Dreams Don’t Die
The Krueger reboot may be the most anticipated—and controversial—modern horror remake of them all.
By Luis M. Rosales & Angel Sucasas
Published in Fangoria #292.
“I’ve been away from my children for far too long…”
— Freddy Krueger
But he’s coming back to haunt your nightmares. Beware, Elm Street. Lock your door. Grab a crucifix. Stay up late. And never sleep again…
April 30 is the date when New Line Cinema debuts A Nightmare on Elm Street, the remake of the 1984 Wes Craven classic that first put the company on the map. Feature-directing newcomer Samuel Bayer took on the challenge of revamping one of the most beloved fright franchises of all time. And Jackie Earle Haley, an actor well-known to fandom for playing Watchmen’s vicious Rorschach, fills the glove previously worn in eight films by Robert Englund. Will this new vision spark a fresh round of bad dreams?
Fango sets out to learn for ourselves in July 2009, heading off to encounter the dark lord of dreams on the Nightmare set, located in the outskirts of Chicago. Our main host during the early hours is production designer Patrick Lumb, whom we meet in his office, rife with large tables, set pictures, concept art and well-known artistic masterpieces covering his walls.
“I used to be a painter,” Lumb explains, pointing to Caravaggio’s Medusa. “So the influence of classical painting in my work is obvious. But I believe that’s good, because one of the main problems involving the creation of new images these days is the references. The cinematic ones are too well-known; they’ve become boring. So grounding my work in Goya or Caravaggio creates a new vision that, I hope, will excite the audience and be refreshing.”
Viewing Lumb’s unique designs is, indeed, exciting and refreshing. The artist adds that one of the key facets of his job involves: “our sudden transitions from reality to the dream world. Some are subtle and almost unnoticed, and some happen quickly. Sometimes, characters fall into dreams in such a subtle switch from reality that it’s almost impossible to notice the change. Others, however, confront you with sights only possible in dreams. You open the door of your room and suddenly, you’re in a snowy landscape—but without loud sound effects or a sudden camera movement that would make things too obvious.”
Keeping a realistic mood doesn’t mean the Nightmare team is not having fun with the movie’s frights and creatures. In fact, as Lumb continues to talk, we spot a folder labeled “Scary Dog,” and can’t help asking about it. “Oh, damn it—don’t look there!” the designer says, to much laughter. “That was supposed to be a secret… Well, now the damage is done [more laughs]. All I can say is that, obviously, there are going to be more creatures besides Freddy Krueger in the flm. So stop spoiling my monsters!”
So we stop. Instead, Lumb shows us around six impressive sets constructed in a gigantic warehouse on the outskirts of Chicago. We’re led through the bedroom of teen heroine Nancy (played by Rooney Mara, taking over from the original’s Heather Langenkamp); Freddy’s cavern; two mirror versions of the same classroom, flooded and burned; a small bedroom; and Nancy’s attic.
As the tour continues, we notice similar imagery in the various sets. On the wallpaper of Nancy’s bedroom, for example, are some scary childish doodles that also turn up on the blackboards of the mirror classrooms. “Those are the most recurrent visual elements in the movie,” Lumb explains. “They’re like altered and disturbing visions of a child, and appear in almost every dream scenario.”
The attention to detail throughout the sets is stunning, with the twin classrooms demonstrating a remarkable attention to atmosphere without giving up realism. Ashes cover everything in the burned version. Metal is bent, desks are charred, fluorescent light tubes hang from the ceiling, their fixtures seemingly about to break. Meanwhile, in the flooded classroom, a special reflective floor creates the impression of being completely submerged.
Lumb explains the situation that befalls one of the characters and leads to these dual rooms: “You’re sitting in a classroom, half-listening to the teacher’s lame lesson. Suddenly, you fall asleep. With your eyes closed, you start to feel an itch in your nose, and a hellish heat. You open your eyes, and you scream. The room is on fire. The charred bodies of your classmates cover the floor. Ashes and sparks everywhere. You try to open the door, but the knob is too hot and your hand gets burned. With your jacket protecting your hand, you manage to open the door. You look through the treshold, and it’s the same classroom—now flooded with water.” It’s pretty clear that such unsettling transitions are going to be a common sight in this Nightmare on Elm Street.
Having proven himself the best guide one could hope for, Lumb departs and we move on. Another set, with the main cast and crew shooting, awaits us. But first, we head out of the warehouse and into a trailer where a very special part of the team awaits. Haley is in the middle of one of his many Freddy makeup sessions, and can hardly speak at all, but manages to say “Hi!” and smile at us. His visage seems poles apart from the classic design sported by Englund, truly appearing to be the victim of a terrible fire. Sores, ulcers and all types of burns and scalds cover his face. One of his ears is melted, the black hole of his inner canal visible.
