Monday, October 14, 2019

25 Years Ago: Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994)

Twenty five years ago, Wes Craven celebrated the tenth anniversary of the creation of his most popular boogeyman: Fred Krueger.

The tenth birthday of cinematic boogeyman Freddy Krueger should have been a big deal to start with, that's for sure. 


Well, in the late 1980's, Freddy Krueger veritably ruled the box office and the horror genre, thanks in large part to three or four very talented people: Wes Craven, who gave birth to Freddy, Robert Englund, who gave the silver screen monster body and personality, and talents like Heather Langenkamp and Lisa Wilcox, who, on more than one occasion, gave Krueger worthy nemeses.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Freddy was truly flattered throughout the eighties.  In the latter part of the decade, every new issue of Fangoria  seemed to trumpet the arrival of "a new
Freddy, a boogeymen challenger to knock Krueger from his long-held king’s throne.  

The candidates didn’t end up being so imposing, from Harris (Richard Lynch), the cult-guru of Bad Dreams (1988), to I Madman’s (1989) Malcolm Brand.  Even Craven himself took a shot at toppling Freddy with his new monster: Horace Pinker (the great Mitch Pileggi) in 1989’s Shocker.

But by 1991, somehow, Freddy Krueger was played out. The last series film, Freddy’s Dead (1991), was a disaster, and his TV show (Freddy’s Nightmares) was cancelled after just two seasons.

After years holding on, and being praised as the best of the slasher pack, Freddy lost his cultural currency.

So New Line Studios did the only thing that made sense. It went back to Freddy’s dad, Wes Craven, one more time, and he devised a new twist on his most beloved character.  Craven revived the series, -- at least from an artistic stand-point -- with the brilliant Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994).

As Kim Newman pointed out in Sight and Sound (Jan 1, 1995, pg.62), “The major achievement of the film, given the complicated mix of in-jokery and philosophy and the by-now familiar nature of Freddy’s schtick, is that Craven manages to make things scary again.”

That was a big deal, considering the fact that after five sequels, Freddy had become more circus ringmaster than slashing, menacing murderer.

But even better, New Nightmare was scary in a smart way. The New York Post’s Thelma Adams observed that it is a “rippingly good movie-within-a-movie, a pop Day for Nightmare.”  Indeed, the film’s is-it-real-or-is-it-a-movie approach to the action might very well be seen as the missing link binding 1980s slashers to the most popular horror franchise of the 1990s: Scream (1996).

I love New Nightmare, however, not merely because it is scary, and not merely because it plays with our understanding of reality (and indeed, franchise history). 

Rather, I adore the film because it speaks meaningfully about the horror film’s place in American society.  It erects, brilliantly, in my estimation, a pro-social case for the horror film as art. 

Horror films offer a very necessary catharsis for our society, states the film's thesis. The monsters that we don’t capture on the screen will haunt us in real life. Thus horror movies not only “bottle” such monsters, butthey  help children grapple with the idea of evil in a way that does not endanger them, and, to the contrary, shows them how to survive.

A good scary story is more than entertainment. It is a journey survived, an obstacle overcome, a mountain climbed. A good horror movie can demonstrate how, once destroyed, order can be restored. It can shows us that monsters are defeatable, just as life's troubles can be defeated.

In case you couldn't tell, I love this film, and everything it stands -- and fights -- for.

"Every kid knows who Freddy is.  He's like Santa Claus. Or King Kong."

Former horror movie star Heather Langenkamp grows agitated when, following an earthquake in Los Angeles, she learns that her young son, Dylan (Miko Hughes) has been watching her Nightmare on Elm Street films.   

Worse, she is being stalked by an obscene phone caller, and is having nightmares about Freddy.

Before long, it seems as Freddy (Robert Englund) himself is crossing over into our reality, and using Dylan as a vessel to do so.

Desperate, Heather seeks the advice of her friend, John Saxon (himself) and horror movie guru, Wes Craven (himself), who suggests that it is time for the actress to reprise her role of Nancy Thompson if she hopes to defeat an ancient demon that has taken the shape of Freddy Krueger.

"I think the only way to stop him is to make another movie."

At its most basic form, Wes Craven's New Nightmare is a parent’s personal journey towards enlightenment.  

As the film commences, Heather obsessively protects her son Dylan from the danger of “scary movies,” of horror films, that she perceives. 

She admits that she wouldn’t allow Dylan to see her own motion pictures, namely Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, and that she is uncertain about “doing horror roles" because of their impact on Dylan and other children his age. 

She thus makes an argument that all horror film fans  have heard again and again. Horror movies are bad! They are bad for society, and bad for young eyes!

Additionally, Heather does not understand why her boy -- here representing all of America’s children -- is drawn to scary stories in the first place.  Regarding Hansel & Gretel, Heather declares, “it’s so violent, I don’t know why you like it.”  

Horror movie fans have heard that one too. 

I get this one all the time, especially when I reveal how much I appreciate Last House on the Left (1972), or Straw Dogs (1971).  

How can someone so gentle, so nice, actually like movies filled with such horrible violence?  

Well, unlike a lot of folks, I prefer all my horrible violence to be on screen, not in real life. I work out my fears, my anxieties in these movies, imagining the unimaginable, and feeling a catharsis when I have survived it.

But back to the movie.  

As a result of his mother’s repression of horror films and bedtime stories, young Dylan becomes partially possessed by the demons he has only half-glimpsed in these apparent fiction.  

Because he has not seen the entire picture, the whole film A Nightmare on Elm Street, he has not witnessed his mother defeat Freddy’s evil. He is therefore left vulnerable to evil influences and emotions. He has nowhere to put that "horror" and no way to achieve closure.

