Can a movie really be dangerous? It’s a question we’ve been debating since pictures first started to move up on the screen, but it’s worth revisiting in the wake of the Joker discourse tightening security at screenings and Martin Scorsese‘s comments on “cinema” bringing back to mind that time his Last Temptation of Christ had people trying to burn theaters to the ground. A movie doesn’t poison a person’s mind on its own but the stories we tell, and the context we tell them in, do have power, an idea that’s maybe never been as fiercely sliced and diced as in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. As the film turns 25, the message of Craven’s meta-horror masterpiece rings truer than ever.
New Nightmare marked Craven’s return to the world of A Nightmare on Elm Street, the slasher series that did to your own dreams what Jaws did to the ocean a decade prior. Outside of contributing to the script for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, the filmmaker had stayed largely away from the material since the original 1984 movie, watching from afar as each sequel added another layer of goofiness and scarred face of the franchise Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) becoming more Marx Brother than monster. New Nightmare is, in every way, a re-invention. Elm Street star Heather Langenkamp plays a version of herself weighing a pitch from Craven and producer Robert Shaye to return for one last Nightmare just as very Freddy-like menace invades the real lives of her and her son, Dylan (Miko Hughes).
Not everything about the film works. The beefed-up Freddy Kreuger design is cool in theory but kind’ve just looks like Handsome Squidward fell into a furnace, plus people like Craven and Shaye definitely do their best work behind the scenes. But the ideas Craven plays with are fascinating, especially when aimed directly at his own resume. The director would take the meta route to a whole new level two years after New Nightmare with Scream, the slasher that turns well-worn tropes into brand new tricks. But Scream is a celebration. Despite a good dose of good-natured thrills, New Nightmare is largely an angry movie. In explaining the concept behind the plot—that there exists an ancient evil entity that can only be stopped by a story powerful enough to contain it, like A Nightmare on Elm Street—Craven also openly discusses the fact his own creation was stuffed into a glossy corporate box until it suffocated.
“The problem comes when the story dies,” Craven-as-Craven tells Langenkamp in the film. “That can happen in a lot of ways. It can get too familiar to people, or somebody waters it down to make it an easier sell, or maybe it’s just so upsetting to society that it’s banned outright.”
But Craven doesn’t point fingers without also taking a deep look at himself. New Nightmare is essentially the filmmaker’s dissection of his own work, putting the horror genre under a microscope and questioning the effects its blood, guts, and gore have on the world. Throughout the movie, young Dylan is compulsively drawn to screens playing the original Nightmare on Elm Street films as he falls further under Freddy’s real-life spell, creating an image of horror movies quite literally warping a malleable child’s mind. (This is, of course, paired with the fact a horror movie icon is actually trying to escape into reality and murder Dylan.) Craven puts the idea right into the dialogue of hyper-judgemental Dr. Heffner (Fran Bennett), who tells Langenkamp “I’m convinced those films can tip an unstable child over the edge.”
It’s an interesting evolution for a creative who burst onto the scene in 1972 with The Last House on the Left, a film that equated true horror with the phrase “It’s only a movie.” But Craven isn’t condemning the genre with New Nightmare, he’s giving it the respect it’s always deserved. Freddy’s claws might be a prop but horror has the unique ability to both scar and heal.
“You don’t enter the theater and pay your money to be afraid,” Craven told Buzzfeed in You enter the theater and pay your money to have the fears that are already in you when you go into a theater dealt with and put into a narrative,” Craven said. “Stories and narratives are one of the most powerful things in humanity. They’re devices for dealing with the chaotic danger of existence.”
The one-two meta-horror punch of New Nightmare and Scream is still influencing the horror landscape. There are the obvious, literal examples like Cabin in the Woods, Shaun of the Dead, and Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. But on a deeper level, the best horror of the last few years have all been a new generation of filmmakers tackling modern-day fears with a genre lense. Jordan Peele boiling race relations down to its most unnervingly honest level in Get Out. Ari Aster exploring the area between trauma and catharsis in Midsommar. Even the best parts of Joker are a horror story about the darkest depths of mental illness.
New Nightmare cemented the idea posited in a Nightmare on Elm Street that the way to defeat a fear is to pull it from your subconscious into reality and face it straight on. (Or drop a big ol’ hammer on it. Either way.) It’s the clearest illustration of the thesis Wes Craven spent an iconic career fine-tuning, the point he succinctly summed up in the 1991 documentary Fear in the Dark: “Horror films don’t create fear. They release it.”