Andrew Clement, a veteran makeup artist whose career spans from assisting on Frank Henenlotter’s Frankenhooker and Basket Case 2 to collaborating with J.J. Abrams on Star Trek, Cloverfield and Fringe, explains his approach to this makeup as he continues to apply it to Haley’s features. “We’re using silicone material that, until now, the Freddy saga hasn’t used, and created a brand new look,” he says. “We did exhaustive research on real burns. We tried to catch the textures, colors, etc. of those wounds. Samuel Bayer tells us all the time that the goal is realism, so that’s what we’ve gone for. But it was a complex process. We went through about a dozen early designs until we found the right path to follow.”
Equally complex—and arduous—is the daily application of Haley’s Freddy face. “It takes about three and a half hours to put this on,” the actor says with a grim smile that Clement returns, as the artist continues to work and explain: “The first day of shooting, when we were still testing colors, it was about five or six hours. Taking it off, by comparison, is a piece of cake; about half an hour to 50 minutes.”
Fango says goodbye to Haley for the moment, leaving him in Clement’s careful hands (we get back to him later; see sidebar) and returns to the warehouse for the shooting of a key scene. The setting is the bedroom of Nancy’s friend Kris, portrayed by When a Stranger Calls and Black Christmas’ Katie Cassidy, who’s here with Thomas (From Within) Dekker, playing Jesse. They’re recreating the legendary sequence of a Freddy victim’s levitation above her bed, and the bloodbath that results from the dream stalker’s finger-knives tearing into the poor girl’s body.
We witness the result of that attack: Kris lies on the bed, covered in crimson. Jesse approaches her with tears in his eyes, emotionally melting down. Dekker’s performance is truly affecting, which isn’t a surprise for those who watched him as John Connor on TV’s sadly defunct Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
After a break in filming, a muscular figure approaches, one arm sporting a dragon tattoo on a powerful bicep. This is Bayer, one of the most renowned music video and commercial directors of his generation, making his leap into the movie world with A Nightmare on Elm Street.
“I think of this film more as a rebirth than a remake,” he says. “If I have to tell you what my main influence was, I’d say without a doubt, that The Dark Knight is a hell of a movie. In fact, I told all my cast and crew that we must do with Freddy what Christopher Nolan did with Batman. I’m trying to make a dark and serious film, and I hope I’m achieving that. One of the most extraordinary aspects of Dark Knight is the way it integrates Batman into a believable world, and I want to do just the same with Freddy.
“That doesn’t mean, of course, that the classic elements of the mythology will be absent from our Nightmare on Elm Street,” he continues. “Everything we remember and love will be in it – for instance, the boiler room. And so much more.”
On that note, Samuel praises Lumb’s contributions to the movie, asserting that his sets are works of art unto themselves. “Every setpiece will have an incredible look,” Bayer says. “Patrick did a terrific job. His previous movie before our film was Valkyrie with Tom Cruise and Bryan Singer, so we knew his work would be exceptional. And he formed one hell of a team with Jeff Cutter, my DP. There is nothing in the franchise like our film.”
The most crucial decision attendant to this Nightmare, and the one that inspired the most advance speculation, was the casting of the new Freddy Krueger, once it became clear that Englund would not be returning. Bayer clearly stands behind his choice. “I picked Jackie because I loved him in Watchmen,” the director says. “This movie is all Jackie’s show; it’s his movie for sure. I was a fan of his work, and I decided that he would bring something new, fresh and unexpected. And I wasn’t wrong about that.”
Haley isn’t the only strong performer in the Nightmare ensemble, though. The supporting cast also boasts solid credentials, and additionally includes Kyle Gallner from The Haunting in Connecticut and Jennifer’s Body, the Twilight films’ Kellan Lutz, genre veteran Clancy Brown and Connie Britton from TV’s acclaimed Friday Night Lights.
On set today, Dekker demonstrates not only his accomplished acting talents, but also his strongly held opinions of the horror genre. The young thespian (whose resume already boasts dozens of TV credits as well as independent genre features like Laid to Rest and the upcoming All about Evil) isn’t shy about pointing out the problems he has with current Hollywood horror, and praises the courage of European moviemakers—like Martyrs’ Pascal Laugier—for dealing with filmed fear seriously.
