A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET vs. NEW NIGHTMARE. Perfect horror double bill
When on September 1st 2015, the news spread worldwide that Wes Craven had passed away the day before, I felt sadness and regret because one of the most important and influential horror film directors in history had left us. I realized then that a certain era was coming to an end. The era of horror film creators who began their careers in the 1970s (and even a bit earlier) to establish themselves as great talents in the world of horror. John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, David Cronenberg, George A. Romero, Brian De Palma, Dario Argento, Joe Dante, and Wes Craven had forever changed the horror landscape, despite their different styles, conventions, and career paths. Their names are unequivocally associated with this genre.
But I also understood something obvious, visible to the naked eye, which previously seemed unimportant to me – that all these mentioned directors are now old. Most of them are already in their seventies, with some being more active than others. As we continue to focus more on their films than on the creators themselves, we concentrate on their best works from twenty, thirty, or even forty years ago. Time may be irrelevant for a film, but not for a person. I know that the passing of each of them will undoubtedly touch me deeply.
In this company, Craven is an exceptional figure for me. Like no other master of horror, he made my nights particularly restless after watching his films. Whether it was his nightmares about Freddy, A Nightmare on Elm Street, or Scream, the tension and fear that accompanied me during the screenings lingered long after. To be clear, this pertains to my teenage years, during my time in primary school and high school, though even now, I feel unease every time I dare to revisit his work. I remember as vividly as today, borrowing a video cassette with the movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, on which the trailer for The Serpent and the Rainbow was recorded. It was enough for the trailer to proudly emphasize that it’s a new horror from the creator of A Nightmare on Elm Street, for me to instantly close my eyes and only open them after the commercial break. Even the title of his most famous film made me shiver, and I tried to hide from the sight and the claws of the iconic monster.
Similarly, the same happened with the characters of the first installment of the iconic series that began in 1984. Four teenagers, including a debut by Johnny Depp, become the target of attacks by a scarred figure with burns all over its body, wearing a dirty red and green striped sweater and an unfashionable hat. But the most characteristic is the glove with razors with which it murders its victims. The terrifying stranger haunting the youth only in their nightmares becomes a very real danger for them – death in a dream also means death in reality. When Tina is the first to die, her friend Nancy tries to stop the demonic killer.
Watching A Nightmare on Elm Street years later, it hasn’t lost any of its appeal, although in the case of this title, I should rather say that it’s just as terrifying as the first time. Above all, it is the titular nightmare – for most of the film, entirely anonymous, grotesque specter with gruesome ideas for murders. He is evil to the point that any contact with him, any attempt at communication is impossible. His very existence revolves around the fact that, as a nightmarish entity, he is something that cannot be understood, named (until later), or defeated. The film touches on considerations about what dreams are, although the director is not interested in defining or explaining the current state of affairs. It terrifies through the unknown and the suggestion that we are most vulnerable while resting in the arms of Morpheus, exposed not only to psychological torment but also physical pain and even death. After all, we all know that there is no escape from sleep.
Craven, a professor of English and the humanities, with academic degrees in psychology and philosophy, could have stopped at the idea, theorizing about the properties of dreams and the dangers they entail. He based the film’s concept on news reports of people who were so frightened by their own nightmares that they did everything to avoid falling asleep. Eventually, they would succumb, and indeed, they would die. However, it’s no coincidence that the future creator of the Scream series chose the path of a director – he replaced dry academic language with gallons of blood and an impeccable sense of tension building.
A Nightmare on Elm Street doesn’t pose as intelligent cinema, but that doesn’t mean it’s mindless. The highly original concept serves as the foundation for an exceptionally gruesome and terrifying spectacle. It’s a horror film full of imagination, scenes that are both brutal and exciting (like the geyser of blood gushing from the hole in the bed or the dying character being dragged across the walls and ceiling by an invisible force) and an atmosphere of uncertainty, whether it’s still reality or already a dream.
However, the film would not have achieved such success without its titular character, Fred Krueger (then not yet Freddy), whose identity seems secondary in the original. Of course, Nancy finds an explanation for why the horrifying psychopath haunts her and her friends in their dreams, but he is not the “star” of the horror. He appears on the screen for only seven minutes (!), and in some shots, you can only see his hostile gaze or the outline of his silhouette. He is driven by hatred, not the desire to play cat and mouse with his victims. In later installments, this character evolved into a talkative figure with a dark sense of humor, a favorite of the audience, and a pop culture icon. Still, in the original, he is far from the character we love to hate. He is a repulsive creature to us, nothing more. Robert Englund, who portrayed him, was hardly recognizable under the layers of latex but never seemed overwhelmed by the role. In each of the films in the series, he managed to grasp the director’s intentions, making the character’s evolution never a problem for the viewers.
