Wes Craven's New Nightmare

(Wes Craven, USA, 1994)


If anyone needs proof that horror movies are today considered a new kind of art cinema, look no further than Wes Craven's New Nightmare – yes, that actually is the official title of the film in the vein of John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness (1995), Dario Argento's Trauma (1993) and (this one sets the bar high) Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (2005).

Wes Craven's New Nightmare proceeds a bit like a 1960s European art movie. It's based on one of those paradoxes much used in highbrow cinema – the reflexive paradox, whereby characters run around for two hours writing or rehearsing or preparing the film we are actually, already watching.

There's a whole artful game involved in this idea, since such movies-about-movies or movies-within-movies often have a thrill of spontaneity, of raw reality, even when of course they are as staged and faked-up as any other movie. Fellini's Otto e mezzo (1963) was one of the first to play this game. Many films have used the idea since, sometimes in an extremely convoluted and pretentious fashion. In the Mouth of Madness uses it – at the end, Sam Neill sits down in a theatre to watch the film we are watching, complete with the same advertising poster stuck up outside. Sometimes, when it's used sparingly, the trick has a powerful dramatic punch. In the final scene of Billy Wilder's very sad and poignant film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), Sherlock flees to his room for a hit of heroin, while Watson takes up a pen and begins to compose a document entitled "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes".

Here's how the game works in Wes Craven's New Nightmare. Eleven years ago, Craven made A Nightmare on Elm St (1984), which spawned five sequels. It features the monstrous character of Freddy Krueger, played by Robert Englund, who menaces people in their dreams, and has the power to really kill them in that dream-realm. In the first film, Freddy's main target is a teenager named Nancy, played by Heather Langenkamp. Wes Craven's New Nightmare begins with Heather as Heather. She's having disturbing dreams about Freddy, and even seems to be getting obscene phone calls from him. What's worse, her little son seems increasingly possessed by the demonic spirit of Freddy. What's going on? After much dithering, she calls Wes Craven. He's not only having the same nightmares about Freddy as Heather, but he's writing it down as his new script. The script is called "Wes Craven's New Nightmare". And only if Heather accepts to play Nancy one last time is there a chance to beat Freddy and stop him crossing over from celluloid to reality.

It's a wild plot, and certainly an unconventional one, even in our current era of very sophisticated horror movies. But I was very disappointed and even irritated by it, especially in comparison with In the Mouth of Madness, which has similar contortions but is much livelier and more entertaining. This is a very talkative film. It reminded me a bit of the Australian movie Hotel Sorrento (Richard Franklin, 1995) because, in both, characters earnestly talk about lofty ideas and concepts. Here, they talk not about nationalism and melancholy, but storytelling, fairy tales and the place of horror movies in our lives.

What we have here is an intellectual, almost pedagogical horror movie. I don't mind so much that it foregoes the usual gore, sex and tasteless jokes of most modern horror films. What I do miss is the poetic dimension of horror cinema. There are only about three scenes in this film where Craven's bold poetic imagination comes alive – scenes where he has Heather diving into the supernatural passageways and chambers hidden within the folds of a coffin or a bed or a pool of water.

Part of Craven's lofty, pedagogical aim in this movie is to openly reflect on his own art and career. It offers a kind of self-portrait of a popular artist, both in its plot and in its subtext. But self-portraiture can be a very tricky thing in cinema. I have long been fascinated by this phenomenon of the filmic self-portrait (sometimes known as the autoportrait, as in Naomi Kawase's Embracing [aka Like Air, 1993]). Filmgoers and critics are very quick to spot characters in a movie who appear to be stand-ins for the director, expressing some autobiographical revelation. There is even a hunger on the part of this audience for this kind of secret or not so secret confession from a director. I think this is one of the deepest and most lasting legacies of auteurism, which at one level is simply the act of paying special attention to the director and his or her contribution. These days, director worship is a cult, a religion – look at the lionisation of Scorsese and Tarantino – and I partake of this religion quite a bit myself.

Of course, the temptation to find the director revealed in a film is strongest when there is actually the figure of a director fictionalised in the film, like in Godard's Passion (1982). Sometimes the real director plays this fictional part himself, as François Truffaut did in Day for Night (1973). But films are also full of symbolic or metaphoric director-figures, at least for those who are looking for them. Any kind of artist, stage manager or manipulator will do as a stand-in for the director. Does Kieslowski see himself as the puppet master in The Double Life of Veronique (1991)? Did Fritz Lang see himself as the sinister Doctor Mabuse, invisible behind screens, controlling all technologies of image and sound, in the three films he made about this evil character?

