After the horrendous Freddy’s Dead, New Line Cinema was willing to entertain ideas from series creator Wes Craven on a new entry to the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. This film is partly a return to form for the series, but also ventures into a completely and radically new direction. The entire film is set outside the realm of the franchise in our reality. Many of the main characters and cameos are people playing themselves, to a degree. Heather Langenkamp, the heroine from the first and third films in the series, plays herself. We also have appearances by Wes Craven, John Saxon, and Robert Shaye – all playing themselves with some creative licenses. Robert Englund is of course here, playing both a more eccentric version of himself and the demonic incarnation of Freddy Krueger.
Heather Langenkamp lives a content life with her husband Chase Porter (David Newsom) and son Dylan (Miko Hughes). However, her sense of safety is compromised by a series of unsettling phone calls which Heather believes are from an anonymous stalker. Coupled with this is some increasingly strange behavior from Dylan. Heather gains little comfort from her former co-stars Robert Englund or John Saxon about either her paranoia or concern for her son. While she does not allow her son to watch any of the A Nightmare on Elm Street films, with her promoting the ten year anniversary of the original, she cannot escape its looming shadow. She soon finds out that Wes Craven is planning on making the definitive Nightmare movie, and that he has been plagued by nightmares of his own. It has practically become an epidemic as the same disturbing dreams have come to Heather as well as Robert Englund himself. Craven eventually tells Heather that what is haunting them is an ancient demon that has been roaming from story-to-story since the beginning of time, but has come accustomed to Freddy. Now, it wants into our world, and Heather is the perceived gatekeeper betweens the realms of fantasy and reality since she was the first to defeat Freddy. Dylan is a key focal point of this demon’s plan to lure in Heather. As all the elements begin to converge, the world around Heather starts to transform into the twisted existence of this guised Freddy Krueger.
New Nightmare is a creatively successful film that was not a financial success in 1994. I don’t think New Line Cinema knew quite how to market this concept in a way that was concise to an audience. It’s a far more cerebral concept than had been introduced into the series prior, but even then, it still requires a good amount of exposition to get a handle on. It’s very strange that at the time of release I had never even watched any of these films, and hadn’t spawned my horror movie fandom, yet. Still, I was entirely aware of this film while no one else seemed to be. Thankfully, time has given it the respect and admiration it deserved.
Wes Craven absolutely wrote an ambitious and smart screenplay. I think this shows a maturing of his artistic sensibilities. This is very high concept employing ideas that could not be competently handled by just anyone. There have been plenty of poorly conceived and/or executed reality-bending films, but only a special few that have done it with inspiring results. While that’s mostly true of any genre, this is one that doesn’t have as high of an output, and is usually only tried when a filmmaker feels ambitious. Most fail because they don’t have the right intellect behind them to pull it off without becoming pretentious, contrived, or fall into a style over substance trap. The films that do succeed have visionary filmmakers behind them who know how to convey the concept smartly and effectively. In New Nightmare’s case, it connects you directly with the characters, and invests you in their plights while methodically building up its premise with fine dashes of foreboding tension and suspense. It treats its horror and gruesome deaths with real human emotion and grief. These are real people experiencing real terror and pain. Thus, it increases the dread and danger of their situation with a heavy weight that an audience can truly feel.
This film is exceptionally solid while it’s not so much slasher horror as supernatural, psychological horror. Craven relies more on subtle atmosphere and a series of creepy, unexplained events, much like a haunted house story, to scare an audience. There is some gore, but it is only in a few scenes. So, on a slasher film level, New Nightmare does feel very starved for gruesome bloodletting, and that does detract from the film for me. There’s not enough visceral pay-off for the building up of suspense and atmosphere. Heather is truly terrorized by what this demon does to her life, tormenting her at every turn, and claiming the lives of a few people closest to her as well as traumatically manipulating her son. Those elements are executed outstandingly well. You can feel her fear and frayed psychological state increase throughout the movie. Freddy has very restrained screentime, which is a pleasant change from his overexposure in previous sequels. Wes Craven instead uses the screentime to intelligently and clearly setup the reality transcending premise before unveiling the revamped Freddy Krueger.
