Horror films need enough realism to convince the audience that the threats, and the people threatened, are real. This becomes more, not less, important when the film’s villain is a dream-stalking demon and nth-degree burn victim who has, instead of fingernails, small scythes that cut through dreams and into reality.
In our last entry, the team behind the original A Nightmare on Elm Street discussed the camera and special effects techniques they used to make a smooth transition between the film’s dream world and its real world. But technical approaches in and of themselves aren’t enough to establish a sense of realism; it also has to come from the characters.
Choosing the characters
So as a writer, why did director Wes Craven choose to focus on a co-ed group of teenagers?
He freely admits that most horror films, including A Nightmare on Elm Street, focus on characters in their teens or early twenties because “that’s the audience that is willing to come out to films and spend money in theatres…so you kinda do characters that are about your audience” (00:59:41). However, he also feels that focusing on such characters brings real dramatic opportunities to the story. As Craven explains,
“[I]t’s…about young humans that are in transition from childhood to adulthood, which I think is very important because they have elements of their childhood naiveté, and there’s a lot of things about life – especially in the era of Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984 – where things like sex and so forth were a mystery and were kind of tricky and scary. It’s just a group of characters that are at a real big turning point, and that always makes for interesting drama.” (00:59:41)
In other words, these characters were intended to be reasonably real people with real problems who are blindsided when these horrific events befall them.
Keeping it real
After setting up realistic characters in a film’s first act, it’s important for them to continue to behave realistically when the blood starts gushing. This is where horror films have a history of tripping themselves up, often literally in the case of female characters. Having fallen into this trap himself in the past, Craven was very much aware of this tendency and careful to avoid it in Nightmare. The protagonist, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), “was based a little bit on my daughter, or at least I was trying to create a heroine for my daughter, who criticized me sharply for having the heroine of Swamp Thing fall down when she was running,” says Craven. “The history of women in genre films had been, well the worst example is Fay Wray, where she basically faints, but so often you see the picture of the guy – of course, fully consciousness [sic] and upright – carrying the woman who is, you know, totally out of it…” (00:22:00).
Craven knows firsthand that this is not a realistic representation.
“Being raised by a widow, I knew that wasn’t the way life worked. A lot of women had to go out there and make things happen, and work really really hard, and be very brave. She [Nancy] was kinda like the kid next door. She didn’t have a lot of make-up on, she had just ordinary clothes on, but she had courage, and she had the willingness to look at unpleasant truths and act on them based on the reality of the unpleasant truth, rather than not act on them and try to look away and conduct your life as if all that stuff wasn’t going on. I just wanted a young character who was what I thought was the best of American feminine energy, so it was like trying to create somebody who was real and had substance as a character.” (00:22:00)
Like anything else from the ‘80s, it’s hard not to giggle or cringe at parts of the film, but there’s no denying that Nancy puts things together faster than anyone else—men and adults included. It’s ultimately up to her to defeat Freddy because the men around her either can’t accept the truth (her father) or can’t stay awake (her boyfriend)—both of which, by the way, are very realistic problems for us guys.
Finding your inner villain
But without a strong villain to push Nancy to her limits, the film wouldn’t have been as strong. Producer Robert Shaye remembers experiencing a lot of pressure to cast a stunt man in the role of Krueger and credits casting director Annette Benson with the idea of casting Shakespearean actor Robert Englund to create a unique character with a real presence on screen (00:15:00). In terms of how Craven helps actors bring out their dark side for such menacing roles, he says, “It’s better in some ways not to stipulate too much when you’re directing, but you just say in general, ‘Go to that place where you’re most terrified, or where you feel like you’ve been most in control and enjoyed it over somebody,’ or something like that, and then the person goes into those caverns and byways that nobody can know about because they don’t want to talk about it” (00:29:00).
There’s a reason people still recognize the name Freddy Krueger 30 years after the original film’s release, and Wes Craven and his team provide some interesting insights on the crafting of the film. With decades of experience scaring film audiences, there’s no doubt that Craven is the real deal.
What do you think? How has Nightmare held up over the years? Do you think the role of women in horror films has improved at all since 1984? Has Craven made it onto your list of favourite horror directors?