1990s, 3/4, Horror, Review, Wes Craven

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

#5 in my ranking of Wes Craven’s filmography.

#2 in my ranking of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise.

This movie is pretty much a complete mess, and I’m into it. Wes Craven decided to come back to the franchise that really made his career for the third time (the combination of the poor reception of several of his previous films along with the actual financial success of The People Under the Stairs along with New Line Cinema wanting to squeeze just one more drop from the fruit that was the franchise seemed to have done it), and he wanted to go in a different direction. Pulling the story back into the “real world”, using actors playing themselves (including Craven himself in a supporting role), and trying to find meaning in horror again, he threw at least three different major ideas at the screen. It feels like a story written purely from the id with no attempt to massage it into a more cohesive narrative. This leaves it as a bit of a mixed experience, especially its middle fifty minutes, but I admire it for its ambition as well as the bookends that are probably the best the franchise ever got.

Heather Langenkamp, who played Nancy in the original Nightmare on Elm Street, has seen her career develop from starring in horror movies to starring in television, and she is happily married to her husband, special effects specialist Chase (David Newsom), with a young son Dylan (Miko Hughes). A recent uptick in earthquakes in the Los Angeles region has coincided with a series of threatening phone calls from a mysterious stalker, and Heather has begun to have disquieting dreams about her husband working on a new Freddy Kreuger glove that comes alive and kills him. It’s also the tenth anniversary of the first film, and so she’s doing some press about it while Bob Shaye at New Line brings her into his office to discuss having her in one more entry in the franchise that Wes Craven is currently writing. While she has an easy relationship with Robert Englund, who played Freddy, it’s obvious that there’s something about the character of Freddy Krueger that sets her on edge, especially when combined with the calls, the quakes, and her dreams.

Chase leaves for a couple of days to work on a commercial, and Heather is left to take care of Dylan along with the help of Julie (Tracy Middendorf), his babysitter. Things begin to get weird when Dylan wakes up from a nap, screaming, and his T-rex plush doll slashed through with four distinctive marks that spill out the stuffing. Dylan then proceeds to get weirder, wandering around the house at all hours of the night, screaming at random things, and it gets so off that Heather demands that Chase come back home early. He’s killed in a car accident on the way back, and things gets worse when Heather has a dream of Freddy pulling Dylan down into Chase’s coffin at the funeral.

The first half hour of the film, up through the death of Chase, is shockingly good, considering the level of Wes Craven’s writing over the previous few years. It’s eerie, off-putting, and surprisingly involving. However, once the focus turns to Dylan, the film’s chaotic core of ideas comes into clearer focus. It introduces a couple of different concepts that the film is never concerned with drawing out fully. The biggest part of it is the idea that Heather’s sins (helping to bring Freddy into reality by being in the first film) are being visited upon her son, especially with the movie randomly turning on in her house’s televisions. The second is the idea of mental illness being passed down to her children, something she admits to John Saxon (who played Nancy’s father Don in the first and third films) in a scene that ends up recalling The Omen more than anything else with Dylan climbing to the tippy top of a tall playground rocket with operatic music playing.

The third major idea comes as Heather is becoming more strung out after the death of her husband and her son’s flirtation with mental illness, including putting him in the hospital for observation (the section of the film that seems to be going for something similar as the search for a medical explanation to Regan’s actions in The Exorcist but never reaches that level of disturbing), that she goes to Wes’s house to demand to know what the script is. The things she’s heard from Robert have convinced her that there is some connection between the horror script that Craven is writing and the evil that seems to be enveloping her family. And, you know what? Craven’s scene kind of makes me feel bad for crapping on so many of his movies. He seems to have been a soft-spoken, intelligent, and kind man, but then he describes how he’s writing (in the movie) the script by just writing down his nightmares. It’s most likely not the direct reality, but it does seem clear that his best work was written with little mental processing and everything else was trying to either mimic it or find another way to write. Anyway, he puts forward the idea that Freddy is the form of an everlasting evil that was captured in the Freddy films, but since the franchise ended it was released again. The only way to put it back was to make another movie. This idea pretty much begins and ends in this scene, though, and it’s emblematic of the chaotic core of the film.

