I love that this film exists. At last New Line cut Wes Craven loose and let him make one of those batshit crazy ideas he'd been throwing around for Nightmare on Elm Street sequels. Naturally it took the worst box office of any Freddy film ($18 million) and for nearly a decade seemed to have killed the franchise until out of nowhere appeared Freddy vs. Jason.
The premise is that Wes Craven is making another Nightmare on Elm Street film. No, I mean within the fiction. Freddy Krueger's coming into the real world and attacking Heather Langenkamp, no longer playing Nancy Thompson but simply herself. This is another of those movies about making movies, which I was surprised to enjoy as much as I did. These things tend to be a bit rubbish, but this is one of the most convincing portrayals of the movie industry in Hollywood I've ever seen. No, honestly. I'm comparing it with real movies like Get Shorty, The Player and Barton Fink here. It never romanticises its movie-making world, but instead stays down-to-earth and treats it simply as a business despite the fact that it's a story about a movie icon stepping out of the fiction and coming alive.
It feels as if they just took their camera outside and shot what they saw. The earthquake scenes include drive-by footage from the Los Angeles quake of 1994. This is a California of earthquakes, stalkers and swimming pools in the back garden that probably drown a few children every year. When we visit Robert Shaye at his New Line office, they really go there and talk to him. It's like watching a video diary DVD extra. This is all fantastic stuff and helps to ground the film so realistically that it's a shock when things get weird and Langenkamp starts trying to act. More on her later. However for the first thirty minutes, everyone's so natural and unforced that it's genuinely rather wonderful.
On top of all this, a whole bunch of people in this film are played by themselves, including non-actors like Shaye and even Wes Craven himself. Shaye does fine. Craven unfortunately gave himself a big exposition scene and pretty much sinks without trace, although I must correct one misapprehension about him. He's not giving himself a blow job.
More specifically, those scenes aren't trying to sell Craven as a genius for having created such wonderful films and a magical character who's now escaping into the real world. Instead it's about giving a solid reason within the fiction for why all this might be happening. That impressed me. Most films wouldn't even have bothered. Things get convoluted the moment you get into metafiction and films within films, so I really hadn't been expecting an explanation. Craven however is doing some extraordinary things, such as letting the characters lay their hands on the script and even read about what's about to happen to them immediately before it actually does. If the page says they have dialogue, they'll say it. You see, the fictional Wes Craven is also writing New Nightmare. I'd expected a film-within-a-film, but I hadn't been expecting these Russian dolls of nested levels of reality.
All this metafiction would of course be taken to new heights only a couple of years later in Wes Craven's Scream trilogy, although that's such an obvious parallel that people often seem to overlook the fact that Wes only directed those. In contrast he both wrote and directed New Nightmare, whereas the Scream writers were Kevin Williamson (#1 and #2) and Ehren Kruger (#3).
Anyway, how does this stack up as a Freddy Krueger film? Answer: it doesn't. There's very little Krueger on display at all, with Robert Englund probably getting more screen time as himself than as his character. You could watch another movie in the time it takes Craven to get around to showing us a killing. The only dreamscape comes right at the end and it's not even that great. With all this distance between us and the fantasy, it wouldn't even have been hard to keep us guessing about whether Freddy's real after all or whether Langenkamp's just delusional. I'm glad they didn't, though. That's the kind of thing that makes critics nod sagely and audiences groan and throw vegetables at the screen.
Even as it stands, it's hardly a barnstormer. As with the similarly ill-received Part 5, this film is trying to take the franchise back to a more serious style of horror which expects the audience to identify with the lead characters and follow their story. It's not just throwing special effects at you. This is laudable. I approve. I'm sure we all like to see serious films with faith in their audience's intelligence... but sometimes all you want is a wisecracking knife-wielding slasher carving up teenagers. A word to the wise: do not watch this film in the wrong spirit. If you do, you'll hate it.
There are a lot of themes. A hell of a lot, in fact. It's rather fascinating. I like all that and so did the original critics, who seem to have been unusually on board for this one. However I didn't feel that one of those themes was the effect horror movies have on the people who make them, except in obvious ways that have nothing to do with horror and everything to do with being a celebrity. You're never in any doubt that Langenkamp's right and Freddy's coming to get her. That's not the effect of horror movies. That's the effect of being chased by a killer who loves sharp metal implements.
