Film historian Wayne Byrne took time out from his busy schedule to talk to one of his regular interrogators, Paul Farren, about his latest book Welcome to Elm Street: Inside the Film and Television Nightmares. Wayne’s new tome provides in-depth analysis of the production, cultural relevance, and themes of the franchise. His extensive interviews include Robert Englund, the man who scared a generation as Freddy Krueger, and a host of other talents including directors, producers, actors, and crew from all across Springwood.
So Wayne, why did you feel the world needed a book on the Elm Street franchise?
Well, I’m not sure that the world did need one, but I needed to write one. The world certainly didn’t need a book on the making of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, there’s books out there already: production designer Mick Strawn’s brilliant book on part 4, Behind the Screams; Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy; and a fantastic 2010 documentary also called Never Sleep Again, which covers the whole franchise. My take on it is different, a different perspective that fans should appreciate, which is more focused on the themes of the films, especially those that Wes Craven laid down in the first film and are kind of woven throughout the rest of them to varying degrees. I mean some of the films go into the themes a bit more than the others but it’s something about the franchise that has interested me for about twenty years, since I was old enough to start thinking about the Elm Street movies with a bit more maturity. For the first ten years I was just enjoying them as silly horror movies.
They were some of the first films I rented as a kid. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 came out on video around the same time that Elm Street 4 was in the cinema and Freddy’s Nightmares (television series) was on Sky One, so I was caught in that cultural whirlwind. As I got older I stuck to the films, I never went away from them. Some franchises you dip in and out of, but I always loved the Elm Street films. As I got older, I started seeing things in them that felt a bit more relevant than what was in your typical horror movie. When you look past the exterior, facade of the immediate horror movie narratives, there’s some great stuff there on the dark side of suburbia, ultimately there is a commentary in things such as familial abuse, on alcoholism, absent parents, ignorant parents, teen suicide, depression and anxiety and all that. And I think those are themes worth investigating in Cinema. It’s good that the Elm Street series, which has such a huge fan base, presents these relevant ideas and themes because if that many people watch the films then it opens up the possibility for many people to talk about important themes and issues.
That’s why I wanted to write a book about it, because I had all these things that I felt were in them that I wanted to talk about. Sometimes you talk about these things to people and maybe they don’t quite get it, or they dismiss it, or whatever, but I had the canvas of a book to put all these ideas down and discuss them, so that’s what I did.
What was the appeal of those films to young Wayne?
There was something about Freddy. I was very young, six or seven, when I first came across these films but there was something about Freddy where you had the thrill of him being scary and funny; there was a kind of illicit thrill in renting them. Freddy had personality. I remember looking at the Hellraiser video box cover in the local video shop and being slightly terrified, just at the box, looking at Pinhead. So, I never really ventured there until later on. But with Freddy, he kind of welcomed you into this fantastical, imaginative world. There was a kind of cartoonishness and anarchy to the films that made it easier for someone so young to embrace these films. I always kind of compared them to Looney Tunes. When you’re six or seven years old watching these films, I think that’s the best time to watch them because you’re going to just accept them for what they are supposed to do, which is to thrill you and scare you. If you wait until you’re 18 years old, such as the classification people recommend, are you really going to be scared by them? I don’t think you are. You’re going to be cynical. You’re wise to the world, you’ve been watching the news all your life. You know the true horrors of the world. So, you’re not going to be scared by some guy with a crispy pizza face with knives for fingers, sticking his head up out of a TV; to me that’s Looney Tunes stuff. That’s no different than Tom and Jerry or Roadrunner, so I can see why it appeals to kids. And it certainly appealed to me, and I was wise enough at the time to know it was cartoonish. When you get to Freddy’s Dead it is very self-preferential, and again it’s Looney Tunes, it’s Wile E. Coyote! There’s a scene in it where Freddy rolls out an oversized bed of nails, which is like something straight out of the ACME Corporation catalogue. I mean this is a cartoon. There are also references to The Simpsons, Twin Peaks, and Roseanne. All these other pop cultural things that I love. It’s considered a terrible film but I love it because maybe I was just the right age not to be sniffy about it, and I got all the references.
That version of Freddy evolved over the films. It wasn’t how he started out.
