Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Nightmare on Elm Street, No. 7 - Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994)

I wish I knew more about the genesis of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, largely because to appreciate Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is to appreciate the metatextual narrative surrounding it – yeah, it’s that sort of movie. What can be figured out, even from that titular possessive alone: Producer Robert Shaye (having reclaimed series control from that lunatic Rachel Talalay) had finally buried the hatchet with original creator Wes Craven. Craven had been mostly shut out from the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise ever since writing and directing the first (with the exception of some minor work on The Dream Warriors), and his return is a proclamation of quality. Good thing for Craven, too, since he’d lost out on major series profits, to the point where he resorted to directing Elm Street knockoffs like the wretched Shocker. But all is right now, and Shaye has one simple task for Craven:

Make Freddy Kreuger frightening again.

Actually, that’s not all that easy, not in a Part Seven. Craven’s first demand was to completely jettison the sequels’ continuity – Besides, what better way to keep from stepping on Freddy vs. Jason’s malformed toes? (A new continuity is certainly a more elegant solution than Jason X’s sci-fi pastiche.) So left to his own devices, Craven returned to a concept first rejected for The Dream Warriors: What if Freddy Kreuger existed in the real world? That is, a world where the Elm Street franchise itself exists. The result is an intricate puzzle box, a film about itself and its own making, much more than it is a simple horror movie.

And it is scary, but in a totally different way than former Nightmares. Hell, I’d even go so far as to call this the very best of the series – but with one major caveat. You have to have seen the other six first (including Freddy’s Dead). At the very least, for God’s sake watch A Nightmare on Elm Street before New Nightmare! Even outside of continuity, New Nightmare comments upon the “buffoonish,” “jokey” (Craven’s words) movies which precede it, and is more amazing in overall series context. And it takes a certain skewed perspective to love – a viewer equally happy with gore effects as with subtext-as-text. That’s a lot of “ifs,” but if you’re on New Nightmare’s wavelength, there’s a lot to admire.

The film stars Heather Langenkamp as, well, Heather Langenkamp. She played Nancy in the first movie. With a few exceptions, she is presented in New Nightmare very much as she really was in 1994 – a former actress, happily married with a young son, and largely absent from moviemaking thanks to a Freddy-inspired telephone stalker. Even the presence of an L.A. earthquake mirrors the actual Northridge quake which struck shortly after those scenes were filmed (meaning the second unit got to add some damage footage). What we can’t quite be certain of, however, is if the real Heather was experiencing nightmares about Freddy’s glove rampaging the set of some indeterminate Elm Street sequel, as we see here.

Of course, you say, the real Heather wasn’t – this is all just a meta movie – but the issue gets complicated, in that proper Wes Craven way of crumbling the artifices of reality. Because, for the most part, New Nightmare removes as many cinematic constructs as possible. (One attempt is to use a quasi-documentary filming style, which isn’t wholly effective – they ought to have gone more decisively into this realm, while avoiding that whole Blair Witch/Cloverfield thing – but it shows thought.) The cast is populated almost wholly by Himself or Herself, the old Elm Street regulars – Robert Shaye, Wes Craven, Robert Englund, John Saxon, and Heather of course. Hell, Freddy is credited as “Himself” – spooky! With this, it’s a shame (though totally understandable) that certain characters are a little more fictional – while Heather really had a home life, her husband is not actually Chase Porter (David Newsom), and her son is not called Dylan (Miko Hughes, a specialist in the “creepy boy” role – see also Pet Semetary). Though Chase’s special effects profession is akin to Heather’s real husband, so this is as close to reality as the actress would allow.

As meta movies go, New Nightmare is mostly concerned with the pre-production process, as it only ends once Wes’ script has been finalized – and there are hints that his writing directly influences events as they happen. So for now, Heather finds herself unintentionally caught up in negotiations for a seventh Elm Street – let’s assume it is to be subtitled The Ascension, as in Craven’s original scheme for the actual movie, though it’s never suggested. Robert Shaye, his office populated with Freddy-centric pop art (as if really is, for this is Shaye’s real New Line office), addresses Heather about headlining this follow-up, despite all arguments that Nancy and Freddy both are irrevocably dead in the series. Heather – movie Heather – is hesitant to do another Elm Street, though you can’t blame the gal when her life is a series of frights and foreshadowing to begin with.

Wes Craven – the director, I mean, not the character in the movie (yeesh, this is gonna get complicated!) – uses Heather’s tour through New Line and the TV talk show circuit to critique the Elm Street sequel mentality. Robert Englund appears on TV in full, outdated Freddy garb, capering and playing to the audience in what is (with recent reference back to older Elm Streets) undoubtedly his jokester persona. It’s only brief moments like above where Heather catches glimpses of some sinister entity still inherent in the character.

