Breathing new life into horror’s quiet innovator
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is one of those movies that was simply lost on people. This was especially true for those who caught Freddy fever during the character’s late 80s pomp, many of them kids who had no right buying into a fictional child killer, one they had been so ruthlessly and unethically sold. As a horror-obsessed preteen, I was no less immune to New Line Cinema’s marketing chicanery. I too craved the mountains of crappy merchandise, haunting the school playground with an imaginary claw while adopting the guise of horror’s most perverse headliner — my hero for a brief period. It’s absurd to imagine such a scenario in today’s commercial climate, or any other for that matter. Never in the history of horror has such an unlikely role model found passage into the realms of peewee product marketing. It’s pretty sick when you think about it.
The A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise is an odd cookie. In 1984, director Wes Craven freshened the moribund slasher with his once in a lifetime concept. The filmmaker hadn’t planned a sequel for a movie he saw as a one-shot deal, but for low-budget producer Robert Shaye the film’s success was too much of a good thing to pass up on, and since he’d taken a punt on a screenplay that had been passed around with glib disinterest, Craven agreed to the kind of obscure ending that would curtail the movie’s masterpiece status, at the same time forging one of the most successful franchises in the history of the genre.
That sequel came in the form of the hugely divisive Freddy’s Revenge, a movie that ditched Craven’s dreamworld concept for a straight-up possession story, the kind that almost put the series on the shelf. Producers even had the gall to ditch Robert Englund as a cost-cutting move until quickly realising that he and Krueger were inseparable. For many, Freddy’s Revenge is a cult classic, thanks in large part to its glaringly obvious homosexual subtext at a time when ‘gay panic’ movies were cropping up everywhere and an interesting ‘final boy’ in Mark Patton’s hugely conflicted Jesse Walsh. Whatever your opinion of Freddy’s Revenge, it’s certainly memorable, and off the back of Craven’s sleeper hit did huge numbers at the box office.
Two years later the series would return to the original concept after director Chuck Russell convinced New Line that Freddy was still the future. A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors proved a huge success both creatively and financially. The movie’s fantasy elements would marginally dilute the terror, pushing the series in a direction that would jeopardise Krueger’s status as a serious genre villain going forward, but on the whole they got the balance just right, transforming the character into a cultural phenomenon who would rule the horror landscape. The Dream Warriors triggered the character’s transition into the realms of pop culture superstardom, one of the movie’s most memorable kills seeing him emerge from a television set to deliver the line that would change actor Robert Englund’s life forever. Welcome to prime time, bitch!
Every kid knows who Freddy is. He’s like Santa Claus… or King Kong.Heather Langenkamp
And welcome him we did. A year later, A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master became the most successful instalment in the franchise, grossing $49,400,000 on a budget of $13,000,000 — an incredible sum for a slasher picture during the late 1980s. So confident were New Line in milking their marquee attraction that they even turned down the opportunity of a potentially mouth-watering Freddy vs Jason crossover with an increasingly desperate Paramount pictures, whose once-colossal Friday the 13th Franchise was sailing towards a period of box office recession, both figuratively and literally. Though The Dream Master featured some of the most impressive practical effects of the era, the horror had been almost completely drained as Krueger frolicked on a beach in wayfarers, dressed up in drag and performed one of the most vomit-inducing end credits raps ever conceived. The Dream Master was by no means the worst in the series, but the writing was on the wall.
Box office returns reflected this. A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child grossed less than half of its predecessor, taking Krueger’s comedy act to excruciating levels, and by the time Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare was through with its desperate 3-D debacle, the franchise had been drained of all worth. A fearsome creation whose fantasy dominance had once made bath time a very precarious prospect indeed, Krueger had become a purveyor of Nintendo power gloves, a flogger of underwhelming comic book disasters, an OG emcee and a manufacturer of kids’ pyjamas. All traces of the original character had slipped down the commercial plughole.
