26 August 2007

SUMMER OF BLOOD: AND WE DROWN

In 1994, one year after dragging Jason Voorhees out of retirement for a film that violated the spirit of an entire franchise and sank like a stone at the box office, the good folks at New Line decided it would be a great idea to do the same thing for Freddy Krueger. But where Jason Goes to Hell was a miserable exercise in crapping all over series continuity, the seventh Nightmare movie was something far beyond a mere franchise film or even a mere genre film. Wes Craven's New Nightmare is perhaps the first and certainly the greatest of all post-modern horror films and one of the most successfully self-referential films of all time; it is nothing less than the of slasher movies.

Wes Craven was a mere two years off of starting the late-'90s glut of post-modernism off in earnest with Scream when he came up with a beautifully elegant solution to the two most intractable problems involved with trying to make a new Nightmare in 1994: Freddy Kruger was dead as dead could conceivably be, and Freddy Krueger hadn't been even a tiny bit scary or threatening for three straight films. Without completely violating the storyline of the franchise (a storyline that Craven hated and found totally incoherent), there could be no legitimate way to make another film (not that legitimacy ever stopped a slasher film), and so Craven simply took the film out of the franchise storyline, having stumbled upon one of those questions that makes geniuses different from you and I:

What does Freddy Krueger think of the Nightmare on Elm Street films?

As revealed about two-fifths into New Nightmare, here is Craven's new mythology: an ancient unnamed dream demon exists that can never be destroyed, only imprisoned; and the only way of imprisoning it is for an imaginative storyteller to create a new allegory about the demon (Methinks that Wes Craven was really impressed by Neil Gaiman's Sandman). It can escape, however, if the story is forgotten, or if it becomes so familiar as to lose its impact, or if it becomes watered-down with increasingly cartoonish sequels that turn the demon into a sort of murderous stand-up comedian.

And that, according to Craven, is exactly what happened after he turned his chronic nightmares into the script for A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1981. And by "according to Craven," I really do mean, "according to Craven, who speaks those words in the film, in the role of 'Wes Craven,'" director of a new Nightmare." This film, you see, takes place in Los Angeles in 1993, and it is the story of how "Craven" found himself plagued by bad dreams after the dream demon escaped with the whoring-out of the Nightmare franchise, and more importantly how "Heather Langenkamp" comes to be the only living person who can help him trap the demon once more inside the Kruger shell, by acting once more in the role that gave her the small fame she ever once enjoyed, even as it essentially drove her out of professional film acting.

(Okay, what follows is going to get kind of weird if I don't set out the ground rules: "Heather" and "Wes" and "Robert," and so forth, refer to the characters in the movie; "Langenkamp" and "Craven" and "Englund" are the actors/writers/other of Wes Craven's New Nightmare.)

Way back when I reviewed the first film, I mentioned that there was a good reason that Heather Langenkamp didn't have much of a career afterwards, despite being one of the best actresses in the history of the slasher film. Here's that reason: in the late 1980s, she found herself with a stalker who liked to pretend sometimes that he was Freddy Kruger. Langenkamp was justifiably freaked out by this, and so she retreated from the movies into the much less noticeable world of network television, and the classic sitcom Just the Ten of Us.

With her permission, Craven wrote that situation into the script, and it's hard to imagine New Nightmare working without it. As many before me have observed, the great majority of filmgoers who know Heather Langenkamp at all know her for only one character, making her something like the Falconetti of horror: whereas Jamie Lee Curtis, to name another slasher heroine who is altogether perfect in that role, is now famous for many things and so the experience of watching Halloween is going to necessarily remind us of the many fine performances Curtis has given in the years since. By contrast, Langenkamp is ever and only Nancy. New Nightmare is aware of that, and by giving Heather a backstory which is true, and which reminds us that we only know of the actress in her role of Freddy Krueger's great antagonist, the film manages to blur the line between performer and character (more than having Langenkamp play "herself" already blurs it) in a way that make the film and its plot far more compelling than would otherwise have been the case.

