Saturday, October 31, 2015

Nightmare Week: 'Wes Craven's New Nightmare' (1994)

It sort of seems like Wes Craven's main goal with the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise was to get it to end. On the first movie, his original ending had Nancy waking up and realizing the entire thing was a dream, with her friends that Freddy had killed still alive and well. Luckily, the studio convinced him to go with the more sinister, ambiguous ending that really works better for the tone of the story (although what they most wanted was to keep the door open for sequels, presumably). Craven never wanted there to be any sequels, and when he returned as a writer and producer for the third movie, it was again with the aim of wrapping things up; he even killed off Nancy at the end of the movie. But of course that didn't stop New Line, either.

Even after the studio explicitly killed off Freddy in Freddy's Dead, they came back with another movie three years later, and Craven once again tried to put an end to the series. His idea for New Nightmare was actually his original pitch for the third movie, with Freddy escaping from films into the real world, but it works much better here after the series has kind of run itself into the ground, and after Freddy has been very specifically killed off as a movie character. New Nightmare functions as an epilogue of sorts, not concerned with any of the cluttered mythology that built up over the course of the various sequels, nor with Freddy as a character with a particular background and motivation. Here he's more of an avatar for the idea of evil, for malevolent forces in stories going back to early fairy tales. The details of Freddy's origin are irrelevant; what's important is his popularity as a villain in horror movies.

New Nightmare seemed pretty groundbreaking to me when I first saw it as a teenager, although it looks a little less sophisticated in retrospect. Part of the reason is that two years later Craven made a more clever, entertaining horror movie about the nature of horror with Scream, and part of the reason is that some of the effects and the acting just don't come off as well now. After struggling a bit in Dream Warriors, Heather Langenkamp returns here (playing herself) to give a really strong performance, and Craven is smart to build the entire movie around her. Robert Englund still gets top billing, but his role, both as Freddy and as himself, is more limited. The non-actors who play themselves, including Craven and producer Robert Shaye, perform decently, but the real problem is child actor Miko Hughes, who is incredibly annoying and unconvincing as Heather's son Dylan.

Hughes' awful performance is really the movie's main liability, and it undercuts the power of Heather's emotional journey, since the story really hinges on her dedication as a mother. Freddy's incursion into the real world targets Dylan, and that awakens Heather's protective instincts. Craven ties the story back into folklore, and a mother rescuing a child is one of the most primal fables of all. Langenkamp brings real emotion to her performance, but most of Dylan's moments that are meant to be creepy end up falling flat. The movie works in spite of him, not because of him.

And while Craven doesn't bring the same level of humor to this movie that he did to Scream, he does get in some solid jabs at the dumbing-down of Freddy and the franchise, and he weaves in some effective (and fairly subtle) callbacks to the first movie. It's a shame that he fumbles the finale, with the metatextual elements taking a back seat to yet another battle against Freddy in a generic dream world. The final scene, with Heather reading the movie's script to Dylan, is a perfect closer for the movie and the series, though, and overall New Nightmare does its job of rehabilitating Freddy as a real threat (no cartoony kill scenes or dumb one-liners) plus giving the series some closure. Unfortunately for Craven, once again his efforts to end the series failed; New Line released Freddy vs. Jason nine years later.

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