To illustrate this point, Craven’s screenplay has Dylan awaken as if from a trance each time Heather turns off the television to censor his viewing.  His need for security is shattered, and Dylan screams in horror.  

Significantly, he is not frightened by the images of terror unfolding on the screen, but because his mother has robbed him of narrative closure; of the knowledge that, in the end, evil is defeated and the world is returned to normal.

Similarly, as Heather reads Hansel and Gretel to Dylan for the umpteenth time, he orders her to finish the story before he goes to sleep.  

Say how they find their way home, it’s important,” he insists.  

Craven’s implication here is that children like to be scared and that stimulating horror stories/films serve as an outlet for this need.  By seeing a scary story all the way through to its conclusion, children learn that they too can beat scary influences in real life. Horror makes them aware that they will survive.  

The form is cathartic, in addition to being fun.

As the plot of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare develops, Heather realizes that, as Craven eloquently puts it, an evil repressed can sometimes break through into “safe” reality.  A woman who has refused to allow her child to see horror films is then thrust unexpectedly into the position of defending them.  

“I’m convinced that those films can send an unstable child over the edge!” the well-meaning but parochial Dr. Heffner declares, but the horror Dylan faces is not imagined bur real, ironically, because the Freddy films are no longer being made in the 1990s.  

When they were produced in the 1980s, the series served as a healthy outlet for teenage fears and anxieties.  Since they have stopped, evil has escaped into the real world and is doing massive damage.

Craven explores this theme of horror as acceptable, even desirable outlet for fear by crafting an ongoing parallel between his Elm Street universe and the grim childhood story Hansel and Gretel.  

Since Hansel and Gretel is deemed acceptable “bedtime reading” by most parents, a Nightmare on Elm Street is, by extension, also acceptable. And like the witch in the scary fairy tale, Freddy Krueger even tries to shove Dylan into an oven and in the film’s denouement is cooked himself. 

In stalking the young boy, Freddy declares, “I’m gonna eat you up!” and that he has some “gingerbread” for the boy, and these moments heighten the film’s similarity to written folklore. 

The film’s conclusion is the final reiteration of this leitmotif as Heather and Dyaln sit together and read the New Nightmare script from start to finish as the camera gently pulls away from the duo, both safe and sound. 

This reading provides closure and vanquishes Freddy forever to the world of imagination…or at least until people stop making horror movies about this particular demon once more.

Rich in theme and intellectual heft, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare not only examines parental responsibility and the healthy aspects of the horror film, it is also profoundly self-referential in its commentary on the world of Hollywood filmmaking. Freddy masks, costumes, gloves and affectionate fan signs are all seen on the talk show stage. Memorabilia from the Elm Street line, including reference books, action figures and paintings are seen in executive Bob Shaye’s office, and fans like the creepy limo driver pop up everywhere and startle poor Heather in the tradition of Freddy himself.

Craven pointedly contrasts the fanaticism of some fans with the blasé attitude of those who make the films and profit from them.

That thing puts bread on our table,” Chase reminds Heather when she petulantly objects to Freddy’s new razor glove. 

“The fans, god bless ‘em, they’re clamoring for more,” Bob Shaye laughs, realizing that he has a money-making bonanza in this particular franchise.

Indeed, the very fact that the tenth anniversary of A Nightmare on Elm Street is a plot point in the film speaks to both fan devotion and executive greed.  Amusingly, Craven bites the hand that feed him here.  At the same time that he makes another horror sequel for New Line and Shaye, he criticizes the company for literally running Freddy into the ground.  

Freddy has returned to the real world not just because of repression, but because his mythos has become overly familiar, too watered down by mainstream concerns to be scary anymore. 

Even as New Nightmare slams past sequels, it is loaded with references visual and verbal to past entries in the Elm Street film cycle.  It is a movie about transformation and alternate reality bleeding in to ours, so by the movie’s climax Heather’s world has turned into the world of the 1984 film.  John Saxon is suddenly her father, her blond babysitter dies like blond Tina died, and so on. Heather's hair even goes gray again, and she finds herself inadvertently repeating dialogue from the original film such as “whatever you do, don’t fall asleep” and “screw your pass!”

The first Nightmare on Elm Street is not the only series entry referenced here. 

Dr. Heffner, the disbelieving professional, echoes Dr. Elizabeth Simms in Dream Warriors (1987), who felt that Freddy wasn’t real but rather a byproduct of “rampant” adolescent sexuality.  

The roadside death of a male protagonist, Chase, is reminiscent of Alice’s boyfriend Dan and his death in The Dream Child (1989), down to the inclusion of a pick-up truck in the sequence.  Another repetition from the fifth film is the subplot that a child can serve as a vessel of evil, one which Freddy can operate. 

 Finally, Heather’s comment to Dylan that people can only enter other people’s dreams in the movies represents a sly put-down of the premise of Dream Warriors.

By re-interpreting these standards of the Nightmare on Elm Street film series, New Nightmare transcends the familiar mythos and actually becomes oddly unpredictable.  Viewers believe they know all the twists, but all the twists are, themselves, twisted and given new meaning (and thus power) in their revision.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare contains many intricate realities.  For instance, the audience here is watching a horror movie concerning an actress planning to play herself in a horror movie. Fictional and real worlds overlap, and this is buttressed by the presence of Nick Corri, Robert Englund, Sara Risher, Craven and others, all playing themselves in the drama.  

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare also succeeds on a primal, childhood level. It plays on fears of the dark, monsters, “what’s under the bed,” anxieties about hospitals, and more.  It also deftly blends humor with the fear of losing a child, that which is most valuable and innocent in the world. 

So credit Wes Craven -- 25 years ago -- for doing something here that many thought was impossible on Freddy K's tenth birthday.

He breathed new life into an old monster, and an old form too.

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