Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

Three years after the aptly titled Freddy’s Dead: the Final Nightmare (1991)NoES fans were chomping at the bit for the inevitable return of their favorite slasher.   As such, when New Line announced that not only was Freddy coming back but Wes Craven, the creator of the series, would be returning to direct, the fans rejoiced at the prospect of the film series’ return to form.  A chance to get back to the formula that made it great.  Then, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare premiered in theaters and they all collectively cried, “Um…what?”

Heather Langenkamp stars as “Heather Langenkamp” as Wes Craven offers her the part of “Heather Langenkamp” in “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare,” all the while she and her son Dylan (Miko Hughes) are being haunted/hunted by Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) with nary a teenager in sight.  Confused?  That is because Craven has gone all meta-textual on us.

The film takes place in the “real world” in which the NoES series are films.  As it turns out, evil incarnate can be captured like a genie in a bottle if a storyteller can create a persona so rotten that “evil” enjoys staying in the story.  However, if the story ends, evil gets bored and starts to roam once again.  “Evil” has enjoyed being Freddy Krueger for so long that it is not ready to give it up yet and takes steps to ensure that another movie is made.

Wow, that sounds even more ludicrous than when Craven explains it in the film.

This is not a great film.  This is not even a great horror film.  The scares are few and far between.  It plays more like a psychological thriller/child endangerment film than the slasher gore-fest fans of the series had come to expect.  However, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is an incredible coda to the NoES series.

Filmed ten years after the original, New Nightmare shows the audience a vision of what the people that made one of our favorite horror films are up to and how their involvement in the seminal work affected their lives.  At several points in the film, Langenkamp is directly how she feels about violence in film now that she is a mother and she, like others in the film industry, do not have an easy answer.  It is interesting how the Freddy character in this film acts as a surrogate for the audience: he does not want the films to end and refuses to see Langenkamp as anyone other than Nancy Thompson.

And can you blame him?  Langenkamp is just great in this movie as is Robert Englund, who always knows just the right amount of weird to put in every performance.   Craven made it easier for him by redesigning Freddy to look even more sinister than before.  Nothing says “I like to hurt little children” more than a black leather trench coat.  All the while, there are cameos from former cast members, homages, and other easter eggs placed throughout the film.

Like I said, this is not a great film.  It does not stand up well on its own.  However, it is a great ending to the series and helped Craven test drive a lot of the ideas that would be developed to great effect in Scream (1996).

Nightmare on Elm St. 3: The Dream Warriors

What does a production company do after it follows it’s breakout hit horror film with an introspective look at a young man’s homosexual awakening? (Link) Well if you're producer Robert Shaye, you go back to well!  Chuck Russell’s 1987 film A Nightmare on Elm Street part 3: The Dream Warriors features the return of subjective reality, a high body count, both Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and Donald Thompson (John Saxon), and-most importantly-women!

Kristin Parker (Patricia Arquette) is having, you guessed it, sleeping problems to the point where it appears to her negligent mother (Brooke Bundy) that Kristin’s trying to kill herself.  Little does she understand is that Freddy’s (Robert Englund) back once again to terrorize the teens on Elm Street.  Little does Freddy understand is that when teens are trapped in a mental ward because of their group psychosis, said teens will unionize!  Under Nancy’s leadership, the troubled teens of Elm Street learn that they each have a unique “dream power” that can be used against Freddy.  But will it be enough to send Krueger back to hell?  Well, no, but luckily psychologist Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson) is armed with holy water and a crucifix.  Wait, isn’t that for…?  Nevermind, he seems confident enough.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this installment of the NoES series.  Dream Warriors is essentially the Goldfinger (1964) of Freddy films in that it solidified the formula that would define every film to follow.  It introduced the “one defining character trait/ironic death” motif, the dream power, Freddy’s control over the dream setting, the opening quotes, and the bizarre methods of death.  Dream Warriors also brought back the gimmick of Freddy killing people in a manner that was explainable in the real world, thus throwing suspicion off him.  Because blaming a dead man that murders people through dreams is completely plausible.

The death scenes in this installment are grotesque.  The artery-strings on Phillip (Bradley Gregg) still make me cringe.  Whereas Taryn’s (Jennifer Rubin) track mark mouths are simply wrong.  And then there’s Dick Cavett.  Dick Cavett attacks Zsa Zsa Gabor with Freddy’s glove.  You can't mock that.

Equally important is the defining of the Freddy character.  After two films, Freddy is now in the spotlight.  He’s using superpowers and cracking the jokes that audiences would identify with him forever after.  Also important, the “soul chest” is shown for the first time, explaining how Freddy gains his evil powers and stores the souls of his victims.

Except for A New Nightmare (1994) and Freddy vs. Jason (2003), every subsequent film follows the Dream Warriors mold.  And with good reason, Dream Warriors is just a good horror film, the result of great filmmakers like Chuck Russell, Frank Darabont and Wes Craven working together to make THE 80s supernatural slasher.  And if that’s not enough, Dokken plays the title track over the credits.  Dokken.

Nightmare on Elm St.

When most people think of writer/director Wes Craven, they think of the "big" movies: Swamp Thing (1982)Vampire in Brooklyn (1995)Music of the Heart (1999), you know ...the hits.  But, gentle reader, today I'd like to talk about one of his lesser known works: A Nightmare on Elm Street.

“If Nancy doesn’t wake up screaming, she won’t wake up at all!”

Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) is the daughter of one of the many couples from Elm Street that burned a suspected child-murderer named Fred Krueger (Robert Englund) alive.  Little did those civic-minded suburbanites realize that they’d unwittingly unleashed something much worse.  Now able to enter a victim’s dream and make any injury a reality, Fred has decided to exact terrible, bloody revenge on the children of his murderers.

The film’s greatest strength is Craven’s ability to blur the line between what the audience perceives as a dream, and reality.  Characters get up, walk around, perform normal activities only to realize too late that they’ve fallen asleep.  Craven cleverly gives the clues to audience members that are paying close attention such as the Shakespeare recitation in Nancy’s English class.  Before Nancy falls asleep, the student is reciting from Julius Caesar.  Once asleep, the passage changes to Hamlet. Craven’s biggest trick is the entire ending sequence.  Note how, after Nancy goes to sleep to find Fred and pull him out of the nightmare, she never wakes up!  Pay strict attention to position of Nancy’s blanket and the dream-like atmosphere of the end and you’ll see what I mean.

The film’s second greatest strength is Robert Englund.  Bucking the trend of silent, masked stalkers, Craven decided to create an actual character and cast a great character actor.  Even though the lighting is poor and he’s covered in the pizza-face make-up, one can still see Englund embuing Fred with a  real personality and malevolence.  Though in this first installment, Krueger is not the “star,” it comes as no surprise that his screen time increased with each succeeding film, to the character’s detriment, unfortunately.

Admittedly, most of the effects are a little dated at this point. However, Craven still delivers some of the most iconic death scenes of the slasher genre.  Tina’s (Amanda Wyss) anti-gravity agony is particularly disturbing.  And then there’s whatever Fred did to Johnny Depp .  Nobody knows.  All we know is he got sucked down into his mattress and a geyser of 300 gallons of blood erupted 30 seconds later.

I’d be remiss if I did not give composer Charles Bernstein credit for managing to make an 80s synthesizer sound creepy.  At four years old, this was the first horror movie I ever saw, and I didn't watch another one until I was fourteen!  Watching the film as I’m writing, it still gives me the creeps.   Thank you, Wes Craven, for creating a new mythology that lasted seven more films and a remake.