In a similar vein, Robert Englund is someone that we mostly only recognise when he's wearing latex and razor-tipped glove, and the frequent sight of him wandering around with a receding hairline and purple sunglasses and a goofy smile is uncanny as hell. Because Englund, unlike the many faces of Jason Voorhees, is recognizable through the make-up, and there's just something wrong about a man who likes kinda like Freddy and sounds kinda like Freddy consorting with Heather like they're best friends. It's creepier than anything in the last two films.

The plot: Heather is married to a very nice man named Chase Porter (David Newsom), an effects artist, and they have a very sweet boy named Dylan (Miko Hughes) who would have been conceived just about one year after the first Nightmare was in theaters. Heather has been having uncomfortably Krueger-ridden nightmares of late, which she has tended to blame upon the stalker who has recently re-entered her life, and the inexplicable chronic earthquakes plaguing Los Angeles haven't been helping.

Indeed, Freddy Krueger seems to be turning up everywhere in Heather's life right now: to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the first film, she's invited on Sam Rubin's crappy entertainment news show (God, that dude), where she is not terribly pleased by the audience full of kids in Freddy costume, or by Robert's appearance in full Freddy regalia. And on the way home from that dreary affair, she takes a meeting in the office of New Line Cinema's CEO, Bob Shaye (he turns out to be a really good actor, oddly enough, after two decent cameos in The Dream Master and Freddy's Dead), where in honor of the studio's debt to the Nightmare franchise, he has paintings and books and statuettes of Freddy lining every imaginable surface.

Bob has what he thinks to be some really exciting news: Wes has been having Freddy nightmares lately, and just like he did in the early '80s, he's turned it into a script, with the (theoretically deceased) Nancy Thompson back in the lead. Heather doesn't take more than a moment to turn it down, but she is extremely curious about the nature of Wes's dreams, and Bob's accidental admission that Chase has been designing the new Freddy glove.

All the crap going on in her life has been more than enough to shake her up pretty badly, so when Dylan starts to talk about the bad man with the claws, and going into what look like epileptic seizures, Heather calls Chase on his film set and demands that he make the three-hour drive home NOW, although that will get him back well after night falls.

Back he drives, and he has a hard time keeping awake, and eventually he drives the car right off the road. The four razor-sharp fingers that burst through his car seat and into his chest probably have a bit to do with that, and when Heather gets the news, she immediately tears off for the morgue, where her husband, killed in a horribly mangled car accident, shows only one sign of violence: four parallel gashes down his abdomen. At this point, Heather knows that one of two things is happening: either she is succumbing to her family's history of insanity, or the character of Freddy Krueger, heretofore fictional, has bullied his way into the real world.

And with that, I will stop the plot recap, for what happens is awfully similar to the first six movies, and in some very particular ways. Many of the setpieces in New Nightmare - and sometimes just shots or lines of dialogue - are transparent recreations of scenes from earlier in the series. It's not just clever self-reference, either (although there's plenty of that throughout the movie, starting with the fact that Heather's entire social circle seems to be comprised of Nightmare actors); it's a not-too-subtle jab at the generally anemic scares in the original versions. After all, this film quite frankly admits that Freddy Krueger was no longer a scary character on any level, and that his antics were more theatrical than horrifying. It's another way for this film to reinforce its superiority over the others, or at least the increased menace of its central figure, if it can recreate these dispassionate setpieces in a darker, more frightening vocabulary.

