Get ready for Freddy. Recurring Nightmares is a 10-week look at the entirety of the Nightmare on Elm Street series that started on Friday, Sept. 2, 2022, and runs through Halloween 2022. (Yeah, only nine movies, but also one TV series; the rhyme does go, “Nine, ten, never sleep again,” after all.) It will run parallel to other series we’re running in late summer / early autumn, including another round of No Sleep October essays. Every week will feature an essay about a piece of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise in chronological order, written by Midwest Film Journal contributors and staff writers. Some have seen the whole franchise. Some are novices and neophytes, jumping into the movies without watching the rest of them to offer unvarnished thoughts … or, as Freddy would say, “How sweet. Fresh meat.”
As with many aspects of American culture, the early 1990s proved to be a hangover of sorts for the indulgent excesses of the 1980s, and the A Nightmare on Elm Street film series was not immune to this trend. The Final Nightmare, the fifth sequel to 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, premiered in 1991 and promised “Freddy’s Dead” right in the title. New Line Cinema threw out gimmicks like 3D presentation and a mock funeral for Freddy Krueger at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery to juice up the box office, but our long national Nightmare seemed to be over. The charred boogeyman’s fedora was getting floppy, his sweater more tattered than usual. Freddy needed some new blood. It was time to go back to the street where everything started and to the man who darkly dreamed up this film universe in the first place.
In 1994, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare represented the iconic horror director’s return to the series after the studio rejected his pitch for what would become A Nightmare on Elm Street 4. Similarly, the idea of taking this world and making it meta-cinematic is one Craven first brainstormed when A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 was being conceived but it, too, was also shut down at the time. Apparently, 10 years after the initial Nightmare was the right time to get Craven back to the franchise and dream a little bigger. New Nightmare is different enough on the surface from the previous entries in the saga, taking place outside the cinematic universe they created and stepping out of the big screen as Last Action Hero did in the previous year. While the film’s metatextual touches were ahead of their time, they’re grafted onto a story with the fedora-furnished Freddy that’s truly old hat.
The movie sets up the movie-within-the-movie premise quite well, echoing the opening shots of the 1984 original and then pulling back to show Craven (playing himself) on set and directing how Freddy’s claws should move for the shot they’re trying to get. Craven calls “cut,” and Heather Langenkamp (who played Freddy’s nemesis, Nancy Thompson, in the previous films but plays herself here) is shown to be on the shoot along with her husband, Chase (David Newsom), who is overseeing special effects on the film. While working with the mechanical claw, Chase and his visual-effects crew are brutally dispatched by Freddy’s animatronic claw, which moves around with a murderous mind of its own like an even more deranged version of Thing from The Addams Family. But as is far too often the case in New Nightmare, this scene is revealed to be one of Heather’s many bad dreams.
We then see what Heather’s waking moments are like as an alumna of the Nightmare franchise, where she gets prank calls from creeps who imitate Freddy and where limo drivers recognize her from that scary movie with the guy who has knives for fingers. Heather goes to the offices of New Line Cinema, where recurring Nightmare producer Robert Shaye (also playing himself) attempts to sell her on reprising the role of Nancy from the first film for a new sequel. Now that her son, Dylan (Miko Hughes), is at an especially impressionable age, she doesn’t feel the time is right to come back to the horror-movie scene but Freddy doesn’t seem to want to take “no” for an answer. A series of murders and eerie happenings suggest his evil presence has somehow manifested into the real world, and Craven makes it clear to Heather that the only way to put an end to it is to star in a Nightmare movie that will end Freddy for good.
The main issue that hampers New Nightmare is its reluctance to commit fully to the premise that it sets up for itself. This idea of trying to get Langenkamp back for a fictitious sequel should be a fun way to pull back the curtain and see how New Line feels about the series responsible for so much of its success as a studio. But Shaye is only in one scene, and beyond the opening dream sequence, Craven doesn’t pop up again until much too late in the film. The “how the sausage is made” Hollywood-insider material largely takes a backseat to Heather and her family issues, particularly with an increasingly disturbed Dylan. The movie falls into a redundant pattern of depicting Dylan in peril during one scene and then Heather having a gory nightmare in the next until it begins to feel like we’re on a blood-soaked treadmill.
Of course, there are a smattering of cameos, from Robert Englund to John Saxon, that pop up as the film world and the real world start to collide. Likewise, there are major and minor callbacks to the original film and its sequels; I particularly enjoyed a hospital-set scene that somehow weaved in the “screw your pass!” line Nancy uttered 10 years prior. But New Nightmare spends too much of its paunchy 112-minute runtime as a “next generation” Nightmare movie instead of an entry that exists outside the franchise’s traditional canon. Freddy gets a makeover that obscures his striped sweater with a slicker and makes his facial burns more polished in comparison to his disfigured face from the other movies. Englund still gives a good performance as Freddy, but I don’t find his look as menacing as it is in other Nightmare entries. The makeup and prosthetics were too fussed-over for my liking, calling to mind the cackling Mighty Morphin Power Rangers baddie Ivan Ooze.
While New Nightmare isn’t entirely successful in what it’s trying to achieve, it set Craven up beautifully for his next film, 1996’s postmodern slasher Scream. In hindsight, that film’s self-aware characters and their investigation of prevalent horror tropes have their genesis with this Nightmare entry that first attempted to close the gap between our world and the cinematic realm. With a fifth Scream sequel due next March, it’s possible that franchise will eventually have more chapters than the Nightmare series. But whether it’s Ghostface or Freddy scaring up audiences throughout the decades, filmmakers who share the late Craven’s sensibilities will no doubt find new ways to scare us for generations to come.