Happy Cops ‘n’ Killers month, fiends! Or should I say “Cops…who royally screwed up and burned said killer alive, turning him into a more powerful, supernatural uber dream killer” month!
For this edition of Making a Monster, we look at the origins of one of the faces on “Mt. Slashmore.” That’s right, we’re going into top tier of horror infamy! Let’s forego our nightly dose of Hypnocil and put the coffee pot back under the bed (?!) for the Springwood Slasher himself, Freddy Krueger!
The idea for the legendary haunter of dreams began where all of life’s horrors can be found – the newspaper! Director Wes Craven read an article in the L.A. times back in the 70’s about a family who escaped the infamous Killing Fields in Cambodia. After relocating to the United States, the couple’s young son began to have extreme, intense nightmares. The story turned even more tragic when the son passed away, right in the middle of one of these terrors. This phenomenon actually happened to multiple young men from Asia, which later was given the Asian Death Syndrome. Craven recalled the story in a fascinating in-breakdown of A Nightmare on Elm Street with Vulture.
He told his parents he was afraid that if he slept, the thing chasing him would get him, so he tried to stay awake for days at a time. When he finally fell asleep, his parents thought this crisis was over. Then they heard screams in the middle of the night. By the time they got to him, he was dead. He died in the middle of a nightmare. Here was a youngster having a vision of a horror that everyone older was denying. That became the central line of Nightmare on Elm Street.
Religion may have played a role in Freddy‘s creation as well. Craven, who was studying Eastern religions at the time of A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s conception, revealed to Twitch Film that the idea “connected with the concept that all these things we think of as being spiritual are actually about very nitty-gritty everyday stuff. What the hell are we doing here? How do we deal with evil?” Real life events from Craven’s childhood even shaped the name “Freddy Krueger” as the slasher shares the name with the director’s childhood bully! Wes certainly knew how to hold a grudge, didn’t he? Just ask Universal Studios, whose rejection letter for the film found itself framed in Craven’s office.
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Designing a Dream Demon
With the concept of a killer who terrorizes you in your dreams created, next up was putting a face to the slasher. Wes Craven recognized many of the infamous slashers that came before his wore masks, and he desired to take the road less traveled.
A lot of the killers were wearing masks: Leatherface, Michael Myers, Jason. I wanted my villain to have a “mask,” but be able to talk and taunt and threaten. So I thought of him being burned and scarred.
This is where artist David B. Miller, the man behind the makeup, stepped in. In an interview featured in Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, a deep dive documentary of the franchise, Miller explained what Craven was looking for. Miller had created a “zombie cop” for the film Night of the Comet, and after the director viewed a picture of it, noted he wished Freddy to be made in a similar fashion. Pretty straight forward, right? Well, it didn’t stop there. Over the years, fans of A Nightmare on Elm Street have noted that the slasher has what can only be referred to as a “pizza face.” As it turns out, that’s exactly right. Miller added, “the final design for Freddy that went through, and this is a true story, is pepperoni pizza.”
As even the lessor horror fan knows, there’s more to Freddy Krueger than just a hideously burned face. Just like Craven deviated away from the masks worn by Michael Myers and Leatherface, he also equipped the killer with a very personal weapon. Originally, the director thought about equipping Freddy with a sickle (think “Grim Reaper”), but the idea was phased out over the course of script rewrites. In it’s place came the Springwood Slasher‘s iconic knifed glove. Craven thought, “a lot of horror villains used knives as weapons, and I didn’t want to duplicate that. So I thought, How about a glove with steak knives?” The director also noted how the glove taps into the primal fear of an animal claw, the first weapon humankind likely encountered.
Even Krueger‘s wardrobe has it’s own backstory! His hat and sweater are told to have come from another childhood terror from the director. As the story goes, Craven noticed a homeless man wearing the attire staring into his bedroom window as a child, naturally startling him. Refining the look, Craven told Scientific American in 1982 that he chose red and green stripes for the sweater because the two colors were the most clashing colors to the human eye, provoking an unsettled feeling.
There’s a lot to digest here, and to appreciate just how much went into the design of horror’s most recognizable boogeyman. But honestly, what would all of this really mean if it wasn’t for the actor putting on the glove?
Welcome to Prime Time, Rob
No actor could really satisfy the persona Wes Craven was looking for. Actor David Warner (The Omen, Time After Time) was originally cast as Freddy, but later left due to scheduling conflicts. Other names came in, auditioned, and left to no avail. “I couldn’t find an actor to play Freddy Krueger with the sense of ferocity I was seeking,” Craven explained to Vulture. “Everyone was too quiet, too compassionate towards children. Then Robert Englund auditioned.” The director finally had found someone willing to take the character of Freddy Krueger to the depth of evil necessary. In an interview for Monsterland’s Nightmares on Elm Street piece, the director explained this. “I wanted somebody who was an actor rather than a stuntman, somebody who could convey a sense of evil and who was very enthusiastic about getting to an evil state. You really have to get malicious and malevolent and a lot of actors just don’t want to get there; their heart isn’t in it. You have to find somebody who is comfortable with that idea and isn’t threatened by it; he knows it isn’t him, but can go there. Robert Englund filled the bill…”
In an interview with Looper, Englund explained what it took to become the legendary slasher.
“It was larger than life,” Englund says, noting that it took several hours to put on the Freddy face. “I had to live up to the makeup and the exaggerated scenery and special effects that were going on around me. But since Freddy exists in the imagination of his potential victims, he could be portrayed a little bit stylized. And when I finally got all the makeup on and found the voice and found the moves, I realized I didn’t have to worry about what Robert Englund looked like. I was hidden under the makeup, so I could use all of these tricks that had come from the theater — changing my voice, changing the way I moved.”
Englund’s portrayal of Freddy is perhaps best known for his legendary wit. The idea for the grotesque, wisecracking personality came from none other than the aforementioned homeless man who stared at Craven through his bedroom window. “The thing that struck me most about that man was that he had a lot of malice in his face. He also had this sort of sick sense of humor about how delightful it was to terrify a child.”
Pulling Freddy into the Real World
Freddy Krueger is by far the most prolific slasher in our wonderful horror universe. Wes Craven’s idea birthed a whole different type of 80’s movie monster – one with a personality, who preyed upon us in our most vulnerable state – sleep. With this new type of slasher, no actor behind the makeup or mask may be as vital to their role as Robert Englund is to Freddy. Without Englund, there is no Freddy Krueger. Despite arguments for and against the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that something is missing there, and it’s him.
Nine films, countless television appearances, Halloween costumes, and even MTV hosting gigs. To glimpse how profound of impact Freddy has had on our culture, Englund himself sums it up best. “After Freddy hit, it took me a while to realize how big it was. I was in New York to sign autographs at a science-fiction convention. It was me and William Shatner, and my line was out the door and down the avenue. After that, I went along for the ride. I’m happy I did, or I might have ended up doing theater in Santa Clarita.” I can speak for all horror fans when I say, we are happy you did too, Robert.
Where do you rank Freddy Krueger among horror’s top terrors? Are you into survival? Do you look 20 years old after reading this? Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep…before you continue the discussion over on Nightmare on Film Street’s Facebook group, Twitter, and Subreddit!