And to show just how critical Craven is of the interim sequels, he makes no secret of plundering their ideas and reshaping them in better ways. I mean, compare New Nightmare’s Freddy to the one in The Dream Child:

That approach extends to whole set pieces, as Craven re-imbues a sense of subtlety and menace to promising ideas which got undernourished before. Again we stick with The Dream Child. It’s first fatality came as a character slept while driving – a scary notion on the face of it, though it barely demands Freddy to be fatal. The same basic event transpires in New Nightmare. Hell, the predicaments surrounding this death are even the same – The heroine, growing fearful, asks that her male counterpart rush over to comfort her. Here, it’s Chase, driving home from Palm Springs (where he’s secretly creating a prototype glove redesign – more biological, less mechanical).

The challenge of a Freddy dream on the road is this – You fall asleep driving, you can practically die instantly. In the Elm Street 46 mode (the extended cartoon slapstick mode), they beg this question with Freddy’s ten minute attacks. Craven understands this. Fear this time comes from Chase nodding off in that tenuous realm between waking and sleep – each time he grows even slightly drowsy, Freddy’s glove looms from beneath the seat cushion. (Discomfort comes of the blades’ fascination with Chase’s crotch.) And the instant Chase shuts his eyes – BAM! Heh heh – Cutting to the Chase!

Moments like this exist to prove Craven is a potent scare-monger, and can outdo his franchise at its own game. Not that New Nightmare defines itself with the simple horror of death. Craven has a more ambitious scheme in mind, even if it means we’re deprived of the fun of Freddy cacking more movie folks. I mean, for goodness sake we never see Freddy tormenting Robert Englund! There are undoubtedly enormous missed opportunities here, but if we can ignore that, there’s some totally different stuff going on.

The majority of the film stays with Heather, and her relationship with son Dylan. One question which gets raised early and often founds the backbone for New Nightmare’s horror – Horror movies themselves. Heather herself starred in a few, and the more self-righteous moral guardians in her circle (one of whom is even named after the head of the MPAA!) endlessly look down on Heather for such [gasp!] immoral trash. Not to mention, “Would you let your son watch one of your movies?,” countered with dream sequences of Dylan sneaking off to catch snippets of A Nightmare on Elm Street on the house’s unplugged television set. This is a horror movie which actually asks if horror movies are okay. It ultimately settles upon the conclusion that they are, when conceived as Aristotelian catharsis, but New Nightmare certainly toys with that notion along the way.

Dylan himself is the main conduit for this fear. Because good horror is build upon metaphors, Dylan is also the conduit for Freddy himself, who is somehow starting to make inroads into the world which created him (they’ll explain how later on…and it’s ingenious). There is some possession angle with Dylan, who’s given to taking on Freddy’s characteristics – he even fashions a homemade “glove” with tape and kitchen knives. Or maybe that was just a dream – Craven maintains that eternal question mark which dominated A Nightmare on Elm Street, even while adding the extra layer of “Maybe it’s all just a movie.” Oh, and it’s worth mentioning, Dylan’s possession is a lot like that in Freddy’s Revenge…only good. Point taken, Wes.

So we’re with Heather, as she witnesses her son’s increasingly unusual behavior. Even amongst the crappier Elm Streets, the theme of parents and children has remained intact. New Nightmare reverses the usual dichotomy, and tells the same basic story, but from the parent’s point of view. And though Heather herself experiences the occasional Freddy vision, she remains mostly powerless as Nancy’s mother Marge did in Part One. This means we even get a replay of the first’s medical horrors, but from the other perspective. Dylan is sequestered in the hospital, with suggestion he either suffers from childhood schizophrenia or sleep deprivation (guess which). In one of New Nightmare’s few totally unsuccessful threads, Heather fears Dylan has hereditary insanity, a known trait in the Langenkamp family – probably a craven Craven creation, and a little too gothic in this context.

You’ll notice I’ve said very little specifically about Freddy Kreuger, for as much as he flits around the film’s edges – mostly indirectly, with slash-like cracks, or the simple persistence of Freddy imagery everywhere. Forsooth, New Nightmare is a slow and patient picture, and not often viscerally frightening. Craven made it with a hypothetical Elm Street fan in mind, someone who’d matured ten years out of teenagehood following Part One in 1984. So we get a mode of horror most movies, with their teenage target audience, don’t attempt, one more cosmic and more grounded, more chilling but also harder to pick up on.

But still we don’t know the cause of Freddy’s intrusion into 1994 Los Angeles. For an answer to this, Heather goes straight to the source – writer/director Wes Craven. He’s halfway through the script – as are we – his pages going to the very end of this precise scene. This is because Wes writes what he dreams, in his first nightmares since 1984 – yes, there is an actual meaning to the title Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. And strap yourself in for Craven’s idea, because it is far more ingenious than all the fire-pissing dogs in all the world…

There is an ancient, immortal entity, a being of pure evil. Its only weakness is stories. If an artist is able to capture its essence in fiction, this creature is nullified…but not forever. The story can die. “It can get too familiar to people, or someone waters it down to make it an easier sell.” Booyah! Take that, Elm Street franchise! What A Nightmare on Elm Street did was to imprison this force, temporarily. Blame the sequels’ crappiness that it’s now loose, with a vendetta specifically against those who bottled it up (primarily Heather, whose Nancy “stopped” it before). So what we really have to fear, Wes, if I follow you, is terrible horror. Good horror protects us from the genuine evils of this world (metaphors, remember), while commercialized safe horror desensitizes us and serves no purpose. And this entity, now borrowing and modifying the fictional Freddy persona, can only be stopped by the completion of New Nightmare – but first, Heather must make it a story worth telling. I like this movie!