The final half hour is where the movie regains its focus to a certain degree and just embraces the horror completely, with it being discovered that Dylan has been acting so weird, not because he’s suffering from schizophrenia but because he’s massively sleep deprived. He’s been keeping himself awake out of fear of his dreams, and when the nurses force him to sleep with drugs, Freddy invades. (If Heather is the portal to this world, as Wes says, then why is Dylan it? Was he just wrong? I dunno.) We get the great visuals (some of which are admittedly repeats of some of the best from the first film), and the film ends up kind of climbing up its own butt with Heather seemingly entering the world of the first film and calling John Sexon her father.

There’s a final confrontation, and it represents the significant step up from the first film. I like the first film more overall, but this entry actually feels like an escalation of stakes as it goes on. Chase’s death isn’t like Tina’s death in the first one: the best death first. The best stuff comes later, and Heather and Dylan end up descending into a complete hellworld in the final confrontation. I was waffling a bit on my rating of the film in my head at this point, but the ending just convinced me, perhaps against my better judgement, to give it the benefit of the doubt and knock it up a bit.

Langenkamp gives a much better performance here than she did in the first film. She was a more professional actress with at least a decade of experience by this point, and it shows. She’s far more convincing. The rest of the cast is solid, with little Miko Hughes given a surprising amount to do as Dylan while and pulling off quite a bit of it. The horror is more vicious, in no small part to Englund revisiting his iconic role, as well as the more limited screentime he gets. He’s not front and center from the beginning. He’s treated more like the shark in Jaws than the centerpiece like in the previous films, and it helps to create a really nice sense of tension throughout.

Wes Craven really stretched here, and, like always, I feel like he could have used a strong writing partner to help craft the ideas into something more solid. I would say the messiness is a virtue, but he gets kind of lost in the middle with the concern over Dylan. If I could change anything it would be to diminish the concern over the child and refocus it more fully on Heather herself with Dylan’s safety being a supporting mechanism to the terror instead of having it be the alternating focus. It muddles and drags down the middle as it is. However, the beginning and final half hours are really good, enough to raise the whole film to a messy, but satisfying and ambitious, entry in the franchise.

Rating: 3/4

11 thoughts on “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare”

  1. I don’t remember much about this one, but I do recall really being interested in seeing it because it sounded like “What if Persona-era Bergman made a slasher movie?” The fact that the interesting ideas are just kind of dropped in here and there made it pretty disappointing. But at least Craven had some ideas this time.

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    1. It’s his most ambitious work, especially as writer. It’s also one of the great pieces of evidence that he needed a writing partner, someone to take this mess of ideas and hammer it into something far more refined.

      When he wasn’t just mimicking his earlier successes (Shocker going after Nightmare or everything he made after Scream trying to replicate Scream) he had ideas that he was trying to work out. He just simply did not have the writing skill for it. I think Mark’s equating of Craven to Lucas is very apt.

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  2. The first Wes Craven mid-life crisis movie, sadly the next one will be far more successful than it deserves to be. This one however…well there were things that I liked: among them, the actors and actresses, just being themselves, seeming them interact naturally. Robert Englund out of character was the highlight of this movie. Frankly Freddy was the least interesting part of the whole thing.

    And yes, Wes Craven was reportedly a very nice, bookish, music loving man. But there is an art and craft to movie making that he only seems to get right on rare combinations.

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    1. I have no idea why New Line were completely unwilling to try and assign him a writing partner for this. Maybe he refused to work with one. Maybe it was simply better than anything New Line was dealing with at the time and figured that they had hit gold. They weren’t making art. They were making crappy slashers.

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      1. Maybe Craven didn’t think he needed a partner. You have to be able to recognize that your story just doesn’t work (or doesn’t exist) in order to realize you need someone else’s thoughts. Since his most well-known works were written by him alone, maybe he thought someone else would dilute the magic or something.

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      2. And the first Nightmare was held up by a lot of people as a masterpiece. It didn’t seem to matter that stuff like Shocker and Night Visions ends up getting poorly received. It’s still another kind of ego shot when you admit that you need someone’s help to craft a story.

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