WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE: Meta-Horror Meets Freddy

Wes Craven could be said to have a chequered filmography…

Despite creating some of the most enduring boogeymen and being a key player in the popularisation of the horror movie, his 40-year career was spattered with as many misses as hits, perhaps this is unsurprising considering his unconventional rise to prominence. In Craven’s first three films (The Last House on the Left [1972], The Fireworks Woman [1975] and The Hills Have Eyes [1977]) the young director explored such heady themes as incest and religious oppression, with a side serving of brutal rape and ultra-violence. These early films were incredibly controversial for the time and saw him ostracised from many of his friends and family.

After the relative success of The Hills Have Eyes Craven resigned himself to creating horror films and so began a lucrative, if curiously patchy four decade career that saw him direct dozens of feature-length movies. I can’t claim to have seen all of these movies, nor do I have the desire to watch all of them, however I do have a certain penchant for the Nightmare on Elmstreet series. Freddie Kreuger is a character that has stuck to my imagination since the first time I laid eyes on him at a Halloween sleepover as a young teen. I remember being frightened seeing the VHS cover and being fixated by the haunted eyes of the girl on the cover, I’d never seen an expression like that before and it gave me a real sense of foreboding before we popped the cassette into the machine and I was whisked away to a world of unreal nightmares and hapless teenage victims – I didn’t go to sleep that night.

Since that night I’ve been grimly fascinated with any Nightmare on Elm Street related media, you name it I’ve seen it. There are 9 movies featuring Freddy (including the odd but entertaining Freddy vs. Jason), as well as the horror anthology series Freddy’s Nightmares, they all have their flaws, but one in particular stands out to me as particularly brilliant.

Ten years after releasing the original, Wes Craven returned to his most iconic character putting a discerning meta-theatrical twist on the Elmstreet formula that had been wrung to death over the course of five featured films. In Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the titular director was able to envision Freddy in a much more visceral fashion and also pay homage to his original film, whilst telling a truly emotional story. The film is a wonderfully warped, half-winking nod to the Hollywood studios that Craven knows so well and gives original star Helen Lankenkamp a chance to return to the spotlight, only this time she plays herself.

New Nightmare doesn’t sound good on paper, but it works. The knowing tone of the film might be self-indulgent, but these meta-nods are balanced with some of the best scares and atmospheric set pieces that the series has to its name. Best of all, despite the fact that we know we’re watching a film, we can’t help but care for Helen. Her role as the harried celebrity who fears that she may be falling out of the spotlight was close to reality, by 1994 it had been 5 years since she had featured in a movie. Although she would eventually follow a lucrative career in Special FX artistry, New Nightmare remains a lasting testament to her acting and Craven’s creative mind.

OPINION: Vacationing Through Movies

I can think of no better tourism advertisement for a country than a successful film.

My formal introduction to many foreign countries has been in the form of a stellar film.

Sure, when you’re a kid you’re told about Japan, you’re aware of what it is as a concept, you’ve seen a couple of pictures and maybe your middle-class parents have taken you to Wagamama so you (think) you know what they eat, but at this point Japan may as well be on another planet. You don’t know anyone who’s been there and you might not have even met a Japanese person – the concept is an alien one. Great films don’t just introduce you to characters, they put you in places that you might not have been before and give you an idea of what it’s like to be there. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation was a film that did just this and introduced me to a whole perspective of movie watching.

Midnight in Paris

I’m not a huge Woody Allen fan. Although I understand that he’s made some iconic movies, I’ve often found his authorial voice to be a little overwhelming. Even when he’s not starring in his own picture, he’ll find a male lead to embody his odd foibles and eccentricities. Owen Wilson is Allen’s mouthpiece in Midnight in Paris, a film that manages to satisfy and exceed the expectations that I had of both director and lead, and had me searching for holiday villas in the south of France within moments of finishing the film.

