Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) ***½
It’s a point that seems to be lost on most people these days, but it really is possible to be clever and self-referential without descending to the level of self-parody. Take Wes Craven’s New Nightmare as an example. Ten years and five sequels after the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, the life had been so thoroughly beaten out of the Freddy Krueger character that you’d think ever deeper into self-parody was the only place left to go. And yet, in 1994, when New Line Cinema reneged on their promise that Freddy was dead for good, what ultimately resulted was the most serious installment since the very first. Producer Robert Shaye went straight to series originator Wes Craven to write and direct the new film, and after a long discussion in which the two men went over all the things that had displeased the director about working with New Line in the past, Craven agreed to take on the project. What he had in mind was something far removed from the previous entries in the series, an ingenious way to escape the creative corner a succession of inferior writers had painted Krueger into, which would nevertheless follow logically from what had come before. As with A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, Craven intended to bring the killer into the real world, but with one major difference. When Craven said “the real world,” he meant the real world.
Ten years after she starred in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Heather Langenkamp is married to special effects artist Chase Porter (David Newsom), and has a young son named Dylan (Miko Hughes, of Pet Sematary and Spawn). She hasn’t been doing much acting, though, for entirely understandable reasons: her turn as Nancy Thompson earned her an obsessed fan, who stalked her relentlessly throughout the mid-80’s, and who oddly started up again about six weeks ago. The stalker sticks frighteningly cryptic messages (each consisting of a single scrawled letter) in her mailbox, and calls her on the phone several times a day. The worst part of it is, he routinely mimics Robert Englund’s Fred Krueger voice in his phone calls. As you might imagine, the experience has been giving Heather nightmares— and nightmares with a distinct Elm Street flavor, at that. For example, one night, she dreams that she and her husband are on the set of a new Nightmare on Elm Street movie when the new animatronic claw Chase has devised for the killer takes on a life of its own and starts carving up the effects crew. The morning thereafter, Heather is scheduled for an interview on some TV talk show or other, and she can’t shake the feeling that her dream is some kind of omen. It is with great reluctance that she watches her husband drive off to work and then leaves her child in the care of a teenage babysitter named Julie (Tracy Middendorf).
Heather gets even more creeped out at the interview itself. No one wants to talk to her about anything except A Nightmare on Elm Street and the audience is full of fans in latex masks waving “Come Back, Freddy!” signs. And almost as if the producers of the show were trying to make their guest uncomfortable, they bring Robert Englund in for a surprise visit, done up in full Freddy costume and makeup! Then, after the interview is over, Heather gets a call on her cell phone from New Line Cinema producer Sarah Risher, who asks her to come in that afternoon and talk to her boss, Robert Shaye. Shaye recently heard from Wes Craven, who pitched him an exciting new idea for a Nightmare film. Craven says he’s been having bad dreams much like the ones that led him to write the first of the series, and he wants to turn these new nightmares into another movie. Wes has been working on the script for more than a month, and he has secretly commissioned Chase Porter’s effects house to design the killer’s new makeup. (Indeed, that’s what Chase is working on even now.) Heather enters into it because Craven wants to put Nancy back in the central role. Langenkamp is flattered, but she’s really not sure she’s up to that.
Freddy Krueger is coming back into Heather’s life whether she wants him or not, however. She and Wes aren’t the only ones having nightmares, you see. In fact, just about everybody who was ever involved in the production of the Elm Street series is dreaming about Krueger, but in a much darker, more sinister form than he had ever taken in the movies. What’s more, little Dylan describes dreams about “the bad old man with the claws,” and has begun exhibiting worrisome psychological symptoms. When Heather gets back from her interview and her meeting with Robert Shaye, she finds Julie struggling to bring the boy out of what looks an awful lot like an epileptic seizure, even though Dylan has never before shown any sign of serious neurological disturbance. In a panic over what’s happening to her son, Heather calls Chase at work and convinces him to come home at once. It’s a three-hour drive back to Los Angeles, though, and Chase has already had a long and tiring workday. He spends much of the ride home fighting off sleep, but eventually he loses the struggle. And when that happens, Chase is killed by what can only be Freddy Krueger. Heather finds out from the cops who appear on her doorstep a while later.
