This essay was originally featured on VeryAware.com.
Before he was asking audiences what their favorite scary movie was, Wes Craven made a scream with the infamous and terrifying A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREETin 1984. As profitable as that series would end up being, spawning six sequels, one cross over film, and a much maligned 2010 remake, Wes Craven stepped away after the first film. However, in 1994, he saw an opportunity to test out some of the self-referential and meta commentary that would pretty much define his work when SCREAM would be released two years later in 1996. WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE is the best of the NIGHTMARE sequels, and one of the best and most underrated horror films ever made. Not only did it set up the themes of SCREAM and its subsequent franchise, but it provided commentary on the process of filmmaking and what happens to that when a little nightmare called franchising happens.
Opening in on what looks like another run of the mill Freddy Krueger film, the camera pulls back from a dilapidated dungeon to reveal a film crew and… the making of another run of the mill Freddy Krueger film. So, it seems, from the first frame, Craven knows what audiences, regardless of their loyalty to the franchise, have come to expect from the series. There’s something different with the tone though. The sense of foreboding and classic Gothicism mixed the postmodernity people have come to be familiar with, but more than that, a sense of revisionism.
But, perhaps, we should explain what’s going on before jumping head first into the film. Heather Lagenkamp is married, has a son, and the NIGHTMARE franchise is pretty much behind her, since it’s been ten years since the original. She has, however, been receiving anonymous calls, having strange nightmares, and is getting the feeling that her past is coming to haunt her in reality. Her son, Dylan, is sleepwalking and experiencing similar nightmarish occurrences. He’ll be standing in the kitchen watching the original film on the television, transfixed by the man with the knives for fingers beckoning the audience towards the screen. Wes Craven, meanwhile, is working on a “top secret” film project, which turns out to be the product of new nightmares he’s been having. Parts of this sound familiar, don’t they?
Wes Craven’s reentry into the NIGHTMARE series is unique for a number of reasons, but probably first and foremost for its ability to uniquely blend fiction and reality, and address that approach head on. Heather Lagenkamp, who played Nancy in the original NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, plays herself. Robert Englund, Freddy himself, Robert Shaye, the franchise producer, Wes Craven, the creator and mastermind, and other cast and crew from the series all make appearances, setting up the film as if there really is going to be another NIGHTMARE film. This is instead of the audience knowing they’re watching another nightmare film. Even some of the camerawork set in reality, with its pseudo-documentary, cinema verite-ish handheld style, suggests that we’re watching something akin to a making-of instead of an actual film. This, however, only lasts part of the time. As much as Craven may like to tease his audience, he doesn’t like robbing them of the experience completely.
The nightmares Heather has been having bring the evil of Freddy Krueger, that notorious slasher icon who may or may not need a manicure, to reality. The nightmares her son has been having bring the horror home. Which may be one of the points Craven is making. Although the influence of horror on children or audiences has been touched upon once or twice before (Michael Haneke’s FUNNY GAMES or Tom Six’s THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE II: FULL SEQUENCE), it really has not been done with the nuance (yes, you read correctly) that Craven was able to achieve with his NEW NIGHTMARE. Several times, minor characters ask Lagenkamp if she has allowed her son to watch the films she’s done and vehemently declare that they have a negative effect on children. And several times we see Dylan standing in the kitchen, staring at the screen or chanting that devilishly catchy rhyme: One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…
Freddy looks different in this film. Wildly different. As if forged in the ninth circle of Hell, the revisionist approach to the design of the character is almost a reinvention, something that is, again, addressed directly in the film. Wes Craven, when speaking to Heather about the script, discusses the evil that has manifested itself as Freddy. In this conversation, he skewers the insatiable producers who feel the need to make sequel after sequel, saying, “But the problem comes when the story dies. It can get too familiar… or somebody waters it down to make it an easier sell…” You see, folks, even Craven knows his limits! A good part of the film is spent illustrating the difficulties of coming to terms with reinventing or remaking something that is incredibly familiar and the hurdles that must be made in order to make that seem like a fresh sell the fans will enjoy. (The fans are a very demanding people.)
He is, of course, commenting on revisionism in general. As a director who has had his fair share of films remade (THE HILLS HAVE EYES, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, etc.), it’s interesting for him to approach the topic at all. But his reinvention of an iconic character would, in some ways, pave the way for Christopher Nolan’s reinvention of Batman and his further critiques on remakes, reboots, and rehashes in SCREAM 4. Not to mention that the script itself makes several appearances in the film, further accentuating the meta-ness. Not only does it appear in the film, but scenes that directly correlate with scenes on the page are almost read from the page. Spooky, huh?
Oh, did I mention the film is actually scary? Apart from being a very smart horror film (with some flaws and pacing issues), Craven brings some Hitchcock worthy suspense. Although it is, at heart, a slasher film (if an intelligent one), the film is so rooted in how meta it is that the simplicity of the Boogeyman walking around and killing people in their dreams is not enough. Like Craven says, it gets too familiar. So, the fear and the scares come from the paranoia and worry from Heather and the maternal fear of what is happening with her son. Watching a child basically having an epilepsy episode just after growling “Never sleep again” is scarier than just having Freddy slash his way through Los Angeles. But when he does appear, the new look – more monstrous than a man just burnt alive – is terrifying.
It’s that fear of what will happen to a child if he or she does watch horror films which Craven is commenting upon. The end of the film takes place in the same dream world dungeon, straight out of Hell, as the set that we see in the beginning of the film. After the deed is done and Heather and her son fall out of bed back into reality, we are left with a thought: the dichotomy between reality and fiction has clearly been made. Therefore, why is it so hard for other people to discern that? The harsh contrast of the jagged edges of the fiction and the innocuous realism of reality are distinctly made, and yet there are people who confuse the two. Craven makes the point in saying that Freddy is “making his way from film and into reality”. That inability to distinguish the two might be the most fearsome thing of all.
WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE is an underrated gem that shows that the writer-director could play the self-referential commentary game before SCREAM. With some nice performances and true terror, the film shines with its insightful look at the influence of horror films on the public and its very self-aware style. Perhaps the point of the film, besides making you think, is that you can and should sleep again. Because it’s all a dream, or rather, a nightmare…