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Craven pushes confines of film in New Nightmare

Wes Craven's New Nightmare

Written and Directed by Wes Craven.

Starring Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, Miko Hughes, David Newsom, and John Saxon.

Loews Cinema 57.

By Scott Deskin
Arts Editor

The eerie refrain that begins with "One, two, Freddy's coming for you" is familiar to most people who were raised on horror films of the 1980s. Of course, this is taken from A Nightmare on Elm Street, which shocked and intrigued teenage audiences when it was released 10 years ago. Its notion of a supernatural villain attacking innocents through their dreams was an updated version of the boogeyman, a figment of every child's nightmares. The villain was a horribly burned social outcast named Freddy Krueger who slashed his victims to death with a claw of blades on his right hand. Freddy quickly became a horror-movie staple, and a franchise was born.

Five sequels and two TV series later, the Freddy Krueger myth seemed to be exhausted. As in the Friday the Thirteenth movies, the producers got carried away with the Freddy persona in a series that verged increasingly on self-parody rather than ingenuity. (I stopped watching after installment number four.) With the last movie, dishonestly entitled Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, it seemed about time to lay the whole concept to rest.

But the creator, Wes Craven, decided otherwise. His latest film, Wes Craven's New Nightmare, is not so much a recapitulation rather than a re-exploration of old themes. It explores the horror movie genre from Craven's point of view, or a facsimile thereof: the real world.

We enter the world of real-life film actress Heather Langenkamp, who played "Nancy" in first and third Nightmare on Elm Street films, and learn that she has experienced a recurring series of nightmares - strangely coincidental for the 10th anniversary of the first film. She's married to Chase (David Newsom), a special effects expert, and has a young son named Dylan (Miko Hughes), but she's not at ease with her surroundings.

Her nightmares vaguely, and later specifically, recall the Freddy Krueger character in the films. She gets phone calls from someone who talks in a Freddy-like rasp, and her nerves are set on edge by a string of damaging earthquakes in Los Angeles. She also notices the behavior of Dylan, which increasingly becomes more emotionally detached and zombie-like. Assorted clips of the first Nightmare on Elm Street film appear for no apparent reason on the living room television. In short, things are pretty strange for a film operating in "the real world."

Heather's plans to consider a movie offer at New Line Cinema associated with Wes Craven for - you guessed it - another Nightmare on Elm Street film are set back by personal doubts about the project. Her dreams either come true (not a good thing) or convince her that she's temporarily slipping into dementia.

When it's clear that her son is having nightmares as well, she consults with her co-stars from the first film (including Robert Englund, the actor who plays Freddy). She finally meets with Craven at his home about the new script that he's working on: It seems that every line he types on his word processor somehow becomes real. Thus Craven explains it to Langenkamp that his story has become reality, and that the eternal concept of evil that has been contained in Freddy wants to "escape" into the real world. But first, the real-world Freddy must confront the real-world Nancy (Heather) as a gateway to our world.

The film is a clever evocation of the audience's expectations of what a horror film should deliver to its audience, but I encountered some restraint on Craven's part throughout the film. The story takes a while to get started from its humble suspense devices to a full-fledged ride through the director's fantasy/horror amalgam.

Craven's style is not quite as self-referential as Federico Fellini's 81/2, but it he has the same flair for introspection: The act of questioning the relevance of the horror film to society as a whole, as well as to the success of those associated with the production, is a noble gesture. At some point, of course, Craven relents to formula, but even this is subverted when Heather finds a copy of the script of the film and reads along to the real-time action on the screen.

Wes Craven's New Nightmare doesn't fully address the notion of the horror film as social catharsis or as cheap thrill. It does, however, counterpose a new viewing frame for horror to its audience, presenting a world in which the ubiquitous earthquakes manifest fears that are out of our control, a crumbling, twisted landscape that adequately reflects mankind's deepest subliminal fears.

Wes Craven's last film, The People Under the Stairs (1991), poked fun at class differences in a typically grotesque context, but in a rather toothless way. His new film isn't likely to win over anyone to his brand of horror, but it gives the viewer a sense of nostalgia for supernatural storytelling, with a genuine scare or two thrown in for good measure.