Sinister Summer: Wes Craven’s “New Nightmare”

Before “meta horror” became commonplace, to the point that the once innovative concept has become all too cliche, Wes Craven wrote and directed his triumphant return to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise (although, he did co-write Dream Warriors). Made, not only for horror fans but also for general horror audiences, New Nightmare is a horror film within a horror film that successfully dances the line between reality and fantasy. One can easily liken that to the very character of Freddy Krueger who exists in our dreams but can inflect real pain. A fascinating parallel! Craven’s revolutionary approach to one of the most iconic franchises in horror history begs the question asked of horror filmmakers whether the effects of the diegesis on screen cross over into the real world, affecting the actions and thoughts of people who love to watch horror films. Beyond the meta nature of the plot of New Nightmare, there is also a self-reflexive element to the plot because the story, lore, and movies of Freddy loops back on itself by confronting the creators of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Wes, Robert “Bob” Shaye, Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, and even future horror star Lin Shaye (Robert Shaye’s sister) are all playing themselves, and even referencing the Nightmare movies in the same way we do. Heather even references all the movies in the franchise, not just the one’s she’s in.

While other franchises force a reboot or revival in order to bring back an iconic horror icon–by way of just chalking the return up to being a superhuman, resurrected, or supernatural with little to no reasoning–New Nightmare provides evidence (albeit supernatural) for why more Freddy films need to be made. Therefore, Freddy will appear in one more movie (two more, if you count this one). One more, because we do not count the 2010 remake (it does not exist). While few will dispute that the original A Nightmare on Elm Street is the best, it is quite possible that this self-reflexive entry is the second best. During graduate school, when studying horror films, I used Carol Clover’s pleasurable unpleasure and Freud’s uncanny often when exploring the subtext and themes of horror. Both of these theoretical approaches to reading and understanding horror films are clearly visible in this brilliant story. We get pleasure out of and attracted to that which should repulse us. Therefore, we do not want Freddy to be dead. In many ways, we need Freddy to live, and New Nightmare brings Freddy back for an encore in the present story and Freddy vs Jason. Of course, we’ve had the first appearance of Robert Englund as Freddy in last year’s Halloween episode of The Goldbergs and there is massive social media support for Englund to play Freddy one last time.

It had been ten years since Freddy made his debut in cinemas worldwide! The once near-bankrupt New Line Cinema rose up from the ashes to become a powerhouse of films and distribution. While the first three Nightmare on Elm Street movies are solidly horror, the franchise took a different route than Halloween or Friday the 13th by relying upon comedy to the point that the franchise became a parody of itself. The worst offender being Freddy’s Dead. We watch them because we love Englund as the iconic horror villain, but the movie’s plot and other characters were complete garbage. Fun garbage, but garbage nevertheless. With the downward trajectory of the franchise heading to “direct to TV or DVD” territory, why make another Freddy movie? Simply stated, Bob Shaye said “because the public wants it.” This line is from a Shaye cameo in New Nightmare, referencing the Nightmare movie that is being produced within the film we are watching, but is also very much why New Nightmare was made. Although I have no empirical data to back up this statement, I imagine that Freddy has more fans than Jason or Michael. From his self-deprecating humor, memorable one-liners, and creative kills (despite a low body count), he has found his way into our cinemas, homes, and dreams.

New Nightmare represents a return to true horror for the franchise. Not that Freddy doesn’t have some funny lines, but the focus of the film is on the horror of Freddy manifesting in the real world. Under the direction and writing of the brilliant Wes Craven, the Nightmare franchise was about to get a heaping helping of genuine horror infused back into the series. The strength of this movie is in the script and direction that was about to take horror to new frontiers by pioneering the largely untapped sub-genre of meta-horror. Whereas Craven’s Scream is the definitive meta-horror, he used New Nightmare as the training ground. Therefore, we can consider New Nightmare as the proto-meta-horror film. Upon a close reading of New Nightmare, the groundwork can be witnessed that would support what would become Scream. In addition to exploring a new sub-genre, this film delivers the horrifying, murderous, Freddy that we were first introduced to in 1984 instead of the sinister clown that he became in Freddy’s Dead. Once again, he becomes the centerpiece, only this time his claws are sharper and he’s been given a more sinister makeover. None of this could come together if Englund wasn’t reprising his iconic role. But instead of more blood, Freddy and Craven deliver quality scares, kills, and drama versus shallow kill after kill gore fests.

