A Return to Elm Street – The Final New Nightmare

October’s almost gone and I’ve barely touched on horror movies! Oh the shame. So it’s time for me to return to an unfinished project from last October – my nostalgic trip back through the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. Part 1 covered the first two films; part 2 looked at the trilogy formed by III-V; and part 3 closed off the 1980s by attempting to come to terms with the awful TV spin-off series. The 1990s would see the last gasp of the original series, an intermittently interesting shameless remix of older material with “bonus” 3D gimmickry, followed by a far more thoughtful take on the franchise from its original creator.

Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) takes on one of the inherent limitations in building a franchise around the original scenario. Freddy Krueger started off as a serial killer of children who was murdered by a vigilante band of townspeople, before returning to take his revenge by killing their offspring in their dreams. At some point the town is going to run out of teenagers for him to kill – so what is he supposed to do then?

Enter John Doe (Shon Greenblatt), an amnesiac young man who appears to be Springwood, Ohio’s last teen standing. Pursued by Freddy through a series of Looney Tunes-esque dreams, he manages to escape beyond the town’s borders, leaving Freddy trapped behind him. Making his way to the next city, he ends up in a shelter for troubled youth which serves much the same plot function as the psychiatric institution in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987). Continuing along those lines, we meet a trio of troubled teens plucked from the same basic supporting cast templates: Spencer (Breckin Meyer), a pyromaniac stoner rebelling against his rich authoritarian father; Tracy (Lezlie Deane), a kickass young woman who was abused by her father; and Carlos (Ricky Dean Logan), an uneasy mixture of the “nerd” and “sexual harasser” stereotypes whose mother permanently damaged his hearing. Completing the pattern are two professional psychologists. Where Elm Street 3 featured returning character Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) as the dream expert playing opposite a more experienced and sceptical colleague (Craig Wasson), this time we have Dr. Maggie Burroughs (Lisa Zane) taking Nancy’s place as the protagonist while all of her dream expertise has been siphoned off into the more guru-like Doc (Yaphet Kotto).

With the only clue to John’s identity being a newspaper clipping from Springwood, his counsellor Maggie – who also happens to have her own issues with missing childhood memories – sets out with him on a roadtrip back to Springwood to unlock his memories, inadvertently accompanied by the other three teens who’ve stowed away in the van. The return visit takes up the middle third of the film and is where the glimmerings of inspiration really begin to shine. This Springwood is a surreal land of the lost, more of a rundown inbred backwoods community than a once-thriving urban centre. Middle-aged people shuffle through a run-down town fair, while a lone old man drives around on an otherwise empty dodgem car ride. The bemused teens attract the disturbingly enthusiastic attention of a crazy childless couple (Roseanne Barr & Tom Arnold). A teacher (Matthew Faison) in an empty classroom conducts a lesson on Freddy 101, with a genealogical chart of deceased students petering out in 1989 (the year the previous film was released). And Johnny Depp (the final victim in the original film) appears on TV to conduct a “this is your brain on drugs” PSA, only for Freddy to bash him in the face with the frying pan.

After bumping off two of the stowaways while Maggie learns about the town’s history, we finally discover that the thoroughly annoying John Doe is not the centre of the movie as he believes himself to be (but then don’t most teens feel that away about their lives?) – he was simply bait to bring Freddy’s daughter back to town! Letting him live just long enough to reveal to Maggie her original identity of Katherine Krueger, Freddy hitches a ride out of Springwood inside her head, gaining access to the wider world to expand his reign of terror. Back at the shelter Maggie/Katherine gets a crash course in dreams from her colleague Doc, who just so happens to be the one person with the requisite expertise in obscure mythology to know about the ancient dream demons who gave Freddy his powers. And to cap it all – in a scene which will no doubt appear even more ridiculous to anybody who missed the opportunity to see this movie in the cinemas – he gives her a pair of 3D glasses which will grant her the power to see through deceptions and navigate through the dream world more effectively! So far, however, nobody has seen fit to give this film a proper 3D Blu Ray release, so any modern viewers are reduced to observing the clunky way in which various pointy objects are poked at the camera. This must be exceptionally frustrating for the director, whose original concept for disposing of Freddy couldn’t be effectively realised within the restrictions imposed by the decision to film in 3D. As a consequence, Freddy’s ultimate dispatch is fairly anticlimactic and what was intended to be a rousing conclusion to the franchise – unless the film was a huge success (it wasn’t) – just fizzles out.

First-time director Rachel Talalay had been part of the Elm Street family from the very beginning. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) marked her second time in the role of assistant production manager before her promotion to production manager on the sequel. The next two films saw her move up from line producer to producer. She was busy working as a producer on John Waters’ Cry-Baby (1990) during the making of the fifth entry, but still received a thanks in the credits. Her next production was Book of Love (1990), the directorial debut of Robert Shaye – who had been the producer of the Elm Street franchise since Part 2. Taking the opportunity to convince him that she should have a turn in the director’s chair, she came up with the original story concept as a conscious reaction against the grimmer nature of Part 5. Feeling that the series had become overly mired in its own continuity, she also saw this as the opportunity for a fresh start.

