VHS Revival breathes 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 the case for those who had caught Freddy fever during his late ’80s commercial pomp. The original A Nightmare On Elm Street was always my favourite instalment, even as a horror-obsessed preteen, but I was no less immune to New Line Cinema’s marketing chicanery. I too craved the mountains of crappy, youth-oriented merchandise, strutting around the playground with an imaginary claw and adopting the guise of cinema’s most infamous child killer — 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.
The A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise is an odd cookie. In 1984, director Wes Craven freshened the moribund slasher genre with his once in a lifetime concept. The filmmaker hadn’t planned a sequel for a movie that 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 had taken a punt on a screenplay that most of Hollywood had passed around with glib disinterest, Craven agreed to the kind of obscure ending that would curtail the movie’s masterpiece status while forging one of the most successful franchises in the history of the genre. Creativity and business have long been at loggerheads, and this was an emphatic example of the industry’s most conflicted paradigm.
That sequel came in the form of the hugely divisive Freddy’s Revenge, a movie that ditched Craven’s dream world concept for a straight-up possession story. If that wasn’t enough to turn some fans off, they also elected to neglect Charles Bernstein’s score, a gut-wrenching lullaby that encapsulated Freddy’s sadistic omnipotence. They even had the gall to ditch Robert Englund as a cost-cutting move until quickly realising that he and Krueger were inseparable. But for many Freddy’s Revenge is a cult classic, thanks in large part to its glaring gay subtext — a fact that has since been dismissed by writer David Chaskin — 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.
Heather Langenkamp: Every kid knows who Freddy is. He’s like Santa Claus… or King Kong.
Conceptually, Part 2 was not sufficient for the long haul, and two years later the series would return to the original concept with a bang. With Craven back on board and pushing the boundaries of Krueger’s dream world canvas, A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors proved a huge success both creatively and financially. Sure, the movie’s fantasy elements would marginally dilute the terror, but on the whole they got the balance just right, transforming Krueger into a cultural phenomenon who would rule the horror landscape. Here, the movie became a platform for some of the most dazzling practical effects the industry had ever seen, and Freddy would soon cross over 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!
And welcome him we did. A year later, A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master would become the most successful instalment in the franchise, grossing $49,400,000 from a $13,000,000 dollar outlay — at incredible sum for a slasher picture in the late 1980s. So confident were New Line in milking their marquee attraction that they turned down the opportunity of a potentially mouthwatering 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, and in more ways than one. Though The Dream Master featured some of the most impressive practical effects ever committed to celluloid, the horror had been almost completely drained as Krueger frolicked on a beach in some wayfarers, dressed up in drag and performed one of the most vomit-inducing end credits raps ever conceived. By no means the worst in the series, but this was the one where the rot truly set in.
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 once fearsome creation whose fantasy dominance would make 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. Put succinctly, he was the laughing stock of genre diehards the world over.
By that time, even the most ardent Krueger fans had become just a little tired of how New Line had handled their marquee killer, and the prospect of yet another sequel a mere three years after ‘The Final Nightmare’ would likely prove a tough sell, but Craven was nothing if not innovative, and if anyone was to resuscitate ‘the bastard child of a thousand 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, and a decade after the ingenious A Nightmare on Elm Street, he would treat us to the seemingly revolutionary meta extravaganza Scream, a movie that turned the horror genre in on itself.
By that time, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, a movie released less than two years before, had all but been forgotten, while its heir apparent raked in a whopping $173,000,000 at the box office, almost eight times its lowly antecedent. But Scream was merely a suped-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 that would change the face of horror during the late-’90s — for better and for worse. Why Krueger’s comeback floundered is a subject that is up for debate, but for many the class clown stigma had clawed its way into the memory banks and its etchings were deep. 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.
But ‘New Nightmare’ was a wonderfully fresh and unorthodox venture back in 1994. It isn’t perfect. It lacks the commercial savvy of the much better received Scream, but it did most of the legwork, and in many respects it is the real 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 ’90s. Period.
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?
For those who had grown lovelorn over a franchise that had betrayed their loyalties and passions, this was the potion to rekindle their infatuation. Like Scream, New Nightmare is a movie within a movie, one so literal that the once imaginary Krueger crosses over into reality to haunt members of the original cast as Wes 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. For a moment I even drew comparisons to the legions of big break actors crushed by the franchise curse, the overall lesson being: be careful what you wish for. Heather Langenkamp, here playing a fictional version of herself, is that movie’s reluctant star, the gatekeeper who Freddy must overcome in order to cross that tenuous line into the realms of ‘reality’.
It is in that reality where we find an endless parade of familiar faces, some obvious and some not so much. Of course 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 determination forged on fragility. 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 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 to her, particularly when a series of earthquakes and other unusual incidents seem to bear Krueger’s familiar mark. So profuse is Krueger’s stench that it begins to have an a effect on her young son, who naturally struggles to distinguish fiction from reality, and boy is he in for a surprise!
The faces on display here are a joy to behold. Of course we have Robert Englund himself, alternating between Krueger at his most ludicrous and a Hollywood darling dripping with tinsel town flamboyance. John Saxon makes a brief yet essential return in yet another dual role, while even producer Shaye and his sister Lin make an appearance, the latter notable for her brief role as a high school teacher in the original A Nightmare On Elm Street. As well as a plethora of welcome cameos there are a series of visual and audio nods that succeed in turning ‘reality’ into fiction. While a studio of talk show guests cheer on Englund’s farcical antics, guest Langenkamp views him from a much darker perspective, his fictional alter ego striking a pose similar to one found in Freddy’s Revenge when Krueger wreaks havoc on a pool party, one of the most visually unsettling shots in the entire series.
Other than that, there are echoes of the original movie everywhere: 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 halls 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 and steadily handled blurring of the margins. 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?
Junior Nurse with Needle: Ma’am, this is a restricted area. Do you have a pass?
Heather Langenkamp: Screw your pass.
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 is refreshing to see very little of him until the movie’s final act, and when we finally do the movie is at its weakest. Still, Craven understood exactly what New Line had done to his most cherished creation, and he knew exactly how to fix it. In the end we come full circle. In an exquisitely twisted moment that marks Freddy’s Earthly transcendence, John Saxon begins calling Heather Nancy, and as the illusion grows the sentiment is reciprocated. Next we see Freddy tearing through Nancy’s sheets, Bernstein’s iconic score creeping into existence, and finally we are set for the kind of showdown that once had audiences flocking to the theatres in their droves.
All of this happens seamlessly — exactly what the majority of sequels were lacking. This is more than just a series of crowd-pleasing set-pieces designed to bring in the moolah, it is the kind of platform that Freddy thrives on, the very same that made him so unique in the first place. Here we have a monster who haunts the periphery of our subconsciousness, one who plays with our emotions and pounces when we are at our weakest. He is elusive, intangible and utterly terrifying.
As the sequels rolled on following the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, those in charge jeopardised the essence of the Krueger character. They sacrificed sure footing for a killing stroke, and when the floor gave way they latched onto a carnival air balloon powered by the ashes of their ill-gotten gains. Craven has to be held responsible to some degree, and New Nightmare was a platform to right those wrongs. It didn’t ring any commercial bells, but he gave us the sequel that both he and Krueger deserved. After years of the character dwindling in the creative doldrums, Craven finally got his baby back, and it’s an absolute scream.