Oh absolutely, but you see I was introduced to the Freddy of 1988/89. I didn’t start with the first two films, which are darker. I went back to the first two after seeing the third and fourth film and Freddy’s Nightmares.
Ah so you got introduced to the high camp Freddy?
Oh yeah, yeah. But I think he got campier with Freddy’s Dead. I think that’s key Freddy campiness, and it may have crept in around Freddy’s Nightmares, especially season two. But yeah, I was familiar with high-personality Freddy. So when I went back to the first two films they kind of creeped me out on a different level.
He did evolve from child killer to children’s hero. His being loved by kids was a phenomenon.
Absolutely. I remember in 1989 at the height of all this, there was a pound shop downtown called Donal’s Walkaround and they used to sell Freddy toys, and I of course begged my mam to get them for me. So you had your T-shirts with Freddy. You could get a lunch box. And these cool squirty balls of Freddy’s head, where you could squeeze it to suck in water and then squeeze it out like a water pistol. Fred Heads! So these are the things you could get at that time. You could go into a pound shop in Naas in Kildare, and buy Freddy Krueger toys! And yet he is a child killer; but of course I wasn’t aware of the significance of that.
As the Americans would say, he’s the bogeyman, the monster in the closet.
Yeah, and he was still the monster in the closet as you got older, because you realise that, yes, on a base level he’s a scary dude who can kill you in your dreams, but it’s what he represents as a metaphor which is far scarier.
He’s your generation’s Dracula.
Absolutely, yeah, I think that’s one of the important things about it on a film history level. He is Frankenstein, he is Dracula. He is my generation’s Universal (Films) monster.
So what’s the scope of the book, what can readers look forward to?
It covers everything, the first film right up to the remake, Freddy vs. Jason, Freddy’s Nightmares. Actually, that was one of the big thrills for me, covering Freddy’s Nightmares, because it was probably the seed of the book. There’s absolutely no information out there on the making of that series, it is almost like a lost show. And it’s probably the biggest chapter in the book as well because I ended up speaking to so many people: the producers, the writers, the directors, actors, production designers, special effects guys. And that was a thrill for me because that series is tied to parts three and four for me as blowing the doors open and introducing me to horror cinema, and probably cinema in general. I mean it was around the time I was starting to get into movies. So, it’s nostalgia for me as well, there’s an element of that. I only ever really write books about or with people that I really love, you know. It must mean something beyond an academic exercise or commercial exercise. I’m not going to do it otherwise, there’s just too much work involved and I’m not going to do it if the love isn’t there.
In the end it did also become part “making of” book as well, because I talked to so many people who made them, I talked to technicians, cinematographers, special effects guys. Not everybody sees the themes that you want to talk about, so you do end up talking about the production side and the meaning of them from an industrial context; what it meant to work on them in late-eighties Hollywood. It was, after all, one of the biggest franchises on the go at the time, so there’s definitely an industrial context to the book as well. It’s not just thematic, its part analysing the themes and its part making of. It covers all the films in both ways. You know, I’m probably a bit brutal on the remake, but it deserved it.
I wouldn’t consider that film part of the franchise. It is a reboot.
Yeah, but the chapter that’s in is about remakes and reboots, so it covers Freddy vs. Jason the remake and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which I don’t really consider as part of the formal franchise of parts one to six. It is brilliant, but it is still kind of separate from the first six because it takes a self-reflexive perspective.
New Nightmare is sort of a satire of the whole series.
Yeah, New Nightmare is satirical, but also self-reflexive. Freddy’s Dead is kind of poking fun at itself as well, but it’s still part of the initial timeline of the formal franchise. New Nightmare is, typical of Craven, an honest discussion of horror, the effect of horror, the meaning of horror, and all this kind of serious stuff, which was great food for me to chew on. I think it’s a brilliant film but to me the formula franchise is one to six. It’s kind of a separate entity.
Freddy himself, Robert Englund, was interviewed for the book. Tell us about that.
He was a fascinating man; it was brilliant because with some people it was more about the technical accomplishments and the work on the films that was the basis of the conversation. With Robert, I wasn’t quite sure what his angle would be. Would it be talking about Freddy as a character or be talking about the narrative or production? I was tentative about bringing in all these intellectual ideas. But he was fantastic, he met me on that level immediately, and he sees all those themes. He was there since the first one, there since he had conversations with Wes Craven about themes of the script, about all these ideas, so he knew exactly where I was coming from. He gave me so much. He’s able to look outside of the franchise, he’s able to kind of step back and take it all in as this kind of cultural event, which is fantastic for me as a film historian, he’s able to give me all those insights from being inside of it and looking at it from a distance. So, he’s an interviewer’s dream.