The Darjeeling Limited

I visited India mere months after seeing the The Darjeeling Limited and wasn’t disappointed by the huge wealth of colour, excitement and drama that this beautiful country had to offer, although it’s safe to say that Wes Anderson’s vision of the country differs somewhat to the reality. Wes Anderon’s fourth feature film is by no means his best work, yet it stands out as the beginning of his journey into the fantastical everyday (a trend which would peak with The Grand Budapest Hotel) and clearly intimates his love for the country, as well as its iconic rail system.

The Beach 

Danny Boyle has as many detractors as fans these days, but he can arguably be hailed as the man to bring Thailand’s gorgeous islands to the world’s attention. Whilst The Beach is better remembered as a showcase for fledgling writer Alex Garland (who penned the original novel, as well as the screenplay), Boyle certainly has a knack for framing these Thai islands and made Thailand a must-visit location for teenagers the world over – including me…

In Bruges

This jet black comedy revitalised the career of Colin Farrell (an adorable naif speaking in his native accent) and simultaneously sold indie-film fans around the world to a winter city break in Belgium. Many films have attempted to tackle the subject of hit-men in a comedic way but very succeed in doing so. In Bruges not only makes its protagonists likeable, but it also completely sells the city as a place of cultural beauty, which can be as isolating as it can be romantic.

HEREDITARY: Family Tragedy & Occult Nightmares

The Horror genre has undergone something of a renaissance in the last few years.

Thanks to a number of talented auteurs, industrious producers and questionably motivated money-men, what once was a genre that was solely associated with schlock and gore has now been elevated to something much more cerebral. Of course, the blood spattered exploitation movies are still there, leering from the corner of the room daring you to no be disgusted with the buckets of gore that it throws at its hapless C-list actors. In fact, every movie trend (and horror is a genre that is so often typified by trends) has somehow managed to hold onto dear life, mostly due to their affordability because whilst the films themselves might not always appeal to mainstream audiences, they nonetheless offer a curious investors the chance to turn a quick buck at relatively little expense to themselves.

The best horror films have always been low-budget affairs, relying on atmosphere and suspense to deliver their payoffs rather than eye-popping visual effects and Hereditary certainly plays to those strengths, whilst also providing enough horror-house shocks and genuinely terrifying moments that will leave even die-hard aficionados a little disturbed. As the title suggests, this is a film about family, but it’s also a film about grief, mental illness and how the shortcomings, or strange proclivities of our parents can lead to us inheriting more than just their genes.

The wonderful Toni Collette brings her highly emotional A-game as not-so bereaved mother of two, Annie, who is surprised to find herself unmoved by the death of her mother. Her own daughter, Charlie (played by an unnerving Milly Shapiro) is similarly emotionless, despite supposedly having a close relationship with her grandmother. Perhaps it’s unsurprising then that the family, rounded out by Gabriel Byrne (solid as ever in a rather thankless role of confused Father) and Alex Wolff, are hardly the Brady Bunch. Annie creates miniature models of traumatic memories, Charlie has a macabre workshop of her own and Peter is a habitual weed smoker.

You’d be right to start thinking that Hereditary is more family drama than horror flick, in fact the film is far more effective when exposing the grim realities of Annie’s damaged childhood rather than drumming up more familiar genre chills. First-time director Ari Aster has an assure hand throughout, framing the Graham’s home in wide static shots that echo the doll’s house that Annie works over; he never relies on cheap scares and he handles the small cast well, but the film struggles to balance it’s effectively told family politics with the pseudo-supernatural horror that the picture devolves into.

‘Devolves’ is definitely right the word, as Hereditary certainly feels more chilling in its first half; when enough hints are dropped by the end of the second act even non-aficionados of the genre will see the trajectory of the Graham family and, ultimately, the film, which is a shame because the film does so well to avoid cliches up to this point. As it is, Collette’s full-bore performance and Aster’s camerawork will no doubt please Arthouse fans, whilst leaving casual moviegoers bemused and perhaps even bored.