Monday, October 22, 2012

Making Monsters #20: A Nightmare on Elm Street

The most iconic horror character of the past thirty years has to be Freddy Krueger, the horribly burned, dream-stalking villain of the Nightmare on Elm Street series. What gives Freddy an edge over other famous slashers like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers is that Freddy was played by one actor, Robert Englund, over the course of eight movies. In the best and worst movies in the series, Englund is clearly always giving his performance 110%; he's obviously having a great time playing such a horrible character, and his skill for creating a fully formed character under heavy makeup is as impressive as Boris Karloff or Lon Chaney. Anyone who has seen Englund at a Q&A knows his knowledge and appreciation of classic and contemporary movies is vast - when I met him, he completely geeked out when he saw my Let the Right One In t-shirt, and he grilled me on what I thought of the Swedish and American movies and the novel, citing specific scenes. So even when he's skateboarding or playing Nintendo, Englund always makes sure the integrity of the character and what made him frightening in Wes Craven's original film shines through.

Englund's performance is also the constant through all the subtle changes in makeup design Freddy undergoes with each film. While the work of makeup artists like Kevin Yagher and and Greg Cannom in the sequels is impressive, the character design by David B. Miller for the original movie remains the most frightening. Craven had actually written Freddy as even more grotesque-looking, with a partially exposed skull and open sores dripping pus, but Miller explained to the director that this would be impossible to make convincing on the film's low budget. Instead, Miller studied photos of burn victims to create a look for the character that is believable but not completely realistic, and purposefully so; Yagher would later call Freddy a "male witch," and his look is as fantastic as it is grotesque. When Englund was asked about the remake at the Q&A I attended last year, he was tactful and complimentary to Jackie Earl Haley's performance, but pointed out that changing the makeup to a more realistic "burn victim" look sacrificed Freddy's striking profile and his larger-than-life screen presence. He's right - one of the many things wrong with the remake is that Freddy was less frightening than pitiful-looking. As designed by Miller, played by Englund and smartly kept in low light by director of photography Jacques Haitkin, Freddy retains a supernatural menace even after multiple viewings.

Craven's original movie remains the best largely thanks to his talent for imagining striking nightmare imagery that touches a collective nerve. These moments were brought to life by an effects team led by Jim Doyle, who was responsible for creating Freddy's iconic glove as well as designing the film's classic dream sequences. For the scene where heroine Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) falls asleep in the tub and is pulled into the water by Freddy, a bathtub set was built over a swimming pool, and Doyle spent much of the day underwater, playing Freddy's gloved hand himself. And for the film's goriest scene, when Nancy's boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp in his screen debut) is sucked into his bed and moments later, a geyser of blood pours out of the hole, was pulled off using a gimbal set. The set is placed on a giant rotating axis, the camera is fixed to and moves with the set and the subject remains at the bottom of the set, so that it appears that the subject, not the set, is in motion. This was used famously for the scene of Gary Lockwood jogging around the Discovery One's centrifuge in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and is also used in A Nightmare on Elm Street for the scene where Tina (Amanda Wyss) is thrown around the walls and ceiling by an invisible Freddy (the same gimbal set was used later the same year for a scene in Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo!). For Glen's death scene, the set was rotated 180 degrees and 500 gallons of fake blood were dumped through the floor of the set. The effect almost proved to be deadly, as the gimbal set began spinning out of control, dumping fake blood all over the soundstage, shorting out the electricity and threatening to electrocute the entire crew (Wes Craven later called it a "Ferris wheel from hell"). Thankfully, nobody was hurt, and the glitch in the effect - the blood at one point appears to pour out sideways - only adds to its uncanny quality. It remains a memorable start to Depp's career, and a more interesting effect than every overblown setpiece in the three Pirates of the Caribbean sequels combined.

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