Flashback Friday: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

I thought about doing this on the original 1984 movie, but I wanted to shake things up a bit and go instead with the movie that continued to show Wes Craven as an innovator of the horror genre as well as helped lay the groundwork for the franchise that would once again place his name at the top of the horror movie game. And so it goes with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

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Released in October 1994, New Nightmare marked Craven’s return to the franchise that he unwittingly launched 10 years earlier. Craven’s original intention was to make a one-off film. He never intended that first movie to receive sequels. In fact, the movie’s original ending was far less ambiguous than the one that producer Bob Shaye insisted be tacked on at the last minute. Just like any money-hungry producer, Shaye saw the potential of this film to spawn the one thing that producers crave: a franchise (isn’t that right, Spielberg? Could have had a great horror ending to Paranormal Activity, but, no, you had to ruin it with a franchise-friendly ending…just like you ruin most movies you have anything to do with).

Fast-forward through the first sequel, with which Craven had nothing to do and which kind of hangs in this weird homoerotic netherworld among the rest of the franchise as not quite belonging but still being kind of awesome in its own weird right, and Shaye and New Line invite Craven back to pen the third movie (they had actually wanted him back to direct as well but he was still working on Deadly Friend). However, again, Craven doesn’t want Freddy to become a series. His original script for Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors was far more disturbing, dark, and demented than what Shaye finally greenlit. Craven returned as a way to try to take back control of his creation, to take Freddy to those darker places that he always thought Freddy should inhabit. Craven’s original Fred Krueger wasn’t just a child killer; he was a molester. He was so horrific in death because he was horrific in life. Craven’s original Fred Krueger was not in any way meant to be a hero of any kind. Shaye, however, wanted the camp, the lovable child murderer who smacks you down with zingers before gutting you in a haha gotcha kind of way that makes fans love him so. Guess who finally got their way? Craven’s Freddy was shelved…until he returned once more to the franchise to reclaim his monster and ultimately save him from what he had never wanted Freddy to become.

All that being said, was it such a terrible thing that Craven’s original creation became the franchise he became? I’m sure no one whose bank accounts grew from the series ever complained. And as I mentioned in my post yesterday, I discovered Freddy Krueger through one of those haha sequels. I had no idea how gruesome Krueger originally was. Also, because I first discovered him through the campier side of the character, I do hold a special place in my heart for that iteration. But from a more pure horror perspective, I think that Craven’s original monster is, by far, superior. But what about the new Krueger that Craven unleashed in 1994? Not only was this Krueger more in line with that original depraved character, but he also looked more in line with Craven’s original visual concept. Nothing but sinews and organic claws and hideous deformity.

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I know that Craven would later state that he regretted changing Freddy Krueger’s look for New Nightmare. I actually think that it was necessary to make this change for this particular story. Remember, we see the “original” Freddy—the version portrayed oh so many times by Robert Englund and the version that die-hard fans had come to have such a gloriously Pavlovian response to—early in the film. This was “Freddy.” This was the fantasy that fans made real through their devotion to the character and the actor portraying him. It was integral to the story, therefore, to somehow differentiate this Freddy from the darker, more elemental Freddy. This Freddy did not deal in witty bon mots and scenery chewing. This Freddy sprang from the most primal, most basic, most genetically programmed vein of fear within us all.

He had to look different. He was not who any of us had known before this movie. I always felt as though this was one of the concepts that Craven was trying to convey through this film—that Freddy Krueger had become far more than even his creator ever dreamed he would become. He lurked in the shadows of his fictional self, feeding upon the fear released by those films, biding his time until the lines between worlds could blur and recede and he could finally step forward at the franchise’s end to claim his rightful place and begin anew as king of infinite space and unceasing nightmares.

For this reason, it was imperative for Craven to convince Heather Langenkamp to return. Her Nancy was the character who both gave that original Krueger life and then snatched it back (one of the main reasons I chose Nancy as a bad-ass Lady of May-hem). Without Nancy, there would have been no Krueger. His focus on her, I believe, stemmed from his understanding that she was ultimately the only one who could take away his power and his life. Not even Craven could do that, because Craven granted this gift to Nancy in the first film. It’s why Craven tells Langenkamp in the film that stopping this nightmarish Krueger pretty much depended upon her willingness to be Nancy one more time.

Sounds deliciously meta, doesn’t it? While I’m sure that this metafictional approach to what had become a watered-down slash-o-rama was neither what franchise fans were hoping for nor what the horror genre at the time was looking to embrace, it planted the seed that, 2 years later would be ripe for the picking, in part by the man who planted it in the first place.

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Again, while Craven didn’t write the script to Scream, the power of his directorial influence cannot be denied. Neither can the influence of his metafictional approach to his heretofore most famous contribution to the genre. Kevin Williamson’s own metafictional script this time blurs the lines of fantasy and reality on the viewer’s level rather than the creators’ level. He demolishes the protection granted by the fourth wall and subsequently drops us all into the path of a monster we can understand because “we” are creating him. After all, “movies don’t make psychos. Movies make psychos more creative!”

That level of self-referential awareness is part of what makes Scream work so well. We are lulled in by the familiarity of what we think we understand, only to have the floor summarily drop out from beneath us. Nothing is as how it should be in the town of Woodsboro, just as nothing was as it should have been in the Hollywood horror machine of Craven’s New Nightmare. Craven thrived upon facing the ugliest fears within ourselves and by facing them, defeating them. His was the Litany Against Fear, embraced myriad times in myriad ways by characters who helped sculpt and ultimately save us from our worst nightmares:

I will not fear.
Fear is the mind killer.
Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

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