[31 Days of Horror Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan] Day 4 – New Nightmare (1994)

Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, Miko Hughes, David Newsom, John Saxon
Screenplay: Wes Craven
112 mins. Rated R for explicit horror violence and gore, and for language.

By 1994, the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise was so beaten into the ground that it doesn’t surprise me that Wes Craven (Scream, My Soul to Take) was able to step in and do whatever he wanted with the property. New Nightmare is a movie that shouldn’t work, one that confronts the projector booth or the television screen to remind you that all of this is fake but it can still kill you. How did it happen, how does it work, and does the movie still have a place? Let’s find out.

It’s been years since Heather Langenkamp (Hellraiser: Judgment, TV’s Just the Ten of Us) played Nancy Thompson, and yet, the memory of her time on A Nightmare on Elm Street has defined her career, and it has stayed with her since. Her husband, Chase Porter (David Newsom, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, CODA) has been working on a secret project with Wes Craven, she’s dealing with a stalker, and her son Dylan (Miko Hughes, Kindergarten Cop, The Untold Story) has been struggling under the stress of it all. The worst thing is she’s starting to have nightmares about Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund, Nightworld: Door of Hell, The Funhouse Massacre), but this Freddy is different. He’s darker, angrier, more primordial, and he wants Dylan.

The plot of New Nightmare is tied to the real world. Wes Craven has confronted the unreality of the franchise to this point and Freddy Krueger as a character. Brand recognition has made Krueger something that even children can recognize, a horror Ronald McDonald, and with that, he seems to have lost some of the luster, that edge that he started out with. That’s true. Even as a defender of most of the sequels, the horror/comedy line that Krueger tows lessens the horror and increases the comedy with each installment. It never got as bad as Seed of Chucky, but Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare is truly an abysmal send-off for the beloved horror icon. You can critique Craven all day about maybe just being biased against the sequels but he was still right about that. His decision to approach the material in a very different way is not only admirable, but it shockingly works, and it works really well. Craven mined the real world for influences, even going as far as to introduce a stalker subplot to Heather’s story (something that the real Heather Langenkamp dealt with), and it’s commendable that even though he had disdain for the sequels, he never once feels the need to completely disown them from the canon, an overall good idea that probably would’ve happened in today’s retcon-heavy horror landscape. Craven’s script feels focused and restrained, but he’s playing in the sandbox that he created again, and he’s ambitious in telling his story. In fact, there are elements of his original screenplay that would only have expanded upon his ambition (like the Michael Berryman-driven van that “Wes Craven” the character would have ridden around in, his eyelids removed so as not to fall asleep), and it may have been for the best that some of these crazier ideas were excised, but they also showcase the confidence that Craven has in his universe.

Through Craven’s writing and directing and Robert Englund’s reinvention of the character, we get a very different Freddy Krueger this time around, so much so that I would almost want to refrain from calling him Freddy. This uber-Freddy is something larger, nightmarish, coming from a much more fantastical realm, and taking on the visage of Krueger to play off the audience’s, and Heather’s, fears. This idea feels like a natural progression, and it takes the mythology of A Nightmare on Elm Street and expands it exponentially to achieve this. Whereas the original Freddy invaded the perforation between dreams and reality, this one invades the perforation between the film world and the real world, but it’s so much more than that. This new Freddy is supposedly much closer to Craven’s intention, and it is indeed closer to his original film than it is to any of the sequels. I should also circle back to the performance by Robert Englund. He does something unique with this portrayal of Krueger (since it is a different entity, perhaps, or maybe even an evolution of the dream demons from Freddy’s Dead, if we’re getting canonical here) which makes it stand on its own even if you haven’t seen any of the other films. In fact, I can’t say for certain, but I think New Nightmare was the second Nightmare on Elm Street film I’d seen after The Dream Child, and it freaked me the hell out as a kid. Perhaps it’s because Englund is also playing himself here, but he adds little verbal tics and physical movements to this new iteration so that it seems like a completely new character.