However, Craven himself had a different opinion. He didn’t plan to turn A Nightmare on Elm Street into a franchise; his film’s main character was not Freddy but Nancy. The ending was supposed to show her triumph over the dream killer. Still, the producer, Robert Shaye, realized during filming that he had a potential hit on his hands and ordered the ending to be changed to allow for sequels. There were a total of five sequels, with a new film practically every year. Craven managed to convince him to work on the screenplay for the third installment, subtitled Dream Warriors (1987). It became the best of the sequels, incredibly spectacular, changing the rules of the game (young people could cooperate in their dreams, and they had powers that allowed them to battle the demon), though it also made Freddy a more entertaining character. There was little left of the director’s initial idea for the original, in which he dreamed of a story about the actors and creators of the first film being terrorized by Krueger in reality. Nevertheless, he eventually managed to realize such a project.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), commonly regarded as the seventh installment of the series, is challenging to label as a continuation, although it is directly connected to the original. It is no longer a story about Freddy and Nancy but focuses on Heather Langenkamp, who plays herself, and an ancient entity that takes on the form of the Elm Street killer. The plot revolves around an actress reconciled with the status of “that girl” that has followed her since the success of the first film. However, for her, it’s no longer the past – she has a husband and a son whom she loves, as well as other role offers. When she is haunted by a nightmare about an ill-fated, incredibly bloody film shoot for a new installment of A Nightmare on Elm Street, and later that same day she learns that such a film is indeed in the works, Heather begins to feel like she’s losing her grip on reality. Shortly after, her husband is killed by Freddy’s mechanical glove, and her young son, Dylan, starts quoting the original and falls into hysterical states.
What’s not in this film! It’s a meta-horror about the intertwining of two worlds, a critique aimed at fans for whom the screen killer becomes an idol, an exploration of the impact of horror films on children, and of course, it’s a playground full of references and quotes for fans of the original. Craven attempts to rectify the mistakes of his predecessors who saw Freddy primarily as a source of jokes, while also restoring Nancy/Heather to her rightful place as the main character. New Nightmare is entirely her film, which is also confirmed by the fact that the beloved monster, Freddy, only appears after an hour into the movie.
Previously, we see Robert Englund playing himself, of course without makeup. This allows us to familiarize ourselves with the fear and get to know the real, very likable and ordinary face of the actor. The same applies to Craven, an incredibly polite gentleman who doesn’t quite fit the image of a creator making such brutal films. Robert Shaye also makes an appearance, trying to persuade Heather to participate in New Nightmare, as well as actors from the original, including John Saxon, who originally played Nancy’s father. The director also duplicates some scenes and dialogues from the original, further blurring the lines between reality, the film, and the fantasy world. However, the entire film does not come across as a joke or a rehash. The horror that befalls the characters is taken quite seriously.
Craven puts his name in the title to distinguish this film from the previous ones – although in the finale, we return to Elm Street, this nightmare is an attempt by its creator to settle accounts with the story he created.
Langenkamp, known almost exclusively for her role as Nancy, once again becomes the ideal character to confront the fantastical killer. She is tough, uncompromising, ten years more mature, but no less courageous when it comes to facing Freddy. Just as in the case of the first A Nightmare on Elm Street, her character is the best-written and portrayed. We remember the villain because he is more iconic, and the fear lingers longer than anything else, but without Langenkamp, neither of the two films would work as well. She is the heart of these productions and probably the only reason a return of Krueger made sense.
On the other hand, his character is entirely different from the original and each subsequent film. Clad in a long coat and a stylish green hat, he now has blades emerging from his palms, connecting with bones and veins; he appears even more sinister than before. He ceases to be a filthy degenerate and becomes the master of his own world, a living myth. And although Englund appears earlier without makeup, when we see him as Freddy, we are still afraid. The illusion becomes stronger than reality.
Once again, this is a much more interesting and smarter horror film than many would like to admit. The first half forces us to constantly question the presented world, seeking answers because suddenly the impossible becomes real. A new mechanical hand for Freddy created for the film takes on a life of its own, Dylan watches the original film, even though the TV cable isn’t connected to an outlet, and what haunts Heather starts coming true, and so on. This is a fantastic first hour because it scares us with the unknown monster and the blending of two worlds, which is incomprehensible to both the viewers and the main character. The rules that underpin the entire concept are ultimately explained by the director himself.
Craven excellently explains both the opportunity for his nightmare creature to appear in our world and the need for a person who has already defeated him to stand against him. It’s, after all, the story of the eternal battle between good and evil, which was never properly concluded by those who wanted it to sell well (ha!). So the duel continues – New Nightmare must be created to repel the demon and send him back to hell, quite literally. However, this part of the film seems the weakest. The escape from horror becomes possible by transforming it into a form closer to a fairy tale, in which Freddy plays the role of the evil witch, and Heather and Dylan resemble Hansel and Gretel. The finale is impressive with its lavish set design and excellent makeup, but it seems too conventional for a film that, for the most part of the viewing, deals with the schizophrenic nature of the film and the people involved in its making. However, it provides a satisfying epilogue for Nancy’s character and Heather Langenkamp, the actress portraying her, which is what Craven had in mind back when making the first installment.
A Nightmare on Elm Street has indeed been discussed and analyzed extensively, but it’s hard to underestimate the importance of Wes Craven’s films, not only for the horror genre but also for pop culture and the depiction of evil. I wanted to write about them because they illustrate how insightful a creator their director was. Not all of his works are successful; some were ruined by producers, others by Craven himself. However, he was undeniably one of the most significant voices in the horror genre. I am personally grateful to him for my first experience of watching a horror film on the big screen (specifically New Nightmare) at an age that was certainly not appropriate for it. I was scared like never before, but the screening turned out to be surprisingly enlightening. I learned who was behind Freddy’s mask and got to know his creator. It seemed like he knew why he was doing what he was doing.