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Robert Englund greets Freddy Kruger fans

 

Wes Craven's New Nightmare

New Line Cinema, 1994. Written and directed by Wes Craven. With Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, Mike Hughes, John Saxon, David Newsome.


After 6 Nightmare on Elm Street movies, it's not surprising that Wes Craven has started turning back on himself. Freddy Kuger was always about dreams and projections, and now the Freddy Kruger movies themselves are revealed as a manifestation of some super-evil, bigger than those movies themselves had imagined. Wes, his characters, his stars, his producers, his audiences (that's us), have all contributed to bringing Freddy Kruger back, more insidious than ever.

It starts with everything in its right, movie-business place. Heather Langenkamp, star of earlier Nightmare movies, hasn't worked a lot since but lives contentedly in LA with her husband, a special effects guy, and their son. She socializes occasionally with other members of the original cast: John Saxon, who played her father, and Robert Englund, who played the supernatural slasher Freddy Kruger. It doesn't seem far-fetched that Heather should get a call from her old pals at New Line Cinema informing her that "Wes is having nightmares again." This means that he will soon write a new script and she'll have an opportunity to reprise her role as "Nancy."

But this is ominous news to Heather. She has been having terrifying dreams about Freddy showing up to harm her family, her son has begun acting very strange, and phone calls are coming in from someone claiming to be Freddy Kruger. People keep assuring her that "Freddy was killed off," ignoring the fact that Freddy was a completely fictitious character in the first place.

Or so one might think. But Freddy in in fact a meta-fictitious character, as Heather learns from Wes Craven. She visits Wes after her husband has been killed under mysterious circumstances (slashed to death!) because she suspects that Wes's script has somehow caused, or been caused by, the weirdness in her life. Wes has some bad news: Freddy Kruger is just the current incarnation of an ancient evil. This evil thing can from time to time become trapped in stories; it's been imprisoned for 10 years in the Nightmare series, "but now that the films have ended, the genie is out of the bottle." (What a great pitch: Green-light my next movie or Satan will be loosed on the world.). Freddy, Craven says, wants to break out of films and into reality and only Heather can stop him. "You're going to have to play Nancy one last time," Craven tells his former leading actress. Then there's a shot of the script in progress on Craven's word processor. We read: "WES: 'You're going to have to play Nancy once last time.' Fade to black." The scene fades to black. It's cheap, but it's cool.

Wes Craven's New Nightmare continually refers to itself in both the present and conditional tenses. Are the events of the movie really happening, or are they premonitions unleashed by Wes Craven's work on the script, or are we viewing Craven's nightmare itself? The series has in the past played with the crossover between its characters' nightmares and the things that happen to them (i.e., if you dream that Freddy has killed you, you wake up dead). So it seems quite legitimate that Craven's search for a novel spin on a by-now tired property has led him to such ultra-involuted self-referentiality. Dreams and movies are both imaginary realms that may be able to "break out" and actually, physically, harm people. Both give shape to horrifying impulses which, once conceived of, can penetrate into the real world.

This notion gets introduced with the opening sequence. We see something
weird and gruesome happen with the famous razor-blade claw that's Freddy's
trademark. Yuck! It turns out to be a scene from a movie being shot. Whew! But things almost instantly turn weird on the set and the "prop" starts killing crew members. Yuck! This whole sequence then turns out to be a dream of Heather's. Whew! Unfortunately, in the Nightmare world, dreams are dangerous and all that havoc eventually happens. Yuck! Right at the outset, two reassuring horror movie devices--the pull-back to show the film crew, the cut to the dreamer starting awake--are proposed and discounted. Things will be slippery from here on out.

This is, to be sure, one of those "intellectualized" self-ref movies (as opposed to the "naive" kind that I generally prefer). The reflexivity can get a little over-rich. The producers of the film appear as themselves, wondering if they should finance Wes Craven's New Nightmare; Heather's son watches her in the first Nightmare on Elm Street movie on TV (even though the TV is unplugged); there's an injokey reference to Nosferatu; the film closes with Heather reading her son the script of the movie we've just seen; the end credits claim that Freddy Kruger has been played by "Himself;" etc. None of this bears too much thinking about; there isn't really a consistent self-referential metaphysic at work here. But it is all quite witty, and as a strategy for doing something novel with a played-out series, it's a lot better than having Freddy defend the honor of the US against the Russian boxing champ or battle middle eastern terrorists.

Wes Craven deserves credit for the way he uses the 1994 Los Angeles earthquakes expressionistically, as a Macbeth-like indication that the natural world has become profoundly disordered. There's "a fault running beneath Los Angeles," a character notes, and the movie does not shy away from linking this "fault" to swimming pools, tinted sunglasses, limo drivers, cellular phones, the offices of New Line Cinema, and movie sets. Unfortunately, the ending sells all this out. After raising questions about the influence of the gruesome Freddy Kruger movies on children, Wes Craven's New Nightmare climaxes in an orgy of gross-out effects that seem designed expressly for the pre-teen set. They stand out incongruously in this otherwise sophisticated and even moral film.

1/10/1999

 

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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein