In the 2010 documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, Wes Craven predicts that when he dies his obituaries will say “Probably best known for inventing Freddy Krueger.” When he passed away last Sunday the New York Times headline read “Wes Craven, Whose Slasher Films Terrified Millions, Dies at 76,” but the second paragraph of his obit did say, “perhaps Mr. Craven’s most famous creation was the serial killer Freddy Krueger, played by Robert Englund, who, with his razor-blade glove, haunted the dreams of high school students in ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ and its sequels.”
Though he had been making films for 12 years, starting with the Bergman-inspired Last House on the Left in 1972—not to mention a few years of making porn films before that—it was A Nightmare on Elm Street, a little indie horror film that he both wrote and directed, that made Wes Craven’s fortune.
It also made the fortunes of a scrappy indie film company called New Line Cinema and made a name for Robert Englund, who played the homicidal burn victim Freddy. But one other career it launched was that of artist Matthew Joseph Peak.
Peak was only 25 years old and fresh out of art school when he was hired in 1984 to come up with some illustrations for a new horror movie. As he told me by email this week:
A Nightmare on Elm Street was the first movie poster I did. At the time my oldest brother Robert was doing movie posters photographically and had worked on some John Carpenter campaigns and sometimes I would assist him. We were working on The Thing and the agency art director (John Wagman) was there and I had mentioned that I was just finishing up art school. About a month later I called him up and told him that I was going to be in town and could bring my portfolio by. He responded with the usual “I don’t have time,” but I brought it by anyway and told him I’ll pick it up next week. Later on that night I got a call from him asking how long would it take to do for an illustration. He said he had this small film and told me “just do a girl sleeping with monsters in her head.” I told him I it shouldn’t take me much more than a week. Once I got on the project (read the script and got some stills) I quickly realized there was much more conceptually. So I came up with some idea sketches and met with Bob Shaye [the founder and head of New Line]. Bob really liked the ideas so I went home to start the final art. I remember driving into Manhattan to show the final painting at midnight at Bob Shaye’s apartment. Everyone was very happy.
Though it doesn’t feature Freddy Krueger as we now know him, Peak’s riveting and richly colorful poster played a key part in the success of the film. It was used in full page ads in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times and Peak was subsequently hired to create the key art for all four sequels over the next five years.
A Nightmare on Elm Street may have been his first commission, but Peak was no neophyte: he had grown up around movies and movie poster art and artist studios. His father was the legendary poster designer Bob Peak, best known for iconic posters for My Fair Lady and Apocalypse Now and much in between (I wrote about him in the last issue of Film Comment). Since 1979 Bob Peak had been the house artist for the Star Trek franchise and the year that Matthew was hired for Elm Street his father would have been working on the poster for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. I asked him if he and his father compared notes:
I did a lot of chatting about concepts and things with my dad, I was his studio helper and sometimes I would feel like I wasn’t “working” (like cleaning things or preparing canvas etc) because he would use me as a sounding board and we would spend a lot of time going over the different aspects of ideas. We did this on Star Trek and Apocalypse Now to name a couple. I don't remember talking about A Nightmare on Elm Street with him in the creation process, but he was very proud when it was in the media.
Matthew Peak always signed his posters simply “Matthew” which he said was partly to have his own identity distinct from his father and partly because he liked how Drew Struzan also signed his posters with his first name.
By the 90s, illustration in movie poster art was falling out of favor and Peak, who is still a prolific fine artist and illustrator, only made three other film posters outside the Elm Street franchise: for Cherry 2000 (1987), Rush (1991) and Rich in Love (1993).
In 1988 his poster for A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Master (which he calls his personal favorite outside the first one) caught the attention of soundtrack producer Robert Townson at Varese Sarabande. This led to a new career illustrating albums for movie scores including: 2001, Out of Africa, North By Northwest, Vertigo, The Great Escape, Romeo and Juliet, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Psycho, A Street Car Named Desire and Citizen Kane.
Finally I asked Matthew about his experience with Wes Craven and he wrote:
Sadly, I never got the chance to meet Wes, but we were team mates and our lives will be forever entwined.
All four of Matthew’s Elm Street sequel posters are below.
Matthew sent me an unused version of his Dream Child poster art.
And though he didn’t design the poster for 1991’s fifth Elm Street sequel Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare—New Line went in a more photographic direction—he did this artwork for the soundtrack.
Though he more or less retired from movie poster work after 1993, the makers of the Elm Street documentary Never Sleep Again were smart enough to hire him in 2010 to create a poster for their film.
You can see more of Matthew’s work on his website. Many thanks to Matthew for his time.
Posters courtesy of Heritage Auctions and paintings courtesy of Matthew Joseph Peak.