Wes Craven's 'New Nightmare' Is The Best Freddy Sequel In The Franchise, But It's Often Overlooked
The glove. The sweater. The burnt face staring out from the TV screen - these are all things that we connect with Freddy Krueger, the menace of Elm Street. After his initial appearance in the film that changed slasher movies forever, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy was commercialized, sanitized, and franchised until he had had to be buried in 1991. Three years later, he was revived by his creator, Wes Craven, in New Nightmare.
This overlooked gem in the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise isn’t just one of the scariest horror movies of the ‘90s, but it’s Craven’s love letter to horror movies, fairy tales, and everyone who continued dreaming of Freddy throughout the 1980s. It’s the follow-up to Craven’s original film that the world needed, and it put a definitive nail in the coffin of Freddy Krueger.
'New Nightmare' Was Craven's Meta Precursor To 'Scream'
Before Craven weaponized the tropes of the slasher genre in Scream, he put his own work on a slab and dissected it in New Nightmare. Critics have been arguing that horror can warp young minds for years, and that's quite literally what happens in New Nightmare.
Craven takes this criticism and applies it to Dylan Langenkamp. Throughout the film, the young boy can't look away whenever he sees his mother on-screen in the first A Nightmare on Elm Street, and as he descends into a Freddy-induced psychosis, doctors and medical professionals continually ask his mother (Heather Langenkamp) if he's been watching scary movies.
The meta narrative goes beyond the themes of the film and extends into its action and characters. The main cast is made up of actors from the original Nightmare series, including Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger) as well as writer/director Wes Craven and producer Bob Shaye. They openly discuss the Nightmare franchise and its distribution company, New Line Cinema. One of the most meta moments of the film occurs at the climax when the script for a proposed Nightmare movie becomes a tool with which Freddy can be vanquished.
It Was The First 'Nightmare' Film Since The Original Written And Directed By Craven
The relationship between Wes Craven and New Line Cinema has always been tense at best. After writing and directing the genre changing A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven was dumped by New Line Cinema for the sequel. He was brought back to write the third film, Dream Warriors, and New Line passed on his idea for the fourth film because it was "illogical." Keep in mind this is the movie that features an invisible karate fight.
Craven ducked out of the Nightmare world until the early '90s when he and New Line came to an agreement about a new Freddy film that tipped its dirty fedora to the rest of the series but told a completely original story.
There's no word about what would have happened if this film had made the kind of money that other films in the series raked in, but it's likely that Craven would have moved on. Not only was that his MO through the '80s (he changed his tune with the Scream franchise), but New Nightmare feels complete. Craven finally exorcised his demons.
Freddy Returns To His Scary Roots
By the time A Nightmare on Elm Street IV: The Dream Master was released, the world was fully in the grasp of "MTV Freddy." He'd morphed from the sick child slayer of the original film into a character that audiences rooted for.
This happened for a couple of reasons: Aside from Nancy, he was the only repeat character with a lot of screen time in the films, so audiences got used to seeing him. He was, for all intents and purposes, the main character of the franchise. On top of that, his jokes and one-liners became impossible to ignore by the third film. No matter how evil he is, when he's tossing off jokes while offing teenagers, he's going to appear to be some twisted version of loveable.
Craven undid all of that in New Nightmare. Freddy not only takes on a more demonic look in the film, but he barely speaks and definitely doesn't have any goofy asides the way he did in previous films in the series. This choice makes Freddy so much more menacing, and it brings the character back to square one.
The Film Lovingly Recreates Some Of The Best Set Pieces From The Franchise
Craven would have been well within his rights as the creator of A Nightmare on Elm Street to undo everything about the previous films and pretend that they didn't exist while making New Nightmare. Instead, he paid homage to those pictures by including visuals or thematic elements that called back to every film in the series.
The most obvious reference comes when Freddy drags Dylan's babysitter around a hospital room in a recreation of Tina's demise from the first film. That's followed by a reference to Dream Warriors when Freddy appears as a giant version of himself in the sky and controls Dylan with his claws.
Freddy's obsession with Dylan is a better execution of The Dream Child plot. When Freddy speaks through Dylan to Nancy, it's a clear reference to Freddy's Revenge. On top of all that, there are characters crawling out of their own coffins, Heather's hair turns gray just like Nancy's, Freddy stretches his arm to unimaginable lengths, and he gives some tongue action to his victims.
Real-Life Horrors Blend Perfectly With The Fantastic
For all of the surreal storybook elements at play in New Nightmare, there's a lot of reality blended into the film. Craven used the fact that Heather Lagenkamp had a stalker in real life to amp up the tension in the film. The creepy phone calls and messages that she received fueled her unease and led to nightmares featuring Freddy.
Craven also used the film to examine the ways in which starring in a successful horror franchise can mess with someone's head. Throughout the film, Robert Englund is clearly haunted by playing a sadistic child slayer, and Craven himself tries to parse his own part in bringing the character to life.
The film takes the existential worries about art and its effect on the public and compounds them with very real fears about how to deal with a child that may have mental illness, all the while adding the extra menace of a dream demon breathing down everyone's neck. The combination makes for a stressful viewing.
The Film Allows Nancy, Through Heather, To Triumph Once Again
Even though it's one of the most endearing films in the franchise, the end of Dream Warriors is a drag. Nancy loses her life to Freddy before she's placed in a "beautiful dream" and more or less forgotten about in the rest of the series.
New Nightmare undoes this narrative bummer to some extent by transforming Langenkamp into Nancy for the final act of the film. After Langenkamp follows her son into the dream world, she meets up with John Saxon, who's now playing her father. She descends further into the dream where she fights Freddy on his own turf and defeats him, giving Nancy the happy ending she deserves.