Wes Craven never really intended for A Nightmare on Elm Street to become a franchise. He wanted the first film to end on a more conclusive, upbeat note. And with the exception of his writing credit on The Dream Warriors, he mostly sat out the sequels. From the title on down, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare was his way of reasserting control over his creation — by making a Freddy movie that explores the effects of the Freddy franchise on both its makers and fans.
The result may not be the best movie in the franchise, but it’s the best film (that’s pronounced pheelm) by a country mile. New Nightmare is an Adaptation or a Tristram Shandy for the gorehound crowd — a self-conscious deconstruction of the medium for folks who wouldn’t be caught dead in a film theory lecture. It’s also a darned good Freddy movie, filled with atmospheric tension and the kind of hellfire finale fans have come to expect from the series; in other words, New Nightmare is scary enough to prevent its overarching agenda from slipping into the academic ether.
New Nightmare‘s premise is delicious: what if a series of movies about a killer who haunts your nightmares actually gave the cast and crew…. nightmares? As the movie opens, Heather Langenkamp (that’s right, Heather Langenkamp — not Nancy Thompson) has a vision of Freddy’s glove going on a killing spree on the set of a new Nightmare movie, slicing through crew members and threatening her young son (this sequence nicely parallels the knife-sharpening intro to the first Nightmare). She awakens to an earthquake — the latest in a string that’s unsettled Southern California — and talks with her husband about a series of disturbing phone calls she’s been getting lately. He’s a member of a film crew, and she’s on her way to a talk show interview about the continuing appeal of Freddy Krueger — a show that features a surprised guest: none other than Robert Englund (who seems like a thoroughly decent guy).
Immediately after the show, she’s beckoned to New Line, where Nightmare producer Robert Shaye tells her they’ve got a new Freddy movie in the works with her as the star — and her husband is making a new Freddy glove. However, Heather is hesitant and uneasy about the whole thing — especially after her dreams turn more ominous, and her waking life is wracked by a series of terrifying events. She turns to Craven, who’s working on a new script, and he warns her that because of the movies, Freddy has essentially become real. Her best chance to defeat him may be to play Nancy Thompson again.
Despite the seedy trappings of his work, Craven was always an auteur at heart. His earliest success, The Last House on the Left, was a loose remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, and A Nightmare on Elm Street was loaded with references to the films of Roman Polanski and Luis Bunuel. And his more-recent Red Eye was a terrific compendium of Hitchcockian elements. New Nightmare is a nice metaphor for the way in which Craven’s original idea — or any filmmaker’s — got away from him and took on a life of its own. This is thoughtful, top-notch filmmaking, and it laid the groundwork for Scream two years later. Like Scream, New Nightmare found Craven simultaneously upending horror movie conventions while reveling in them.
What prevented New Nightmare from being a runaway hit on the level of Scream was the simple fact that it’s a Freddy movie, and knowledge of the Nightmare series is essential in order to fully enjoy it. Such a self-reflexive work wouldn’t have the same impact were it not for the success of the franchise. Still, it’s fascinating to watch Craven tackle his creation with such intellectual rigor without sacrificing thrills along the way.
Check back tomorrow for my recap of Freddy Vs. Jason, in which two of horror cinema’s most iconic killers go head to head in a battle royal.
Schedule of Nightmares: