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Cafe Craven : NBC Serves Up Tales of The Weird From The Horror Meister


Horror film director Wes Craven has been scaring the daylights out of movie audiences for two decades, with such heart pounders as "The Last House on the Left," "A Nightmare on Elm Street," "Shocker" and "The People Under the Stairs."

"I deal in a genre that deals with some of the scariest things in life," said the soft-spoken former humanities college professor. "In fact, I set out to find the scariest things that I can talk about."

Craven is taking his scary tales to the small screen as executive producer of "Nightmare Cafe," which premieres Friday. Late last month, NBC gave audiences a sneak preview of the series' pilot episode (it placed a middling No. 50 in the Nielsen ratings).

The hourlong thriller-chiller is set in a friendly but offbeat all-night cafe where patrons can get either a second chance to change their past or guarantee their future. Robert Englund, the wisecracking fiend Freddy Krueger of the enormously successful "Nightmare on Elm Street" movie series, stars as the mysterious, cynical Blackie, who owns the cafe.

Jack Coleman and Lindsay Frost also star as Frank and Fay, the cafe's cook and waitress who died but were given a second chance by the cafe.

The genesis for "Nightmare" came when Craven and his son Jonathan were tossing around series ideas that contained elements of "Twilight Zone"' and "Amazing Stories," but "with wraparound characters we thought would bookend the stories." His son and his partner, Peter Spears, wrote a three-page treatment for a series.

Craven pitched it to NBC and the network responded favorably. But when Craven sat down to write the pilot, he discovered he didn't want wraparound characters. "I wanted them to be the center of the story. I saw it rather than being an anthology, a show where stories came in from the outside. But the stories always revealed more about Frank and Fay."

Craven and Thomas Baum, his co-writer and the series' producer, delivered a script for a two-hour pilot, which NBC passed on. Several months later, NBC president Warren Littlefield told Craven he discovered a way to make the series work. But Craven wasn't happy the network didn't want to go with the original.

"We were really disappointed," Craven said. "But to our surprise, Warren had a really brilliant way of cutting it down to one hour and getting rid of a lot of stuff that was extraneous. We found Philip Noyce ("Dead Calm") to direct the pilot."

Craven said he hopes the young teen audience who flock to his films will tune into "Nightmare," but added that the series is not aiming only for a young audience.

"The 'Nightmare' of the 'Nightmare Cafe' is a calculated risk," Craven said. "That is the original title Jonathan and Peter came up with and it does have a nice ring to it. We hope it doesn't drive away the other audience we want to get: women, people who are a little bit older, people who are interested in character-driven stories."

Perry Simon, NBC executive vice president of prime-time programming, said "Nightmare" is one of the riskiest series the network has aired in recent years.

"I think it is a show that is going to ask the audience to be more accepting of a different kind of storytelling," he said. "It is designed to challenge the viewer and entertain them as well."

Craven is part of an expanding list of feature filmmakers who have crossed over into television, including David Lynch ("Twin Peaks") and Joe Dante ("Eerie, Indiana"). Simon said the networks are constantly looking for someone with a fresh vision. But, he added, feature filmmakers often are not deeply involved in their TV projects. That hasn't been the case with Craven. "Wes was up all night rewriting and re-editing," Simon said. "He was very committed."

"Nightmare Cafe" isn't Craven's first venture into television. He has dabbled in the medium since 1979, directing TV movies ("Invitation to Hell," "A Stranger in the House") and episodes of CBS' "The New Twilight Zone." He also was co-creator of the short-lived 1989 CBS comedy series "The People Next Door."

None of his TV experiences, though, have been as satisfying as "Nightmare," he said, because network television has changed so much over the years. "They are much more open to new ideas," he said. "I think we tried to be as tasteful within the boundaries as we could. But it felt a lot freer than it did before."

The networks, Craven said, are mining features for talent because of the erosion of its audience because of cable and VCRs.

"Part of the audience has just left for lack of interest," Craven said. "How many cop shows and lawyer shows can you see? There's a lack of taking chances, a lack of taste. (Television) is a huge audience. I think it is a very bright audience that is potentially there that will come back immediately as soon as they know something interesting is on."

"Nightmare Cafe" airs Friday s at 10 p.m. on NBC.

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