The Ten Day Nightmare: Day Eight – Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

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Today’s film is not only one of the most interesting entries in the Elm Street series, it’s one of the most interesting slasher films ever made, period. A daring and unique meta-take on the horror genre and the strength of its ideas on viewers, the seventh Nightmare film was a bold new direction for the franchise. Did it pay off? Read on to find out. And remember, SPOILERS AHEAD.

WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE (1994)

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Written and Directed by: Wes Craven

THE STORY:

Ten years after the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, Heather Langenkamp, the film’s star, has quite the decent life – with a loving marriage and a young son. Things aren’t all great though, as Heather is receiving harassing phone calls from somebody pretending to be the fictional Freddy Krueger, and has also started having nightmares of her former on-screen nemesis. At the same time, Heather is asked by New Line Cinema to appear in a new “definitive Nightmare” movie that Wes Craven is writing. Heather realizes that both her dreams and the phone calls began around the time Wes started working on the screenplay. When her nightmares begin bleeding into reality – with deadly results – Heather goes to Wes and discovers his true reason for working on a new Nightmare: an ancient malevolent force has chosen the Freddy character as its preferred host, and is now trying to cross over into our world. With her son’s life on the line, only Heather can stop “Freddy” from making our reality into his ultimate nightmare.

MY THOUGHTS:

“The fans, God bless ‘em, they’re clamoring for more.”

Those are the words of New Line Cinema CEO Robert Shaye, in 1994’s Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. They were probably also the words of New Line Cinema CEO Robert Shaye in real life, in 1993, thus explaining the existence of this movie. But were the fans clamoring for more? Were they really?

I don’t know…maybe. The previous entry, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, had done significantly better at the box-office than the film that preceded it, but still wasn’t quite as successful as the third or fourth films in the series. Perhaps it would have done better if anyone had actually believed the title – the supposed final death of Freddy was obviously meant more as a stunt just to remind audiences how much they loved the character than it was any sort of actual final word on the series. Everyone knew the series would be back someday, but there was really only one thing fans were still interested in seeing – a showdown between Freddy and his main ‘80s slasher competition, Jason Voorhees.

Since New Line had recently acquired the rights to the Friday the 13th franchise, it finally looked like the odds of this actually happening were pretty good. Friday creator Sean Cunningham certainly thought so, as he began actively planning a crossover film. But that ultimate horror showdown would end up being derailed (at least temporarily) when Freddy’s creator suddenly made a surprising decision to return to the series he had created.

"Hi, I'm Wes Craven, writer/director of Wes Craven's New Nightmare, which also stars me, Wes Craven."

“Hi, I’m Wes Craven, writer/director of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which also stars me, Wes Craven.”

Craven had never really stopped thinking about the story he first pitched for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, an idea that saw Freddy invade the real world and go after the cast and crew of the first Nightmare film. New Line had rejected the idea at the time, considering it too high-concept. Whether they now thought that audiences were finally smart enough to “get it,” or just couldn’t resist the obviously exciting idea of Craven’s return to the series (which had seen a steep decline in quality ever since he left), New Line was more open to the idea this time, and gave the filmmaker the green-light to make his reality-bending take on the Nightmare series.

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The result didn’t exactly light the box-office on fire – maybe New Line was right about the concept being a little too out there. Or, more likely, maybe fans were still a little burnt out on the series after a string of disappointing sequels, and were therefore so wary of the property that even Craven’s name couldn’t quite lure them back. Whatever the case, New Nightmare wasn’t the hit New Line and Craven were probably hoping for…which is a shame, because unlike the last few Nightmare sequels, it damn well should have been.

New Nightmare is, quite frankly, one of the most imaginative horror films of the ‘90s. Craven’s own Scream, which would follow two years later, is often celebrated for its brilliantly satiric take on slasher films and those that watch them. While I love that film, and think it deserves most of the praise it gets, it’s still really just another slasher film, the very kind that it’s cleverly poking fun at. It follows the very same conventions it makes fun of, but gets away with it because it self-referentially acknowledges its own clichés. As far as I’m concerned, New Nightmare, which deals in some of the same sort of meta approaches to storytelling, is far more inventive and ground-breaking than Scream – though perhaps just not executed quite as strongly.