This ancient demon has decked Freddy out in a generous use of leather, and a frightening new glove of razors. It’s no longer rusted, but very shiny and skeleton like showing off Krueger’s burned hand. The new make-up design is certainly fresh, but still looks like prosthetics instead of an organic piece of burned flesh. It’s certainly better than the very rubbery appearance we got in the last few films, but I’ve still seen better burned flesh effects elsewhere. Generally, the redesign does give the character a darker edge which supports the premise of the film, and that this is not actually Freddy but a demon taking on his appearance and persona.
All the actors are as great as could be imagined. Langenkamp is even more beautiful here than ever before, and her performance is very true to the situation, despite its fantastical nature. I refer mostly in regards to the parent-child relationship, and how she does whatever is necessary to protect her child. Now, while this film blurs the line between reality and fantasy, this applies to the presentation of the people. Much of the stalking elements in the story were taken from the real Heather Langenkamp’s own experiences with a stalker, and so, there’s a personal element to this story for her. Overall, she brings a great weight of maturity and strong emotion to a role that was likely challenging for her to grasp. It was bold and brave of her to put as much of her personal life on screen like this as she did, and if it wasn’t Wes Craven asking her to do so, I don’t think she would have done it. On a related note, Miko Hughes shows a wealth of talent, and is really endearing. Most kids in horror films tend to be annoying or worse, but he managed to be very likable and endearing.
Robert Englund, as always, clocks in with all he has. This time, his Freddy performance is intimidating and fearsome. There’s not a wisecrack to be had, and he still remains engaging as a dark villain. His screentime is quite limited until the final act of the film, but enough is done throughout the picture to increase his menace and power. I know for a fact that Englund did prefer portraying Freddy as darker, but most directors preferred the comical approach. Thankfully, Craven brought the character back to where he works best, and Englund did a great job there.
John Saxon also returns in a supporting role, and I’ve always had a fondness for him. He’s just such a captivating and marvelous actor with a very fatherly or commanding aura about him. He always inspires confidence, and consistently does solid work. I thoroughly enjoy every bit of work I have seen of him. Tracy Middendorf stars as Julie, Dylan’s babysitter, and really comes off as sweet and caring. She’s definitely the ideal babysitter. I could easily go on and on about the cameos and solid acting, but to sum it up, the acting in this movie is wholly satisfying and exceedingly far above slasher genre standards, as is everything with New Nightmare.
This is definitely one of Wes Craven’s best and most modern looking films. Director of Photography Mark Irwin gave the film a lot of visual integrity, firmly grounding it in a dramatic reality. There’s a nice use of blue tones that add to the atmosphere that Craven nicely crafted. This looks like a serious, intelligent film for a more mature audience, contrasting the more juvenile sensibilities of previous Elm Street sequels. Mark Irwin really showed a great ability to artistically shoot a suspenseful film, and it’s great that Wes Craven used him again on Scream. It’s only a shame that most of Irwin’s filmography after this were comedies, many of them rather stupid comedies.
The story behind the inception of New Nightmare is also interesting. The concept was spawned from a meeting between Wes Craven and New Line executive Robert Shaye. He wanted to know, from Wes, what he thought was done wrong with the series, and if the company had offended Wes in anyway. Craven made a number of valid points about Freddy becoming a comical buffoon, and Bob offered Wes the chance to rectify these errors. I’ve always liked that cordial mentality from Mr. Shaye who never cared for burning bridges, only building a better company built on professional integrity and respect. With that, New Nightmare came into being.
Even without comparison to the wreckage that was Freddy’s Dead, this film shines and soars high as one of the best of the series right behind the original film. The only major drawback of the film, I feel, is that this demon-as-Freddy is not dispatched in a very clever way. There’s really no fantastical element to it, as one would expect from such a fantastical concept. It is more of a physical method of defeating him instead of a supernatural, metaphysical, or psychological one. And even though I’ve never taken much note of J. Peter Robinson’s score, it is widely recognized as one of the best horror film scores around. Ultimately, this is still one to highly recommend alongside the 1984 original and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Those are the definitive classics of the franchise, and those reputations are rightly earned.