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.