Unfortunately, Talalay’s desire to avoid overly convoluted continuity was hampered considerably by the decision to hire Michael De Luca to write the screenplay. De Luca’s previous experience as the writer of seven episodes of the execrable Freddy’s Nightmares (1988-1989) was in itself a big flashing neon warning sign, but it’s the first of those episodes – No More Mr. Nice Guy (1988), a misguided attempt to tell Freddy’s origin story while blatantly contradicting the original movie – which should have disqualified him. Characters’ abilities to transition between dream and reality are poorly defined and handled inconsistently, cheating in a way that the previous movies never did. De Luca is unable even to keep the internal chronology of the movie consistent, using an introduction inexplicably ripped off from Escape from New York (1981) to state that the story is set 10 years after the previous movie (which would make it somewhere between 1999 and 2001), but contradicting this later on in the Freddy 101 class, which establishes its setting as 10 years after the first movie (i.e. 1994). This attempt to look forward is curiously undermined by its consciously contemporary pop culture references, most notably the decision to give Freddy a Nintendo Power Glove – a game controller which was so “cutting edge” that it had been discontinued almost a year before the film was released.

The last third of the movie delves deeply into Freddy’s backstory, but the details are so muddled that they make very little sense. The story claims that his daughter was taken away from him after he murdered his wife in front of her – this is supposed to be his motivation for beginning his serial killing spree of the town’s children. But the reason he killed his wife was her discovery of his secret murder basement filled with his paraphernalia and news cuttings about his exploits as the Springwood Slasher – so this can only be a retroactive justification. And why was he never arrested or tried for his wife’s murder? Various childhood traumas are introduced to explain how he got that way – being teased for his parentage as a child, being raised by an abusive adoptive father (Alice Cooper) – but in each instance he was clearly already a twisted individual who enjoyed inflicting pain. Arguably these are intended to be examples of his own self-serving creative reinterpretation of his past to elicit his daughter’s sympathy, but her 3D glasses are supposed to allow her to see through his deceptions, and the whole series of flashbacks are too clumsily handled to believe that the writer know what he’s trying to achieve.

Although Rachel Talalay’s career in film came to an abrupt end with the box office flop Tank Girl (1995), neither film’s flaws reflect on her talents as a director. She has since forged a healthy career in television, including a memorable run directing all of the 2-part season finales for Peter Capaldi’s tenure on Doctor Who (2014-2017). Her most recent feature-length work was the Neflix original kid’s horror film A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting (2020).

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) is a far more interesting creation and provides a suitable endcap to the series (despite the villain’s exhumation for a victory lap nine years later). Since writing and directing the original, Wes Craven had been almost entirely absent from the franchise, being of the opinion that the whole idea of building sequels around a recurring villain was a dead-end strategy – it provides little opportunity for character growth and inevitably erodes whatever originally made the villain special. When he was approached to write Elm Street 3, he attempted to address this problem by bringing back Nancy from the first film and teaming her up with a bunch of new characters. Unfortunately his intent to use the story to confront the issue of teen suicide was deemed too controversial by the studio, and after multiple rewrites by other hands very little of his script remained.

Rather than be forced to deal with the diminishing returns of an over-explained villain, Craven solved the problem this time by jettisoning the backstory entirely and making the franchise’s overexposure part of the plot. Not content with merely bringing back Heather Langenkamp again, he had her play herself – an actress best known for playing the female lead in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Various elements of her real life have been brought into the film: she’s married to a special effects artist, renamed here as Chase Porter (David Newsom) since her real husband was uncomfortable with playing the role; she has a son (Miko Hughes) whose name starts with D (Dylan in the movie, Daniel in reality); and – a bold choice – she even has a stalker, just as the real Heather did after the cancellation of her TV series Just the Ten of Us (1987-1990). Also returning to play themselves are Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger), John Saxon (Nancy’s father in Parts 1 & 3), Nick Corri (Rod in Part 1) and Tuesday Knight (Kristen in Part 4). Two of the producers play themselves – Robert Shaye and Marianne Maddalena – and Wes Craven himself has a small but central role. Even the escalating series of earthquakes which form a part of the plot are based in reality – although they had already been written into the script, the filming dates coincided with the 1994 Northridge earthquake and footage of its aftermath is included in the film.

The plot of the film anticipates the wave of self-referential horror movies which would sweep through Hollywood in the late 1990s/early 2000s, but takes the far more interesting approach of making a movie about its own making. Opening with a shock dream sequence which references the opening of the original film, we soon learn that Heather’s husband has secretly been working on an animatronic knife-bladed handed for the next Elm Street movie – and that his colleagues who died in the dream have failed to turn up for work. Interviewed about her most famous character on a daytime chat show, Heather is pleasantly surprised by the appearance of her friend Robert Englund, capering around in front of the audience in full Freddy make-up and making his now-typical dark comedic quips to a cheering audience. The franchise’s producers try to recruit her for the new film, but there’s a strangely haunted look in Robert Shaye’s eyes. Her husband dies in a car crash – triggered by a sequence which plays a cheeky variant on the “claws in the bath” scene from the original film – and a guilty-looking Wes Craven can be seen hovering around in the funeral’s aftermath.