Towards the end of the film, Heather finally confronts the Freddy demon in a combination hellscape/dream sequence, and there she finds a copy of the script for Wes Craven's New Nightmare, detailing everything that has happened to her up to that moment, and showing her what is going to happen until the story ends. In what at first appeared to me as a rare example of true slasher movie stupidity, she reads the exact page that she's on, and is horrified to see a directive paragraph explaining that she's reading the screenplay and it is horrifying her, instead of skipping ahead to see what Freddy is doing and thereby keeping ahead of him. But then I realised that for Heather to look ahead would be to alter the course of what was going on (that is, if the script said, "Freddy jumps out and cuts Nancy's arm off," she would be expecting it, and her arm wouldn't be cut off), and hence the screenplay would no longer belong to the film that we are watching, instead functioning entirely within the film. Instead, like Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation. - pretty much exactly like it, in fact - the primacy of the script that we the audience recognise being constructed by characters in the film takes precedence over their self-determination, because they are after all not people, but characters in a script, even if - again exactly like Adaptation. - they are based on real-life characters. If anything, New Nightmare commits more fully than Adaptation. to this theme because it permits its characters to see and hold the actual script, and to interact with it, and still be incapable of transcending their character-ness. In fact, whereas Adaptation. raises the question of how much wiggle room the characters have in their story by giving the third act over the the fictional Donald Kaufman, it is not deterministic. New Nightmare, like Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author is completely deterministic: the characters learn they are characters and cannot cease to behave as their writer set it down. I want to be very clear that I did not just say that Wes Craven's New Nightmare is a better-written film than Adaptation., suffering as it does from some odds and ends that don't function on a strictly narrative level. But damn me if it isn't close.

Fun fact: I only made the realisation about Heather's function-as-character in the middle of writing the phrase about "slasher movie stupidity" and everything that followed was essentially written on the fly and directly opposed to what I expected to be arguing. Making this post itself an example of post-modern deterministic writing.

At the very end of the film, Heather kills "Freddy," thereby re-establishing the allegory in which Nancy kills Freddy - or is it actually Nancy who kills Freddy? - and she returns with her son to find, clutched in her arms, a copy of Wes's script with a handwritten note thanking her for playing Nancy again. Dylan asks what she's holding, and she responds "a story," and begins to read from the very first scene, which was the very first scene here. Then the screen fades and the title appears for the first time: Wes Craven's New Nightmare. Not, Wes Craven's New Nightmare. It is a story about its own writing, and its writer appears in it; it is a story about its own performance, and so the actors are mostly playing themselves; it is a story about its own telling, and so it ends exactly where it began, and what happens when Heather and Dylan reach the end, and Heather reads about herself reading is a question that we could ponder, or we could smack ourselves and remember that it won't ever happen, because Heather only does what the script tells her to do and the script says that we should fade to black before she ever reaches that point in the reading. In the world of the film, Freddy is trapped again because the story will never end, and in our world, Freddy is trapped because the story stops, and this time for good. New Nightmare made essentially no money, and there was hence no eighth film, but I'm not certain that New Line ever expected such a thing, and I'm positive that Craven meant for this to put a full stop on things. As hard as it is to take a punning clown seriously, it's much harder to take seriously a figure whose existence is so conclusively proven to be a narrative construct; after all, we tell children, "it's just a story" to make them less scared.

But I don't think that Craven wants "it's a story" to mean that that the story isn't therefore important. If anything, this script proves just how important stories are: they are how we understand and live in the world around us, how we control it and how we are guided by it. If I may, I'd like to give the last word to another man who knew a thing or two about storytelling, the British author G.K. Chesterton:
Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.
Body Count: Four, or five if we count the demon masquerading as Freddy Krueger, but of course we should not, for it isn't "dead," it's just been imprisoned once more by Wes Craven's writing...which specific "Wes Craven" is an exercise best left to the individual. And now I've gone and over-thought it.

Also, one stuffed animal that evidenced more personality and character than nine-tenths of the actors in the Friday the 13th decalogue.

Reviews in this series
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven, 1984)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (Sholder, 1985)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Russell, 1987)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (Harlin, 1988)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (Hopkins, 1989)
Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (Talalay, 1991)
Wes Craven's New Nightmare (Craven, 1994)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Bayer, 2010)

2 comments:

Kamikaze Camel said...

Thanks for writing this. I cherish, covet and adore Wes Craven's New Nightmare (I always use that entire title when discussing it).

So good to see other people discussing it as it rightfully deserves to be. As an important and incredibly well-made piece of CINEMA.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Great review. Funny, I just wrote about this film and here it is almost a year later. Check it out if you like. I like the horror reviews, especially the Italian ones.