Sunday, 25 April 2010

Wes Craven's New Nightmare

A lot is expected of a horror film directed by Wes Craven.

The Hollywood rule of thumb for a sequel is 3 years (note the two Star Wars trilogies). New Line closed the franchise with Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare 1991. New Nightmare was released in 1994 yet it didn’t feel like a sequel. Since A Nightmare on Elm Street 1984 each film had been rushed to theatres with the first sequel coming out a mere 11 months after the original. In Freddy terms enough time had passed. The return of Wes Craven would negate the tomfoolery of The Dream Master 1988.

The concept was daring: A Nightmare on Elm Street told the story of dreams invading reality. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare would tell the story of film intruding reality. The anticipation was frenzied - similar to that of the incoming reboot.

Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
- Edgar Allen Poe

A dream within a dream is terrifying to experience. Panic erupts because you don’t know how many times you have to wake up to be awake. A flashback within a flashback is a filmic device that destroys narrative credibility (John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars 2001). A film within a film is defies suspension of disbelief and comes across as Hollywood indulgence. In New Nightmare director Wes Craven convinced all the principals to play themselves. I was prepared to suspend my disbelief.

New Nightmares

Film opens on a movie set. Wes Craven is directing a Freddy scene. The glove is new and improved. It is “state of the art animatronics enhanced with bio-organic grafting” and “nerve bundles from a live Doberman”.

Wes Craven say what?

The claw comes alive and attacks the crew.

If this scene is supposed to be scary it fails. If this scene is supposed to be real then it’s confusing. Metal claws don’t attack people and animated body parts are not scary. They’re ridiculous.

Heather wakes in her bed the middle of an earthquake. It was all a dream.

The curtain raiser serves to introduce the character Heather and her family. The problems are immediate. Husband is played by an actor (David Newsom) who is not her real husband (the premise and concept are under strain). Newsom is a central casting cut-out. He has zero charisma and zero presence. He has less than zero chemistry with Langenkamp.

The child actor Miko Hughes who plays her son Dylan is atrocious. He’s so bad I thought his role was mentally handicapped. In 1994 the British public had never heard of autism. Dylan isn’t autistic. He’s Craven worst casting choice ever.

The main problem lies with Langenkamp. She is the lead - she’s in over 90% of the scenes. It is her role to convince a fragile premise yet there is a lacking in her performance. Her tour de force in the original did not make her a star otherwise she would have kicked it with the Brat Pack[1] (she actually had a role in The Outsiders 1983). She is simply not up to it.

Let the horror fanboys haggle over the most important film of the last 35 years. Halloween 1978 created Jamie Lee Curtis. It replenished Donald Pleasance’s career. A Nightmare on Elm Street hasn’t created a single star. Langenkamp shines only when she is playing Nancy. Not when she plays herself.

There are new rules. Adults were inexplicably targeted in Freddy’s Revenge 1985 and Freddy’s Dead. In New Nightmare Freddy attacks adults but at least it makes narrative sense; he has been given new boundaries. Chase is the first victim. He falls asleep at the wheel much like Dan in The Dream Child 1989. Serves him right - much like Dan in The Dream Child.

The funeral scene is booked like a Wrestlemania. The actors from the previous sequels (ie the jobbers) get to appear and get to do nothing. Look – there’s Tuesday Knight. Look - there’s Jsu Garcia. Look - there’s a first glimpse of the new Freddy in a risible dream transition.

Broken dreams

This film is a potpourri of stillborn ideas. There’s a stalker subplot that fizzles out. There’s mention of Freddy’s impact on popular culture – then no more mention. There is a flirtation with the issues of mothers working in film but nothing. The one idea fully developed is the morality question of horror films themselves.

Actress Fran Bennett plays Dr Heffner. She is the sceptic, the conventional morality, the accuser. She assumes the role of the mainstream and points the finger at Heather. She is righteous. Heather back peddles and lies. To defend the genre is to be deemed mad. Or deviant. Bennet’s performance is the best in the movie.

Followed by Robert Englund. Without Freddy Krueger what would his career have looked like? Sans make-up his physicality is not striking but his on screen presence is. John Saxon’s involvement boosts the credibility of the premise. His scenes with Heather raise her performance. Their chemistry is that of father and daughter.

The story begins to coalesce at the fifty minute mark – that is far too long to wait for anything.

The best scenes are in the hospital between Dr Heffner and a Heather afraid of how she sounds.  This is where her hair turns grey (again). This is where she tells her son “don’t fall asleep”. From the hospital Heather goes home to a scene with John Saxon. He calls her “Nancy”. After initial resistance she submits and calls him “daddy”. 16 years ago at this tipping point I was convinced the story would ascend into art. That the new nightmare would morph into the original nightmare and rewrite it.

Bad dreams

What happened was an underwhelming kill-Freddy-sequence that had been done six times previously. However this was the best Freddy since the original. There was more malice in him. It was a scary and glorious sight to behold Englund at his best work.

The dramatist must imbue the audience with a suspension of disbelief. In order to do so the fiction must have a sense of reality. Wes Craven achieved this when he wrote earthquakes as a backdrop to the story. New Nightmare was released on 14th October. The LA ‘quakes[2] were a fresh memory.

The focus of the franchise is dreamscape and the kills. There is no dreamscape to speak of until the final sequence. The Julie kill is extemporaneous. The others are forgettable. There are more issues. What is positioned as a climatic scene - Heather chasing Dylan on freeway – is bereft of tension. It’s ridiculous.

Sex and violence in the movies is usually depicted in a wishful thinking manner: teenager Julie punches a woman who outweighs her by 40 pounds. The nurse drops – unconscious with one punch. Julie doesn’t even shake the broken bones in her hand. This kind of scene reminds the viewer that it’s only a movie.

The audience didn’t get it - this film scored the lowest box office of the franchise[3]. Or rather Wes Craven didn’t get it. Whatever his initial ideas and vision were he failed to communicate it to his fans. A mere two years later he succeeded in pulling back the curtain with Scream 1996. New Nightmare is best known as a failed experiment. It’s not exploitation. It’s not even a sequel. It was to be the epitaph.

Nightmares 1-6 was the first series. 30th April sees the launch of the second.  

TFi recommends a read of Koopaskeep[4] for a contrary yet beautifully observed view.

Elm Street by *AIMaNeGrA on deviantART
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