New Nightmare July 28, 2016
As unlikely as it might have seemed after five sequels were made to diminish its reputation, the sixth installment of the A Nightmare on Elm Street film series, 1994’s New Nightmare, is a clever, self-referential horror show with enough verve pumping through its cold-blooded veins to prove that inspiration can still exist even when formula seems to be more popular than originality. Not that I’m an all-around expert when it comes to all things Elm Street — I’m only a casual fan impartial to sequels. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to notice that New Nightmare steps away from the franchise’s overall tendency to move toward bonkers stalk-and-slash tropes with hints of comedy at the front. Rather than continue repeating itself (though its repetition sometimes worked, most famously in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors), the film switches up familiarity in favor of deliciously meta side-stepping.
In New Nightmare, the protagonist isn’t embodied by an unfamiliar face but by Heather Langenkamp, who portrayed the original film’s final girl, Nancy Thompson. She isn’t playing Nancy Thompson again but is instead playing herself, thirty years old and a suburban wife with a tot of a son (Miko Hughes) and an exemplar of a husband (David Newsom). The film finds her in the midst of a career slowdown, a period during which domesticity has taken over any chances of renewed stardom. And since she’s blissful in her settled-down life, Heather is much more content living as a wife and mother than she is as a busy actress best known as a scream queen anyway. But just as she’s beginning to accept that her days of notoriety are becoming more based in legend than in present-day relevance, New Line Cinema informs her that they’re interested in having her headline A Nightmare on Elm’s Street’s newest installment. Seems impossible, since the last movie saw Freddy Krueger, the villain of the franchise, dramatically die, and since Nancy Thompson herself is no more.
Before she can decide to sign on, though, Heather’s life starts taking disturbing turns that can only be traced back to her involvement in her career-defining film. She begins having murderous nightmares that eventually prove to be premonitions of a grave future. Her son, usually so sunny, is suddenly acting out like your typical demonic kiddie in a horror movie. Friends Robert Englund (who also plays Freddy) and Wes Craven (who wrote and directed A Nightmare on Elm Street) are becoming increasingly detached, almost traumatized in their personalities. After much contemplation does Heather resolve that Freddy Krueger, the seemingly fictional bogeyman that terrorized the fictional her, has now become one with reality and is hellbent on using her for target practice. As far as its inventiveness goes, New Nightmare couldn’t get any better: It introduces itself by watching a group of special effects experts killed by their latest creation — a new version of Krueger’s infamous set of claws — and furthers its resourcefulness by making John Saxon (who played Nancy’s dad back in the 1984 archetype) and Englund (nicely realized as a kind-hearted performer with a fondness for painting) pivotal characters who have close relationships with the progressively rattled Heather.
But when New Nightmare seems to promise tongue-in-cheek humor to go along with its incredible bouts of innovation, it disappointingly settles for self-seriousness, which is complementary toward Langenkamp’s excellent performance (a lethal combination of distressed and determined) but is detrimental in heightening the film’s sense of knowingness. With Scream just two years away, there’s a difficult-to-ignore taste of missed potential in the air, especially after the operatic conclusion dictates that the movie isn’t interested in black comedy in the ways its predecessors so notably were. But I'll take what I can get, and Craven is one of the few horror directors able to put their egos aside and poke fun at the products of their past. New Nightmare almost defines itself as a minor classic. But it's essentially a sly touchstone not risky enough to be anything more than a sly touchtstone. B-