Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, August 12, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (1994)

14. New Nightmare

In the ten year span between the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “New Nightmare,” the film had become an established classic of the horror genre. Five sequels, a TV series, comic books, a video game, even a dance album all followed. More importantly, Freddy Krueger had become, perhaps, the most iconic horror movie villain of the latter half of the 20th century. At that same time, the character quickly became overexposed, engaged in increasingly ridiculous antics, and lost all of his scare factor. So not three years after New Line killed Freddy off forever, his creator Wes Craven decided to return to the franchise, reviving Freddy for a decidedly different type of sequel. That Craven hadn’t managed to replicate the original’s success in all that time didn’t have anything to do with this decision, I’m sure…

“New Nightmare” trades in the kind of meta-film devices that are overdone in the horror genre now but were relatively unexplored in 1994. The cast and crew members of the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” twenty years later, are haunted by images of their own film. Heather Langenkamp’s life suddenly befalls tragedy and strange coincidences. Her young son begins to suffer from disturbing nightmares and trance-like states. Robert Englund receives visions of a darker, more evil Freddy Kruger. Wes Craven is uncontrollably driven to write a new sequel, one in which Freddy is simply the latest form of an ancient evil and threatens to cross over the threshold of fiction into the world of reality. And only Nancy, only Langenkamp, can stop it.

“New Nightmare” is Wes Craven’s best screenplay. The film smartly tackles a number of heavy themes about the nature of fiction. One of the best decision it makes is recognizing what a powerful pop culture symbol Freddy Krueger is. The movie makes repeated, explicit references to “Hansel and Gretel.” Freddy has frequently been called the Male Witch and this connection only makes it obvious. Craven goes deeper, recognizing that Krueger fits an archetype that stretches back thousands of years. He is from the same lineage that Lilith, Lamia, and countless more belong to: The monster that eats children. He is the monster under the bed, that little Dylan holds back with his toy dinosaur, one of my favorite touches. In this case, “under the bed” stands in for the subconscious, the barrier between wake and sleep, reality and dreams, the real world and fiction. Freddy emerges from the bed in the last act, shadowed claws projected on the wall like Graf Orlok. Later, Heather crawls down through the bedsheets, into the shadows, into the darkness of the mind. This takes her to Freddy’s lair, a boiler room mixed with Greek architecture, further connecting the entity with ancient times.

As self-reflective on the horror genre in general as the film is, it’s even more reflective on the franchise’s own history. It makes a few cute call-backs to the series. A limo driver speaks for Wes by saying the first film is the best, an opinion not mutually agreed on. Robert Englund, appearing in make-up and in full-on campy “Freddy’s Dead” mode, has a hilarious appearance on a talk show. The movie never shies away from Freddy’s status as a pop culture icon, placing claw symbols throughout and openly comparing him to Santa Claus or King Kong in terms of recognition.

The movie puts Heather Langenkamp, and by extension Nancy, in the unlikeliest of positions. Throughout the “Elm Street” series, parents are usually portrayed as clueless at best and out-right abusive at worse. Their lack of action frequently leads to their children’s deaths. At first, Heather seems a typical example, trying to get her son to sleep. She takes him to a hospital, run by a clueless authority figure. In one moment, she raises cage-like barriers up over his hospital bed. As the film goes on, as Heather becomes more like Nancy, she relates more to her son’s plight, ultimately correcting the shortsighted, cliched writing of the weaker sequels.

The thesis behind Freddy’s motivation and containment in the film gets at an even deeper, more fascinating theme. The ancient entity, whether it takes the form of Freddy Krueger or Baba Yaga, can only be contained by telling stories about it. Wes is explaining the importance of the horror genre or, perhaps, justifying it to more dismissive critics. Horror stories keep the horrors of the real world at bay. The movie seems to go out of its way to justify the slasher genre too, placing the Final Girl at no less a position then guardian of reality. Perhaps the sixth “Nightmare on Elm Street” sequel wasn’t the most visible place to make this statement but it’s a powerful one never the least. “New Nightmare” might be the smartest horror screenplay of the decade.

