Improbable pop icon, craggy-faced demon, the Mick Jagger of slasher-flicks: Freddy Krueger, the most beloved horror villain since Dracula, first slashed his way across silver screens three decades ago this year in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Krueger was a supernaturally evil burn victim whose wit was as sharp as the glove he’d modded out with razors. The character stalked mostly innocent teens in their dreams, toyed with their fears in darkly comic ways and then slaughtered them horrifically. But despite this scarred serial killer’s personality flaws, he quickly became horror’s last great rock star.
In the decades since its release, A Nightmare on Elm Street has become a phenomenon. The film went on to inspire five regular sequels, a TV show (Freddy’s Nightmares), a meta sequel in which Freddy terrorizes the cast and crew (Wes Craven’s New Nightmare), a crossover flick (Freddy Vs. Jason) and, in 2010, a remake. President Ronald Reagan described Democrats’ memories as looking like “Nightmare on Elm Street” in 1988; President George H.W. Bush publically accused Bill Clinton, when he was Governor, of running “a Freddy Krueger candidacy” in 1992. Artists ranging from Nicki Minaj to metal-hardcore crossover group S.O.D. have written songs referencing the striped sweater–wearing slasher. New Line Cinema, which went on to produce the Austin Powers and Lord of the Rings series, still calls itself the “House That Freddy Built.”
Although Krueger was the movie’s breakout star, the Wes Craven–directed feature was more of an ensemble piece. It focused on a teen named Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) and her friends – played by Amanda Wyss, Jsu Garcia (who was credited as Nick Corri) and some kid named Johnny Depp – as they confronted the killer in surrealistic dreamscapes. Its eye-popping visual effects – created within the film’s total budget of less than $2 million – helped A Nightmare on Elm Street go on to gross $27 million. People could not get enough of Hollywood’s ultimate boogeyman.
But the reason why the original film was such a success was because of the way the nightmares felt real. The challenge of realizing the filmmaker’s nightmares on a limited budget made for one of the most fascinating behind-the-scenes stories in horror, as the movie’s crew built a revolving room for two particularly surrealistic death scenes and consulted The Anarchist’s Cookbook for others.
When breaking down the movie’s most horrifying scenes for Rolling Stone, the movie’s actors recall some of the effects and sequences feeling so real that their performances capture genuine terror.