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Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994)



Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street is a landmark film in the history of screen horror.  Blurring the lines between dreams and reality, and introducing one of the genre’s most unique and frightening screen monsters (Freddy Krueger), the Nightmare films are fearsome and has laid the groundwork for a very successful franchise.  The sequels, unfortunately, demonstrate a pointed drop in quality when compared to the original, and with the 1991 release of Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, it seemed the monster was really gone for good.  However, in 1994, New Line Cinema decided it was time to bring him back, and recruited series creator, Wes Craven, to make it happen. Freddy had become something of a clown in the sequels, and Craven had no desire to continue that pattern.  He broke out of the series’s shaky continuity and created the best Nightmare film to date, a film in which it is not the lines between dreams and reality that are blurred, but rather the lines between reality and cinema.

The death of Freddy seems to be having strange effects on the makers of the original film. Original Nightmare on Elm Street star Heather Langenkamp is receiving disturbing phone calls, her son Dylan (Miko Hughes) is acting more and more disturbed, and creator Wes Craven is having some upsetting dreams. It soon becomes clear that, with the end of the Nightmare series, an ancient evil spirit that had been captured by the films has been set free into the world. Heather must battle a much more ferocious Freddy in order to put this spirit back where it belongs.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is an amazing film. It follows in the footsteps of films such as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Last Action Hero, which examine the lines between film and reality. Many of the characters in the film are playing themselves, making it uncomfortably unclear what is fantasy and what is reality. One of this film’s most unsettling scenes is when Heather is talking to co-star John Saxon. As the conversation proceeds, Saxon transforms into Lt. Thompson, his character from the first Nightmare. All of a sudden, both Heather and the audience are in the climax of not only New Nightmare, but of the original Nightmare as well. This forces us, whether we like it or not, to cope with the ancient evil that now dwells within the house from A Nightmare on Elm Street.

The blending of fiction and reality permeates the film. As Freddy becomes more powerful, Robert Englund suddenly disappears. Heather is menaced by an unseen stalker, and, as the movie progresses, starts unwittingly repeating lines originally uttered by Nancy Thompson, her Nightmare I characterShe yells “screw your pass” to a nurse, just as Nancy had done in the first film to a hall monitor, and repeats almost verbatim her “Fred Krueger did it” conversation with John Saxon. In one outstanding scene, we see Craven’s computer showing the lines that we have just heard. Following those lines, the words “Fade to black” are written on the screen, which the film then does. As the film continues, we eventually have no real anchor as to what is real and what is not, keeping us in a magnificent state of unease through the entire picture.

As marvelous as these reality-bending techniques are, they would only be a gimmick if there were no real ideas behind them. Thankfully, Craven has very carefully thought out this material, making sure that all of the outré flourishes in the film support what the film is trying to say. His script explores many topics, most notably the relationship between horror films and their audiences. Early in the film, Heather is taken to a talk show by limousine. The driver cheerfully talks about the vicious ways Freddy killed his victims in the first film, and exclaims “… they never should have killed Freddy!” In the studio, Heather is greeted by an audience awash in Freddy costumes, holding up signs protesting Freddy’s death. In these scenes, Craven is commenting upon the ways that fans can sometimes adopt an evil character as a mascot while missing the point that the evil character is to be feared, not cheered. It is apparent that Craven is uncomfortable with the way that a sadistic child murderer has become a hero, and by portraying this audience as group that cares nothing about the character of a person like Freddy, he makes his discomfort clear.

However, Craven also comments on those who would suppress or ban horror films. The character of Dr. Christine Heffner (Fran Bennett), who attends Dylan in the hospital, is convinced of the deleterious effects of horror films. She is a stand-in for the numerous “crusaders” against “immorality” in genre films. When Heffner learns that Heather is a horror icon, she takes an immediate dislike to her, certain that because Dylan has seen the Nightmare films, he has become disturbed.  Believing that Dylan has the first signs of childhood schizophrenia, Dr. Heffner ignores the fact that Dylan’s father recently died, and seems much more worried that he may have seen a ten-year old horror film. This is a brilliant dramatization of the ways that many people who say that they are trying to “protect” children will blame films, rather than addressing the truly serious problems these children face. 

Craven is focusing on serious issues in this film, and the film appropriately adopts a serious tone. The movie doesn’t reduce Freddy to a caricature and doesn’t spare the audience its more serious horrors. Freddy is a sadistic evil spirit in this film, trying to loose himself upon the world. Craven begins his introduction of this new Freddy by showing us the Freddy of the previous films, likely for comparison. At Heather’s interview, she is surprised by Robert Englund in full Freddy costume.  However, the “real” Freddy in the film is much more sinister. His appearance is more muscular than in the previous films, and his face is more frightening. A biomechanoid fusion of blades and flesh, the new glove doesn't even begin to compare to Freddy's weapon of previous films. While the trademark shirt and fedora are still there, his trousers are now leather and he wears a jacket that almost seems like a cape. However, even more significant than his appearance, is his characterization. Gone are the Schwarzenegger one-liners and the maniacal cackle. In their place is a vicious malevolence and cruel sadism. Craven is not trying to make us laugh at Freddy; he is trying to make us fear him. As Freddy is about to murder Dylan’s babysitter Julie (Tracy Middendorf), he pauses and says to the child, “Hey Dylan, ever play 'skin the cat?!'” Freddy’s comments in this film, as in the first Nightmare, are sickening and horrible. This Freddy is a wicked, murdering demon, and he is more frightening and adult than he has been since the first film. He truly is what Craven intends him to be: a murderer of innocence.

Freddy aside, Craven also brilliantly reuses and re-interprets sets and sequences from the original film, making us question what is “real” and what is “film.” He recycles one of the most well remembered devices from the first film, the rotating set, to show Freddy murdering Julie on the ceiling. To escape into the real world, the Freddy-demon must conquer his nemesis from the original film, Nancy Thompson. Craven slowly changes New Nightmare into the original so that Freddy can accomplish this. Craven does more than just quote from the original Nightmare, however. The use of shadows as Freddy breaks through into the real world is beautiful, echoing images from the classic Nosferatu. The change from “reality” to “film” is so subtle that we don’t notice for quite some time. Dylan slowly begins to adopt Freddy's mannerisms and behaviors, and, as has been noted, Heather starts to unwittingly quote dialogue from the first film. When John Saxon starts calling Heather “Nancy,” it is done so quickly that we don’t catch it at first. The most potent use of the original film is when Heather finally refers to Saxon as “Daddy.” In the original film, this just merely how Nancy refers to her father. In this film, however, Heather’s use of the name signals her final acceptance of her task to defeat Freddy, and it allows Freddy to make the final leap into the “real” world. Craven’s direction is superb, creating a world where it is difficult to tell what is real and what is not.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is the best of the eight Nightmare films (counting Freddy vs. Jason), and an outstanding film in its own right. A film where reality and fiction are constantly shifting, the audience is never quite sure what to believe. Further, the movie is a downright frightening experience, something that many of the later Nightmare sequels lost. While some may disagree, I consider it to be Wes Craven's finest film.

This review is part of Wes Craven Week, the second of four celebrations of master horror directors done for our Shocktober 2007 event.