Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
Dir. Wes Craven
An unspeakably evil entity, first given form by the character of Freddy Krueger in the A Nightmare on Elm Street films, has chosen that character as its portal into the real world. All that stands in its way is Heather Langenkamp, the actress who played Nancy Thompson; the first person to ever defeat Freddy Krueger. Can she play the part of Nancy one last time to stop the evil from entering our world?
After they killed off Freddy Krueger, and thus bringing an end to what was probably their most lucrative franchise, New Line began thinking that maybe, just maybe, they’d done it prematurely. They requested a meeting with Wes Craven to reconcile their differences and ensure the disgruntled director was satisfied with the business side of the Elm Street franchise. Once all was fine and dandy, head of New Line, Bob Shaye, asked Craven if he would ever consider helming one more Elm Street film, dangling the carrot of free reign and creative control under his nose in the process, to celebrate the original's ten year anniversary. The filmmaker admitted it would be tempting to get his hands on the series he instigated, but would only do it if they could make a truly original film that stood apart from the others. Inspired by Robert Altman’s The Player – a Hollywood satire in which various actors appeared as themselves, Craven set about writing a screenplay that would not only reduce the series to mere fodder for his latest tale, but also address the state of contemporary horror and the idea that it has a negative influence on its audience. Also central to his concept, was a dream he had in which he and various people involved with the Elm Street films were at a party. Robert Englund was dressed as Freddy Krueger and clowning around in much the same way Freddy did in the films; however Craven gradually became aware of a ‘shadowy figure’ in the background of the party, moving in parallel to Englund.
With New Nightmare Craven was able to comment on the state of contemporary horror, the nature of horror film productions and on the idea of fear itself. The shadowy figure he’d seen in his dream was representative of the dark side of human nature; Freddy Krueger just gave it a face and made it relatable enough for people to comprehend. Craven once noted: “(Horror films) somehow gave shape and form and name to this unknowable, very frightening and very destructive thing. They somehow contain it, not to the extent that they stop it, but to the extent that they make it a bit more bearable. So Freddy, by being in the series of movies, captures a bit of the evil and makes it knowable to us.”
Once New Line stopped making the Elm Street films, this entity had no face, no form, and was free to roam the world. Its only limitation is that it must somehow get past the actress who played the character who first defeated it. Having actress Heather Langenkamp back on board was central to Craven’s vision of the film. After her involvement with the Elm Street films the actress had gone on to star in a successful sitcom, but also had an immensely unsettling and stressful experience with a stalker. Here Langenkamp plays herself as an actress and young mother who struggles to reconcile her mixed feelings about her involvement with horror films. In a way that mirrors actual real-life events, it’s also revealed that she is being menaced by a stalker; apparently as a direct result of her involvement with horror films – in more ways than one. She delivers a terrific, believable performance as a woman terrified that she’s losing her grip on reality, and one who will go to great lengths to protect her young son. New Line producers and former cast members from the series return to play themselves, notably Robert Englund, Wes Craven, Bob Shaye and John Saxon, who is revealed to be a friend and sort of paternal figure to Langenkamp in ‘real life.’ It’s a nice touch, but one that soon becomes more ominous as events proceed and the boundaries between dream/cinema and reality break down.
The film begins with a scene that reworks the opening of the original film, in which an unseen figure fashions a steel-clawed glove in a grimy workshop. It’s suddenly revealed that what we’re seeing is actually the filming of a new Elm Street movie, with director Wes Craven calling for more gore. Freddy’s updated claw – a mechanised steel hand – abruptly goes on the rampage killing the SFX crew and turns its attention towards Langenkamp, who suddenly wakes up from what is revealed to be a terrible nightmare. This bravura scene is typical of what we can expect from New Nightmare; it constantly subverts expectations, toys with perception and deftly blurs the line between fantasy and reality. Indeed New Nightmare goes further than this; it blurs the lines between reality and cinema.
“Every kid knows who Freddy is. He’s like Santa Claus, or King Kong.”
