Movie Review: “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare”

   meta: ADJECTIVE (of a creative work) referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referential.”the enterprise is inherently ‘meta’, since it doesn’t review movies, for example, it reviews the reviewers who review movies.

   When Scream premiered in 1996 it was considered a breath of fresh air for the horror genre. This was a horror film that knew it was a horror film, the cast made references to other films in the genre and talked about the tropes that existed within it without ever resorting to winking at the camera.

   Two years prior to that, Wes Craven had given us his New Nightmare, an Elm Street film that wasn’t really an Elm Street film that featured a different kind of Freddy Krueger that wasn’t really Freddy Krueger.

   This was a horror film about horror films, about the glamorising of something that shouldn’t be glamorised, the impact, or perceived impact of horror on the young and impressionable. This was Wes Craven reclaiming the character he created a decade before and playing with the concept of reality more than any other film in this series.

   We see this very early on as the film opens with a variation on the opening of the original movie. A glove is being created though it does look different than the incarnation we’ve previously seen. Instead of putting the glove on the figure creating it cuts off their own hand as we hear a voice calling for more blood before calling out “Cut!”. We see Wes Craven himself as we realise we’re both on a set of an Elm Street film in a very different Elm Street film.

   Heather Langenkamp is there (playing herself) along with her husband Chase (David Newsom) a special effects artist and their young son Dylan (Miko Hughes) when the glove seems to take on a mind of its own and attacks and kills two of the other special effects team.

   This causes Heather to wake up in her Los Angeles home as an earthquake strikes. Chase ends up with some scratches that look eerily similar to some he received in the dream and cracks on the wall look suspiciously like claw marks. Chase leaves for work and Dylan’s babysitter Julie (Tracy Middendorf) arrives. Heather reveals that she is still receiving phone calls from someone pretending to be Freddy as well as strange mail in the post which are just individual letters that make no sense.

   She leaves to go to a television interview and the limo driver recognises her from the Elm Street films and makes a comment on how good the original was but that they never should have killed Freddy off.

   During the interview, Heather talks about the tenth anniversary of the Elm Street series before a surprise guest makes an appearance. Robert Englund arrives in full Freddy make-up (the more jocular looking interpretation of him from the later films anyway) and the crowd go wild as he waves his arms around and plays to the audience while Heather look on with more than a little discomfort.

   Later she is called to the New Line Cinema office headquarters to meet with Robert Shaye who lets her know that Wes Craven is working on a new Elm Street story which would feature her as Nancy which she declines and is less than happy when Bob Shaye tells her that her husband has already been working on a new glove.

   Returning home she hears Dylan screaming and rushes in to find Julie trying to calm him down as he says “Never Sleep Again” to his distraught mother. Heather calls her husband and asks him to come home to be with her and Dylan. Despite his assistants not showing up for work (we find out later that they did indeed die) Chase leaves the work he is doing on the new and improved Freddy glove to drive back to his family. It’s then we see that the glove is no longer on it’s stand.

   On the journey home, Chase starts to feel drowsy and as he snaps back from the brink of sleep the glove appears from between his legs and tears into his chest. The police later inform Heather that her husband died in a car crash and she goes to the morgue to identify the body and sees what look like claw marks.

   At Chases’ funeral we get a couple of blink and you’ll miss them cameos from Nick Corri (Rod from the original) and Tuesday Knight (Kristen from Part 4) as well as the first appearance of John Saxon, there to lend support to his friend and on-screen daughter. We also get our first look at the new Freddy when Heather bumps her head and there is an instant sense of menace in this brief appearance that was missing in the last few films as well as an obviously different look.

   When Heather calls Robert Englund later to talk about this she says that the Freddy she has now seen seems “darker, more evil” which Robert, who has been having nightmares of his own, agrees with.

   She visits Wes Craven to discuss what’s been going on and he gives us the exposition we’ve sort of been waiting for. He explains that there is an evil entity that can be captured in a work of art, whether it be painting, book or horror character and that for ten years this manifestation of evil has been trapped within the form of Freddy Krueger. Now the films have ended and Freddy is no more, the entity is trying to break through into the real world. It likes the form it’s been in but sees Heather as the Gatekeeper, the barrier it needs to break through as she gave her character, Nancy Thompson, the power to defeat it so is breaking her by going after those she loves the most.

   Heather leaves, understandably confused and we see a brief shot of Wes Craven’s computer screen and the lines on the script are the ones we’ve just heard spoken in the film…..Welcome to “Meta” ladies and gentleman.

   Dylan continues to exhibit strange behaviour, easily explained by the loss of his father, but Heather believes there’s more to it than that. She’s caught him watching clips of the original film on the television as well as quoting the familiar jump rope song and later even starts to say that a nasty man is trying to get to him in his bed at night but is being kept away by Dylan’s toy dinosaur, Rex, who, later, ends up nearly de-stuffinated by claw marks.

   The performance by little Miko Hughes here in this film is far above average than the your regular child actor at this time and worth a mention. He was no more than eight years old at time of filming and has to endure a lot in this film and is just a believable as the adult actors surrounding him.

   Continuing the nods made to the original film, Nancy gets a phone call from Freddy stating how he’s “touched” Dylan and the receiver once again turns into a tongue. The nature of the film succeeds in never making these references forced and, for me anyway, only added to the growing sense of menace. These moments aren’t delivered as obvious fan service even if that’s how they are received, which is good considering where the story will go.

   Heather takes Dylan to the hospital where he is diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia. The well meaning Dr. Heffner (Fran Bennett ) is concerned about both Dylan and Heather, raising some oft-argued points about children and horror and these are arguments that will continue as long as the genre exists.