“I hate Hostel,” he admits. “in fact, it’s the perfect example of what I don’t like in the genre. The violence is pointless and grotesque, and the movie invites you to enjoy it. I think that’s a morally questionable approach. On the other hand, films like Martyrs, which is as violent as Hostel or maybe more, use the violence in emotional and intelligent ways. That [approach] needs the violence to tell the story, because violence is one of the important facets of humanity. But you aren’t enjoying in any way the cruelty suffered by the characters. You feel devastated about it.”
Dekker stresses that Nightmare is aiming to affect audiences the same way, through the combination of realism and darkness that Bayer previously stressed. “Generally, I don’t like remakes,” the actor says. “I consider myself a true horror fan, and those are often missed opportunities to do something new—or, even worse, sacrilegious ripoffs of cult favorites. But A Nightmare on Elm Street is different. I’m not bullshitting or just promoting a film that I personally think is crap. I signed on for this movie because, the original, while still a classic, failed, in my opinion, to take full advantage of its own subject. We’re talking about an ex-child molester who can penetrate your dreams. And what Samuel Bayer is aiming for is to go very deep into the characters’ psychology, without using one-liners. And we’ve done it just like that. I’m proud of this movie.”
Dekker also praises Haley’s interpretation of Freddy: “What Jackie has brought to the character is marvelous. Playing any scene with him is an honor. He prepared for the role with a very serious approach, investigating real serial killers and delving into very dark things to understand Freddy’s psychology. Freddy is not another dumb bad-ass with a mask; he’s a character with multiple layers. He was human once. But not a regular Joe—a child molester, no less. So Jackie knew that understanding the character was the key to not being one-dimensional. And the result is just incredible.”
Lunch is called, and Fango has the opportunity to enjoy it with all of Nightmare’s cast and crew, chatting about the state of today’s cinema and enjoying the delicious chow. Then it’s time for Brad Fuller and Andrew Form, the producers teamed with Michael Bay as horror-remake specialist outfit Platinum Dunes, to explain why they thought revisiting A Nightmare on Elm Street was a good idea. “We always wanted to reboot this franchise,” Form says. “In fact, our intentions behind taking our trip through the ’70s and ’80s classics was an excuse to take this chance. And after the success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th, we had achieved what we needed to make a new Nightmare on Elm Street.”
We wanted the audience to know how different our film was going to be from [the previous movies],” Fuller adds “and Jackie Earle Haley was the perfect choice to prove that we were serious about changing Freddy Krueger.”
Form further guarantees that the mayhem Freddy creates is not going to be watered down to appeal to the youthful viewers. “This film will be R-rated,” he says. “There wasn’t any other choice. It’s targeted at an adult audience and definitely scary. It’s not a party for horror fans like Friday the 13th.”
So far, Fango has spoken to a number of big shots on Nightmare on Elm Street, from key cast to the prime movers behind the scenes. But Billy Dambra, while a lesser-known name, is no less fundamental to the film. His job: creating Freddy Krueger’s new glove.
“It was a full month designing, and another five weeks to actually build the thing,” says Dambra, a prop master on films and TV since the ’80s. “We tested many, many different knives. And it’s obvious from some of the sketches that I went a little nuts! [Laughs] But it was Samuel’s job to rein me in.”
Dambra proves his point by showing off early sketches and multiple glove designs, some depicting incredibly long blades that would have been totally impossible to pull of practically. Finally, the moment arrives: Dambra puts a briefcase on a table, and opens it to reveal the final version. It’s a beautiful piece of art—and a heavy one too. Dambra allows us to pose for pictures wearing the weapon and Freddy’s trademark ragged fedora before explaining the materials that went into devising the teen-killing accessory.
“I built it just as I would in reality,” he says. “I used cotton and metal, nothing else. The pieces are articulated and show various degrees of oxidation. The color is the same that metal has after fabrication, In fact, you’ll notice that there’s a great variety of shades, but that’s consequence of the natural process of forging. We made four real gloves and one out of rubber, for the takes when the glove is near the actors’ faces. And one more of aluminum, because it’s very tiring for the actor to wear the real thing all day.”
Before our departure, we manage to catch Haley in full Freddy getup, shooting a greenscreen sequence. Even his makeup sports green patches to be filled in with CGI, using the same technique invented by Stan Winston Studio during the production of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Haley looks terrific in the classic red/green-striped sweater, the hat and the bladed glove. He seems completely ready to kick some sleeping-teen ass—and come April, he’ll be spreading his brand of evil in theaters and, hopefully, the sleep of audiences nationwide…