After the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984, New Line managed to crank out no less than five sequels in the subsequent decade. Freddy Krueger, a figure of true menace in the first instalment, was reduced to a stripey clown, the Halloween costume of choice for eight year olds. No longer capable of inducing chills, he resorted to making his audience cringe with terrible one-liners. However, in 1994, his creator, Wes Craven, decided to reclaim the franchise and wrote and directed the seventh entry himself. New Nightmare addresses some awkward topics, such as the responsibility movie-makers have for their horrific creations. It breaks down the ‘fourth wall’ of movie-making, with actors, writers and even the producer playing themselves, on and off a film set, in the process of making a new Nightmare movie. Pirandello would have been proud.
New Nightmare uses a film set as its setting – a low budget solution to the problem of creating a viable reality onscreen, certainly, but also a way of exploring “the difference between one’s imagination and one’s life” (as Craven put it). In the original movie he blurred the boundaries between waking and dreaming, and in New Nightmare there is overt scrutiny of the separation between imagination, the screen story and what we perceive to be real life.
Heather Langenkamp plays herself, as an actress ten years on from playing Nancy. She starts experiencing nightmares that make her suspect that her screen arch-rival, Freddy, has broken through into reality and is stalking her family. Initially, her fears seem groundless – how could a fictional character pose a threat to those responsible for his creation? Her husband, Chase, works in a special FX shop, engaged in the construction of a mechanical knife-wielding hand (very evocative of Freddy’s glove), and he sees no reason to be concerned. Film is just an industry, a factory churning out illusions. However, when Chase is killed after falling asleep at the wheel, Heather’s worst fears are confirmed, and she must figure out how to kick Freddy back into the realm of nightmares.
She finds out that Wes Craven is writing a new Nightmare screenplay based on the scenes he dreams each night. Craven tells Heather that Freddy is simply a representation of a demonic force. That force was trapped safely for a while in the stories that were told about him, but once its essence was mishandled, once Freddy was reduced to a figure of fun, the demonic power is let loose.
“It’s about this entity, whatever you want to call it. It’s old, very old. It’s existed in different forms in different times. It can be captured sometimes… By storytellers, of all things. Every so often, they imagine a story good enough to capture its essence. Then, for a while, it’s held prisoner in the story…. But the problem comes when the story dies, and that can happen in a lot of ways. It can get too familiar to people, or someone waters it down to make it an easier sell, or maybe it’s just so upsetting to society that it’s banned outright. However it happens, when the story dies the evil is set free.”
The only way to control it is to create a new Nightmare On Elm St, that once again restrains the evil inside the limits of a narrative. This means Heather must adopt her Nancy identity, and face off against Freddy. She’s reluctant to do so – she feels she has outgrown the horror genre and perhaps feels guilty about the way she profited from terror in the past – but Freddy respects the fictional power she once had over him. He is also using her child, Dylan, as his main route into reality – the kid appears with a home-made version of Freddy’s glove (kitchen knives taped to his fingers) less than an hour in. This plays into Heather’s guilt about her past – Dylan has seen all her movies, and this may, according to a child psychiatrist she consults, be causing the boy to behave in a bizarre and violent manner (“I’m convinced these films can tip an unstable child
over the edge”). Heather must draw on her fictional persona of Nancy
to reprise her role as gatekeeper, and lock Freddy out of our world forever.
It’s the only way for her to reclaim her son’s sanity and stability – and,
perhaps, make amends for the damage she has done.
A New Nightmare works on a number of different levels. It lacks the raw shock value of the original, or the kinetic dream-spaces of A Nightmare On Elm St 3: Dream Warriors. However, it does provide the audience with a different set of thrills – constant references are made throughout to other horror movies, bringing pleasure to the cognoscenti. Previous Nightmare entries are quoted (Freddy’s tongue emerges from a phone, and the stairs turn spongy). Dylan, shown clutching a dinosaur straight out of Jurassic Park, harks back to some of the monstrous children of the 1970s; he spouts green goo like Regan in The Exorcist and his haircut brings Damien to mind (a similarity supported by a Carmina Burana reference in the score). A shadow on a wall evokes Nosferatu.
In addition to this intertextuality, and its exploration of the essence
of illusion and fear, New Nightmare also deals in debate. It grasps the Media Effects nettle (does watching violent movies make kids violent? If there was no movie manifestation of Freddy, would Dylan be taping kitchen knives to his fingers?), and the narrative touches on parental responsibility (a squeamish Heather baulks at reading the gory details of Hansel & Gretel to Dylan), the effects of horror movies on those who make them (would you really trust Robert Englund as a babysitter, despite his mild-mannered demeanour in reality?) and the age-old question of why we feel the need for such warped storytelling, and bring such monstrous creatures to life with our imaginations. All-in-all it’s a thoughtful, multi-layered movie, which may explain why it didn’t play too well with a predominantly teen audience (who else would go to a theatre and see the latest Freddy flick?). It grossed just over $18M domestically, a long way behind Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) which turned over almost $35M in the US. It was received positively by critics, however (a whopping 84% on Rotten Tomatoes), and remains one of the most distinctive horror movies of the era.
Freddy Krueger’s Creator Breaks Out of His Genre – New York Times (9 October 1994)