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Review: “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare”

Director: Wes Craven
Produced by: Robert Shaye, Wes Craven
Written by: Wes Craven
Starring: Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, Miko Hughes, John Saxon
Music by: J. Peter Robinson
Year: 1994

 

Now explain to me why more horror movies can’t be this much fun and be scary? As a prelude to his Scream series, Wes Craven goes all meta on us with the seventh Nightmare film by folding his universe into the real world with this re-imagining of the formula and the penultimate appearance of Robert Englund as Freddy.

However, I think you’d be hard pressed to figure this in with the rest of the films, even if you include the crossover with the Friday the 13th series (which I haven’t seen and really don’t plan on seeing for a while), as it’s really almost like a spin-off, sidestory, or, if you’re knowledgeable about comic books, an Elsworlds tale! New Nightmare brings back some of the most famous and beloved of the Nightmare actors, including Heather Langenkamp herself, only, this time… she’s playing herself!

The premise of the film is pretty brilliant in the way it continues the series without actually continuing the story. It makes for a thoughtful reflection on the films that came before it — not just within the series, but the entire genre in general. After the sixth and supposedly final film, New Line Cinema can’t resist continuing A Nightmare on Elm Street, despite the fact that the last film was actually titled, rather blatantly, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. Of course, they also want Heather to come back, too, as the iconic Nancy, fulfilling their goal of capturing that all important nostalgia factor. Of course, Nancy had also been killed off for quite some time, so, really, the question on everyone’s mind is “How the hell are you going to do this?” Well, never you mind! It’s Hollywood, and money is your logic!

Heather isn’t bitter about her work on the series, but she is reluctant to join the new project, if not just for the logistical problems it presents, but also because she now has a young son, who she feels shouldn’t be exposed to this type of entertainment. That his favorite bedtime story is Hansel and Gretel, where a cannibalistic witch is burned to death by two small children, disturbs her. Of course, her fears also stem from the fact that Heather has been terrorized by nightmares as of late, which always seem to precede the very real earthquakes that are shaking the foundations of her home. Oh, the symbolism! Oh, yeah, and she’s also been receiving some mysterious, threatening phone calls of late, all of which sound eerily like they’re coming from Freddy Krueger himself…

Aside from the fun twist on the formula, the film’s plot is actually rather straightforward and self-explanatory, which isn’t a problem at all thanks in large part to the inherent fun the twist gives the film. Heather begins to worry that these events are taking a toll on her sanity, and her young son, Dylan (Miko Hughes, Apollo 13), has also been deteriorating alongside her. His peculiar behavior and fears gradually lead her to believe that he’s being possessed by Freddy, which she knows is a preposterous theory, but she can’t think of any other cause.

The film is gleeful in the way it reimagines the plot devices of the first several films for a supposedly “real life” setting. This plot device is a great way for the filmmakers to reflect on what they have contributed to society by making these films and their responsibilities in doing so. Heather’s fears about her past work having an adverse affect on her son is just as much a mother’s fear as it is symbolic of the filmmakers contemplating whether they have unleashed a bad influence upon the world.

*SPOILERS AHEAD. CONTINUE AT YOUR OWN RISK*

It’s brilliant the way that Wes Craven incorporates even himself into the story. He explains to Heather that he, too, has been having bizarre nightmares, the likes of which he hasn’t had since the last time he worked on the series, and it is implied that this is likely the same dreams that the other filmmakers working on the series had been having when they made their own entries, making the cast and crews of all the previous films effectively the “real life” equivalent of the tormented Elm Street kids.

Wes explains that, every time he has one of his nightmares, he wakes up and writes down the portion of the script that he’s dreamed about. The evil can only be contained when it is channeled into a creative medium which will allows the demon to at least express itself, but cannot escape the confines of that work. Freddy, then, was the form that Craven had given this ancient evil, and the Nightmare on Elm Street series was where he confined it.

Because of this, Freddy sees Heather as the gateway to unleash him into our world and has been attacking her in any way he can. Because she was the one who gave Nancy her strength by portraying her, Heather is the real key to subduing Freddy, but the more fear she, her son, and the filmmakers have for him, the more powerful he becomes, allowing him greater influence on our world.

In a way, this movie basically is about responsibilities and good parenting. Heather, as the mother, is the caretaker of her son, and she has to make a very serious decisions about what she allows to influence his and her lives, including her work on the Nightmare series. Her son dwells on it and imitates the actions he sees on screen, and Freddy’s influence even literally tears her family apart, as she loses her husband in a crash early on.

Of course, Craven doesn’t just moralize throughout the film. He also gets in a few jabs at New Line for being so overeager to cash in. He never wanted to create a franchise, and these meta twists have been something he’s wanted to do since the first sequel. Obviously, the resulting film didn’t exactly pan out as he intended, but, with this film, he finally got his say.

That isn’t to say that he’s apologetic about the resulting series, either. He may be concerned about his influence on others, but he’s not about to take on all the blame. Heather, of course, ends up facing Freddy in his own dimension, where he has whisked away her son. The only way she saves her son is through intervention, and it’s actually pretty amusing the way that the violence takes center stage as the solution to her problems — heck, even the little boy gets in on the action! The film’s ending, taking a page from those Hansel and Gretel stories, illustrates that even children’s stories have always been pretty violent and even a little bit sadistic in order to make their points apparent. Why should modern cinema be any different?

I would be irresponsible if I didn’t discuss the performances, especially since I wasn’t too thrilled the first time around. Langenkamp, to me at least, got stronger and more believable in the third film, and here, she’s fantastic. Granted, she’s playing herself, but there’s something very interesting and nuanced about watching an actor play a part where she plays herself, but is a version of herself who is in the same position as a character that she’s become very well known for. Langenkamp manages to make herself different enough that we don’t immediately think “that’s Nancy,” while still allowing us to see the parallels between the actor and her character.

Robert Englund, who’s known to be an all around nice guy, gets to do the same, as he intermittently makes appearances as himself alongside his work as the very “real” Freddy. It’s just enough to make us wonder in the early parts, “Is Robert actually just like Freddy? Maybe he’s just screwing around with his co-star as a joke? Is that the twist?” As for Dylan, Miko Hughes proves to be one of the better child actors of the 90s, going all out in his creepy scenes and matching others who have gone before him in filling in as the character who screams the whole time. All this without feeling like a precocious little twerp.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare might be the least scary in the series, but it’s definitely the most fun. If you didn’t enjoy the sometimes over-earnest tone of the original or the considerable amount of goofiness in the third (I didn’t have any serious issues, though), Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is probably the entry for you. You don’t have to see any of the previous films to enjoy it, but it definitely helps. But then again, I’m saying this as someone who hasn’t seen anything between 3 and this one, so if I’m wrong… well, I’m sure I’m going to hear about it at some point!

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5

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