Craven takes barbed swipes at not only New Line and the Elm Street franchise, but the conservative notion that horror cinema is harmful to its audience. The doctor who tends to Heather's young son Dylan (Miko Hughes) believes that he is developing schizophrenia due to trauma induced by watching his mother's horror films. Craven also comments on the way in which horror film audiences have, rather disturbingly, embraced the figure of a dream-stalking child killer as a sort of heroic icon; a barbed reference to how New Line diluted his initial creation. In a shrewdly telling scene, Langenkamp is being interviewed on a TV show about her work on the Elm Street films, when Englund suddenly appears as Freddy and completely steals the spotlight, whipping the audience into an excited frenzy. After the show he’s mobbed by teens wanting his autograph as Langenkamp patiently waits on the sidelines. The contrast between this wise-cracking, jester-like Krueger is worlds away from the incarnation that later stalks through New Nightmare. Englund portrays him as a much more menacing figure and even his appearance is strikingly different and much more sinister than that of his earlier incarnations.
New Nightmare is peppered with references to the original movie, certain shots are recreated, lines of dialogue repeated and glimpses of it appear on various characters’ TV sets. A throwaway line uttered by Tina (Amanda Wyss) in Craven’s 1984 film, in which she claims that the strange dreams she and her friends are having may be because of an impending earthquake, is picked up again by Craven. A series alarming occurrences take place, including the real Los Angeles earthquake, which is seamlessly woven into the plot and clearly marked as an antecedent to the appearance of Krueger, who is emerging into the real world. Cracks in the walls of Heather’s house resemble huge slashes created by Krueger’s clawed glove. There are also allusions to classic horror films such as Nosferatu and the creepy fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, such as 'Hansel and Gretel.' Fairy tales are traditionally believed to have been constructed to help us deal with the trials and tribulations of life, shaping our outlook and prepping our resourcefulness. Great storytellers help contain and make manageable the primordial fears addressed in such tales, and, as Craven himself once said, they help ‘put the genie back in the bottle.’ There was a distinct air of the fairy tale in Craven’s original film, with its teen protagonists on the cusp of adulthood, experiencing the traumas of adolescence and realising that their parents can’t save them from a bogeyman who stalks them in their dreams.
Throughout the film, Craven addresses the argument that horror films can be harmful to those who watch them, but also slyly reveals that, within the context of this particular story, they can also have a harmful effect on those involved in the production process. Craven appears as himself, working on a screenplay inspired by his nightmares which mysteriously begins to pre-empt what is happening in reality. At one stage we see his computer screen and the screenplay he’s writing; what we see on screen are the lines we have just heard him and Langenkamp speak. We then fade to black, just as it said on the screen. Much later, we see Heather reading the script to her son as though it was the fairy tale she was reading him earlier.
While there is a lot of reflection on the workings of horror cinema, New Nightmare also works as an effective exercise in cinematic terror. Heather and her son are terrorised by Krueger in their dreams and eventually the waking world as fantasy/cinema and reality merge. The stakes are increasingly stacked against her as she finds herself ostracised; her friends and colleagues insisting that what she’s experiencing is the result of a nervous breakdown. She has to delve deep to find the strength that she originally imbued Nancy with in order to fend off her demons – real and otherwise. Everything has a subtle, underlying menace, from the overly enthusiastic limo-driver who insists that Freddy should never have been killed off, to the talk show host who seems a little too keen to chat about Heather’s son and her private life, and the doctor who quietly insists horror films have caused Heather’s son to have a nervous breakdown. The tone is much darker and more serious than it’s ever been in an Elm Street movie, as it unfurls as a low key exercise in perfectly crafted tension and atmosphere. Events build steadily to a climax which unfolds in a hell world inspired by Dante’s Inferno, with Greco-Roman artefacts meshing with more traditional Elm Street imagery such as a vast and steamy boiler room filled with fiery furnaces. It helps cement the notion that the evil personified by Freddy is an ancient one. Certain digital effects are a little dated, but they’re sparingly used.
Preceding the likes of Scream, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is one of the most intelligent and provocative post-modern horror films ever produced. It stands tall over the whole series of Elm Street films, and in this writer’s humble opinion, is perhaps Wes Craven’s best film. With its foreboding atmosphere and chilling implications, it not only entertains, but also raises intelligent questions about the nature of fear, horror cinema and the darker side of pop culture.