Earlier this week marked the birthday of another horror icon – Robert Englund. If you grew up in the 1980’s, like I did, you know it was a great time for horror fans. The big three franchises – Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street – were turning out sequels regularly. Pinhead and the Hellraiser films hadn’t yet been been banished to straight-to-video hell. John Carpenter was arguably at the height of his creative prowess.
As everyone’s favourite demonic ‘sandman’, Robert Englund’s portrayal of Freddy Krueger created a pop culture icon that has extended far beyond genre confines. Even people who will tell you they don’t watch horror films know Freddy Krueger. Englund and Craven gave the horror genre one of its most recognizable and enduring monsters.
In honour of Englund’s birthday, in this edition of The Vault, I take a look one of Robert Englund’s best performance as Freddy Krueger – Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. The sequel marked a significant departure for the Elm Street franchise. Its premise of Freddy Krueger escaping the films and entering our world with franchise actors playing themselves was novel at the time. While it underachieved upon its release, a New Nightmare has undergone a much deserved critical re-evaluation in recent years.
A Classic Ahead of Its Time
At the time of its release, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare was poorly received, both critically and financially. A quick glance at Box Office Mojo (n.d.) shows that New Nightmare is the lowest grossing film in the Nightmare franchise. I was working in a video store around the time New Nightmare came out and I can still distinctly recall being initially disappointed with the sequel. Twenty years later I sat down and decided to give Craven’s sequel another look and, like many critics and fans, my evaluation of the film radically changed.
Today A New Nightmare is largely regarded as one of the better films in the franchise.
Today A New Nightmare is largely regarded as one of the better films in the franchise. Some of the initial derision directed to the sequel can be chalked up to the discrepancy between audience expectations and Craven’s creative direction. Following the dreadful Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, audiences went into A New Nightmare looking for the familiar formula established over the sequels. Keep in mind that in the 1980’s, horror sequels weren’t concerned with continuity or advancing an ongoing narrative; sequels offered more of the same with just ‘more’ of everything. Craven obviously had a different idea and delivered a refreshingly unique sequel, which audiences still weren’t ready for in 1994.
Much of the initial negative reaction to A New Nightmare may also be explained by Craven’s use of meta-based horror. While Craven turned the slasher genre on its head with the self-aware horror of Scream to critical and box office success, audiences and critics weren’t ready for his first stab at the concept in A New Nightmare. Today film-goers are familiar with this meta-narrative approach. The Deadpool films have cashed in on the concept and several horror films over the last decade have similarly adopted the technique with mixed results. Yet when Craven made A New Nightmare, it was something different and unexpected. Craven’s self-referential film-making approach was ahead of its time. Two years later he would strike gold with the same approach with Scream.
Craven Infused His Franchise with New Ideas
By the time most horror franchises reach their seventh or eighth sequels, they’re either getting dumped straight onto to video and streaming platforms (see the Hellraiser franchise) or they’re jettisoning their story into space (Friday the 13th and, yes, Hellraiser again). Craven deserves a lot of credit for infusing what was the seventh film in the franchise with fresh and interesting ideas.
Perhaps the most brilliant theme that Craven weaves into a New Nightmare is the idea that Freddy Krueger is actually a long-existing supernatural entity that has latched onto and been contained by the Elm Street films. He adopts a ‘fairy tale’ approach to his story-telling. This dark fairy tale theme connects well with the film’s meta-approach, raising questions about the function of horror films. In one scene, during a talk show interview, Heather Langenkamp is asked if she has a problem with the horror genre and whether she would let her son watch her films. It touches on a question that gives this Elm Street sequel a subtextual layer missing from most horror sequels.
Like fairy tales, horror films arguably help us confront social anxieties and fear
Like fairy tales, horror films arguably help us confront social anxieties and fear, which Craven addresses in a New Nightmare. Many of the fictional monsters we’ve created – from Leatherface to Dracula – have been assembled in part from real-life horrors in the past. Film critics and scholars alike have argued that this ‘fictionalization’ of real atrocities gives peoples a safe outlet for confronting and exploring their fears.
A New Nightmare Made Freddy Scary Again
Aside from these innovations in storytelling and deeper meanings embedded in the film, a New Nightmare did something else remarkable – it made Freddy Krueger scary again. Over the course of the sequels, Freddy increasingly took center stage, emerging from the shadows he was largely confined to in the first two films. With each sequel, the burned monster also became more and more clownish, drawing laughs but not many scares.
A New Nightmare is actually a scary film; the first truly scary Elm Street film since Dream Warriors. Craven crafts several frightening and disturbing moments in this sequel that call back to the first A Nightmare on Elm Street. Heather’s funeral nightmare and the image of Freddy pulling her son into a casket is haunting. Freddy’s later hospital appearance – a clever reference to Tina’s death in the first film – is among the scarier moments in the franchise.
A Sequel That Has Earned Its Re-Evaluation
Fortunately, horror fans and critics have re-discovered Wes Craven’s New Nightmare in recent years. The sequel has been re-evaluated as part of this re-discovery and, thankfully, has increasingly been credited as one of Craven’s more classic efforts. Elm Street fans may still select the original film and Dream Warriors as the franchise’s best films, but Craven crafted a classic horror film that stands on its own by taking risks and experimenting.