Realizing she’s being paranoid and possibly delusional even as she does it, Heather goes to the morgue with the express intention of examining her husband’s wounds for anything that looks like a set of parallel gashes— the kind of injuries Krueger’s knife-glove would inflict. As a matter of fact, despite the fact that he ostensibly died in a messy auto wreck, four parallel slits in his torso from collarbone to navel are the only marks on him. Chase’s funeral is disrupted by an earthquake a few days later, and when Heather is knocked unconscious by a fall onto the lowering mechanism for the casket, she has a vivid dream in which she sees Freddy trying to drag Dylan down into the grave along with the dead man. Heather has a very hard time convincing herself that a dream is all it was.
A visit to Wes Craven for the purpose of discussing his new script reveals that Heather is right to have her doubts. What Wes has written so far is almost exactly what has happened to Heather during the past few weeks, and it was right about when he began writing that Heather’s stalker resumed his activities. Craven explains that, in the nightmares that inspired his new story (and which continue to provide him with new plot points), there is an ancient, evil entity which survives through “the murder of innocence.” While this being cannot apparently be destroyed, it can be trapped— by storytellers, oddly enough. In essence, the storytellers give the entity form by devising especially apt and evocative allegorical descriptions of the malevolent spirit, which then becomes imprisoned in the very stories that contain those descriptions. If, however, the stories lose their power to frighten and shock— whether through deliberate softening or just simple repetition— the entity escapes, and is free to roam the world again. Wes thought this evil force which he had dreamed up would serve as the perfect explanation for Freddy Krueger, and began to write a script premised on the idea that the Nightmare on Elm Street movies themselves had served as the entity’s most recent prison. But that prison weakened when New Line turned the character into a figure of fun, and it collapsed altogether when the studio stopped making the movies in 1991. What Craven didn’t realize until he saw the news reports of Chase Porter’s death— an event which he had just recently written into the screenplay— was that his dreams of the power behind Freddy were, in fact, prophetic. Wes is now hell-bent on finishing his script, for it is his belief that only by making another Elm Street movie can he put “Krueger” back in his cage. Meanwhile, the thing that now thinks of itself as Freddy has set its sights on Heather and her family because it has grown accustomed to thinking of her as Nancy Thompson, its great nemesis in the tale that gives it its current shape. And if Craven’s plan is to work, Heather will have to let herself become Nancy once again, and take the fight to the dream demon the way Nancy did with Krueger in the movies.
Playing with reality like this in a film is a tricky thing, especially if the movie in question is as inherently fantastic as Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. By constructing the movie the way he did, Craven asks us not merely to suspend our disbelief, but to juggle it, and any but the slightest misstep would surely cause the whole thing to come crashing to the ground. Craven got lucky, however, in that the star who he has playing herself is not one we’re accustomed to seeing in anything other than a Nightmare on Elm Street movie, and so we who don’t know Heather Langenkamp personally have no contrary context in which to set her. Craven also makes deft use of the biggest reason why Langenkamp has appeared in so few movies, despite having more than enough talent and personality to make a name for herself in Hollywood— she really did have a stalker who was obsessed with A Nightmare on Elm Street, and the experience left her extremely reluctant to venture out into public view. By using that stalker as Freddy Krueger’s inroad to the story, Craven grounds even the most avowedly fictional element of the film in reality, giving Wes Craven’s New Nightmare a much sturdier foundation than it might otherwise have had.
The best thing about the movie is what it does with Freddy himself. By this point in the series, the killer’s imperviousness to death had become outright ridiculous, and starting the new movie off with yet another resurrection would probably have doomed it from the outset. But more importantly, Krueger just wasn’t scary anymore, and it’s hard to imagine how he could have been made scary again within the framework provided by the rest of the series. By taking the character out of the series altogether, Craven gives himself the best possible excuse to abandon any kind of continuity between this film and the others, while simultaneously devising a way to make the dream killer frightening once more. The current scenario offers, in essence, a forthright admission of what many fans of the series had been saying for years— that the character from the original A Nightmare on Elm Street was the real Freddy, and that the jovially malevolent wise-ass of the later sequels was something else altogether. Furthermore, by framing the movie in terms of a fictional character come to life, it sets up a natural, logical reason to revisit moments from the earlier films, investing them with new and often grimmer meaning. This movie’s numerous nods to its predecessors are neither the fanboy fawning of The Dead Hate the Living, nor the self-impressed cleverness that has popped up so often in the aftermath of Craven’s own Scream. They serve a legitimate function in the story, which would not work nearly as well without them.