Much like Englund, Heather Langenkamp has to play herself, a fictionalized version or course, and also somewhat reprise Nancy Thompson. Along with her, John Saxon (Enter the Dragon, Black Christmas) returns to do double duty for a bit as well. Both Langenkamp and Saxon able to do a lot of heavy lifting here. Langenkamp has to convince us that this is really, and oftentimes it is believed that playing oneself is easy, but it isn’t. There tends to be an accidentally satirical or over-the-top lilt to everything because we see ourselves differently than other people see us, but Langenkamp still has that girl next door innocence that Nancy has, but aged up ten years and aware of where she’s come from. While Langenkamp takes on the narrative flow, Saxon adds a punch to it. Much like all his appearances in this series and many other movies, he is able to do a lot with a little bit of screen time, and that’s no different here.

Even the non-actors are able to carry their own weight here. I know that Wes Craven is not an actor. I know that Robert Shaye isn’t. In that way, it’s a good thing that they don’t take the film with their performances, and while they would never win awards, they are capable enough not to derail the narrative or pull down the curtain of illusion that we are in the “real” world as we watch.

The film carries faults in a few areas that, again, do not derail the illusion, but they are there. I found the constant screaming for “Dylan” to be a little grating. The finished product has 300 utterances of Dylan’s name, and the more you watch it, the more it gets at you. I didn’t like Dr. Heffner as a secondary antagonist because, as I’ve grown older, I’m less convinced of her realism by the way she is written. I just didn’t buy it. I also kind of wish that Craven had tilted a bit more into the mythology that he’s going with. As I mentioned above, so much of the mythology works within the confines of presenting us with the “real” world, but to be honest, I wish he had pushed that envelope a little bit further. The areas where he leans into the fantastical are some of my favorite sequences on repeat viewings, especially where the film ends up. The finale is great, but I wish there was more of it.

New Nightmare laid a lot of ground work for the later Craven slasher Scream. I’m convinced that we would not have Scream without New Nightmare, and we might not have the excitement for Freddy Krueger among the horror fanbase without this unique installment. Remember, we last hooked up with Freddy for Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, one of the worst installments of any franchise and certainly the worst Freddy Krueger film. We may not have gotten Freddy vs. Jason or the remake or the interest in continuing the franchise without it. Here, Wes Craven crafted the precursor to the meta-slasher, and he did it while convincing us that everything was real. Most filmmakers only have to convince us what’s on the screen is real. Craven admits that everything is fake up to this point, and that Freddy Krueger is just a guy in a costume with prop knives, and then he re-convinces us all over again, leading to one of the most entertaining and interesting franchise continuations ever put to the horror landscape, culminating in a fantastic finale that ends the franchise in a great place and re-cements Krueger as one of the horror greats.

4/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

  • For my review of Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th, click here.
  • For my review of Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, click here.
  • For my review of Steve Miner’s Friday the 13th Part II, click here.
  • For my review of Steve Miner’s Friday the 13th Part 3, click here.
  • For my review of Joseph Zito’s Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, click here.
  • For my review of Jack Sholder’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, click here.
  • For my review of Danny Steinmann’s Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning, click here.
  • For my review of Chuck Russell’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, click here.
  • For my review of Tom McLoughlin’s Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI, click here.
  • For my review of Renny Harlin’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, click here.
  • For my review of John Carl Buechler’s Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, click here.
  • For my review of Stephen Hopkins’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, click here.
  • For my review of Rob Hedden’s Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, click here.
  • For my review of Rachel Talalay’s Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, click here.
  • For my review of Adam Marcus’s Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, click here.
  • For my review of Wes Craven’s Shocker, click here.
  • For my review of Wes Craven’s Vampire in Brooklyn, click here.
  • For my review of Wes Craven’s Scream, click here.

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