Some horror films have not aged well and, as the years roll along, seem almost impossibly outdated; worst of all, the scares don’t hold up the way we recall from an earlier time in our lives and seem to be lost in a series of quick jump cuts and cheap musical stings that seem to exist only to telegraph to an audience that they need to be scared or they need to jump at a particular moment. This choreographed horror almost always seems as if it’s designed by committee, and reminds us just why we should value those rare creepy gems that seem to have fallen from some dark and diseased tree whose low-hanging fruit is nothing sweet but altogether ominous and quite disturbing.
On November 9, 1984, such a film made its debut courtesy of New Line Cinema and horror provocateur Wes Craven. The name of this dark gem was the Lovecraftian-sounding title, A Nightmare on Elm Street and it plied its disturbing and fertile soil in the world of a serial killer named Fred Krueger, a convicted child killer who in the afterlife had free reign to stalk his sleeping victims in their nightmares. Sometimes the simplest of premises are the scariest, and such was the case with Nightmare; Craven had gained his inspiration for the story upon reading a series of seemingly unrelated articles that detailed disturbing dreams that young refugees had been experiencing. Night terrors are what we might call this phenomenon now: Episodes of screaming, intense fear and flailing while sleeping. One of the articles in particular had set Craven, who up to that point was best known for genre classics like The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, down a rabbit hole that would create his version of the bogey-man, Fred Krueger; one of the young men afflicted with these horrific night terrors had endeavored to put a stop to it all…by not sleeping. Instead, he snuck a coffee maker into his bedroom and refused any overtures by concerned family and friends to just try and get a good night’s sleep. Seeing his distress and naturally worried for him and his health, the boy’s parents surreptitiously slipped him a sleeping pill. Finally the relieved parents relaxed as their son slipped off to sleep. This is where it gets particularly creepy, dear readers – The parents were woken up that same night by the sound of loud screaming coming from their child’s bedroom. By the time they reached him however, it was too late: The boy who had been so terrified of falling asleep had finally died in his sleep, fulfilling some dark and unspoken prophecy known only to him and whatever it was that so frightened him.
That unknown quantity that had haunted the young boy (he had apparently never specified to anyone just what it was that made him so very scared to close his eyes) was just the hook that Wes Craven needed to hang a story he was slowly concocting about a group of Anywhere U.S.A. teens who all share the same nightmare. He decided that the villain of the piece would be the aforementioned Mr. Krueger, and thus a legendary pop cultural phenomenon was born.
The first film in the series was genuinely eerie and stands out all of these years later from most of the rest of the pack which only seemed to concern themselves with “demented madmen running around in ski-masks and hacking up young virgins” (that line attributable to another unique classic of its time, Tom Holland’s Fright Night). There was just something plain old unsettling about a dark figure coming for you relentlessly in your sleep, something primal. It stands as a genuine horror film classic, thirty five years after it first premiered to an unsuspecting audience.
If the audience was unsuspecting at first that gradually and irrevocably changed in the years that followed as, one by one, the Nightmare storyline became sequalized until at last count there was a grand total of nine films that hung their musty old fedora hat under the A Nightmare on Elm Street banner. As the films in the series continued, the story as originally conceived by Craven became more watered down until, finally, Fred Krueger became almost exclusively known as Freddy and the characters and stories devised by a slew of different writers and directors (Craven himself only wrote and directed two Nightmares: The original classic and the very underappreciated seventh installment) became increasingly more campy until there really wasn’t much of a difference between Krueger and cheesy stand-up comedian, Henny Youngman. Not helping matters was New Line’s shortsightedness in not bringing back Craven for more entries and abandoning Robert Englund – the man who wonderfully portrayed Krueger in eight of the nine films – and replacing him with Oscar nominated actor Jackie Earle Haley in the final film.
When the latest film in the Nightmare franchise stalled out back in 2010, it seemed that Fred Krueger had gone the way of Pet Rocks and Menudo, never to be dreamed of again; and when we sadly lost Wes Craven in 2015 it felt as if the book had been closed on Elm Street and the stories of the people that live on that unfortunate block.
But never count a nightmare invading, sweater clad, knife wielding, horrifically scarred bogey man down for the count: Hollywood loves an underdog and, even more than that, loves 80s and 90s nostalgia, of which Nightmare definitely falls under. No less of an acting thespian than Elijah Wood has expressed an interest in remaking the first film for his own production and Robert Englund – surely the equivalent of Boris Karloff in his role as the Frankenstein Monster – has even flirted with returning to the character at convention appearances. In 2018, he even did a tongue and cheek reprisal of the role that made him famous in a special Halloween episode of The Goldbergs.
Perhaps the biggest signs of life in this long dormant series, though is the recent news from Bloody Disgusting that the Wes Craven estate – who now own the North American rights – is currently taking pitches from writers for future stories that will take place in the nightmare world of Elm Street. This announcement has already elicited interest from the likes of directorial heavyweights such as Mike Flanagan (Doctor Sleep, appropriately enough). Hold onto your fedoras, kiddies, and whatever you do…don’t fall asleep.