   Dylan is required to stay at the hospital and later that night, Heather is attacked at home by Freddy. This iteration of the character does feel different from any of the other ways that Robert Englund has played him before. We can believe that this is an entity inhabiting the form of Freddy Krueger. The make up is slightly different, the way he moves is slightly different, the voice is slightly different. It’s a great performance from Robert Englund in the reasonably short amount of time he’s on screen in comparison to previous entries.

   After calling her “Nancy” and leaving bloody cuts on her arm, he leaves as Heather races back to the hospital to check on her son. The cuts are an obvious source of concern for Dr. Heffner who has had to put Dylan in an oxygen tent and Heather goes to see him.

   She falls asleep and we see Freddy again briefly before she wakes to find Dylan has been moved. This has now left Heather with a grey streak in her hair identical to the first film and it was during my most recent watch of this movie that I noticed that Heather Langenkamp looked younger at this point in the film. It’s more nuanced that I gave it credit for originally but the way she looks, the way her hair is being worn, the way she dresses; they all take years off the actress and it’s a very clever lead into the final act.

   Dylan is fighting a losing battle against sleep and wants his protector, Rex, who is still at home but Dr. Heffner isn’t keen on letting Heather go without talking about her own delusions and suitability to look after her son.

   Julie is keeping an eye on Dylan, even going so far as to ensure he’s not given an injection to help him sleep. Sadly it’s not enough and Dylan can only watch as we get a variation on Tina’s murder from the original film. Now sporting a different looking hat and a trench coat, Freddy appears behind Julie and kills her after dragging her bloody body up the walls and across the ceiling. It’s not quite as bloody as Tina’s death was but, this time round, we see Freddy circumventing the room dragging Julie’s body around before breaking her neck and dropping her to the floor.

   A sleepwalking Dylan heads for home and Heather follows, calling John Saxon on the way asking for his help. She arrives back at home and finds John already there and Dylan safe for the moment. She tells John that Fred Krueger killed Chase (note how she said Fred instead of Freddy) and John’s demeanour changes in a heartbeat as he says “Yeah, sure”.

   This whole sequence is a personal highlight of the film. We cut between two scenes. The interaction of John and Heather as they head outside and he starts calling her Nancy before his clothes change and he is once again Lt. Don Thompson and upstairs where Freddy emerges from within the bed. Accepting her role, Heather tells her Dad that she loves him as he leaves and, once more dressed in her pyjamas, she turns as Charles Bernstein‘s familiar score plays and faces 1428 Elm Street. It’s a really well conceptualised scene that only lasts a couple of minutes but gave me goosebumps. The way the actors become the characters, the change in location, score, the reveal of Freddy; these all add to one of my favourite moments in any of the films.

   Heather follows a trail of sleeping pills past an eviscerated Rex, to the bed where she sees a tunnel leading into darkness. Hearing her son’s cry she slides down the tunnel and out of the mouth of a large stone Freddy head into what I’m going to say is the boiler room re-imagined as a gigantic temple.

   She finds a un-titled script to this film we’re watching and reads along as the words say that there is no movie, there is only her life and all she’d experienced was bound within the pages of the script. Dylan appears as does Freddy and Krueger momentarily gets the advantage and chases Dylan into a furnace. With more nods to earlier films (long stretchy arms and a jaw capable of swallowing a child) Dylan is close to the end when Heather sticks Krueger with a knife.

   Together, she and Dylan manage to get Freddy into the furnace in another nod to the story of Hansel and Gretel, a motif that is prevalent throughout the movie and as he burns he transforms briefly into the evil demonic entity that he really is before exploding in a plume of fire. Heather and Dylan run as the temple is destroyed around them.

   They jump into a small pool of water and re-emerge in Dylan’s bed which is billowing with smoke as we see that it’s daylight outside.

   With a ding-dong, Dylan declares the witch is dead as Heather looks down and sees the script. Inside we see the title of the movie with a handwritten note from Wes Craven thanking her for playing Nancy one last time and for sending Freddy back to where he belongs.

   She confirms to Dylan that it’s a story and he asks her to read it to him which she begins by describing the first scene of this movie and the credits roll.

   This is the longest film in the series and we don’t even see Freddy in full till over an hour in but his presence is there throughout so we don’t ever feel short changed. The performances are as strong as any we’ve seen and I love the fact that this is an Elm Street film that’s also not really an Elm Street film.

   Forget about what makes sense as if you over analyse any genre film you can pick them to pieces regarding logic. This would be an unfair approach to take with New Nightmare. There’s so much going on here beyond being a pretty damn good horror movie that it’s the kind of movie a film student could really get their teeth into. To get the most out of it, I feel you would have to watch all of the films that preceded it as well as have an awareness of how the character of Freddy Krueger ended up a pop-culture icon.

   Whether or not Scream is a better movie is subjective and I couldn’t say for certain that it wouldn’t have existed if not for New Nightmare (after all, Scream was written by a different person) but both show a self-awareness that was rarely seen at the time but still continue today.

   That, then was seemingly that. The canonical character had been killed off in Freddy’s Dead and Wes Craven had said hello again before saying goodbye himself to his creation.

   It seemed that we really had seen the last of Freddy Krueger. As remakes started to proliferate it seemed that that was where we were most likely headed as we pushed through the millennium with no sign of the “Springwood Slasher”

   A certain hockey masked individual disagreed thankfully so it is to see what happens when two horror behemoths clash that I will look at next time.

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