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“Every kid knows who Freddy is. He’s like Santa Claus or King Kong.” – Heather Langenkamp in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.
In a film full of truthful observations, that line always struck me as the truest, or at least the most relevant to my own relationship with Freddy Krueger and the Nightmare on Elm Street film series. I was four when the original came out in 1984, so I was too young to experience that film or most of the first few sequels on their first release. As I grew up, my awareness of Freddy came from what seeped into popular culture. As best as I can remember, my introduction was either a kid in my 4th grade class wearing a Freddy mask for Halloween, or possibly an ad for the costume in a comic book.
So “my” Freddy was less the disturbing child murderer whom Wes Craven created for what probably felt like a standalone film, and more the watered-down pop icon. Less a psychological threat, and more of a catchphrase-spewing gimmick killer. It’s the difference between how the shark from Jaws plays on screen, and experiencing him on the Universal Studios tram tour.
As a result, Freddy never scared me as a kid, nor did I have any desire to see the movies. I knew that they came out every year or two and I assumed all of the movies were stupid slasher films, in which, I saw no appeal. I remember seeing a trailer for Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare in 1991 and thinking it looked incredibly awful. Good riddance.
Then came 1994 and the release of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.
Instead of being just another Freddy adventure, this one was set in “the real world,” with actors from the series playing themselves and the writer/director making a cameo as the writer/director.
It came and went from theaters rather quickly, but I remember thinking that seemed like a neat way to squeeze out one final story. You have to remember that in 1994, meta wasn’t a concept used as much in the mainstream.
Yes, by then Animal Man comics had the lead character come face to face with his writer, and an episodes of Growing Pains and Eerie, Indiana each had a lead character find themselves in a reality where they were just an actor on a sitcom about their lives, but these were isolated instances. Even five years later, it was still a very bizarre conceit to have John Malkovich playing himself in a prominent part in Being John Malkovich. As much as years of Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm and any of the imitators have made us used to the joke of famous people playing themselves, back then, it was a relatively fresh idea. Not to mention building an entire movie around it.
When Scream (one of my favorite movies) came out two years later, I fell in love with its self-aware sensibilities and assumed that New Nightmare likely took a similar tone, perhaps acting as Craven’s warm-up for Ghostface’s rampage.
I was wrong about a lot of things as a teenager. I was wrong that every Nightmare film was garbage and I especially was wrong about New Nightmare resembling Scream to the degree I presumed. Scream is more overtly comedic, which allows it to not just be self-aware, but to wink at the audience and have fun at the expense of its clichés. Scream is a brilliantly done roller coaster ride with an ingenious mystery at its core. It’s an exercise in “Yes, we all know the rules. Now let’s have a little fun with them via characters who are finally as smart as the viewers.”
New Nightmare is less about the relationship between a horror film and its viewers and more about the relationship between a story and those who create it. The most annoying thing about the Scream spoofs and imitators is their inability to resist poking the audience in the ribs. It’s not enough for them to be clever, they need to know that you know how clever they are. (This shouldn’t be taken as a swipe against Scream, which walks that razor’s edge and gets by on the fact it was the first to make those jokes.)
New Nightmare stars Nightmare 1 star Heather Langenkamp as Heather Langenkamp. The actress plays a version of herself who’s been troubled by strange nightmares of late. She seems to have a stalker (which also happened to Langenkamp in real life) sending her messages and making creepy phone calls, and the fact that Nightmare is approaching its 10th anniversary isn’t helping either.
(Honestly, that alone probably has the makings for a creepy thriller. I’ve known actors who’ve had to deal with stalkers and it’s not a pleasant experience at all. Particularly when you work in films like those, you draw unusual sorts of fans. A small percentage of them might not distinguish the actor from the character, and so it must be a terrifying experience when they start reaching out just because of a connection they feel with a character you played.)
Plus, Heather’s son has been acting strangely, and a recent spate of earthquakes have fried Heather’s nerves. It’s all made her hysterical, which unfortunately makes it all too easy for outsiders, even her husband, to dismiss the danger as being all in her head. Indeed, late in the film when she seeks help for her son, a judgmental doctor is quick to cast a side-eye at Heather’s filmography, blaming the films and Heather’s participation in them for her son’s acting out.
