Friday, October 12, 2012

Wes Craven's New Nightmare Movie Review

This is one of the few films in this October series that I watched for the first time. This was kind of a big deal when it was released when I was in high school, but I just didn't have much interest in horror movies anymore. The premise was sort of interesting, but I just never got around to it. No, it had no direct effect on me as a kid, but it was part of the conversation, so I thought it important to include it. Also, it's the only one of the Nightmare series I hadn't seen.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

Artists often talk about their work as if it were a living, breathing thing. In the artist’s mind, an inanimate object takes on qualities that make it seem like it’s more than the material it’s made from. Once an audience gets a hold of a piece of art, the metaphor takes on a whole new life as meanings are ascribed, intentions discussed, and, in the case of pop culture, obsessions are created. The Nightmare on Elm Street series and, more specifically, Freddy became cult sensations through the 1980s. You might say they took on a life of their own outside their various creators, in particular the original creator Wes Craven, whose idea had morphed into something completely different by the last two or three films.

The idea for Wes Craven’s New Nightmare had been kicking around since A Nightmare on Elm Street 3. New Line had rejected the premise in favor of a more traditional slasher film. You can call New Nightmare the seventh film in the series, but it doesn’t fit within the series continuity. It takes place in the ostensible real world of Hollywood, where Heather Langenkamp (playing herself) lives with her husband Chase (David Newsom) and their young son Dylan (Miko Hughes). Chase is a special effects guy who’s been secretly working on a new Freddy glove for Wes Craven (who also plays himself, in addition to writing and directing the film). Craven the character has a new idea for a horror movie and he wants Heather to star. However, she’s being tormented by phone calls taunting her with the Freddy nursery rhyme and she has ambivalent feelings about her son being exposed to those kinds of films.

There are signs that her former collaborators on Nightmare (including producer Robert Shaye and costar Robert Englund playing themselves) have been experiencing nightmares of their own and the frequent earthquakes plaguing the Los Angeles area augur the arrival of something not of this earth. Englund also plays the Krueger character, this time darker and more menacing than in previous films, divorced from the preening and scenery chewing that made him a cult favorite. All this provides the makings for a metatextual horror film that works like a warm up to Craven’s more successful Scream two years later.

New Nightmare is not afraid to be more than visceral fear. It’s cerebral at the same time, commenting on impact that horror films have not only on our cultural, but on the people involved in making them and the children who are their target demographic. The 7-year old Hughes has some remarkably horrifying moments as Dylan and to some extent calls into question the decision to allow a child so young to appear in a movie so terrifying. This is a lot to tackle, but Craven is up to the challenge, crafting a film that is spooky and interesting at the same time. It also has the best use of special effects and makeup since the first film in the series.

Craven’s greatest accomplishment in the original film was his ability as a director to blur the line between dream and reality. This time, he not only blurs that line, but adds the second line between the world of the film and the audience’s real world. He doesn’t provide the film with any opening titles, which adds to the feeling that we might be watching a documentary. His subtle handheld camera work in certain scenes further develops the conceit.

It’s an elaborately constructed world for a horror film. I’m surprised it didn’t have more impact at the time and that I never caught up with the film until now. I suppose after Freddy’sDead: The Final Nightmare I had decided to write off the series as being in its post-mortem stage. Because horror films continue to move masses and frighten young audiences, New Nightmare retains a timeless quality. Its commentary on the genre’s effects remains as true today as they did nearly two decades ago when the entire idea was fresh.

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