Tuesday, October 07, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 6 - Wes Craven's New Nightmare

#9 (Tie) - 5 Votes

In the 1990s, Wes Craven made three horror movies about horror movies. We'll discuss Scream later, and its first sequel has some great moments, particularly its Demons-influenced opening sequence. The first, Wes Craven's New Nightmare, wasn't nearly as big a hit as the Scream films; I was surprised to be reminded, while fact-checking on Wikipedia, that it's the lowest-grossing Nightmare on Elm Street movie (though it had the misfortune of opening on the same weekend as the movie that defined '90s American cinema). It's also the best reviewed, and one of the most popular among fans of the series today. Movies about movies are as old as talkies, and there's a long list of self-referential horror movies before Craven attempted it, but at a time when mainstream horror movies were becoming increasingly stale, New Nightmare and the movies that followed were a breath of fresh air. 

As Craven wrote him in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy Krueger (called "Fred" in the original) is a very dark, unsettling creation, and while it features the kind of imaginative dream sequences as its sequels, they serve a very different function. As the series progresses, the nightmares become increasingly literal manifestations of the characters' worst fears - in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, for example, a girl who is afraid of bugs is turned into a cockroach and squished. Craven's film is truer to the cryptic logic of real dreams, and its most famous sequences, the deaths of Tina (Amanda Wyss) and Glen (Johnny Depp), are incredible, surreal moments made more powerful by their inclusion in a low-budget slasher produced with no expectations of huge critical or commercial success. And while Freddy makes a few wisecracks in the film, they're meant less as funny one-liners than as a creepy reminder of the pleasure he takes in tormenting his young victims.

There have always been contradictory accounts of the direction the series took next, but Craven wasn't involved with any of the subsequent sequels, except for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, but his script for that movie was heavily rewritten by Frank Darabont and director Chuck Russell. However, an impressive list of very talented people worked on the series; the documentary Never Sleep Again gave me a greater appreciation for how, while not every movie in the series works, each was an attempt to take the series in an original direction. Still, pretty much everyone agrees that the series was hurt by the increasingly comedic direction Freddy took, and later sequels featured the pedophile and child murderer skateboarding and playing Nintendo. Craven referred to the character in an interview as "Shecky Greene with claws." After Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare supposedly ended the series, Craven got the opportunity to make his creation scary again. 

From the beginning, Craven directly acknowledges that Freddy had somehow evolved from a monster into the hero of the series. There's an early scene where Nightmare on Elm Street star Heather Langenkamp, playing herself, is surprised during an interview by Robert Englund in full Freddy makeup; Freddy is greeted with enthusiastic applause by the audience, an idea inspired by Craven and Englund's own confusion when Englund began to be approached for autographs by children in Freddy costumes (I also enjoy the suggestion that Freddy had become mainstream-friendly enough to appear on a bland daytime talk show). With the stars, co-star John Saxon, Craven and even execs from New Line playing themselves (I love that Robert Shaye is the movie's Stuart Ullman), New Nightmare takes place in "reality," where Freddy's face has been used to market toys and video games, and introduces a darker incarnation of the character, who is the newest face of an ancient, primal monster. It's a sixth sequel that serves as a self-deprecating yet insightful justification for existing - it's only when we stop reincarnating these monsters on film, giving them context and resolution, that they can really hurt us. 

The movie's most interesting choice is to have Freddy target Langenkamp's young son, Dylan (Miko Hughes). Craven was disturbed by the Freddy's popularity with children, and New Nightmare explores the reason for young audiences' fascination with the character. In the talk show scene, the host asks her if she's concerned about any effect seeing her movies might have on young children, including her son, and later, as the movie starts to resemble the second act of The Exorcist, a well-meaning but wrongheaded doctor (Fran Bennett) suspects that Langenkamp has warped Dylan's mind by exposing him to the movie. In a decade when movies that were violent or sexual in a way that didn't reflect a very specific idea of traditional values were a hot button topic for debate, New Nightmare is a defiant defense of the positive role scary stories can play in giving a child a safe context to explore their own anxieties. As with Nancy, Langenkamp's character in the original, the adults who try to protect Dylan by shielding him from his fears almost get him killed, and it's only when he and his mom purposefully play their roles in the movie they've been written into that they're able to escape. 

The last stretch of the movie, where Dylan and Nancy confront Freddy in his own personal hell, is also the weakest part. It's a great idea on the page, and the Dante-inspired production design is interesting, but I'll never be able to look at this without laughing. Freddy, who Craven smartly keeps offscreen for most of the first half, is scarier earlier in the film; the makeup design by KNB is excellent, recalling A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 makeup artist Kevin Yagher's description of Freddy as a "male witch." The character here lacks whatever flicker of humanity remained in his earlier incarnations, and Englund, who is great in the series' best and worst entries, is great both as Freddy and as himself (by all accounts, the friendly, intelligent Englund we see here is close to the real thing). The series took its longest break after New Nightmare; Freddy vs. Jason better than a horror icon mashup had any right to be, but the 2010 remake is boring and nearly unwatchable. New Nightmare serves as a fitting coda to the original series, even as it signaled the direction that Craven and horror movies in general would soon take.

U.S. Release Date: October 14, 1994 (Also released that day: Pulp Fiction, Little Giants, Exit to Eden, Hoop Dreams)

What critics said at the time: 

"I can't imagine anyone but lifetime subscribers to Fangoria magazine getting excited at the prospect of seeing these people play themselves. Wes Craven's New Nightmare lacks the trancelike dread of the original Nightmare, and it features almost none of the ingeniously demented special effects that made the series' third installment, Dream Warriors, a hallucinatory exercise in MTV horror. This one is just an empty hall of mirrors." - Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

"Serious fans of horror movies relate only in a secondary way to the chills themselves; they're connoisseurs of the genre, the special effects, the makeup, the in-jokes. They're going to love this movie, which seems to have been made not only for but by Fangoria fans. But it also works for general audiences. I haven't been exactly a fan of the 'Nightmare' series, but I found this movie, with its unsettling questions about the effect of horror on those who create it, strangely intriguing." - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times


christopher fujino said...

I'm really enjoying this countdown, yet at the same time I've been bummed by the results. Why are all my favs coming so soon? Scream was more successful than this only because it was dumbed down and given a slick coat of paint.

Andrew Bemis said...

I think Scream is pretty smart (not so much the latter sequels). And hey, isn't the unpredictability part of the fun of doing a poll like this?