Wes Craven's New Nightmare (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's been more than fifteen years since the release of John Carpenter's Halloween, and ten since Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street. Each, in its own way, was a top-of-the-line horror flick -- a film that relied more on chills and thrills than on graphic displays of butchery. Those movies had unique visions of what was required to scare an audience, and neither resorted to the pointless and grotesque displays of gratuitous gore that permeated the other "big" entry of the time (Friday the 13th).

But then came the inevitable sequels, and the corresponding plummet in quality. Making a cheap buck took precedence over everything -- including telling a good story. Halloween 2 was steeped in blood. Nightmare 2, not directed by Wes Craven, lacked even a coherent story. The race to mediocrity -- and worse -- was on. By the end of the '80s, it was difficult to discern much difference between the various screen bogeymen: Jason, Michael, and Freddy.

The Nightmare on Elm Street series perhaps took a slightly different path than the Halloweens and Fridays. It was still gore-happy, but its baddie, Freddy, had a self-deprecating sense of humor (his one-liners reminded one of the kinds of things that Arnold Schwarzenegger was wont to spout). By the fifth Nightmare sequel, the films had become self-parodies.

So why do another Nightmare movie? Probably, as New Line Cinema exec Robert Shaye puts it (in a cameo in this new entry), because the public wants it. The Freddy Krueger mask is still a pretty hot seller in Halloween costume stores.

Perhaps the best turn of events is the return of Wes Craven, directing a Nightmare for the first time since the original. He has brought back a sense of genuine horror to the series, in part by taking it to completely new ground, and in part by giving his actors a legitimate script to work with. The Freddy of old -- a horrifying, murderous creature -- is back, replacing the caricature who gasped his last in 1991's Freddy's Dead - The Final Nightmare.

Wes Craven's New Nightmare focuses on the lives of some of the actors who appeared in the 1984 original (Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, and John Saxon, all of whom play themselves). Langenkamp is having dreams about Freddy, and Englund is painting some very strange pictures. For his part, Craven (who also appears in the film) is writing a new script (which turns out to be the screenplay for this picture). All of them realize that something is very wrong.

Then, Langenkamp's young son, Dylan (Miko Hughes), starts having catatonic episodes where he speaks in Freddy's voice, and her husband, Chase (David Newsom), is involved in an accident that appears to involve razor-sharp claws. Freddy, according to Craven (who is called upon to provide an explanation for everything that's going on) is a being of mythical evil whose essence was captured by the Nightmare films. Now that the series is complete, he is seeking a gateway into the real world.

Whereas the other Nightmare on Elm Street films delighted in blurring the lines between waking and dreaming, this one adds another layer -- that of pseudo-reality versus fantasy. Craven has given himself a wonderful new playground to fool around in, and he clearly relishes the opportunity. Those who can accept the basic premise are likely to have nearly as much fun. This isn't quite cinema verité but, at its most clever, it comes close - the sort of "meta" approach that has been popular in indie cinema but not in horror. The only argument against Craven's vision is that he perhaps didn't push the envelope far enough.

Of course, the centerpiece of Wes Craven's New Nightmare is Freddy Krueger (once again played by Englund, even though the end credits ascribe Freddy's role to "himself"). This time around, the dream demon has been given a newer, meaner look and a set of nastier claws, but there's no questioning that he's the same monster who began his screen haunts a decade ago. The visual and gore effects, while not ILM top-of-the-line, are believable and occasionally downright chilling. The entire production is steeped in an unsettling atmosphere.

The cinematic horror genre, like the science fiction one, has been badly hamstrung by poor films, and several of the Nightmare on Elm Street entries have been at the forefront of the decline. Therefore, it's somewhat ironic that one of the most intelligent and creative efforts to come along in a while bears the Nightmare theme, title, and signature villain. Any copycat features spawned by this movie will hopefully take a cue from Wes Craven's New Nightmare and favor quality of scares over quantity of blood.

Wes Craven's New Nightmare (United States, 1994)

Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, Miko Hughes, David Newsom, Tracy Middendorf, John Saxon, Wes Craven
Screenplay: Wes Craven
Cinematography: Mark Irwin
Music: J. Peter Robinson
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema
Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 1994-10-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1