Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Dream
The franchise creator takes another lucid dream-walk down Elm Street
By Dale Kutzera
Published in Imagi-Movies, Volume 2 Number 1.
C’mon, you didn’t really expect New Line Cinema to terminate its second most profitable franchise, did you? Of course, the demise of Freddy Krueger seemed reasonably certain when, in the last ELM STREET film, he was dragged kicking and screaming from the dreams of his long-lost daughter into reality, impaled with a stick of dynamite, and blown to bits. The title, FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE, was about as conclusive as you can get, and even the executives at New Line Cinema insisted the series had run its course. “No one was jumping up and down to do another one,” says Michael De Luca, president and chief operating officer of New Line Productions. “Being a company that is always mindful of franchises, whether it is HOUSE PARTY, the TURTLES, or ELM STREET, we are always looking for ways to keep the franchises going. I liked a lot of the sequels. I think they are very innovative, very visual, and have launched a lot of good directors, but nothing beats the original. We didn’t want to do another one with anybody else but Wes. Doing just another sequel didn’t seem worth it, but getting a chance to do a reinvention with the creator of the original was too good to pass up.”
For years, Craven had had nothing to do with the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series, having moved on to create such distinctive films as SHOCKER, THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW and THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS. His last involvement with Freddy Krueger was the script he and Bruce Wagner wrote for the third film. “It was rewritten by the director and a friend of his [Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont], and I didn’t have anything to do with the production of that, so I have been away for about ten years,” Craven recounts.”I don’t know exactly what their [New Line’s] reasons were, but they were just intrigued by the idea of whether a new film could be done, and I was intrigued, too.”
Since its $550 million acquisition by cable-TV tycoon Ted Turner in 1993, New Line has been paying top dollar for spec scripts, name directors, and A-list actors. Far from the tight-fisted, struggling company that gambled on Craven’s original NIGHTMARE ten years ago, the cash-rich New Line was more than willing to negotiate a new, lucrative deal with Craven to bring him back into the Freddy business. “lt was all contingent on my demands being met and my being satisfied with the deal,” Craven explains. “We cleaned up a lot of business matters between us that were irksome, to put it mildly, and they were very forthright about that. This time, as opposed to the first time out, I had an excellent lawyer and he made a great deal.”
“They gave him a lot of freedom,” says Heather Langenkamp, heroine of the first and third films. “I don’t think I ever saw a New Line executive on our set. On our first movie and third movie, they were always there, everyday, constantly breathing down our necks. On this movie, I didn’t see them once. They trusted Wes. He was bringing them a product they desperately wanted, and they were willing to make some accommodations for that.”
Having killed Freddy Krueger rather decisively in PART 6, what New Line wanted was a way of rejuvenating the ELM STREET series without insulting its fans. “At the time they made the proposal I had no idea what kind of film to make,” admits Craven. “The challenge was to think of a way to bring Freddy back without violating the nature of the story or offending the audience. The first thing I did was have lunch with Heather who I hadn’t seen in a long time, just to catch up and see if she was interested in making another film. For my taste, she always represented the best of the NIGHTMARE series. The first one was an examination of somebody who had the courage to face a truth that was too painful for most people to even acknowledge, and I thought rather than make up some story it would be more true to see how she was dealing with the same issue ten years later. That was the notion I called the lunch on, but what I found interesting was that she had a story within her own life that was so fascinating.”
“We just had a casual lunch and talked about all sorts of different things,” recalls Langenkamp. “I’m a mother now, so we talked about parenthood. He told me that he started having some new dreams to fuel a new script, and we talked about potential scenarios for a new NIGHTMARE movie. And we started talking about things that have been going on in my life over the past few years and about how I had a disturbing fan who had been writing me some pretty scary letters. It’s been over for a while now and I’ve been breathing easier, but right after I did the TV show (JUST THE TEN OF US), I had some very frightening episodes with a kind of stalking fan. In one way the person was obviously very sad and had no grip on reality, but on the other hand you’re not sure what they’re capable of, so you’re always watching your back. I told Wes things started bothering me that never would have before. For in stance, if a car followed me for a mile, I’d start getting jittery. He thought that was an interesting idea.”
“She was very frank and open with me about what had been going on in her life for the past ten years,” Craven continues. “I was intrigued with the idea of doing a story based on events in her life as an actress who had made a horror film, which a lot of our society looks down on what the influence of that was on her and also on her child. After we had that lunch, I started having very strange dreams about her, Freddy in general, the impact he’s had on myself, and what it’s like making a horror film.”
“Last summer, Wes called me up and said he had completed a draft of the script, and he wanted to know if I minded that it was about me, with my name. I would play myself,” Langenkamp explains.”At first, it was a really strange idea to play yourself in a film. It didn’t sit well with me in the beginning, and Wes and I had several conversations. The script was wonderful, but I have just become so protective of my personal life that to play myself with my real name presented some real problems to me. Legally you give up so much in terms of what New Line Cinema can do with your name. Can they put it on any doll? And what does that mean for Heather Langenkamp, the person? There was a lot of thinking about those kinds of issues, but Wes was so committed to his idea and this nightmare was so scary and good that I decided it would be worth it, so I agreed to do it.”
The resulting movie within a movie is so unlike any other ELM STREET film that New Line won’t even market it as one. The trailer shown to exhibitors at the ShoWest Convention in Las Vegas in March of 1994 had no mention of Freddy Krueger until the final image, when he bursts through a melting film frame caught in a projector light, and some versions don’t even include that. The working title, WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE simultaneously links and distances the film from its predecessors, a clever stroke by New Line’s marketing department to keep the series’ established market, while selling the film (which reportedly plays more like a psychological thriller than a horror movie), to a broader audience.
“The film has to do with Heather Langenkamp the actress in Hollywood,” says Englund. “It’s about her life as an actress, her friends, her child, and whether or not she will be wooed into doing another one of these NIGHTMARE movies. Then these odd things occur, and it’s hard to decipher whether they are reality or illusion, whether she’s being manipulated by Wes and myself, whether it’s a stalker, or maybe it’s you-know-who in reality.”
“I thought that Wes would have to do something really special not to insult the intelligence of his fans, and when I read the first draft of the script I knew we did not have that problem at all,” says Langenkamp. ”What Wes has done is so original. This is really like a documentary about the people who make ELM STREET movies. Everyone is in it: Bob Shaye, the president of New Line, Wes and I, and Robert Englund. We all play ourselves, and we’re all dealing with this prospect of making the last, fabulous sequel of the NIGHTMARE films. We were really living this script day by day, and the way we were making the movie is very much how it looks on film. What makes it so scary is that for some reason Freddy is able to penetrate to that world. He is more shadowy and hidden, and you don’t know where he’s going to pop up. It involves dreams again and where reality ends and dreams begin, and that scary line between the two.”
The new approach required a new incarnation of Freddy, forcing Craven to dig deep into his concept of good and evil. “I actually have a scene in the film where I say that Freddy was an entity that has been around for a very long time and stood for something that probably went back to the very roots of mankind. And in each age storytellers try to grab on to these elements that are mysterious and hidden and give them shape and give them names. In my case I called it Freddy and by clothing it in the costume of Freddy and the stories of the NIGHTMARE series it has been controlled. But when the films had been stopped, when they killed off the character, the entity was left alive and it decided to cross over in to our lives and our dreams. The story really is about that. It’s about the Freddy that can’t be killed off by some executive deciding that they’ve made the last NIGHTMARE.”
The new Freddy is a purer, more evil incarnation of the character we know. A new make-up design has the face and head deeply lacerated, with broad swaths of skin missing entirely, revealing red sinews of muscle. Gone are the brightly colored stripes of the sweater, replaced by more muted tones, tall leather boots, and an imposing purple top coat. Most noticeable is the replacement of Freddy’s famous scissored glove with a new hand design that fuses blades into a skinless hand of exposed bone and flesh. ”We’re trying to get a sense of dealing with something that is not Robert Englund in a costume, so it couldn’t be completely familiar,” says Craven. “It’s based on the old costume but different. There was a change of his facial make-up and the construction of the whole head, a different costume based on the colors and stripes of Freddy, and a new more primal claw. We wanted to say that’s the guy that’s been behind the old Freddy.”