In this mound of exposition – too intriguing to be tiresome – there’s even the kernel that the entity may not even specifically relate to dreams…that’s just its current lot. It may have formerly been Nosferatu, or King Kong, or the witch from “Hansel and Gretel.” Really, each of those captures a different side of…let’s call the thing Evil itself, and get it over with.

Now, if that don’t make Freddy scary again, I don’t know what will! He has a mythology, and is de-literalized from his over-specific sequel form into something with the potential for genuine existence. And just as A Nightmare on Elm Street guaranteed its viewers would encounter Freddy, by placing him in their nightmares, New Nightmare suggests by its very existence that Evil is real – if it weren’t, why’d they have to make this movie and stop it anyway? With all that careful, reconstructive work complete, isn’t it finally time we brought Freddy back into his own picture?

“Miss me?”

Freddy is redesigned, merging his movie form with something closer to the unseen purity of Evil. He sports no more burns now, but exposed muscle ala “Body Worlds” to go with his biomechanical glove. And his sweater looks bulkier and more comfy than ever, but that’s just me.

Heather knows what her fight is, knows she most prevent this Freddy from using Dylan to completely cross over (and not in the Freddy vs. Jason sense). From one perspective, this gets us past the meta playfulness of bringing Freddy into reality, and becomes another standard Final Girl battle. But Craven (or the dreams which guide his story) have a further wrinkle. To stop Freddy, Heather cannot simply battle him…she must do it as Nancy. To that end, events towards the end slowly bleed to resemble A Nightmare on Elm Street, and this conceit only works if you recognize individual lines and shots as such. It’s a clever move, and hugely rewarding to the right viewer. Still, New Nightmare is so beholden to a former movie, which kind of stunts its own status. A shame, really.

And onto that possession angle, that ersatz Freddy’s Revenge angle of Dylan’s…Unlike that confused turd, we know what has to happen for Freddy to cross over – Dylan must fall asleep. And unlike so many Elm Street protagonists, Dylan makes a genuine effort to stay awake – indeed, he’s been up for days already (suck on that, Alice!). It takes one final confrontation against the hospital’s horror-hating medical staff before Dylan is put under, but when he is…

We get a replay of Tina’s murder from the first. With a child watching.

Actually…Freddy’s powers are different now, which is something I feel I’ve said for every sequel. It makes sense here…sorta. We know why the Freddy entity is unlike movie Freddy, though just how is harder to say. He (it) has some sway over waking beings, who cannot sense him – hence that recently skinned babysitter. As events continue, and Dylan makes a hair-raising trek across a crowded L.A. freeway on foot, Freddy interferes with reality further to his own end.

Part of this interference, while Heather is still arguably awake, is the further bleeding into A Nightmare on Elm Street. John Saxon appears to console Heather, only now it seems he has reverted back into Lt. Don Thompson – changing a sedan to a cop car is a most effectively subtle way to indicate skewed reality, much more successful than the sequels’ garish matte paintings. Though Heather – or is she now Nancy? – still falls asleep, so…what is going on here?

The answer: It’s just a movie. Purely as a fictional work, it makes sense for Craven the director to layer in these textual references. And when New Nightmare climaxes with a series of loud action sequences, far out of character with the generally cerebral approach of the rest, we can also say “It’s just a movie.” A movie would end with a ridiculously big explosion, and a satisfying physical victory over the villain. Evil itself, in Craven’s estimation, cannot be stopped this way, not directly. But a movie can stop him, so if we accept that in a Freddy movie an oven roasting is acceptable, then it damn well works on Evil as well. And if Freddy’s Dead ended like Being John Malcovich (only crappy), then New Nightmare ends like Adaptation, folding in on itself and becoming more movie-like.

There is a fun ouroboros to all this, as even the movie’s script becomes an artifact in the dream world to direct Heather/Nancy on her quest. She concludes by reading Dylan the opening pages, and we circle right back to where we started – which makes me think the movie works better even as a script than a movie.

Pondering Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the question arises: “What if this were real?” Surely certain incidents are fictionalized, unless we accept New Line Cinema enacted a massive conspiracy regarding Heather Langenkamp’s personal life. But to give credence at least to Craven’s conception of Evil, one trapped by movies…this movie’s existence then creates such an entity, even while it traps it. But for how long? The Elm Street movies alone cannot hope to contain pure Evil, not in perpetuity – Even if they persisted, they’d get watered down again. But other horror stories possess the same castrating power, to undermine genuine evil. That is the ultimate metaphorical argument of New Nightmare, that horror, for all its distastefulness, is necessary.

• No. 1 A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
• No. 2 A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985)
• No. 3 A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
• No. 4 A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)
• No. 5 A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)
• No. 6 Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)
• No. 8 Freddy vs. Jason (2003)
• No. 9 A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

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