By that point, even the most ardent Krueger fans had become just a little jaded with New Line’s handling of the character, the prospect of yet another like-for-like sequel a mere three years after ‘The Final Nightmare’ hardly a mouthwatering prospect. But Craven was nothing if not innovative, and if anyone was to resuscitate ‘the bastard child of a hundred maniacs’, it was his creative father. In 1972, Craven added a touch of artistry to the exploitation genre with the Ingmar Bergman inspired revenge flick The Last House on the Left, triggering a period of edgy realism in horror that led to slasher progenitor’s such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. A decade after the ingenious A Nightmare on Elm Street, he would treat us to revolutionary meta extravaganza Scream, a movie that turned the horror genre in on itself, reinventing the slasher for a whole new generation.
By that time, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, a movie released less than two years prior, was already a distant memory, its heir apparent raking in a whopping $173,000,000 at the box office. But Scream was merely a souped-up successor to Krueger’s harshly overlooked comeback vehicle, a movie that was able to wrap New Nightmare‘s groundbreaking meta experiment in a cute commercial package, changing the face of horror during the late 90s. Why Krueger’s comeback floundered is a subject for debate, but for many Freddy’s class clown stigma had clawed its way into the memory banks and the etchings were deep. A once groundbreaking character had become dated and overbearing, a monument to creative complacency and indie studio ambition. For this reason, New Nightmare has become something of a footnote, a movie written about as an underrated gem, a venture appreciated by the few and abandoned by the many. In the realms of creative sabotage, you reap what you sow.
John Saxon: What the hell is going on, Nancy?
Heather Langenkamp: Why are you calling me Nancy, John?
John Saxon: Why are you calling me John? Nancy, pull yourself together before you make yourself and that kid nuts.
Heather Langenkamp: John! Would you call Robert?
John Saxon: Robert?
Heather Langenkamp: Robert Englund. You know, the guy who plays Freddy.
John Saxon: Freddy who?
But ‘New Nightmare’ was a wonderfully fresh and unorthodox venture back in 1994. It isn’t perfect. It lacks the commercial savvy of Scream, perhaps because New Line felt that Krueger was a big enough draw by himself, but it did most of the legwork, and in many respects the film is Craven’s original meta innovator. The movie has a love/hate relationship with the series, acting as a cute and loving ode while mocking everything that flushed the series down the commercial toilet. It is hyper-referential and wonderfully self-reflexive. It is a stripping-down and building up of the series on a monumental level, and easily one of the finest horror movies to come out of the early 90s.
For those tired of a franchise that had become little more than a glorified cash cow, New Nightmare was the film to rekindle that Krueger flame. Like Scream, New Nightmare is a movie within a movie, one so literal the once-imaginary Krueger, or more accurately an ancient demon who assumes Krueger’s form, crosses over into reality to haunt members of the original cast as Craven pens his latest ‘sequel’, one that begins to spell out the fate of its stars before they’ve even signed up for the project. Known simply as the Entity, the character brings a sense of reality to the franchise, acknowledging Krueger as a fictional creation while presenting us with a familiar re-imagining, an omen dredged from the realms of creative folklore.
The concept works on so many levels, particularly as a multifaceted commentary on the series that preceded it. A scene in which original final girl, Heather Langenkamp, appears on a fictional talk show alongside a Freddy-garbed Robert Englund is particularly inspired, the actor basking in the adulation of an audience of Krueger zealots while his former co-star frets in the shadows, viewing the character in a very different light. That particular scene, which sees Englund strike a pose reminiscent of the “you are all my children now” moment in Freddy’s Revenge, left me drawing comparisons to the legions of ‘big break’ actors pigeonholed by the franchise curse, the overall lesson being: be careful what you wish for.
As Craven would explain in a 1999 interview, “Every one of us in that series had been somehow touched forever by the phenomenon of A Nightmare on Elm Street: Robert Englund was always known as Freddy, Heather and Nancy were inextricable, New Line Cinema had sort of been built on it. So, when I came away from that conversation I called up Bob Shaye and said, ‘You know, I think I want to make a movie about the phenomenon of the movie, and use that as the basis, and jump outside of the story entirely.
