Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

The H-Bomb: Actress Heather Langenkamp, the star of the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, has been going through a particularly unsettling period. She’s being harassed by some crank caller who sounds an awful lot like Freddy Kruger and is experiencing a number of vivid, disturbing dreams about him. All the while, her young son has been behaving oddly and has been sculpting a very familiar face into his morning oatmeal.

Heather initially dismisses all of this as being byproducts of her own anxiety, but when someone near and dear to her turns up dead, with very suspicious claw marks on his chest, she can’t help but wonder… could all of this somehow have something to do with Freddy? Could it, in someway, be connected to that new “Nightmare on Elm Street” sequel that her old friend Wes Craven has been secretly working on?

With the first “Nightmare” film, writer/director Craven truly came up with an intriguing and frightening concept, one that, believe it or not, was based (loosely) on a true story; the notion that someone or something could stalk you in your dreams and kill you. With it, Craven created a character who, with his burned face, striped sweater, and razor fingered glove, became one of the great icons of modern horror films. Fred Krueger, a pedophile and child murderer, was a character who spoke in a deep, taunting voice, stayed mostly in the shadows, and despite having very limited screen time, made an undeniable impression.

Of course, because of the movie’s runaway success, many sequels followed (New Line Cinema is referred to as The House that Freddy Built). Sadly, as the series wore on, the more commercialized it became, as Freddy was pulled out of the shadows and shoved into the limelight. As a result, the character, who was once a terrifying bogeyman, was transformed into an impish, wisecracking jokester who would spout eye roll inducing one liners and who ultimately became about as scary as a Scooby Doo villain.

The series finally hit the bottom of the fucktard barrel when it featured Freddy flying around on a broomstick and playing Nintendo, and the once formidable dream slayer was put out of his misery once and for all. Or so we thought…

In 1994, Craven decided to resurrect the character himself, ten years after the original film, and lo-and-behold, it is the only sequel that even comes close to holding a candle to the original. In fact, I’d say it does more than that. I’d say, and I about to go out on a limb here, it’s the best film of the “Elm Street” series, even better than the original. But it’s a film that was largely ignored when it was first released, and while an audience for it has grown since the video release, I personally think it’s never gotten its due. That’s why I decided to revisit it, just in time for the release of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” remake.

The main component of “New Nightmare”, that sets it apart from the other “Elm Street” films, is that while it is technically a sequel to the previous movies, it isn’t in a way. The whole idea is that the film is a kind of film within a film. The plot is a little tricky to discuss without giving too much away, but the movie is set in a universe where the “Nightmare” series exists as it does, but now that a new film is going into production, the makers of the original Elm Street films have been plagued by recurring nightmares, threatening phone calls, and packages in the mail. Langenkamp and her son, Dylan, seem to have been targeted in particular. But is this stalker just some overzealous Freddy fan? Or has Krueger’s spirit found a way to escape films and come into our reality?

There are a few aspects to this movie that might have turned people off. First, the storyline is a rather cerebral one that asks the audience to buy into a metaphysical concept that is pretty hard to swallow (but is it really more unbelievable than a ghost that can kill you in your dreams?). The other is that, much to the dismay of some of the series’ fans, this movie is much more of a slow burning, dread building psychological thriller than it is a straight up slasher flick.

To me, however, that is the film’s strength, that it’s character driven and unfolds at a very deliberate pace, letting us get to know and empathize with the characters of Heather and Dylan, letting the tension rise gradually, maintaining a creepy atmosphere of ill ease, until it finally comes to a boil in the last act, and, most importantly, it makes minimal use of Freddy. Craven does a masterful job of making Krueger’s presence felt throughout the entire movie, but only showing him at very deliberate moments. It may not be the bloodiest “Nightmare” film, though there are some pretty graphic deaths, but it is, for my money, the scariest by far.

This is also the best of the franchise as far as performances go, as well. Heather Langenkamp, playing a fictionalized version of herself, has grown quite a bit as an actress since her performance’s as Nancy in “Nightmares 1 + 3”. She shows a lot more range here, putting in an impressive effort as a frightened, paranoid character who is at her emotional and psychological breaking point. Miko Hughes, who you may remember as the creepy, undead toddler from “Pet Semetary”, gives one of the best, most complex performances that I’ve ever seen from a child actor as Heather’s distant, vulnerable son, Dylan. John Saxon, producer Bob Shaye, and director Craven also appear as “themselves,” and they aren’t half bad.

But the bitch of the bunch, the reason we’re all here, is Robert Englund. He IS Freddy Krueger! Nothing against Jackie Earl Haley, who is a fine actor and I’m sure does the part justice in the remake, but Englund is, and will always be, Freddy. He’s owns the role, now and forever. He’s on camera less here than he is in the other sequels, but when it comes to this character, less really is more. Krueger’s been returned to the shadows where he belongs, and with his slightly new look, including a bio-mechanical razor glove, he is truly more menacing than he ever was before. This is by far his best performance as the charred up child killer.

As I said, I feel this is a better film than the original “Nightmare” because, as good as that film was, I think that this one is more mature, assured, and overall more effective. Craven honed his skills as a filmmaker between these two movies and it shows. Even if you don’t agree that it’s better than the first, then you must concede that it’s the only sequel to live up to the original and stand on par with it. This spooky treat avoids all the campy, hack n’ slash horseshit of the other sequel and delivers an intelligent, original horror film. If you’re a Freddy fan and missed this one, I strongly urge you to seek it out.

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