On October 14, 1994 Wes Craven returned to his most famous franchise for one last outing. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare took a decidedly different, and meta, approach to the series that might have caught some fans off guard and perhaps alienated others. Some people though, myself included, though love New Nightmare for its examination of the importance of horror tales, and its celebration of the power of storytelling. It’s literally a film where storytellers are the first line of defense against an ancient and all powerful entity out to destroy our world.
That revelation comes an hour into the film when Wes Craven (playing himself) explains to Heather Langenkamp (also playing herself) why her and her family are being plagued by a series of traumatic and seemingly supernatural events. Craven informs her that an ancient, malevolent entity is at the root of Heather’s problems and the series of tragic incidents bedeviling a new Elm Street revival. It’s an interesting twist, but what really gives the reveal thematic power is Craven’s explaination that the only way to defeat the entity is to trap it in a story. He’s trying to do that, but in order to accomplish that he needs Heather’s help.
“Scary movies give literal names and faces to the formless fears that plague our collective unconscious. By giving our metaphorical demons shape we have a way to understand, defeat, and even enjoy them.”
That idea of trapping evil in a story is such a perfect metaphor for the horror tale because by writing the script for New Nightmare, Craven’s real world counterpart is also battling ancient, metaphorical evils that have plagued human beings since primordial times. Ancient stories and myths were often used as a way to understand and process frightening and mysterious phenomenon, and horror movies are sort of a modern day version of that. They allow us to confront the gruesome and terrifying in cathartic and often fun ways. I think Craven understands that and it’s part of the reason we see both the signature boiler room style flames in The Entity’s realm and architecture reminiscent of ancient cultures with powerful and resonant mythology like the the ancient Greeks and the Aztecs (or possibly another Mesoamerican culture). I take it as a nod to the cultures that had captured the entity at some point in the past before our foolish modern society allowed it to escape.
Trapping the entity inside a story is also a powerful idea because of human beings’ imagination. When we hear about a horrific movie our mind will often make it seem incredibly terrifying. So much so that when we go to see it we’re a little nervous, until the film turns out to be more tame than we thought. Craven is aware of this phenomenon and we see it at work via the horrific look look of the Freddy Entity in the film. New Nightmare is set after the death of the cinematic Freddy Krueger in Freddy’s Dead. And without the films to inform their reality, the imaginations of the fictional Heather Langenkamp and Robert Englund are perceiving this entity as a darker and more evil version of Freddy
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It’s a a small scene, but I love that Robert Englund tries to free himself from the entity by painting it. It humanizes the fictional Englund, but it also shows that visual art is another way in which human beings attempt to process and conquer our demons. The idea of trapping the demon inside a film also works from a folklore perspective. There are a number of myths, legends, and magical traditions that talk about the power of knowing someone’s “true name”. Wes Craven explains that the entity liked being Freddy. So much so that it adopted Krueger’s appearance, modus operandi, and limitations. So, by creating such an iconic film villain Craven has uncovered the entity’s true name and given our world a way of defeating it.
This also goes back to what I mentioned earlier about our imaginations and horror films. Scary movies give literal names and faces to the formless fears that plague our collective unconscious. By giving our metaphorical demons shape we have a way to understand, defeat, and even enjoy them. We know the monster’s true name so we have power over it. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare doesn’t just celebrate writers and directors though. It also pays tribute to the actors and actresses who use those films to create iconic roles. Wes explains to the fictional Heather that the demon’s ultimate goal is to enter our world, but to do that it needs to get past a gatekeeper. That gatekeeper is her because of what she brought to the role in one of horror’s most famous final girls, Nancy Thompson. Craven says Langenkamp gave Nancy a strength that Freddy cannot sidestep, which is true and why Nancy is one of the best final girls of the genre.
“[…] without the films to inform their reality, the imaginations of the fictional Heather Langenkamp and Robert Englund are perceiving this entity as a darker and more evil version of Freddy”
Making the fictional Langenkamp a mother and having the Freddy Entity target her son Dylan (Miko Hughes) adds some additional layers to New Nightmare. The first being that the film becomes a celebration of the power of a mother’s love for her child (If you’re a horror fan searching for the perfect Mother’s Day movie you can’t go wrong with this one). Ultimately, it’s Heather’s love for Dylan that allows mother and son to defeat the demon. The other element is the importance and effect of telling stories to children.
At one point Heather and Dylan talk about what happened to Dylan’s father who is murdered by Freddy earlier in the movie. Heather explains that Dylan’s dad is up in Heaven. Several scenes later, we see Dylan climb to the top of some playground equipment in an effort to reach his Dad. A seemingly innocent story that was intended to comfort a child almost lead to him being injured. It’s interesting to keep that in mind when watching the scenes that talk about the effect that horrific and violent stories could have on Dylan’s mind.
We see that both in the way Fran Bennet’s Dr. Heffner believes that horror stories can have disastrous effects on young minds, and Heather’s frustration over Dylan’s love for the story of Hansel and Gretel. Heather worries that the story is too violent for Dylan, but his love for that classic folklore tale allows him to fight back against the Freddy Entity. It’s what inspires him to leave the discarded sleeping pills as breadcrumbs for his mom to find him. And it helps assist him in defeating the Freddy Entity in the same way Hansel and Gretel beat the witch; by pushing it into the flames and closing the door behind it.
Ultimately, horrific tales don’t damage Dylan’s mind. They give him a way to understand and fight back against the the darkness that’s threatening to envelop his life. The final shot of Heather reading Craven’s now finished script to Dylan is her understanding that. Those metatextual touches give Wes Craven’s New Nightmare so much power and resonance. I think it’s the most underrated entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. It’s a film with a clear and wonderfully articulated message. It’s almost as if Craven, a former humanities professor, was delivering an anthropology lecture via the medium of horror films. I think Craven was interested in continuing that dialogue in 1996’s Scream. So, his interest and exploration of the conventions of horror films and the power they have, which began, in New Nightmare, kicked off the whole “meta” horror film craze.
“[…] horrific tales don’t damage Dylan’s mind. They give him a way to understand and fight back against the the darkness that’s threatening to envelop his life.”
Will you be celebratig the 25th Anniversary of Wes Craven’s New Niggtmare with a rewatch tonight? Where does the film place in your franchise favorites ranking? Let us know on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!