Any particular Robert Englund insight that you can tell us about?
He said something while I was bringing up some points about part five, The Dream Child, something to do with the abortion aspect of the story and the pressure parents put on kids to succeed in certain aspects of life, when they are being moulded in their parents’ image. So it was a deep enough discussion. And at one point Robert said to me, ‘When a kid rents a Nightmare movie on a Friday night and goes home with a pizza and he is sitting there, maybe with his family or by himself, and is having a great time watching this entertaining horror movie and is enjoying Freddy, he’s not thinking about those deep intellectual themes, but over time, as he gets older, he will realise those themes are there. They work on you, and you think deeper about them later on.” So the point being, the intellectual themes are seeping into your brain as you’re being entertained by the films, and that kind of summed it up for me, that that’s the experience I had, which was enjoying these great horror films and later I realised they were about so much more, so much deeper and more important.
A lot of great work has gone into this book but what can readers expect from your book that they won’t get from other books on the Nightmare series?
New stories about the making of each film because despite there being books out there already, there are new voices in here, new opinions, new memories. There are people who haven’t spoken on-the-record about their involvement before, but I was lucky to know the right people who helped me reach out to them. There are many stories on Freddy’s Nightmares. There’s nothing out there on that show, but now there’s a substantial chapter, featuring many voices.
Do you think the television series is an important part of the franchise?
I do. I think it’s part of the turning point of Freddy becoming a different kind of populist villain, you know he was Rod Serling for the eighties. He is doing host duties on the show, so he is all quips, with Freddy’s Nightmares he literally pops up for a minute here and there to deliver funny lines. That’s his job. Now, there’s a couple of episodes throughout where he is literally part of the story, so he’s in there manipulating people with dreams or whatever as well.
Do those episodes relate to the franchise continuity?
Yeah, and I think they’re absolutely fascinating. There’s a little continuity to the film series in the first episode, which is a prequel to the franchise, so it goes back into when he was Fred Krueger the man. And there are a couple of episodes which are sprung off from that prequel episode. So, some really interesting continuity in there in terms of looking back on his early days. The show is pretty much unavailable. Warner Brothers released a Region 2 DVD, like a taster with three episodes with the series was to come after, but sales were so poor that they cancelled it.
So what is the lasting appeal of Freddy?
Superficially, I think he is just entertaining. The films are so well made. I think that’s ultimately the biggest appeal of them. They’re just very well made horror movies. And they’re different. Each one is different. Each director of the film series has his own style and aesthetic, so it’s a very rich franchise from that point of view. It has a fantastic logo and cheerleader in Freddy Krueger. I mean, he is the star of the show without a shadow of a doubt, and for me that’s a gateway, once you get in and you embrace the story and the characters, then you can indulge in the themes which are so rich. So rich, in fact, that someone needed to write a book about it.
Thank you so much Wayne.
Welcome to Elm Street – Inside the Film and Television Nightmares is available for pre order from McFarland Books now. Release date November 2021.
Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the most inventive American films of the 1980s. Its sleeper success bred a series of film sequels and a syndicated television program while its villain, Freddy Krueger, became a Hollywood horror icon for the ages. In the four decades since its release, Craven’s creation and the subsequent franchise that it launched has become firmly established as a pop culture institution and a celebrated symbol of American cinema.
This book takes readers on an engrossing journey through the history, production, and themes of the Nightmare on Elm Street film series and its spin-off TV show, Freddy’s Nightmares. It reveals new stories about the franchise’s history and dives into some of the themes and ideas that tend to be overlooked. It contains a foreword by production designer Mick Strawn and includes exclusive interviews with cast and crew, including legendary Freddy Krueger actor Robert Englund; directors Jack Sholder, Chuck Russell, Mick Garris, Tom McLoughlin, Lisa Gottlieb, and William Malone; cinematographers Jacques Haitkin, Roy H. Wagner, and Steven Fierberg; and many more.