Freddy's Fed: The Making of the Freakiest, Most Freudian 'Nightmare on Elm Street' Scene Ever

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Patricia Arquette is devoured by the Freddy snake in ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors’

One, two, Freddy’s coming for you – and he may come in the form of a giant, Patricia Arquette-eating snake. In 1987’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, the nightmare-invading serial killer Freddy Kreuger takes on many disguises, including a flesh-slicing marionette and a decapitating television set. The film’s most spectacular effect, however, is Freddy’s appearance as a disturbingly phallic, reptilian creature who attempts to swallow one of his sleeping teenage victims (played by Arquette, in her film debut).

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Since the film was made pre-CGI and on a small budget, the Freddy snake was a practical effect involving four different handmade puppets, mechanical rigs, and film shot backwards. Based on interviews from two behind-the-scenes sources – the Blu-Ray featurette Snakes and Ladders (first released with the 2004 Nightmare on Elm Street Collection DVD set) and the epic 2010 documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy – here’s the story of how special effects wizard Kevin Yagher and director Chuck Russell turned Freddy into the stuff of horror fans’ most Freudian nightmares.

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Patricia Arquette with the Freddy puppet (Photo via Cracked.com)

In the second sequel to 1984’s slasher classic A Nightmare on Elm Street, Arquette plays Kristen Parker, a high school student whose mother places her in a mental institution after what she believes is a suicide attempt. In fact, Kristen’s wrists were slashed by the ghost of child-killer Freddy Krueger (played, of course, by Robert Englund). In the institution, Kristen meets other teens being pursued by Krueger, as well as the one girl who managed to defeat Freddy in the first film: Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), now a college graduate working as a counselor.

Watch the Freddy snake’s appearance in this scene from ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors’

The Freddy snake appears briefly (but very memorably) in one of Kristen’s early dreams at the institution. (Watch the scene above.) In her sleep, Kristen enters a nightmarish version of Nancy’s childhood home, where an unseen creature burrows beneath the carpet and walls start collapsing around her. Suddenly, a worm-like creature with Freddy’s face bursts through the floor, knocks Kristen over, and begins to swallow her whole. Kristen screams for Nancy, who hears her cries and enters the dream (hence the game-changing discovery that Kristen can pull people into the dream world). Nancy stabs the creature with a shard of broken mirror, and together the women make their escape.

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“The biggest challenge for Nightmare on Elm Street 3 was probably the snake sequence,” special effects artist Kevin Yagher said in Never Sleep Again. Yagher, who had designed Freddy Krueger’s makeup for A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, would go on to become a leading special effects artist, designing and creating such iconic horror creatures as Chucky from Child’s Play and the Crypt Keeper from Tales from the Crypt. Nevertheless, he was relatively young and inexperienced when he led the effects team for Dream Warriors. “I pitched to them, ‘Listen, I’ll do the movie, but I want to do all the effects.’ And they were stupid enough to do it,” joked Yagher.

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Kevin Yagher working on a maquette of the Freddy snake (Still from ‘Never Sleep Again’)

From the start, he knew that Freddy-snake scene would be one of the film’s most important effects moments. “That was a really exciting thing for me because it was the first gigantic puppet I’d ever made,” Yagher said. The artist made two small sculptures (known as maquettes) that demonstrated the creature design: One standing upright, and one in the process of consuming a woman. Director Chuck Russell approved the concept art, and Yagher’s team got to work. But on the day of the shoot, when Russell saw the finished puppet, he had a rude awakening.

“When I first saw the prop I was stunned, because it was very, very phallic,” Russell said in Never Sleep Again. “He just said, ‘This looks like a penis,’” Yagher recalled. “And I said, ‘Yeah, remember, we talked about it? We had meetings about this.’ He said, ‘I can’t do that. We can’t make it look like a penis.’”

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The original, overtly sexual maquette of the Freddy snake devouring a woman (Still from ‘Snakes and Ladders’)

In reality, it was no accident that the Freddy snake had phallic overtones: Yagher had designed and pitched it that way. “There are a lot of things with Freddy that are very sexual that worked their way into designs,” Yagher said in Snakes and Ladders. “In this case, the Freddy snake was meant to look like a Freddy-snake-slash-Freddy-penis-thing that was attacking this woman…and at one angle, it actually does look like a phallic thing.” Yagher blames Russell’s disconnect on the color: The maquette he’d approved was sculpted in green clay, while the final product was flesh-colored, making its sexual connotations extremely overt.

“I said, ‘Well I can’t paint it, there’s no way. We don’t have the time. It shoots in an hour,’” Yagher recalled. “So what we did was we mixed up this green slime, and we coated it in green slime… and it ended up looking more like a worm-creature-thing. But it wasn’t my original idea, really.”

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The giant snake puppet in progress (Still from ‘Never Sleep Again’)

The green color appeased the director, but his battle with the Freddy snake wasn’t over yet. In order to shoot all of the effects in the two-minute scene, Yagher created four separate puppets: A six-foot long hollow snake to swallow Arquette on the ground; an even longer version designed for an overhead shot; a snake designed to spit out the actress from a height of a few feet; and a lifelike puppet with a radio-controlled face for the snake’s final close-up. While most of the puppets performed as intended, the all-important swallowing effect didn’t work.

Watch behind-the-scenes footage of Patricia Arquette and Heather Langenkamp filming with the Freddy snake puppets.

“The thing looked great… But it did collapse when it tried to eat her,” said Russell. “So there was actually no way to gobble her. It became this ancient-looking, collapsed, gumming-her-to-death kind of thing.” There was little time to fix the prop, however, because Russell had been told that, “if it didn’t work that day, it wasn’t in the movie.”

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Yagher adjusts the Freddy snake on set (Still from ‘Never Sleep Again’)

So the first-time director came up with a spur-of-the-moment solution. Rather than film the snake chomping Arquette from the feet up, he shot the scene in reverse: The actress started out with the puppet at her waist, and the effects people slowly pulled it off. Meanwhile, Russell zoomed out with the camera. When the film was reversed, the monster appeared to be devouring Arquette while the camera moved in closer. In Russell’s opinion, the effect “ended up being probably a little more nightmarish than it might have been if the damn thing worked.”

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A Thai poster for ‘Dream Warriors’ featured the Freddy snake scene (Image via Horrorpedia)

The Nightmare on Elm Street franchise went on to include a total of nine films, but the Freddy snake from Dream Warriors remains one of its most inventive and memorable effects. And if it still reminds viewers of a penis – well, Russell has made peace with that. “There is a lot of sexual horror, sure, and a lot of sexual horror imagery in this picture – but that’s part of the puberty-chemistry nightmare that’s true to that age group in that world,” he said in Snakes and Ladders. “And if she’d only had a giant condom in that scene,” added co-screenwriter Frank Darabont, “she could’ve bagged the son-of-a-bitch right there.”