Langenkamp, here playing a fictional version of herself, is the movie within a movie’s reluctant star, the gatekeeper who the Entity must overcome in order to cross that tenuous line into the realms of ‘reality’. The Entity has been trapped within the franchise ever since the first A Nightmare on Elm Street, entering the real world after the series-ending Freddy’s Dead, but in order to fully escape it must kill the actress who portrayed the character who first killed Krueger. It must do what its fictional counterpart never could.
All of this taps into the subject of horror movie censorship, which was a hot topic back when Krueger burst onto the scene in 1984, slasher contemporaries such as Jason Voorhees succumbing to the increasingly pedantic moral outrage of a generation. In the UK, the media-spun ‘video nasty’ campaign ran headlines such as ‘The Rape of Our Children’s Minds’, damning modern horror movies as the inspiration for real-life violence, a subject that has been at the forefront of creative endeavour for as long as it has existed.
“[I] also try to deal with this whole idea of censorship and whether horror films are good or bad and whether they cause people to do things,” Craven would say. “Because that has been a consistent question continuously asked of me and I think everyone else making horror films. ‘Aren’t you afraid that your films cause this or that?’ And my sense was, again going all the way back to Greek mythology, is there’s a lot of great literature that is about horror, and that somehow a story about horror in a sense exercises it. It gives it a form. It’s the same as Nancy dragging [Freddy’s] hat out of a dream. It’s the beginning of being able to come to terms with it. And that if you were to prevent these stories you would in a sense be allowing something that is ineffable to sort of travel unimpeded through our consciousness, because it would not have a name, it would not have a shape given to it, so that in any sense we could recognise it. So that became the essence of [New Nightmare], you know, stopping the stories of Freddy really allowed him to cross over into real life.”
It is in that reality that we find an endless parade of familiar faces, some obvious and some not so much. There’s Heather, ten years older but as beautiful as ever, proving exactly why she is one of the most enduring final girls in slasher history with a quiet, almost fragile determination. The original Nancy was inquisitive and resourceful, and here we see a wiser variation, grounded but open to the supernatural, haunted by a fictional character whose importance in her life will never wane. Heather is pigeonholed as Krueger’s most tenacious opponent, a fact driven home by leering limo drivers and talk show hosts looking to exploit her legacy any which way they can. Like the colossal shadow that New Line’s shameless micromanaging left hanging over the series, Heather is similarly burdened, so much that it all feels just a little too real, particularly when a series of earthquakes and other unusual incidents seem to possess Krueger’s familiar mark. So profuse is Freddy’s stench that it begins to have an effect on her young son, who naturally struggles to distinguish fiction from reality, yet another self-reflexive quirk audiences can relate to, and boy is he in for a surprise!
The faces on display are a joy to behold. After all the nonsense and paper-thin characters served up during those later instalments, it’s nice to remember that Krueger was once the very real scourge of a very relatable suburbia, a character with a dark past, not a glorified stand-up act propping up a series of contrived set-pieces. Once again, the distinction between dreams and reality is palpable, the concept a trigger for fear and isolation rather than a mere platform for practical effects hi-jinks. John Saxon makes a brief but essential return in yet another dual role as Heather’s fictional father and real-life friend. Even producer Shaye and sister Lin make an appearance, the latter notable for her brief role as a high school teacher in the original instalment. Fittingly, Craven the creator is at the heart of it all, portraying a director in possession of such a potent screenplay that it develops a life beyond his control — a nod to censorship, but also a reflection of the evolving franchise at large.
We also have Robert Englund playing himself, alternating between Krueger at his most ludicrous and a Hollywood darling dripping with tinsel town flamboyance — both overtly fictional representations. The incarnation of Krueger that breaks through that fourth wall, also played by Englund, is an entirely different entity, a truly wicked creation redolent of the original character. The weight of Krueger’s glove famously had an effect on England’s posture while shooting the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. Rather than view this as a hindrance, the actor used it to his advantage, revelling in the kind of gunslinger stance that would become a character trademark. The addition of a long rider trench coat and knee-high combat boots only embellishes that vibe in New Nightmare. The film’s real-world Krueger is stripped of fanciful quirks for the most part, stalking our cast like a barely glimpsed wild west demon, bladed fingers replacing the original glove. Some have criticised the character’s aesthetic reimagining, but it’s such a refreshing change from the increasingly mainstream designs that made Krueger a lovable rogue rather than a reprehensible child killer. Here, the character is far more intimidating, harbouring a palpable darkness befitting of Craven’s original incarnation. For the first time in a long time, Krueger is pure and simply evil.