Sometimes, there are whole legends of speculation that built up around these kinds of mystery-figures in films. And sometimes the directors themselves encourage these kinds of speculation. Did Hitchcock identify with the dandy murderers in his films? Does Spielberg see himself as the noble, self-sacrificing Schindler? Certainly, Michael Powell was very keen to admit that the crazy cinematographer in his Peeping Tom (1960), filming women and then killing them with the sharp end of his tripod, was a loving portrait of himself and his own perverse obsessions. This Peeping Tom, after all, really loves making movies, as Powell always gleefully explained.

But such self-portraiture is ambiguous. There's always the possibility that Powell is kidding us, goading us with his supposed self-portrait. Or take another, quite recent bone of contention. When Abel Ferrara made Dangerous Game (aka Snake Eyes, 1993), he cast Harvey Keitel as a driven, obsessive film director, and cast his own wife as Keitel's wife. Many reviewers accordingly took the film as naked autobiography, warts and all. In fact, some took the film as Ferrara's unwitting indictment of himself, a self-exposé that went further than he surely intended or wanted. I don't buy this interpretation for a second. Read any interview with Ferrara, and he always describes Keitel's character in the most damning and moral terms – he can't see beyond his own problems, he's sick, he hates women, and so on. I'd argue that Ferrara documents this character, studies him. There may be some complex self-therapy by Ferrara going on here, but I don't think it's purely egoistic self-projection, and certainly not simple self-indulgence.

But I do take Wes Craven's New Nightmare as egoistic, narcissistic, self-justifying and self-aggrandising! Not everyone sees the film as I do. Some argue: isn't Wes playing a little game with us by putting himself in his film as the wise artist-hero, kidding around like Powell did? I doubt it. There's an awful lot of the running time of this movie devoted to earnest discussions of horror movies as modern fairy tales. Like the story of Hansel and Gretel, we hear, good and true horror movies are therapeutic. They help us to face evil, to face the dark side of our human natures, and then find our way back home, purged. At least Craven, who was once a university literature teacher, seems to have been reading Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment, rather than the ubiquitous Jung or Joseph Campbell which people in the film industry love to spout these days when justifying their filthy capitalist existences. But Craven gets himself into deeper poo when he goes on to argue that a horrible spirit of evil has roamed the world since the dawn of time, and that master storytellers – that is, master storytellers such as himself – can capture the essence of this evil, give it a name and a face, and thus "put the genie in its bottle".

Does Craven really have such an elevated perception of his contributions to the Nightmare on Elm St series? Maybe not. Maybe all this talk is just a gag, or just a device, a philosophical MacGuffin on the same level as any old plot premise or trick. But it is true that with this New Nightmare, Craven has effectively cleaned up the entire Freddy Krueger concept. In earlier films of the series, Freddy is a monster in many senses. He's an avenger from the working class, he's the repressed secret of a corrupt society, he's a symbol of sick patriarchal drives, and he's a product of a psychotic pop culture. People who love and know modern horror movies see perfectly clearly that Craven's own original Elm St film was about child abuse, about political conspiracy, about a law-enforcing father who sends his own daughter to hell. And fans of the subsequent Elm St films know how wonderfully they celebrate the spirited resistance to these terrors of society – particularly the resistance of children, teenagers, women, in fact just about every right-on category of oppressed peoples. Viewed collectively, the Elm St films are a good, popular, soulful expression of political correctness – perhaps we should just say political resistance, or political justice.

But now, in Wes Craven's New Nightmare, Freddy is just the embodied spirit of evil, the wicked genie in the bottle, and suddenly all the social, political and feminist dimensions of his (mis)adventures are gone. It's a self-consciously mythic film, but the real problem is that it lays down a one-track myth, one of those airy-fairy, cosmic, timeless myths of Good versus Evil. It's not a multi-track myth which embraces the messy confusions and struggles of the present, whether these struggles are conscious or unconscious.

If this film represents Craven's "coming home" as an artist, I can only hope he gets lost again soon, and returns to making those hysterical, violent, comic-book expressions of his imagination which he once managed so well in movies like The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and Shocker (1989).

MORE Craven: Music of the Heart, Red Eye, Scream, Scream 3, Vampire in Brooklyn

© Adrian Martin April 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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