 of a successful series. Then there’s his approach to making this movie which, he offers, “is kind of taking Freddy back to his roots.”
“I’m concentrating more on horror and suspense than was done in the previous films,” he explains. “I feel like Freddy may have been overexposed in Nightmare 4 so, with this film, I’m having him step back into the shadows. Freddy is also going to be a little less jokey and much more cruel.”
One thing is certain, Hopkins will, no doubt, be the latest in a continuing line of talented directors to come out of nowhere and give Freddy Krueger creative and terrifying life.
“I don’t know where they keep finding them,” says Englund. “But they keep coming up with these talented directors, and they keep coming in and doing a wonderful job. What they’ve done for the Nightmare series is one of the main reasons I keep coming back—because I know there’s always going to be somebody great to pick up the ball and run with it.”