Fittingly, the film’s most engaging moments echo the original movie: Heather turning grey just like Nancy; an almost identical recreation of Tina’s ceiling-bound death; a repeat of the infamous telephone scene that unashamedly displays Krueger’s perverse wit, and when a nurse stops Heather in the hospital hallway and asks to see her pass, our heroine hits her with a rather familiar answer. All of this is far from throwaway; it is a carefully controlled, beautifully handled blurring of the margins, the kind the series had all but abandoned in favour of cartoon set-pieces more in-tune with a fairground ride than the distorted, disorienting realms of the subconscious. From the moment Heather spies the familiar claw marks on her deceased husband’s chest she becomes as isolated as Nancy in the original movie, more so even, because if Nancy was deemed irrational in a fictional world, what chance does her ‘real’ self have of convincing others of Freddy’s existence?
Screw your pass.Heather Langenkamp
With Craven back in the directorial hot seat, the vague delineations between the dream world and ‘reality’ are once again crafted with wit, imagination and mind-bending plausibility. After years of Krueger overexposure, it’s refreshing to see very little of him until the movie’s final act. When the character finally emerges from the fictional dust, the nature of his Earthly transcendence is inspired, the concept finally coming full-circle. When John Saxon suddenly begins calling Heather by her fictional name, her loosening grasp on reality — an accusation thrown at her by the film’s cast — becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy to the extent that she even reciprocates, falling deeper into a fictional world that is slowly becoming the only reality she knows. After years of being referred to as Nancy by moviegoers, what a breathe of fresh air it must have been for an actress whose career has no doubt been restricted by her iconic status.
The same might be said of Englund. Once again Freddy is at his insidious, sadistic best. The demon has imitated him body, mind and soul, manipulating the human constraints that helped maintain the character’s illusiveness. Carefully, respectfully, the film unearths a unique creation long-buried, and when the Entity tears through Nancy’s bedsheets to the first creeping notes of Charles Bernstein’s iconic score, it feels like creative reparation. It always rankled me how they ditched Freddy’s theme for alternate scores and teen-oriented pop flourishes. In the annals of horror, very few themes capture the essence of a movie monster quite like Bernstein’s scathing lullaby. It’s such a welcome addition to New Nightmare. It proves essential to Krueger’s meta rebirth.
When we finally get the prerequisite showdown in the Entity’s practical effects-heavy domain, the movie is at its weakest, but on the whole Craven goes back to basics with New Nightmare, giving us a monster befitting of the character’s original backstory. Finally, we are able to dismiss the convoluted developments of those later sequels, the asylum rapes and undisclosed daughters that would tarnish the character’s mystique. The days of Krueger cavorting on a witches broomstick or dabbling in silly ACME-style shenanigans are well and truly over. Here we have an austere monster who haunts the periphery of our subconscious, who plays with our emotions and pounces when we are at our weakest. He is elusive, intangible, utterly terrifying. The Entity may only be a manifestation of Krueger, but it is Krueger in essence, more so than the majority of those original sequels.
New Nightmare wasn’t a huge financial success, managing a rather unremarkable $19,721,741 worldwide. The broader audience wasn’t ready for such a cerebral digression it seems, especially when applied to an established character that carried certain expectations, one we had come to know just a little too well. Craven would address this two years later, tweaking the concept for a brand new franchise, but commercialism aside, New Nightmare was the sequel that he and the character deserved. After years of watching Krueger dwindle in the creative doldrums, Craven finally got his baby back, and it’s an absolute scream.