But, alright, let’s forget about comparing it to Scream, and instead just talk about what a breath of fresh air this movie was for the Nightmare series. I guess it’s not that surprising that Craven would make a better film than the last few entries, but it’s still refreshing just to see how much credibility he actually manages to restore to his creation. Now, yes, I know this isn’t technically an in-continuity Nightmare film, seeing as how it takes place in “our” world and features Craven and others playing themselves. Plus, the villain isn’t really the Freddy we all know and love, but rather an ancient evil force that has simply assumed the image and personality of Craven’s creation. So, no, this isn’t exactly a true Nightmare film, but it’s still clearly meant as a bookend to the first film, and it works incredibly well that way. In fact, Heather Langenkamp’s clash with this Freddy-demon actually feels like the appropriate conclusion to the hero’s journey Nancy Thompson started six films ago…which would have been impossible to pull off in the “real”Nightmare continuity since, you know, Nancy is dead and all.

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What is most instantly noticeable about New Nightmare, coming off of the previous films, is how deadly serious it is. Pretty much nothing is played for laughs here – the story concerns real horror, and real lives are at stake. The main thrust of the story concerns a mother’s efforts to save her young son from an unspeakable evil. Nothing to joke about, really, and it’s nice to see Craven tackle the subject matter with the gravity it deserves. The Freddy character here isn’t above cracking the occasional one-liner here and there, but, like in the first filmm he’s really just trying to entertain himself more than the audience. There’s a big difference there.

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The film’s solemn attitude can also be seen in Freddy’s awesome new look, which replaces the stylized burnt-flesh design of the original series with a more sinister visage consisting of large wounds and exposed muscle. Freddy’s ensemble is augmented by a new dark trench-coat and knee-high combat boots, but of course the biggest change is the glove. No longer looking like the result of a particularly twisted session in Freddy’s workshop, Freddy’s razor hand now has a more organic look, with the blades (including a new one on the thumb) actually extending from exposed bone. It’s pretty kick-ass…but not really as new as one might initially think. In fact, it’s actually a fairly accurate representation of the Freddy hand that appeared on the posters for the first three films in the series. So if you were ever wondering why the image on those posters didn’t really match what you saw in the films, well, at least it finally did get its day on the big screen. Better late than never.

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Besides the serious tone, another thing that New Nightmare is that the last few films weren’t is, well, intelligent. I mean, that’s not to say there weren’t a few clever ideas sprinkled here and there throughout the last few sequels, but it’s nothing like what Craven is doing here. Craven used the first Nightmare to explore his fascination with dreams, and also took the opportunity to both subtly and not-so-subtly examine the complicated relationship between teenagers and adult authority figures, and a teen’s passage into adulthood. Likewise, Craven uses New Nightmare as a vehicle to explore several themes, most of them a bit more grown-up now, which is only appropriate – Craven has said he made the film for the people who saw Nightmare when they were younger and were now adults, and possibly parents themselves. As such, the film scrutinizes things like horror movies’ impact on young children in general, and in particular the marketing and popularity of the Freddy Krueger character specifically.

In fact, it’s actually a good thing that Craven was forced to wait to make this film until he did – the movie’s examination of Freddy’s popularity and its ramifications means a hell of a lot more coming after the full-blown Freddy-mania of the late ‘80s than it would have if it had come after just the first two films. Meanwhile, fans who never approved of the series’ descent into pure camp will probably love this film’s reminder that Freddy issupposed to be an evil character, and its suggestion that there’s a price to pay for allowing him to become the clown he was eventually reduced to.

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It’s also great that Craven is finally able to bring back some of the reality-bending intrigue of the early films. Not only do we get the usual “is it a dream or reality” tension (which the later Nightmare films had started to forget to even attempt), but as Freddy begins to gets closer and closer to merging with our world, the boundaries between “reality” and “fantasy” shatter, adding a trippy, surreal feel to the proceedings. My favorite moment in the movie has to be when John Saxon (playing himself, of course) starts subtly referring to Heather as “Nancy.” When she finally notices it and plays along – bang – Saxon is suddenly in his Donald Thompson costume, she’s in her famous Nancy pajamas, and her house has become the old Thompson place. Is it a dream? Is Heather going crazy? Have we re-entered the original Nightmare continuity? There are also some mind-bending moments where we realize the script Craven is writing in this movie is actually the scriptfor this movie. New Nightmare takes great delight in messing around with its audience in moments like these, keeping viewers on their toes and – at times – just as thrown off as Heather is.

And speaking of Heather, another thing I really like about this movie is – wait for it – Langenkamp’s performance. I know, I know, I kind of razzed her screen-presence in her previous Nightmare outings – I always agreed that Nancy was a sympathetic character, but didn’t really think Langenkamp was bringing a whole lot to the table. This time around, though, she’s really quite good, bringing vivid life to both the character’s confusion and fear while her reality spins more and more wildly out-of-control, and the inner-strength that she must eventually summon to save her son. Sure, she’s technically just playing herself, so some cynics might suggest it should be easy for her. But that’s obviously not the case – this is a performance, and Langenkamp nails it. Plus, she looks hotter than ever – the eight years since Dream Warriors were very good to her.