The movie gets at the roots of the horror genre and seems particularly focused on adult fears. A child in peril provides its protagonist’s motivation. The signal that all is not well in the first scene appears when Dylan climbs onto his bed. Two later moments best exemplify this. The first, when Dylan climbs to the top of a playground rocket ship, reaching for the heavens, is a far creepier, subtle example. (Underscored by Jon Saxon’s insistence that “Kids know.”) The second involves Dylan running out onto a busy freeway, his mother stepping too far behind. Sadly, this bit is undermined by some shoddy rear-projection work. While the film defends the horror genre, it seems undecided about horror’s effect on children. The topic is brought up several times. Dylan watching his mom’s most famous work is painted in a sinister light. The overly critical doctor character introduced near the end makes the director’s opinion more clear but you can’t help but wonder if Wes Craven had some personal reservation about his career’s effect on his own kids.

Building a whole film around Heather Langenkamp might have been a risky proposition. Her acting ability has improved in ten years. She seems far more comfortable in front of the camera and her line-delivery is more assured. She still doesn’t do big emotions well. She’s still at her best when she’s sassy, like elbowing a nurse or punching Freddy out. Her interaction with Miko Hughes as her son and David Newsom as her husband are mostly believable. The scene of husband and wife talking and kissing is very warm. Even better are the moments of mother and son talking in his bed, sweet and believable. Miko Hughes does fine, interacting well with Heather. His reading of the line “God wouldn’t take me” is almost heart-breaking. Whenever the script calls on him to be “scary,” that’s when his performance falters. Kids are hard to make scary anyway and Hughes’ melodramatic writhing and growing doesn’t make it.

The movie makes no qualms about reinventing Freddy, devoting its opening credits montage to the invention of a new, mechanical claw. The opening nightmare scene is a good jolt but the film is a slow burn for most of its run time. The film is halfway over before we get a clear look at Freddy’s new design. Sticking him in a trench coat and leather boots might be overly grimdark but the biomechnical claw is great. The treatment of the character is far more successful. The only true attack scene in the movie revisits Tina’s attack from the first film. The difference is, this time, you get to watch Freddy go to work. A nice subtle moment comes before the kill. Dylan sees Freddy rearing up behind the victim. However, she can’t see him behind her. Instead, she turns around to see x-rays of the brain.Once again, Freddy springs from the dark recess of the human mind, as always.

The film’s creepiest moments don’t actually feature much of Freddy. Chase’s death switches the gender of the bathtub scene in the first movie. Heather walks through a hospital proves a quietly spooky moment, as you hear off-screen wails of agony and the sound of bone-saw whining. Unlike most horror movies, we see the aftermath of the violence. The fallout of a loved one’s death is focused on, further representing this as a horror movie for grown-ups, rooted in adult fears. A funeral evolves into a creepy moment, the confines of a grave used well. A loved one being quietly menacing proves far more effective then a little kid throwing up black sludge and yelling in a big devil voices.

And that’s the main problem with “New Nightmare.” The script is very clever, the performances are solid, the direction is smooth, and the movie has a decent scare or two. It also has a serious melodramatic streak running through it. Part of the problem is the musical score, which is bombastic and overly used. Heather’s growing fears, most obviously during the scene in Bob Shaye’s office, are overly focused on . The moment that introduces the new glove is protracted, dragged out to an absurd level. By the last act, you have a giant Freddy appearing in the sky and Heather sliding out of a water slide shaped liked the villain’s mouth. That’s a bit much. Freddy stretching his arm, hand, and tongue like rubber are more cartoonish then creepy. The confrontation between heroine and evil entity is never scary like it should be. By this point, the film is more interesting on a conceptually level then a visceral one. While it’s not fair to criticize the film for some bad digital effects, the movie ending with a giant explosion is another example of how overdone it is in some regards.

“New Nightmare” wasn’t successful at the time, becoming the lowest grossing entry in the series. Despite this, the film has gardened a following. In some ways, it might be the best of the series and is certainly the most polished. I think it’s a very personal film for the director. For all its positive elements, and there are many, the film is never quite as scary as the first “Nightmare.” From the perspective of Craven’s career, it shows his continuing interest in using horror as a format for commentary and subverting and playing with fictional devices. This is an interest that would take the director to his next big success. [Grade: B+]  

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