Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)

Little White Lies #56 (Nov/Dec 2014) was presented as though it had been written and published exactly two decades earlier. Here (in slightly lengthened form) is my contribution to that issue.

Before the new, the old.

It’s not always appropriate to include a history lesson in a contemporary review, but Wes Craven’s New Nightmare comes haunted by the spirits of Freddies past. When he first appeared in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street back in 1984, Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) was the new kid killer on the block. His antecedents were The Texas Chain Saw Massacre‘s Leatherface, Halloween‘s Michael Myers, Friday the 13th‘s Jason Voorhees, and other efficient, heavy-breathing slaughtermen of the late Seventies and early Eighties, but unlike all those silent slashers, he talked the talk as well as stalking the stalk – and as an invader of dreams, he dissected America’s subconscious as much as its teen body.

Five sequels later, though, and Freddy was well and truly done – something that his last outing announced plainly with its title Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991). By then, surprise had become schtick, invention had turned to gimmick, and Freddy, far from inspiring genuine fear, had become little more than a comedy villain, dispensing corny one-liners as he dispatched his victims in ever more carnivalesque ways. Freddy’s demise has run in parallel with the state of the horror genre, which has, for much of this decade, been parlous at best. Might this new nightmare be a sign of horror’s resurrection, and a fresh direction for the moribund genre?

The opening shot of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare shows the burn-scarred Freddy smithing his blade-fingered glove beside a familiar furnace, before chopping off his own hand to accommodate this claw. So far, same old – until the camera reveals director Wes Craven, his cast and crew shooting the scene on a studio film set. The film’s full title advertises not only Craven’s return to his own filmic creation, but also his active role in it, playing himself as both writer and director of a film whose very making is its subject. Suddenly the animatronic claw prop goes haywire, killing two of the FX men – only for Heather Langenkamp, who played heroine Nancy in the first and third Nightmare on Elm Street (but here plays herself), to wake up in her LA bed. The killer glove, you see, was all just a nightmare, from which Heather was roused by an earthquake – a common enough local phenomenon that exposes to Californians their hidden infernal foundations. And so, in this opening sequence, Craven sets up a close interplay between dreams, cinema and reality, in the very Hollywood milieu where those three categories are most easily confused. This is not at all like the others Elm Streets –  indeed it is not even set on an Elm Street.

Plagued by a malicious caller (who sounds a bit like Freddy), haunted by a family history of insanity, and alarmed by Freddy-themed dreams, Heather is already suffering high anxiety when she is invited to return to the franchise that made her famous for being frightened. When her husband Chase (David Newsom) is killed in a road accident while working on a prop for the film, Heather and her young son Dylan (Miko Hughes) become convinced that Freddy – or something like him – is back, and trying to break through to the real world. Is this a shared fantasy with which mother and son are working through their grief? Or an ancient evil emerging through a seismic rift, in a guise borrowed from the collective unconscious that the Elm Street franchise has helped inform? Or is it just a horror script being realised before our very eyes, to bring circular closure to Craven’s own particular preoccupations?

What follows may reprise many key scenes from the original Elm Street: a tongue coming out of a telephone mouthpiece, Heather’s hair going grey, a young woman (Tracy Middendorf) being dragged bloodily across a ceiling, stairs turning to mud, Freddy’s arms stretching unnaturally. Yet even as Freddy is overtly acknowledged as an iconic movie monster – and Englund (playing himself playing Freddy) is shown hamming it up before his adoring fanbase on a TV chat show – not only does this film’s new Freddy look different, but he is figured as a mere incarnation of the same timeless evil also instantiated by fairytale witches or Biblical demons. Newly psychologised, theologised and mythologised, he is the meta-bogeyman on whom Craven can hang all manner of enquiries about what horror is, what impact it has, and what purpose it serves. The film also offers a sly overview of its own now ossified franchise, a decade on when all involved – players, creators and viewers alike – have grown older and got wiser.

If this sort of postmodernism catches on, then I know what even the most jaded horror fans will be doing next summer: happily returning to the cinema to see films that once again make them scream…

Anticipation: Lost interest in the Elm Street franchise beyond Part Two.

Enjoyment: Similar package, smarter ideas – a seismic shift in the series, and in the genre.

In Retrospect: If Pirandello penned a self-reflexive slasher, it might be like this.

Anton Bitel