In the early 1980’s, Wes Craven’s life was a real nightmare. And I don’t mean in an awesome, completely fictional sort of way. The late filmmaker was living an “Oh my God, I’m penniless and homeless” kind of nightmare that he could not wake up from. Although he had enjoyed moderate success and notoriety during the previous decade with THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and THE HILLS HAVE EYES, the phones had effectively stopped ringing after his last two films—DEADLY BLESSING and SWAMP THING– flopped.
Wes couldn’t get any work. He hadn’t seen a paycheck in three years. He lost his house and started doing drugs heavily. His first marriage fell apart. And to top it all off, he had to borrow money from a friend just to pay his taxes. That’s about as horrifying as life gets.
It was a time when Wes literally had nothing … except an idea for a script that he had thought of during production on SWAMP THING. He sobered up and set out to write the story that would ultimately change his life. But convincing the big film studios that this script was a game changer would prove to be a continuation of Wes’ long lasting nightmare. Every single major studio rejected him.
Ironically, Disney was the only company mildly interested in the script. If Wes would just tone down the content and make it more kid-friendly, they were on board. Even though he was on the verge of desperation, Wes refused to Bambify his creation. He was hard up, but not willing to lighten the script for anyone.
Across the country, Bob Shaye’s life was not much better. New Line Cinema, the independent distribution company he had started 14 years prior, was floundering. Like Wes, he had enjoyed a very small amount of success in the last decade. His business was primarily based on distributing John Waters’ films to his top three clients: colleges, army bases, and prisons. The company’s biggest hit was selling the forgotten anti-marijuana propaganda film, REEFER MADNESS, to stoned co-eds. Bob needed a money maker soon. During a fortuitous meeting in LA, Bob would meet someone who was just as down and out as he was: Wes Craven.
Bob saw the potential in Wes’ A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. He was definitely interested in distributing the film, but first it had to be made. Without any studio support, Bob didn’t see why his little company couldn’t branch out and add “production” to its limited list of services. Wes and Bob took a gamble of a lifetime with NIGHTMARE. They both knew from the very beginning that this film would either make or break their careers.
Nothing during the production process made either one think the film was going to be a success. The thrifty $700,000 budget was a joke. They went over a million almost immediately. All of the investors backed out at different times. They weren’t able to pay the cast and crew for two weeks during filming. And Wes and Bob had major creative disagreements that turned into brutal screaming matches.
For example, Wes’ original ending for NIGHTMARE intended for Nancy to remain the victor in her war against Freddy Krueger. Once she turns her back on him, Nancy calmly walks out into the sunshine and goes to school leaving Freddy in her dust. Wes was vehement that he didn’t want the film to be a franchise. But Bob fought for Freddy to be triumphant. He wanted a hook that could give the film the potential for a sequel. They settled on a mix of Nancy returning to normalcy by having her friends pick her up in a convertible painted with Freddy’s green and red stripes– leaving the film open to further story lines.
As we all know, Bob and Wes’ gamble paid off big time. Not only did they make their money back during the film’s first week in November 1984, they created one of the scariest and most beloved horror icons of all time. Bob Shaye’s insistence on a NIGHTMARE franchise also paid off quite handsomely. Nine Freddy films and almost $500 million dollars later, he was correct that the audience wants Freddy to have the upper hand, er, upper makeshift claw-glove-thing. NIGHTMARE put Bob Shaye’s New Line Cinema on the map and returned Wes Craven to his throne as the master of horror.
If it weren’t for NIGHTMARE’S success, New Line Cinema may have never had the chance to flourish and give us the wildly successful LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, the AUSTIN POWERS movies, WEDDING CRASHERS, HORRIBLE BOSSES, THE CONJURING, ANNABELLE, and even Blumhouse’s own THE GALLOWS.
When Wes Craven passed away last year, New Line Cinema reiterated how integral Wes’ devious creation was: “In 1984, Wes Craven brought “A Nightmare on Elm Street” to New Line, and in so doing, altered the course of the studio’s history. We are eternally grateful to our friend and partner, and are proud to be “The House That Freddy Built”.