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Yeah, well I think of it as a sort of Nightmare in progress.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

(SPOILERS) I’m all for the idea of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Post-modern, self-reflexive, fourth-wall-breaking movies are catnip to me (why, I even liked The Matrix Resurrections!) It’s just that New Nightmare isn’t a very good one. It’s quite watchable for the first hour, but Craven made a multitude of bad choices here. And it’s telling that, prior to my excursion into all things Elm Street, I’d only seen the first instalment and this; as it turns out New Nightmare’s lore was equally discriminating (okay, I might give you Dream Warriors, but try parsing how it makes any difference). Craven’s like a bear with sore head that the other Freddy sequels got a bit too wacky, had a bit too much fun. So he makes damn sure New Nightmare isn’t any.

That’s a little harsh, maybe. There are flashes here of what it might have been. Some have cited New Nightmare as a warm up for Scream, but they’re very different beasts. Scream is simply dissecting the horror movie within a horror movie; it isn’t dissecting itself as a horror movie. Rather, it’s taking the Joss Whedon pop-culture approach to genre – even in the third instalment, where there’s a movie series cash-in about the murders called Stab 3.

What it’s closer to – or should be – is Last Action Hero. Both throw fictional characters into the real world, and both revolve – to the detriment of the proceedings – around an irksome infant. Miko Hughes had something of a run as a pint-sized player during the ’90s, with the likes of Apollo 13, Spawn and Mercury Rising. Which is curious, because he stinks here.

The degree to which this is his fault or Craven’s is debatable, as the sub-Omen plot of possessing a child (complete with haunting choir) is like a lead weight. In addition to which, focussing on a kid is entirely atypical for the series (unless you include The Dream Child). Certainly, though, Hughes is repeatedly called upon to act outside of his performative comfort zone. None of the evil Dylan moments are remotely convincing, and in the case of his attempted swan dive in a kids’ playground, unintentionally mirthful – “God wouldn’t take me”.

He’s only part of the plot problem. Another is Heather Langenkamp, playing herself. Who, when she protests, “I’m hardly a star”, couldn’t have been more accurate. Whatever Craven was hoping to achieve by returning to the Nancy character – I suspect something to do with her being his character, rather than a product of the sequels he so disapproved of – he fails miserably. He goes to the trouble of reflecting the actress’ actual life (FX-man hubby) and for some reason she acquiesces to her director’s bad taste decisions (hubby then gets killed off by Freddy).

The only consequence of this is an unswerving dedication to the exact same structure we’ve previously seen. Only now in the “real” world, and with a little would-be Damien. Frankly, it quickly grows rather tedious, particularly since Craven feels the need, for some unknown reason, to pad out the proceedings – it’s approaching the two-hour mark – and throw in “homages” to the original (the revolving room, the licking tongue, the greying streak of hair) that seem less affectionate than downright lazy (there was already one to many of that room effect in the original).

There’s also an attempted commentary on cinema violence and its effects that is at best banal, and at worst, downright irritating. Dr Heffner (Fran Bennet) is obsessed with the idea that Dylan has been watching mum’s scary movies (“You have let your child see your films, haven’t you?”) Craven throws it in there, but he has nothing interesting to say or do with it. Instead, yet again for the series, its mainstream medicine where any punch lies: dumb doctors, idiotic peddlers of allopathic answers and pseudo-science (“Have you been suffering from any delusions, Miss Langenkamp?”)

In which vein, it’s noticeable that Tracy Middendorf’s performance is way more engaging than Langenkamp’s, even with traces of ditched subplots potentially impeding her (a red herring regarding Heather’s stalker and a Freddy avatar). She gets one great scene as a kickass babysitter when nurses attempt to stick Dylan with a needle (if only we were all so decisive). Unfortunately, Craven then resorts to gory greatest-hits tedium with the redux ceiling assault.