All of this is why New Nightmare is more than just a film-long in-joke. Craven is smart to find terrors that would be real to Heather’s experience and use that as the foundation for all the psychological horrors. I feel like you could get a compelling film out of this material even if Freddy Krueger never showed up.
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Because Heather begins to feel like she’s being haunted by Freddy for real. First her nightmares worsen, then her husband is killed while driving home. We see him fall asleep at the wheel briefly before being attacked by Freddy’s glove. When she views the body, the familiar slashes are present, making Heather doubt this was a simple car crash. Suddenly it no longer seems insignificant or coincidental the incidents began when Wes Craven began writing a new Nightmare script.
Perhaps the most critical scene in the film arrives just over an hour into it, as Nancy visits Wes Craven in his home and learns the truth about Freddy Krueger. In a film loaded to the gills with meta moments, this might be the most audacious. Here we have the writer/director of the film literally laying out the rules for us, and Craven completely resists the temptation to wink at the audience. He delivers his exposition with a weight and gravity that completely sells the concept.
That concept is this – that Craven believes that Freddy was a sort of ancient evil:
“Whatever you want to call it. It’s old, very old, and it’s taken different forms in different times. The only thing that stays the same about it is what it lives for… Killing innocence. Every so often, they imagine a story good enough to catch its essence. Then it’s held prisoner for a while… in the story… The problem comes when the story dies. It happens a lot of different ways, the story gets too familiar, or too watered down by people trying to make it easier to sell, or it’s labeled a threat to society and just plain banned. However it happens, when the story dies, the evil is set free.”
For ten years, the real-life Nightmare on Elm Street series was enough to hold him, but with that gone, Freddy is free to cross into the real world. Our world. The only thing standing in his way is the gatekeeper – the person who was Freddy’s greatest threat in the movies. Before he can fully cross over, Freddy has to kill Heather because she embodied Nancy.
It’s brilliant – providing direction for the second half of the film and getting in a swipe at the weaker moments in the series all without undercutting any of it with humor. For Craven and Heather, it’s their lives at stake. How often have we seen a sequel and wondered, “Why did they feel like they had to make that?” Here, Craven and Langenkamp need to make this movie or they could die.
It’s amazing how New Nightmare takes its time before getting to the exciting third act where Langenkamp is drawn into the dream world to save her son. This film probably has the smallest body count of the entire series. The only on-screen kills are Heather’s husband and her son’s baby sitter Julie (though two other men are killed off-screen), and Julie doesn’t die until around the eighty-minute mark. That’s a long time for the film to be dependent on mostly psychological scares. Despite a moment here or there that lags, it mostly works, in part because Craven finds enough “real world” terrors for Heather that the film doesn’t need to rely on a great many dream fake-outs.
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It’s an approach that would never work if Freddy were the star, as seemed to happen with too many earlier Nightmare sequels. This is Heather’s story and it’s smart how the ending requires her to “play Nancy” even though that’s a role she’d rather leave behind. This is an actor having to reprise a part (that she could never push beyond in real life) one final time just to get the closure that will let her leave it behind for good.
After having been relatively confined by the environs of the real world for 90 minutes, Craven is able to take Heather into Freddy’s realm and give it as nightmarish and surreal a quality as the budget would allow. I like how we start with Heather’s dreams first seeming to reenact moments from the original Nightmare, but how that familiar quality is completely gone after she takes a pill.
The impact is clear – we are now on Freddy’s turf. He’s not invading her dreams so much as she’s walked into the lion’s den. It’s a total reversal of how in the first film, she defeated Freddy by pulling him into our world.
New Nightmare is a sequel unlike any of its predecessors and probably unlike most any horror film that proceeded it. For my money, it’s my favorite Nightmare sequel and is entirely underrated in both Craven’s filmography and in general. I’ve gotten the sense that this is something of a red-headed stepchild among a lot of series fans, and it’s unfortunately the lowest-grossing film of the series, even when adjusted for ticket inflation.
Although this year especially has been too full of nostalgia articles celebrating pop culture from 1994, there’s probably no better time to revisit New Nightmare than on its 20th anniversary. At least it’ll keep Freddy at bay.
“Heather, thank you for having the strength to play Nancy one last time. At last, Freddy is back where he belongs. Regards, Wes.” – the note Wes Craven has on Heather’s screenplay after she escapes the dream world.