‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ composer reflects on scoring Freddy Krueger

WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes Freddy Krueger music (Part 1)

Few horror characters are as iconic as the clawed slasher Freddy Krueger, but the fear creeped into our nightmares with boiler-room imagery set to truly disturbing music.

Composer Charles Bernstein reflects on scoring “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984).

“I had not been much of a horror film person,” Bernstein told WTOP. “I did not know who [director] Wes Craven was. My agent said, ‘You should meet this guy.’ … Frankly, it wasn’t something I would go to the movies and plunk down money to see a horror movie. … I was a big fan of movies that were more feel-good. I loved musicals.”

Born in Minnesota in 1943, Bernstein grew up in the Golden Age of musicals.

“My mom played the piano in the house a lot,” Bernstein said. “The first sounds I heard were really good piano playing. … I didn’t learn this until well into my career — when she was young, she was actually accompanying silent movies! She played the Wurlitzer organ accompanying silent movies, so in a way, she was doing what I do.”

After studying at The Juliard School and UCLA, Bernstein set up shop in L.A. where he was offered to score the Oscar-winning documentary “Czechoslovakia” (1968).

“I was at UCLA, interested in music, interested in theater,” Bernstein said. “I got offered this little documentary about Czechoslovakia. … It was an all-music film and it ended up winning an Oscar. That gave me a lot of credibility here in Hollywood.”

Around that time, Craven burst onto the scene with “Last House on the Left” (1972)  and “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977), while Bernstein took a few horror gigs scoring the TV movie “Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby” (1976), starring Ruth Gordon and Ray Milland, and the feature films “The Entity” (1982) and “Cujo” (1983).

“‘Cujo’ wasn’t strictly a horror movie,” Bernstein said. “It was a Stephen King book, but it was more of a disturbing tale, especially the way the movie was kind of a family tragedy, a family drama with a rabid dog. ‘The Entity’ was supernatural, but ‘Elm Street’ was like a real horror movie, a lot of blood, a lot of unnatural scary stuff going on.”

It was just enough horror experience to prepare him for Craven’s “Elm Street.”

“When I met Wes Craven, I had to say to myself: ‘Here’s a guy, he’s very smart, but what he does for a living is he scares people,'” Bernstein said. “I realized that maybe my biggest advantage was that I didn’t know a lot of horror movies and I could only go on what scared me. If this music scared me, then maybe that’ll scare other people.”

The result was a nightmarish score for Freddy Krueger, a slain child murderer who invades the dreams of teenagers, played by Heather Langenkamp and Johnny Depp.

“I had to come up with a vocabulary of sounds that scare, haunt and disturb,” Bernstein said. “Synthesizers were fairly new at that time and were good at coming up with scary sounds. … I’m playing all the instruments because it’s a very low-budget situation.”

The film also featured a creepy children’s ditty: “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you!”

“That was definitely Wes’ doing,” Bernstein said. “The girls were doing the jump rope and chanting. It was actually written in the script: ‘1, 2, Freddy’s coming for you, 3, 4, better lock your door,’ etc. My task was then to write the music under that chant.”

Thus, Bernstein got to see the film before any of us.

“The first thing I saw was a black-and-white work print,” Bernstein said. “I looked at this guy Freddy Krueger and I thought, ‘This is too weird. This’ll never make it. I don’t have to worry too much about what music I write because no one’s gonna hear it.’ … Lo and behold, all these years later, he’s kind of a cultural icon and the film is still shown a lot.”

The film’s success sparked a nine-film franchise and countless Halloween costumes, as New Line Cinema became affectionately known as “The House that Freddy Built.”

“I have Freddy Krueger socks that I saw at Macy’s [and] a lunch pail that has Freddy Krueger on it,” Bernstein said. “I could have never guessed that little kids would be dressing as him or President George H.W. Bush in a speech referring to ‘Freddy Krueger Economics.’ … This guy has found his way into presidential speeches!”

To this day, he wishes he could have worked on the sequel “Freddy vs. Jason” (2003).

“Wouldn’t it be fun if they hired both me and Harry Manfredini, who did Jason, to both score this movie?” Bernstein said. “I’d contribute the Freddy music and he’d contribute the Jason music. It never happened, but I thought it would have been a cool idea.”

Instead, he’s hoping for a Freddy Krueger hip-hop album.

“A lot of my stuff has been sampled for hip-hop,” Bernstein said. “Last Halloween, I started working on that. … I set it aside, but I’m very comfortable and conversed in the hip-hop world, so I thought that might be a cool thing to happen with the right artist.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes Freddy Krueger music (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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