Robert Englund was insanely generous to call New Nightmare his favourite in the series, since it serves him particularly poorly. He even (as Englund) disappears from the movie two thirds of the way through. The best bits here are all Englund playing Englund. Notably, Craven’s harder-edged Freddy, coming on in a trench coat that makes him look more like a muscle-man Frank Miller, is largely a damp squib, neither disturbing nor charismatic.

Had the movie focussed on Englund (the way Last Action Hero focusses on Arnie), something altogether richer might have been cooked up. In the vein of The Hand or Body Parts (New Nightmare even has Englund as a painter). Give him a chance to go the full Bruce Campbell (the opening robot-hand dream is clearly The Terminator by way of Evil Dead 2). Obviously, with Craven clinging to the female protagonist idea – best forget Freddy’s Revenge – that was never going to fly.

Alas, we have to make do with a few Englund scraps, all of which leap off the screen because he’s the only player treating the material with the effective degree of knowing playfulness it deserves. Englund as Freddy appearing on a talk show – “We’ll do lunch”; “Give it up for your Uncle Freddy!”; “Just when you thought it was safe to get back into bed” – and his response to Heather’s suggestion of a romantic comedy: “Just because it’s a love story, doesn’t mean you can’t have a decapitation or two”.

We also get Craven as Craven and studio boss Bob Shaye as Shaye, complete with cleavage-revealing PAs (and John Saxon, entirely superfluous in presence, except that, again, he appeared in the original). Neither is a very good actor, meaning that any humour deriving from a riff on their personas is in short supply (Joel Silver, on the other hand: see Who Framed Roger Rabbit). Craven is planning a new movie, and his script is fuelling/reflecting the events unfolding in Heather’s life.

None of this is as clever as it might have been, despite cool moments that are de rigueur for such riffs; “He’s so weird… Putting your kid in the script” observes Englund. Heather finding the script detailing the scene she’s just enacted (Postmodernism 101, admittedly). Indeed, New Line released a movie a couple of months later that serviced this concept in far superior fashion (In the Mouth of Madness). A horror movie that was, you know, actually disturbing.

Heather: You’re saying Freddy is this ancient thing.

Craven, in reclaiming his property, has now redefined Freddy, in the manner of the more-informed – via TM – David Lynch and Bob: “This entity. It’s old. It’s very old”. It has existed in different forms at different times and “The only thing that stays the same is what it lives for”; ending the Elm Street series set the evil free, Craven theorises. Out of films and into our reality: the Genie’s out of the bottle, and “I think the only way to stop him is to make another move”. Curiously, Freddy’s Dead had a much better play on this idea, as botched as its execution was: that Freddy was performing a required function for unnamed higher forces.

Kim Newman had down the problem with Craven’s new take, that it “kind of put Freddy back in the box”. That this is what he represents, and “just this”. Which is essentially the same thing Andrew Cartmel attempted to do with his version of Doctor Who, and then Chibbers more recently with his; by redefining it, you create more restrictions, rather than actually opening out the concept.

I was certainly much more receptive to New Nightmare when I first saw it, even though I recognised that it failed to sustain itself. This time, though… Nothing is unsettling, except maybe Freddy in the coffin; Craven manages a couple of dream transitions reasonably well, but none give way to anything unnerving. Indeed, the filmmaking is as basic as Craven at his least engaged was wont to be, and the effects here are uniformly pretty bad. Mark Irwin’s cinematography may intentionally avoid the classic horror look, but the result is a pervasive lack of atmosphere.

Craven’s working title was A Nightmare on Elm Street 7: The Ascension, and it seems he was reworking his rejected idea for Elm Street 3, of “… Krueger haunting the cast and crew of the movie in the real world”. So why did Shaye now think it was a good move? Maybe it was commissioned between Last Action Hero being announced and released, and seemed like it might be the next big thing in genre deconstruction. But then: Gremlins 2: The New Batch was evidence enough of what happens when a director is indulged and the public appetite for such an approach (and The Matrix Resurrections has just provided reconfirmation). Unfortunately, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is a massive missed opportunity.

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