Production began in November of 1993, and through the course of the shoot Craven couldn’t help revising his script as inspiration warranted, resulting in the unusual practice of re-writing a film about the making of a film as the film was being made. If this sounds confusing, consider the challenge to the actors of making a film about themselves making a film.”That’s the hardest thing in the world,” claims Englund. “I don’t play me too often. I’m a character actor, and I did a lot of work before Freddy and during Freddy with my own face but mostly in character roles. I always wanted to dye my hair and get a pair of glasses, be a little taller or shorter, or impose an accent. Freddy allowed me to do a lot of tricks, and it’s kind of liberating to work under the makeup.”
“I did make a real point not to portray myself,” says Langenkamp, who created a fictionalized version of herself for the film.”The overriding theme of this movie is not only that Heather is an actress but that Heather is a mother, and I really tried to imbue her with acute sensibilities about her child. She’s very tuned in to her kid and is willing to sacrifice everything for the welfare of her child. The one note I tried to play in every scene is that Nancy from the first movie has grown up and she’s Heather as an adult. Her strengths are Heather ‘s strengths, and the thing that gives me strength in this movie is the fact that I’m a mother of a very vulnerable child.”
For Craven, the challenge was not only playing himself but directing some of the numerous non-actors who make cameos in the film, including his boss, Robert Shaye. “The worst qualms about that was after his scene was done he was immediately talking about re-shoots, because he thought he was terrible. In fact, he was quite good. Directing myself was a trip. I had done one other acting piece in John Car penter’s BODY BAGS pilot. Before that I had only done small cameos. I’ve heard other directors who do it a lot, like Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen, say you just have to rely on people that you trust, in this case Marianne Maddalena, one of my producers, and my d.p. Mark Irwin.
“I’ve always had a pretty strong appreciation for actors that do characters besides themselves,” Craven continues. “I mean it’s easy enough for me to talk as myself but not to do another character or reach some of the emotional pitches that actors are routinely asked to do. In this film Heather runs the gamut from tenderness to terror to outrage. I’ve always been astonished by the ability to put yourself into those kinds of stages.”
Further blurring the line between art and reality were several bizarre occurrences during the course of filming. “Things would disappear and resurface in other places; right when we were ready to shoot, the lights would go off-stuff like that,” says Langenkamp. “It was bizarre, but we all banded together and kind of laughed about it nervously. The biggest thing was the screenplay, which was written last summer, opens on a terrible earthquake, and we shot our earthquake scenes just before the [January 17] earthquake. It was so fantastic. I got cold shivers. That to me is just a greatest symbol of how something strange was lurking beneath this Freddy movie.”
An unforeseen benefit of the 6.8 Los Angeles tremor was confirming to Craven that the film’s quake effects—swimming pools sloshing, car alarms going off, and plaster cracking—were terribly accurate. ”We shot a lot of earthquake scenes, and no sooner had we gotten that cut together and looked at it than, boom, it hit. That was very spooky, and a lot of people freaked out about it,” says the director, who in the best Roger Corman tradition took advantage of the situation. “We actually sent out a second unit to film the earthquake damage around Los Angeles, to show story points that had been written three weeks before.”
