‘Wes Craven’s New Nightmare’ (1994) Review

“Every kid knows who Freddy is. He’s like Santa Claus… or King Kong…”

Horror had a hard time of things in the 1990’s – especially in comparison to the 1980’s, which was probably its most popular decade, as far as contemporary culture goes (the 1930’s might have a claim to that as well, though). That’s not to say that there weren’t some decent horror films in the decade – I’ll probably have to do a Top 10 90’s horror films list by the end of the month – but for horror fans the 1990’s felt like going on a diet after spending the 1980’s at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Wes Craven seemed to survive the 1990’s pretty well, however, with a mix of horror and mainstream films (I’d forgotten – if I ever knew – that he’d directed Meryl Streep in Music of the Heart). I knew I’d be picking at least one Craven film to review this month, but I really felt spoiled for choice. Scream is the obvious pick – it’s Craven’s most popular and successful franchise and really came to define the horror movie in the 90’s, with its mix of genre meta-awareness, humor, self-reference and beautiful teenagers getting brutally murdered. On the other hand, I’ve got a soft spot for The People Under the Stairs, which manages to mix humor, horror and societal commentary in a uniquely Wes Craven way, and it’s a film I think is under-appreciated.

A Vampire in Brooklyn was right out.

In the end, though, I decided on the last hurrah of the original rubber-reality horror franchise, the Nightmare on Elm Street series (at least until 2003). Wes Craven’s New Nightmare served as a capstone to a franchise that had brought him his first real financial success and set a foundation for the kinds of horror films he’d be making for the rest of the decade. It’s a film that has its feet planted in two worlds, managing to look forward to the future of horror (in the 1990’s, at least) while paying tribute to the films that led up to it.

The Medium
I have the 2013 Nightmare on Elm Street collection from Warner Bros., which contains Blu-rays of all seven films as well as a DVD with a handful of new extras. I keep waiting for a really high-quality box set – similar to what Scream Factory did with Friday the 13th – but alas nothing seems to be on the horizon. This set is perfectly okay, and the films look great, and it’s usually available for under $30.

For streaming options, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is available for subs on HBO Max (along with most, if not all, of the other films in the series), and can be rented or purchased from a decent selection of online vendors.

The Movie
Wes Craven’s return to the series he started is an effective, haunting meta-horror movie. It follows Heather Langenkamp, the actress who played Nancy in the first and third Nightmare on Elm Street films (i.e., the best ones), as she slowly becomes convinced that – somehow – Freddy Krueger has become real and is stalking her and her family.

Craven had intended for this to be the plot of the third Elm Street movie, but it was rejected by New Line at the time. I think time worked out in its favor – the film is better for having a few more sequels behind it, especially given how strongly it depends on the fame of Freddy as a plot point.

On the set of a new Nightmare on Elm Street movie Heather Langenkamp and her family – son Dylan (Miko Hughes) and husband Chase (David Newsom) – are horrified when an animatronic version of Freddy’s hand goes amok, killing two special effects artists before scuttling towards her family. She screams… Only to wake in her bed at home during an earthquake. It was just a dream, a nightmare if you will, but both the dream and the earthquake leave her unsettled (that a series of cracks left in the bedroom wall resembles the slashes from Freddy’s claws probably doesn’t help).

Langenkamp is much better here than she was in the first Nightmare film and the always reliable Miko Hughes is both cute and disturbing as her son (as he was in Pet Sematary). The role of her husband was originally offered to her real-life husband David LeRoy Anderson – who also works as a special effects artist – but he declined. Maybe it was all already a little to realistic.

Heather is doing a run of talk shows to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the original Nightmare on Elm Street – including an appearance where her friend, Robert Englund shows up in makeup as Freddy Krueger, to the delight of fans in the audience (many – including kids – dressed in Freddy gear). She’s also dealing with an obsessive fan, calling her pretending to be Freddy, and her son’s increasingly odd behavior. As the film progresses, we begin to see the influence of Freddy Kreuger in multiple aspects of Heather’s life, as if he’s taken on a life of his own. A fateful meeting with director Wes Craven reveals that this is exactly what’s going on. That Freddy – or some dark, older power co-opting the trappings of Freddy – is trying to force its way into our reality.

It’s fun to see a lot of familiar faces, including John Saxon, Tuesday Knight, Nick Corri (Jsu Garcia), Lin Shaye and, of course, Robert Englund – most of them playing themselves. (Englund is strangely unconvincing as himself – maybe that’s just me.) In the commentary for the film Craven says that he intended to ask Johnny Depp to make an appearance but never got up the nerve, only to run into him at the premiere and find that Depp would have gladly joined.

There are also cameos by a bunch of industry execs, including Marianne Maddalena and New Line CEO Robert Shaye, who does a surprisingly good job at appearing spooked. Wes Craven himself has a pivotal role, though he underplays it a bit too much. (His audio is juuuust barely loud enough.)

The film does an excellent job of cranking up the tension and pushing Langenkamp into a desperate situation. The continual use of earthquakes – including real footage from the Northridge quake – keeps both the character and the audience off balance. There’s one scene where I suddenly realized (as the camera zoomed in) that not only was everything in the shot off-kilter – different things were moving in DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS giving the whole scene a decidedly disturbing effect.

Unfortunately, by creating a situation in which the only acceptable ending is one in which the characters have to move out of our reality and fight Freddy on his own terms, the movie robs itself of its power. The reason everything is so scary for much of the film is the whole idea of a concept gaining a life of its own, using those that helped bring it into existence in the first place as a gateway to a more tangible reality. Once it succumbs to the rules of the previous movies there’s really no more scare in it – we know how the Nightmare movies work and how they end – with good triumphant and Freddy defeated.

The Bottom Line
There’s a moment near the end of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare that I wish they’d run with, where the actors start to parrot lines from their roles. Where the movie reality is forcing itself on them. (I got chills when John Saxon turns to Langenkamp and says “Why are you calling me John, Nancy?”) If they’d followed through on that somehow, with Freddy coming into our world and interacting with shopping malls and gas stations while our heroes succumb to their archetypes – THAT could have been something special.

As it is, the movie is pretty damn good for most of its length and if the ending isn’t quite up to snuff, well – that’s almost a relief in some ways. I mean, what if Freddy had gotten out?

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.