Full disclosure: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is one of my all-time favourites. Two years before Scream (1996) would usher slashers into the postmodern era, the sixth sequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) tore down the proverbial fourth wall, deconstructing the series’ iconic monster both as a myth and commercial vehicle. Full of nerve and wit, the film doesn’t just breathe new life into a decade-old franchise; it also serves as a manifesto for horror as a whole, justifying the genre’s cultural prominence all the while critiquing its excesses.
Perhaps a bit of context is needed here. In the early nineties, back when video games were limited to blocky cartoons moving right, public policy groups had to make do with scary movies as a scapegoat for all the woes of the world. Desperate politicians quickly got wind of this cause, prompting movies like John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1994) to lash out and denounce the notion of a murderously suggestible mass. Released the same year, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare takes a more reflexive approach, transporting Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) into our realm to pass judgment on his Hollywood makers.
You see, it turns out our baddie was giving form to an ethereal evil that only stories can contain. By watering down his myth and then killing him off in Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991), the bigwigs at New Line Cinema set the true demon free, forcing series creator Wes Craven to come up with a “New Nightmare” for the monster to inhabit. The lines between fiction, production, and public reception start to blur when Freddy appears before Heather Langenkamp (a.k.a. Nancy from the original A Nightmare on Elm Street) and threatens the life of her eight-year-old son Dylan (Miko Hughes).
Like A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child (1989), the film banks on Freddy’s core audience having matured a bit, graduating his nemesis from plucky teen to desperate parent. In fact, Langenkamp plays herself as exactly the sort of mother we might have expected Nancy to become if the character hadn’t croaked at the end of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987): strong-willed yet uncertain, brave yet terrified, heroic yet deeply human. Her performance carries most of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, grounding all the madness with a captivating emotional through-line.
Our villain has also grown up, his revised makeup dropping pizza smoosh as an inspiration in favour of skinless Uncle Frank from Hellraiser (1987). The new design looks more majestic than scary, but I like the way Freddy’s pointy nose and long trench coat evoke the silhouette of a classic fairy tale witch. Coupled with his oven-like lair and the trail of sleeping pills, this offhand detail hints at a connection between Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Hansel and Gretel. Perhaps our titular writer-director captured the same evil as the Brothers Grimm. Perhaps Dylan’s grade school perception of horror informed the monster’s transformation.
Either way, the link flags up a major hypocrisy from the “concerned parents” who decry the content in scary movies only to tuck in their children with morbid tales of infanticide. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare takes the argument further, pointing out that the crusade against fictional violence is distracting us from the real issues. Take, for instance, Dylan’s self-righteous psychiatrist, Dr Heffner (Fran Bennett), who lets her disdain for the horror genre blind her to the boy’s more concrete stressors, like, you know, losing his dad (David Newsom) and witnessing a stalker terrorise his mom.
To his credit, Craven plays fair, acknowledging that horror can overstep its bounds as well. Consider the scene in which Heather contemplates her fans at a live talk show. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare boasts some of the most ambitious set pieces in the franchise, including a reprise of the series’ first kill, an intensely scored chase across the freeway, and a climactic battle in Freddy’s own mindscape. However, none of these prove as unsettling as the slow-motion shot of a hundred hysterical gore hounds leaping and shouting in full Krueger gear.
The sight also brings a haunting ambivalence to the otherwise hilarious line, “Every kid knows who Freddy is. He’s like Santa Claus or King Kong.” One gets the sense of an auteur genuinely questioning the societal impact of his work, committing to celluloid and the horror tradition what could’ve made for a spectacular academic essay. A while back, I credited the original A Nightmare on Elm Street for my love of scary movies. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is the reason I can articulate this passion.