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The rest of the cast does an alright job, as well. It’s interesting to see John Saxon play himself as more of a nurturing father figure to Heather than Donald ever was to Nancy, and he pulls it off well. Meanwhile, Wes Craven and Robert Shaye are just fine in their limited screen-time, especially for not being known for being on this side of the camera (although Shaye had made several cameos in the series by this point). If you look closely during a funeral sequence you can spot other Nightmare alumni…really, the only person that is noticeably absent from the film is Johnny Depp. Apparently Craven was too nervous to ask Depp, as he thought he would say no. C’mon Wes, the guy was in Freddy’s Dead! Sure enough, Depp later stated he would have been in New Nightmare if asked, making it an unfortunate missed opportunity.

Probably the real treat for Nightmare fans, though, is getting to see Englund as himself. Back when this film came out, Englund wasn’t quite as widely visible as he has since become in the years after the Nightmare series, so it’s cool to get a glance at the man behind the make-up. Although – and I know the focus is Heather’s journey, but still – I always thought this movie should have done a little more with showing Englund having to deal with this “real” Freddy, as well. After all, by this point he had spent even more time with the character than Craven and Langenkamp combined.

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New Nightmare is not a perfect movie, that’s for sure. For one thing, at nearly two hours in length, it’s just too darn long. A Nightmare film, even a post-modern one like this, shouldn’t really go too much over the ninety-minute mark. There are some definite pacing issues here, and it really could have definitely used some trimming, especially in the opening act – the early sequence of Heather at home (talking to her husband, talking to Dylan, receiving scary phone-calls, talking to the babysitter, dealing with aftershocks) just seems to go on forever. Craven is obviously trying to set the mood and get the audience used to the more realistic tone of the film, but it’s way too much time spent in one location with not a lot really happening.

I also thought it was somewhat weak storytelling to just have Craven eventually explain to Heather what this movie’s version of Freddy really is. Sure, you have to get this information across somehow, but doing it in such an obvious exposition manner feels kind of lazy. Come to think of it, I had the same complaint about the way-too-casual reveal of Freddy’s origin in the original Nightmare film. I guess Craven is a fan of “tell, don’t show.”

Finally, I have to admit feeling sort of under-whelmed by the film’s climax. Oh, I love the design of the hellish labyrinth where Heather and Freddy’s final battle takes place, and there are a few cool moments sprinkled throughout. But I’m specifically talking about the moment when Heather finishes this allegedly ancient demon off. It just feels a little too easy, you know? I mean, it’s better than ninja stars and a pipe bomb…but not by much.

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Still, these are fairly minor complaints, especially when compared to things like nonsensical continuity and dogs that pee fire. After Freddy’s Dead (and really, since The Dream Master), it was hard to believe there was any creative juice left in this franchise. To see Craven somehow completely re-invent it while still keeping it true to the ideas he originated is both thrilling and very welcome. Maybe it’s not exactly a true Nightmare film, but if you’re interested in seeing the best examples of the creative highs this series could reach, then it’s probably best to look at Nightmare as a trilogy consisting of the first and third movies and then this one. The other films might have their moments here and there, but I’ll always be grateful Craven got to come back and remind us that nightmares are supposed to be scary. That’s why they’re nightmares, after all.

BODY COUNT: 4

Well, at least it’s one better than the previous couple movies. Given that this isn’t exactly a normal slasher film, it’s understandable that it doesn’t really adhere to the policy of having to be a bloodbath. Old school gore-hounds might still be disappointed in the low body-count, but I think there’s enough interesting stuff going on here to distract you from there not being a new victim every few minutes.

BEST KILL:

Truth be told, the film’s two main “showcase” kills are just sort of standard hack’n’slash jobs – although it is cool how Julie’s gravity-defying death pays homage to Tina’s similar demise in the first Nightmare. The film’s best death (or deaths, as it were) actually comes in the opening sequence, when a newly designed robotic Freddy glove suddenly gains a mind of its own and goes haywire on the set of a new Nightmare film, killing the two special effects technicians who helped design it.

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FREDDY’S BEST LINES:

“Hey Dillon, ever play skin the cat?”

“Come here, my piggy. I’ve got some gingerbread for you.”

ROBERT ENGLUND’S BEST LINE:

“Just because it’s a love story doesn’t mean it can’t have a decapitation or two.”

FINAL SCORE: 3 out of 4 Razor Fingers

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About Trevor Snyder

Give me zombies or give me death. Wait...that doesn't make sense.

Posted on December 8, 2014, in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Franchise Post-Mortems, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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