Sunday, June 24, 2007

Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994)

Wes Craven's Wes Craven's New Nightmare brims over with creepy imagery, and the sort of dreams/reality/cinema metaphors I usually go wild for. So why didn't I go wild for it? Oh sure, it's intelligent, particularly for a "slasher" and you couldn't deny that it's made with style and wit. Here, at least, is a movie that proves that good filmmaking is more than style and wit.

The conceit is a clever one, but maybe it's a bit too clever. Craven, of course, wrote and directed the original A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984. Because it came out when I was 3 years old, and I was pretty well shielded from R-rated horror until I was much older, I never saw the original Nightmare until earlier this week. I was pleasantly surprised to see that that movie is pretty much a masterpiece. I could see why Freddy (or just Fred, as he is generally called in the first one) Kruger became such an icon over the course of five sequels, including one of such seeming finality that it was actually called Freddy's Dead. Then again, if I've got this right, Freddy was dead before the first movie began, which could explain how in the intervening years he's battled Jason from the Friday the 13th series and, in this film, the actress who played his original antagonist.

Craven didn't play a part in all those sequels; he was immensely displeased with New Line Cinema's desire for a rug-pulling ending to the first film that would throw one last twist at the audience. It was his intention for Nightmare to be a one-off, and so he did not participate in any of the others, save for a co-producing/writing stint on Nightmare 3 which didn't go nearly well enough to bring him back for Nightmare 4. Perhaps sensing after installment 6 that the series was pretty much dead, even if Freddy wasn't, New Line and Craven relented and reteamed for this far more cerebral take on the original material.

The set-up: Heather Langenkamp, the star of the first Nightmare plays herself, as a neurotic actress and mother living in Los Angeles. The night before a massive earthquake (and, eerily, one occured during New Nightmare's filming, months after Craven had written about it), Heather has a horrific dream on the set of a Nightmare on Elm Street sequel where Freddy's severed claw comes to life and kills her husband (dead fish David Newsom). When he really does die, possibly at the hands (or claws) of Freddy, Heather's life is thrown into chaos. Freddy's just a fictional character -- so why is he bothering a real woman?

Well, because this is a fictional movie. And even though this premise sounds just about perfect for Craven, who would soon mine the divide between cinema and perceived reality with far greater success in his Scream trilogy, our most popular modern horror director isn't quite at the top of his game. Remember that before Craven made Scream, he made one more picture: the Eddie Murphy horror vehicle Vampire in Brooklyn, a movie that is only a vehicle for horror for those making the shocking discovery that they'd paid good money to see it.

New Nightmare is indeed cerebral but not necessarily scary, and most of the scares are essentially retreads of moments from the original film. Which, of course, is Craven's intent; he's blurring that line between Heather and Nancy until, by the end of the film, she's looking, talking, and acting like her. The suggested idea, then, is that Heather, who lives uncomfortably with her Freddy legacy, needs to embrace it and will only be saved once she acknowledges how wonderful it was. Given Craven's previous reluctance to make more Nightmares, this notion is surely rooted in autobiography.

But the original film wasn't distinguished for onscreen therapy sessions (except maybe in the scenes between Nancy and her boozy mom) and a couple retreads of 10-year-old gore gags. It became a classic because the ideas and images it presented were thrillingly new and original. The ones in Craven's second attempt are spit-polished renditions of that earlier film. It's not a New Nightmare at all. It's an old one with a new claw.


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3:19 AM  

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