Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

A sequel worth the title

by Donato Totaro Volume 1, Issue 9 / November 1997 3 minutes (592 words)

The title may at first awkward but having seen the film it is an accurate and clever reference to the reflexive unfolding of the film’s narrative. This is by far the best Freddy film since the original in 1984. Only a fresh comparison between them would decide which of the two is better.

Undoubtedly Craven has hit a nerve with his mythical dreamweaving character Freddy and the fine line he establishes between reality and dream. This entry improves on all the sequels by expanding the horizon into the film’s own myth making. The original was a teen nightmare, a world were adults were impotent, ineffectual guardians and teenagers in control of their own destiny. The heroic teen of the original is now a mother but the nightmare returns, only now it is in a slightly different garb. The fears Craven hits works on two levels: 1) an updated Hansel & Gretzel for children (the final battle scene has Langenkamp’s son seek refuge in Freddy’s oven and narrowly escapes being eaten whole by Freddy’s snake-like expanding jaws) 2) and reality-based adult fears. Heather plays herself, an actress married to a special effects technician, who faces single motherhood when her husband dies in a car crash (possibly caused by Freddy). The bereavement process is short because she is immediately weighted by the precipitous decline of her son’s health to a schizophrenic breakdown (triggered by Freddy).

The film cleverly works the film within a film ploy. Heather Langenkamp, producer Robert Shaye, Wes Craven, Robert Englund and John Saxon all play themselves (in one scene she visits producer Shaye who asks her if she wants to star in the film we are watching!). Heather is the first character to be drawn into the fictive reality of the Nightmare series and John Saxon joins her in the end to recreate the original’s conclusion, with Saxon playing her police captain/father. Englund, who recreates Freddy, is on a separate level because the text acknowledges several times that this is a “different” Freddy, darker and more evil (as Englund’s paintings reveal).

There is a sense in which the film contradicts itself. Craven, who is scripting the film as he dreams it (hence the title) explains that Freddy is contained in the dreamworld by a good film/narrative (i.e. a veiled comment on the earlier films in the series?) But wouldn’t this, being a good film, negate itself?

The film, set in western Los Angeles, cleverly incorporates the Los Angeles earthquake into its plot by using it as a metaphor for the crumbling line/distinction between sanity/insanity (Heather expresses concern about the madness in her past family), life/death (Freddy), and dream/reality. This is made pointedly in the scene where Heather drives home after bringing her son to the hospital and we witness images of destruction and debris (through a combination of first person point of view and objective shots).

The film opens with close-ups of Freddy building his mythical steel-taloned hand in his dungeon inferno. The climax takes place in this same space, his dungeon liar. Heather Langenkamp, who really carries the film in a difficult role, enters Freddy’s dream world to save her son. In keeping with the film’s reflexive questioning of cinema as a dream metaphor the film’s final shot is a recessional dolly back out of Heather Langenkamp’s bedroom door after she returns victoriously from Freddy’s dream-space (the backward movement is the cinematic equivalent of stepping away from the dream/narrative world).

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 1, Issue 9 / November 1997 Film Reviews genre_horrorhorrormind fuckremakeswes craven