The Film: New Nightmare (1994)
The Principles: Written and Directed by Wes Craven Starring Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, Miko Hughes, John Saxon, Tracy Middendorf, David Newsom, Wes Craven, Robert Shaye
The Premise: Actress Heather Langenkamp’s world begins to bleed into the film she’s most famous for, A Nightmare on Elm Street. Her son seems to be the target of a supernatural force that has chosen Freddy Krueger as its vessel into our realm. Can Heather find a way to fight off this evil while offering tons of meta-commentary at the same time?
Is It Good?: I think Horror Movie A Day‘s Brian Collins summarized New Nightmare best when he said that it’s a great film, but it’s a pretty lousy Nightmare on Elm Street movie. I’m an enormous fan of the film, but it’s hard to argue against the complaint that it doesn’t deliver what a lot of people want out of a Freddy Krueger movie. The dream sequences have lost any really fantastic flair (that’s all reserved for the finale), Freddy is almost completely divorced from his well known wise-cracking, and the story has abandoned its interests in teenagers and the difficult worlds they have to inhabit. It’s really not fair to call this movie A Nightmare on Elm Street 7, because it has very little interest in being a Nightmare on Elm Street story.
But, as an incredibly specific piece of self-reflection and a literary approach to the purpose of horror stories, New Nightmare is fantastic. The movie is such a personal piece of storytelling, not just for Craven but for everyone who was involved with the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. Seeing a film blatantly state, “This one film we did has haunted us for our entire lives,” and to give that ever-looming monster a meaning and importance is unbelievably ballsy.
It’s that importance that makes New Nightmare Craven’s much more successful attempt at self commentary than his Scream films. Scream and its sequels feel like snobby college kids making fun of the conventions of horror films, and then finding their jokes funny enough to stick into their own movie. There’s no reflection or exploration of horror in the Scream films other than pointing out tropes for the sake of pointing them out. New Nightmare is the college professor (appropriate considering Craven’s collegiate background) who is actually interested in examining why we need horror stories.
The film turns Freddy Krueger into an ancient evil force that has grown accustomed to the character of Freddy Krueger, and continuing to make Freddy movies has kept that force contained. Now that there isn’t a new Freddy film, the entity is breaking out into the real world. This allows Craven to return the character to his much darker origins (it always weirds me out how some people prefer the quippier version of a child molesting murderer), clothing him in a German expressionstic trenchcoat and changing his burned visage into tears that expose the musculature underneath, as if something else is trying to rip itself out of Freddy’s skin. Even the signature claw has now become a skeletal part of Freddy’s design. It’s familiar but just different enough to find a new way to be unsettling.
I’ll admit that New Nightmare isn’t perfect (sorry to say, but even most “perfect” films aren’t perfect). Miko Hughes is still a child actor and there are very few great child actor performances. The movie is certainly masturbatory towards New Line Cinema, Hollywood, and the Freddy franchise in general. This can be pretty excluding to non-fans, but even they have to admit that the film is trying to give a storied character a fitting farewell and that’s gonna involve some fan-service. I think if the movie’s dream sequences were more over-the-top, more people would enjoy this endeavor. But, I also think that would take away from what the movie is trying to do. At one point, there was going to be a “claw-mobile” in the film. That sounds like goofy fun, but this is not a goofy fun movie.
And really, that’s where your line in the sand is going to be drawn with New Nightmare. If all you want out of a Freddy Krueger movie is inventive murder sequences and kitschy one-liners, there’s about four or five other movies in the franchise that will satisfy that urge. For me, New Nightmare does something I love in horror: it explains the reasons why we need these kinds of stories to help prevent more evil from being released into the world. The cathartic nature of horror is explored in depth in New Nightmare, and there are a plethora of horror films that never even attempt that kind of introspection. It’s a bold film and such boldness means that it’s going to alienate a healthy amount of people, even those who are fans of the franchise. And while I will say that New Nightmare isn’t as scary as it is smart, I think it’s a film that has only gotten better with age and deserves a place of importance in not only writer/director Wes Craven’s filmography, but in the history of horror films as well.
Random Anecdotes: In the script, Freddy’s presence is often preceded by earthquakes. One of the first scenes shot for the film was one of these earthquake scenes. The day after shooting this scene, a powerful earthquake actually hit part of California, leading to some incredibly eerie synchronicity with the film. Craven, seeing an unmissable opportunity, sent second-unit crews to capture some of the actual damage done by the earthquake. You can see lots of it in the finished film.
Craven used elements of the actors’ real life when it came time to write the script. Probably the creepiest is that Heather Langenkamp actually had a stalker who called her house numerous times. This wasn’t due to her involvement with A Nightmare on Elm Street, but rather the fan was upset that the family sitcom Langenkamp was on, Just the Ten of Us, had been cancelled.
In one draft of the script, Craven appeared in the back of a van driven by Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes) and was constantly on the run from Freddy. His eyelids had been sliced off so he couldn’t sleep and he was feverishly writing a new script in order to keep Freddy at bay.
This movie was a nighttime staple on TNT when I was growing up. It and the original A Nightmare on Elm Street are the only entries in the franchise that I originally saw on television.
Cinematic Soulmates: Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006), The Cabin in the Woods (2012), Resolution (2012), Shadow of the Vampire (2000), Adaptation (2002)