In addition to earthquake sequences, WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE features a harrowing scene wherein Langenkamp chases her disoriented son across eight lanes of freeway traffic. The sequence required shutting down a one mile stretch of freeway in Valencia for first-unit shooting, then having second unit shoot background plates for additional scenes filmed back in the studio. The task of compositing these background plates fell to visual effects director William Mesa. “Traditionally they wouldn’t be attempting anything like this freeway sequence in a NIGHTMARE film,” he states. “It’s a very realistic, action-oriented piece that is heart-stopping be cause of the little boy involved.” Because of the split-second coordination between foreground action and background plates, traditional blue screen compositry was ruled out. In stead, Mesa used a front projection system similar to the process he used at lntrovision to create the remarkable train crash in THE FUGITIVE. “When you’re doing floor matching and lighting matching and have smoke and sparks, you can’t do that with blue-screen process composit ry,” explains Mesa. “We used the Vistavision front projection system, and the way it works is you take a pin-point light source coming out of the projector, projecting through 50-50 mirror onto the screen . The 3M screen has millions of little tiny beads that are actually optical lenses. Light comes out to that screen and the lenses send all the light back directly to its source, in this case the 50-50 mirror.” The film camera, lined up behind the mirror in the exact same nodal position as the projector, receives the clear, sharp image reflected back from the screen.
In this way, actors can perform in front of the screen and be instantly composited into the background; lighting, props, and flooring can be coordinated with the composited scenery; and practical effects cues such as smoke or sparks can be perfectly timed with the background action. Best of all, if one take doesn’t work, the plate can be quickly rewound for another. “It’s a fairly involved process,” adds Mesa. “To do the [front projection], we have to shoot larger format Vistavision plates; plus we have to shoot finer grain films stocks, which means you need more lighting on location. So it is a lot more involved, but the results are very believable, and you feel like the actors are really in those environments and those situations.”
The final stage of NEW NIGHTMARE involves Langenkamp’s entering the dreams of her son and journeying to the depths of Hell to confront the ultimate Freddy. The setting is an elaborate multi roomed set courtesy of production designer Cynthia Charette who, from the beginning, encouraged Craven to go beyond Freddy ‘s traditional boiler room. “I thought, ‘Let’s do more than finding a building and going down to the basement bolier room,’ so I researched the history of Hell. This is my ode to Dante’s Inferno and Virgil’s depiction of Hell.”
To reach Freddy’s inner sanctum, Langenkamp slides down a ramp, through a 20 foot-tall carving of a gapemouthed Freddy, plummets in to a Greco-Roman pool, and then ventures through several chambers. “First is Purgatory,” Charette elaborates. “Next is Styx, a filthy marsh which takes you down to the lower pit, Cocytus, which is the low est depth of Hell and Freddy’s ultimate furnace. That is where we do the final scene with Freddy where he gets the door shut on him and burns up into eternity.”
So is this, really, finally, the end of Freddy Krueger? Or is this the beginning of a new franchise for New Line Cinema? “I don’t think so, and frankly I don’t think New Line does either,” claims Craven. “I have a feeling that they want to be moving on to different sorts of films. In fact, Bob Shaye, in a scene that we filmed in his office, says this is the one where we want to lay Freddy in his grave forever. Now I don’t believe that you can ever lay Freddy in his grave forever, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the last NIGHTMARE.”
Langenkamp is even more certain about the prospect of appearing in further films. “Absolutely not,” she states emphatically. “This is such a triumphant ending for my character and for Nancy that there would be nowhere to go. It would not be worth it. Frankly I don’t think Wes would do another one, and I wouldn’t want to work with anyone else on this series. I wouldn’t want to be a part of a NIGHTMARE movie if I was just going to be a character that was killed like I was in the third. There was something very unsatisfying about being just another victim of Freddy’s after the first where Nancy was more of a hero.
Freddy Krueger may live on, however, by facing off with the machete-wielding Jason Voorhees, aIa FRANKEN STEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. New Line, which distributed JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY after Paramount abandoned the moribund FRIDAY THE 13TH series, now controls both characters and is in preliminary development of such a team-up film. In fact, the comic coda of the so-called FINAL FRIDAY showed Krueger, or at least his unmistakable glove, retrieving the defeated Jason’s hockey mask.
WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE “doesn’t really leave an opening for any more” sequels, according to De Luca. “If we did FREDDY VS. JASON it would be handled like ALIEN VS. PREDATOR, as a stand-alone story that doesn’t continue any plot lines from either film series. We’re currently soliciting ideas for development, and I’ve talked to Wes about it, but he has other things on his plate right now. Of course, the first person I solicited for any interest or ideas was Wes.”