Instead I perceived a lot of comments on our relationship with horror films, whether it be through Freddy Krueger's pop culture status or the old saw of "would you let your child see your films?" The first time we see Robert Englund, he's dressed up in the outfit for a TV talk show. By this point, in reality A Nightmare on Elm Street had already spun off novels, TV shows and a long-running comic book series. This is a film that's not only aware of its franchise's public image, but has opinions about it. Langenkamp's young son asks major theological questions. Horror films get compared to traditional fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel, which Craven finds such an interesting motif that he picks it up and runs with it. A surprisingly long way, actually.
Craven doesn't stack the deck, though. He creates a nurse character who's the case for the prosecution and she's rather good. There's real power in the scenes where the kid's in hospital and everyone starts judging Langenkamp as a mother. By the end, it's even turned into the equivalent of a ghost story. The only difference is that instead of being haunted by dead people, the characters are being haunted by fictional ones. Whom they played. That was fun too.
So it's worth watching this film for its themes and realism. Naturally a huge part of that is the acting, which is where I suck in my breath and make tutting noises. The acting is this film's big problem. The main relationship is that between Langenkamp and her son... so, yes, that means a child actor. He's a boy called Miko Hughes, who was Gage Creed in Pet Sematary and scalpel-whacked Fred Gwynn. Thus at times it got annoying to have to go from a proper professional performance to the feeble strugglings of this non-actor.
Yes, Langenkamp really is that bad.
Miko Hughes on the other hand is great. He's is the best thing about this film and the best child actor in a series that's had a good few of them. Useless teenagers, but ironically some terrific kids. The recent films have seen something of a development, with the last three all being about parent-child relationships rather than being focused all on teenagers like the earlier films. Hughes is fantastic here, capable both of simple realism and the more extreme material required of a Nightmare on Elm Street film. In fact I think it's my favourite performance in the whole series. Child actors are generally appalling, but there's something magical on the screen when one of them really clicks. Even when his scenes should have been sappy or annoying, Hughes makes them charming.
He remained an actor incidentally and even at 22 years old he has a far better-looking CV than Langenkamp, who almost kills this movie. She's great in the everyday scenes. They're straightforward. However she shatters the mood as soon as the deaths begin and she starts trying to act, which could kill most movies at fifty paces. She was merely poor in her earlier appearances in the series, but she's far short of requirements for this real world here. I didn't believe her reaction to the first big death. Not for a millisecond. Miko Hughes is the reason why this is an excellent film, but Langenkamp is the reason it's also a bad one.
Funniest is the scene of them reading Hansel and Gretel together. Hughes's delivery stomps all over Langenkamp's, although I suppose one could argue that represents their characters' feelings at the time.
The special effects are a mixed bag. I liked the walking Freddy glove, even though it felt like a rip-off of the facehuggers in Aliens. Apparently this isn't a new design at all, but based on artwork from the poster and video covers of the original Nightmare on Elm Street. Other imagery is also deliberately harking back to the original, with stretchy arms, some dissolving stairs and a rerun of one of that film's most famous murder scenes. Other things stretch too. Ewww, tongue. However I disliked Freddy's new make-up and I could have lived without that final shot of devil-Freddy.
It felt odd that Langenkamp mostly seems to associate with people from that one film, A Nightmare on Elm Street, important though they are to the plot. However on reflection I decided that made sense. It's like any other pop culture phenomenon. Take a leading role in Doctor Who and you'll never escape it for the rest of your life. I dare say it's the same with Nightmare on Elm Street. At one point Langenkamp even had a stalker in real life, which has an echo in this film although I hear Wes Craven asked her permission to put that in. It was nice to see the old faces again, particularly John Saxon, although it's a shame Craven didn't pluck up the courage to approach Johnny Depp. Apparently he'd have done it. He's in part 6, after all.
I really appreciate this film. It contains one damagingly poor performance but also some excellent ones, including Langenkamp herself when she's with Miko Hughes. The music's a bit overbearing, though. It says a lot about the level of realism here that in a film about a dream-stalking psycho killer, the most frightening thing in the film is a freeway. You know, with cars zooming past. Like they really have in California. I think I've been underrating Wes Craven all these years.