You can almost literally see the wheels spinning in Wes Craven’s head while watching Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which both makes it unbelievably fascinating and also, at the same time, not quite a fully formed idea. Now, the fully formed idea would come two years later with Scream, but while watching Wes Craven’s New Nightmare the seeds of something wonderful had been planted. And it makes perfect sense New Nightmare under-performed at the time. Not putting the words “Elm Street” or “Freddy” into the title of a Nightmare on Elm Street movie is certainly … bold (though, originally it did have a Nightmare on Elm Street title), but there’s no way that helped the box office. (Also not helping, being released the same day as Pulp Fiction.)
Craven hadn’t directed a Nightmare on Elm Street movie since the original ten years before. It’s a little startling to watch that first one compared to the others. Freddy, referred to as “Fred” Krueger in the first installment, doesn’t yet have his trademark deep voice, certainly doesn’t have as many “jokes,” and his really disturbing backstory is discussed in much more detail. In the ten years since Craven had directed A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy Krueger had become basically a cartoon character, coming up with elaborate and wacky schemes to kill his victims, usually followed by a one-liner. But by the time of Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (the only Nightmare movie I saw in theaters), the formula was stale. Freddy’s antics and jokes were stale and, now, just resorted to using the word “bitch” a lot.
Actually, a lot of the “A-list” horror franchises were getting stale at the time.* By the time New Nightmare was released, Jason Vorhees had been to Manhattan and Hell. And even those titles were misleading. In Jason Takes Manhattan, yeah, Jason eventually makes it to New York City, which look a lot like Vancouver – but not until the third act of the movie after spending the first two-thirds basically watching Jason people stab a bunch of people on a boat. (Though this movie does feature Jason punching someone so hard his head flies off.) In Jason Goes to Hell, we never once see Jason in Hell. In fact, we barely see Jason at all. It’s kind of weird out of the original 11 Friday the 13th movies, Jason Vorhees is basically not in three of them. Hey, but at least Friday the 13th was trying something kinda fun and stupid (Jason eventually goes to space). On the other side, the Halloween movies decided, after the incredibly fun and weird Halloween III: Season of the Witch, to double down, and get bogged down, on the lore of Michael Myers and dig deep into cults and rituals and Michael’s psychic family members. Finally, Paul Rudd shows up in the sixth installment, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers to end all this.
*Having said all that, at the time all of this seemed stale, but it’s all come around to being fun again. I have nothing against “elevated horror,” but sometimes I just want to watch Jason Vorhees go around and kill a bunch of people. Also, just like action movies of the era, it’s kind of surprising how good these movies look compared to the grey, CGI-heavy movies of today. Even the Friday the 13th movies are bright and colorful. Also, I think this is why David Gordon Green’s Halloween movies are so dividing. They really do borrow the spirit of an earlier era, which is going to play odd to viewers today expecting something meaningful. These movies are all stupid! But also that’s their charm. Also, speaking of Jason, I understand the lawsuits and disputes over ownership, but come on? How has it been 14 years since we’ve seen Jason Vorhees? The 2009 reboot made a lot of money! Let’s get Jason going again!
So obviously Craven was fed up with the current state of horror – or, at least, his contribution to horror – and wanted to drastically change things. (It is weird to watch, say, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master and realize that movie technically spawned from the same person who made The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes.) The main concept of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is a little disjointed between making fun of clichés and the supernatural, but the main concept is Freddy Krueger escapes the movie world and starts haunting and harassing Heather Langenkamp, who played Nancy Thompson in the first movie and the third movie, Dream Warriors. (As an aside, when I went to high school in a suburb of Kansas City, I lived two houses away from a girl named Nancy Thompson. In retrospect, it’s weird this wasn’t brought up more often. Then again, no one really wanted to take their chances with Freddy so maybe it wasn’t.) To the point, Langenkamp starts getting strange and aggressive phone calls, just like the Scream movie made famous. Langenkamp then seeks out both Craven and Robert Englund for help and advice. (Englund is particularly great in this movie playing himself. Also, I wish more people knew the original V miniseries today, and V: The Final Battle, because Englund is really great as a nice alien who is against eating humans. I can’t condone the actions of Freddy Krueger, but here I do agree with Englund’s character … eating humans is bad.)
I mean, look, people still love Scream. There have been two new Scream movies in the past two years. It’s remarkable there’s a movie where the creator of Scream is work-shopping Scream, using Freddy Krueger. It’s so fascinating and for whatever reason, like a lot of people I think, I had avoided it. (For me, before the pandemic, I was a “I hate horror movies” person. Then, with not much else to do, I kind of got into them. Not the more modern “jump scare*” variety, but the stuff that people would consider “fun.” So I am catching up still on a lot of horror.) The end result is New Nightmare is a very strange movie. And it works on a “what on Earth is this?” type movie, but I could also see how the meta tone of the whole thing, combined with actual supernatural elements, would fly over the heads of people in 1994. It would be like watching the first Scream and out of nowhere Ghostface has actual powers.
(*Some people seem to get offended having some movies classified as “jump scare,” but I’m sorry that’s what they are. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good, it just means they “aren’t for me.” Horror movies from the ’80s or ’90s would have one or two good jump scares. Now it’s nonstop and I find it unpleasant, but I also understand why people accustomed to nonstop jump scares might find movies without them not as exciting. Whatever!)
Two years after New Nightmare, Craven would just keep all the meta aspects of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and ditch the supernatural elements and he made yet another movie that is now six movies deep into the franchise (just one less than Elm Street‘s original run. We can pretend the 2010 reboot doesn’t exist, though it did make a lot of money). Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is a gift to Scream fans that maybe don’t even realize it’s right there to be discussed and dissected. Anyway, that’s the point of all this … if you at all like Scream, you should watch Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.
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