The central question in this film is: where does the line between fantasy and reality lie? Moreover, is it a dark, bold line or it is one that is blurred or delineated? The first movie was inspired by the series of real articles in the Los Angeles Times that chronicled people who claimed to have been nearly scared to death in their nightmares, but then they actually died. This film takes the idea of a dream-like killer to the next level by using the past Freddy movies as a springboard, as a source of energy for the idea of Freddy to cross over into our reality. What’s crazy is that we have witnessed this IN real life. Here’s a great example: in Se7en, the film never actually shows Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in the famous box; however, countless people report to have seen her head in the box. It is an idea that is so largely collectively shared that it becomes part of our reality. So, Craven is taking that same idea and applying it to A Nightmare on Elm Street. The fascination I have with this particular installment in the franchise is just how brilliantly Craven dances that line between fantasy and reality; he does it in such a way that it comments on our fascination with horror movies. Much like Craven’s line I referenced earlier is both about the movie within the movie and about us (the audience), Heather Langenkamp questions “don’t you people ever think about the effect your movies have on the people who watch them? A question for (1) Craven and (2) Shaye in the film and (3) by extension, a question to us (the audience). Deep, right?

The concept of Freddy crossing over from the screen to our world is a fascinating approach to take in this film that laid the groundwork for Craven to forever change the landscape of the American horror film just two years later in Scream. Craven’s masterful grasp of horror storytelling is highlighted in his speeches within the film. Furthermore, his years as a humanities professor certainly provided a critical lens through which he analyzed what makes horror special. There are few other writers/directors who understand the genre as well as Craven did. I absolutely love the idea Craven posits in the film that when a horror story dies that an evil force is released upon the world because it needs to live somewhere. And if not in its story, in our world. A terrifying prospect. Furthermore, once can extrapolate from Craven’s monologues in the film that we need horror films to contain as much of the evil in the world as possible. These films keep nightmares from consuming us in real life. He urges us to keep these stories alive because they are how we work through so many of life’s perils, traumas, and conflicts that tap into our most primal fears.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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Sinister Summer: “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984) Retrospective Review

Summertime often means sleep away camps, beach trips, road trips, and more. So many horror films take place during the summer and others serve as material for ghost stories around a campfire. This summer, I thought I would have a shortrun series on some of my favorite horror films that I’ve titled Sinister Summer. With the Friday the 13th next month falling on the precise day that the original Friday the 13th movie takes place and it being Jason Voorhees’ birthday, I first thought I would take a look at the original movie. But then I figured, why not do a retrospective on other horror films during June, July, and August? First up on the Sinister Summer series is my favorite slasher series A Nightmare on Elm Street featuring my favorite horror icon Freddy Krueger. Unlike with other slasher icons who hide behind masks and never speak, I consider Freddy to be the most terrifying because he can talk to his victims and attack you in your sleep–a time in which you are most vulnerable. Moreover, dreams are a private time and he invades that sacred scape. Furthermore, we don’t pay much attention to the actor behind other icons such as Jason, Leatherface, and Michael but actor Robert Englund is synonymous with Freddy because we get to appreciate the actor’s performance, charisma, and enthusiasm. Let’s get started.

1, 2 Freddy’s coming for you; 3, 4 better lock your door, 5, 6 grab your crucifix, 7, 8 gonna stay up late, 9, 10 never sleep again. If that jingle still sends chills down your spine, you’re not alone. Writer-director Wes Craven’s nightmare on screen has been terrifying audiences for more than 30yrs and has even had a crossover with Jason Voorhees. Beyond the silver screen, the Nightmare on Elm Street (NoES) franchise has been featured at Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights, interactive media (video games), and Robert Englund reprised his most famous role in the Halloween episode of The Goldbergs [in October 2018]. Inspired by a series of articles in the LA Times; three small articles about men from Southeast Asia, who were from immigrant families, who died in the middle of nightmares—and the paper never correlated them, never said, ‘Hey, we’ve had another story like this.” From that short series of articles came the franchise that we know and love today. But there is so much more to NoES than the fact it was inspired by truly unexplained deaths during nightmares. I’ve written before that the horror genre is the best genre for creatively exploring the human condition, questioning standards and observations, providing different perspectives on sociologically, exploring psychology, heteronormativity, and more, often in terrifying ways to get you to think, and NoES certainly gives us lots of material to talk about. At its core, NoES provides ample opportunity to discuss the distinction between dreams and real life, manifesting in the actions of the teens in the film; furthermore, the events of the film transgress the boundary between imagination and reality that provocatively toy with the audience’s perceptions of the real and imagined. It’s like an episode of The Twilight Zone on crack.

On the surface, it appears that the only motivation of Freddy’s kills and trauma-inducing actions is revenge–plain and simple. After all, he was burned alive by the parents of the Elm Street teens. And so he takes his revenge out on the teens and occasionally their parents. Albeit revenge is a classic motivator, it lacks substance; however, there is much more to Freddy and the NoES series than revenge. What truly separates classic Freddy from new (remake) Freddy and from Michael and Jason is his sick commitment to showmanship. It’s just about the kills, it’s about putting on a show for his own amusement. Almost exclusively attacking teenagers, Freddy’s attacks on the mind and body can be interpreted as being symbolic of the various and often traumatic experiences encountered by young people. Our central character Nancy is the straight-laced strong-willed teenager that experiences social and sexual anxiety around her peers and parents. Clearly she is someone who has had a strong relationship with her parents–especially her father–but that relationship has become strained due to her parents becoming increasingly disconnected from her through abuse of alcohol, pills, or simply not being present. One could go so far as to assess that the parents serve as opposition to the goal of defeating Freddy and survival.