Everything is made clear when Heather and Wes finally meet at his house for a conversation about the film. The original A Nightmare on Elm Street was so potent is capturing its audience that it became the latest in a series of fictional narratives to capture an ancient supernatural being. As the franchise churned onwards and the character became watered down from its original conception, the prison weakened – and with the franchise’s cancellation, the creature currently operating in the guise of Freddy Krueger is free to attempt to break into our world. The only way to stop him is for Heather to adopt the role of Nancy – the character who originally defeated him – and to use the rules of the story to lock him away again. The scene ends in Craven’s study with a shot of the most recently completed section of the script – the scene they have just enacted.

The other plot strand running through the film is Freddy’s attempt to undermine Heather’s resolve by getting at her through her son. Dylan has also been having bad dreams, but has been protected – to an extent – by his stuffed Tyrannosaurus Rex standing guard beneath the sheets at the foot of the bed. Prone to sleepwalking, he is discovered more than once standing in a trance in front of a TV showing one of his mother’s Elm Street films. On one occasion he is discovered having rearranging all of the cryptic single-letter messages sent by his mother’s stalker to spell out “NEVER SLEEP AGAIN”. Heather and her supportive babysitter Julie (an engaging Tracy Middendorf in her feature debut) take him to the hospital to be checked out – and it’s here that Craven has the opportunity to make his other major point through Dr. Christine Heffner (Fran Bennett), a character sharing the same surname of the head of the MPAA with whom Craven continually fought over censorship of his films. As soon as Dr. Heffner discovers that her patient’s mother is a famous horror movie actress, her ability to judge her patient’s problems without bias go straight out the window. She immediately assumes that all of Dylan’s problems come from his mother showing him her movies, despite her repeated denials, the lack of any such evidence, and the fact that any school child is perfectly able to learn a lot of information about a famous horror movie character just from existing in the world. She does all she can to keep mother and son separated and escalates to summoning security guards to manhandle Heather into her office under the assumption that she’s mentally unstable. Although she claims to be acting to protect the child, none of her actions have the desired effect – not only do they escalate Dylan’s personal danger, but they result in the tragic death of his babysitter in a spectacular sequence recreating the most memorable death from the original Nightmare.

Craven has carefully constructed his story so that it is necessary for Heather to tie these two themes together in order to resolve the plot. Earlier in the film she demonstrated a similar attitude to Dr. Heffner, playing the role of the overly sensitive adult unable to understand why kids aren’t freaked out by the darker themes of fairytales. Nearing the end of Dylan’s favourite story – Hansel & Gretel – she abandoned the story just before the witch’s death because she felt it was too gruesome. Dylan, insistant that the story had to be concluded, quickly filled the gap by narrating the succeeding events so that the characters could reach their happy ending. In the lead up to the final sequence, Heather follows a trail of sleeping pills in lieu of breadcrumbs, popping them as she travels through the bottom of Dylan’s bed into the-entity-known-as-Freddy’s realm. The creature’s ultimate defeat is achieved by locking him in an “oven”, echoing the end of Hansel & Gretel and effectively embracing the cultural value of scary stories as a means of coping with larger horrors. Unfortunately, while this is an appropriate and narratively satisfying end to the story Craven chose to tell, I suspect it’s this fairytale aspect – combined with the film’s unwillingness to commit to the expectations of Freddy fandom – which led to the film’s poor box office performance, despite its generally favourable reception by critics.

My attitudes to both of these films has shifted since I first saw them. My first experience of Freddy’s Dead was ideal – in a cinema with the full 3D experience (I still have the 3D glasses tucked away somewhere) – and I loved it, being particularly taken with the middle section in the creepy Twin Peaks-influenced depiction of Springwood and generally appreciative of the cheesy 3D aspects. Unfortunately it hasn’t aged well and in retrospect the derivative aspects tend to dominate. Its attempts to innovate without changing the underlying formula are misguided and, while it retains some aspects of interest, it ultimately fails to achieve what it set out to and is difficult to recommend to any non-fans.

In contrast, my first experience of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare was under less favourable conditions – being viewed as part of a double feature with John Carpenter’s differently-meta In the Mouth of Madness (1994), it was overwhelmed by the bombast of Carpenter’s entertaining creation and I came away from Craven’s film feeling mildly disappointed. Restoring it to its original context as a response to the development of the Elm Street franchise, and looking at the ways in which it foreshadows Craven’s own Scream series (1996-2022), opens it up to a more favourable reassessment – and while some aspects of it are a little clunky, it’s a film which has grown in my estimation on each subsequent viewing.

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