Way before the proliferation of YA movies today and unlike typical slasher films, Craven makes it a point to place the power of survival into the hands of the teenagers. He then transfers the importance of physiological control to psychological control over the unconscious mind and that which induces fear. The ability to defeat Freddy lies within the mind of Nancy. And of course, Dream Warriors places that power into multiple minds. Originally Wes Craven wanted Nancy’s entire experience to be one big nightmare but New Line Cinema wanted a darker, more macabre ending in order to pave the way for sequels because that is there the money is. Just like John Carpenter desired for Halloween to be ONE film, Craven originally desired for NoES to be one and done. Fortunately for us, both have become hugely successful franchises. However, many agree that the originals (or even extended to the first 2-3 films) are the timeless ones.

Freudian imagery and analogies are in no short supply in NoES. Even more so than in other horror films where sexual content is common, the manner in which it is used in NoES is symbolic of Freudian themes that are manifested in the manner by which Freddy stalks, toys with, and kills his prey. For the most part, the Freudian imagery is shown through a sexual context in threatening and mysterious ways that play with the teens’ perceptions of their reality versus a nightmarish imagination. Each sexual image or action is representative of some type of trauma to the body that is connected to the mind and thus becomes part of the subconscious that impacts thoughts and actions.

The various scenes that take place within the dreams of the teenagers quite possibly represent Craven’s own nightmares or perhaps even your own. Just like you might talk to a therapist about a recurring dream or nightmare in order to interpret the imagery and meaning, Craven may be working through his own dreams on the screen. The dreams and Freudian symbolism are what separate NoES from the likes of Halloween. Strip away the dreams, and you have a slasher who kills teenagers. These dreams give NoES depth, and this dimension is what beckons us to face the uncanny and pleasurable unpleasures of this film. Importantly, cinephiles and horror enthusiasts should note that the dreams never end. Evidence of this occurs at the end of the film. In terms of Freudian terminology, there is sufficient evidence in the film to suggest that Freddy represents the id (the part of the mind in which innate instinctive impulses and primary processes are manifest). He acts impulsively, killing those who are connected to the ones who burned him alive in that boiler room after discovering he was a child killer (although the original script refers to him as a child molester). He feeds off fear and comes to life in dreams, full of revenge. Clearly audiences are witnessing a battle between the id, ego, and superego throughout the events of the movie. Unfortunately, there is no real winner in this battle of the mind and body. But there is a winner in the actor Robert Englund. Arguably, he is the biggest single horror genre star since Vincent Price.

Let’s not forget the comedic components of NoES. Beyond the dreams and thematic depth that sets this film apart from Halloween and Friday the 13th, is the dark comedy. Part of Freddy’s dark comedic charm is the fact that he can talk and toy with his victims in ways that Jason, Leatherface, and Michael cannot. For one simple reason, Freddy is not hidden behind a mask. Freddy has a sense of humor. Strange as it may seem for a slasher, he often integrates humor into his dialogue and actions. This is what makes him fun to watch. The original NoES could be read as the parents being the villains and Freddy being an anti-hero. For all the reasons to be terrified of Freddy, he comes off as a little goofy. As if he just grabbed the first hat, shirt, and pants he saw walking though a rummage sale. His taunting of Tina in the opening scene of the film comes off as taunting, not horrifying. It’s like he’s a cat, toying with his victims because it is way more fun than going in for an immediate kill. Another favorite comedic moment in the movie is when the long, disgusting tongue comes out of the phone when Nancy is talking on it, and Freddy says “I’m your boyfriend now.”

Variety ran a great article on this very subject. Here is what columnist Jason Zinoman stated, “[Freddy] has a weakness for catchphrases (“better not dream and drive”), dopey word play (“feeling tongue tied?,” he asks a victim tied to a bed by tongues) and a predilection for a certain word that makes him sound like a catty teenage girl (“Bon appetit, bitch”; “Welcome to prime time, bitch,” etc). But there’s no denying the star of so many nightmares knows how to deliver a line. He sells his stale material with an admirable professionalism—he’s the Jay Leno of serial killers.”

Looking back at A Nightmare on Elm Street and the legacy it inspired, it is clear that this film and franchise has so much to offer those of us who have been watching for years and those who are beginning to explore the fascinating genre of horror. NoES has it all. Comedy, visceral horror, commentary on the human condition, explorations of the subconscious, and more. It’s this delicate balance of all these elements that bolsters the plot and characters, gives us a horror film of substance. A film that is more than cheap thrills and chills.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, please subscribe! Follow Ryan on Twitter @RLTerry1 and Instagram @RL_Terry for more on movies, theme parks, and entertainment news.