Freddy Krueger/Robert Freddy Krueger is alive and well and raising hell one more time in “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare,” an ingeniously conceived and devilishly clever opus that proves “Freddy’s Dead — The Final Nightmare” wasn’t so aptly named after all. Franchise creator Craven returns to the scene of the crime with an amusingly self-referential thriller that promises to scare up a B.O. bonanza, and maybe even earn some admiring reviews.
Craven’s audacious conceit is that his first “Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984) and the five sequels directed by others were works of fiction that inadvertently summoned, and briefly contained, a real supernaturally evil force. Unfortunately , after the sharp-fingered bogeyman Krueger was decisively killed in the series finale, the evil force was freed to wreak havoc — while still in the form of Freddy — on an unsuspecting world.
For that reason, Craven explains while playing himself in the pic’s most darkly comical sequence, he simply must make another “Nightmare” pic.
What springs from this fanciful premise is an inspired scramble of “reality” and role-playing that would impress Pirandello himself. Gore hounds and other seekers of cheap thrills may be disappointed by Craven’s wise decision to tone down the carnage here. But just about everyone else will have a great time with the in-jokes and cross-references. Better still, “New Nightmare” is a self-contained work that can be enjoyed by auds unfamiliar with the earlier pix. It should provide a wild roller-coaster ride for anyone game enough to get on board.
Heather Langenkamp, star of the first “Nightmare,” returns to star as Heather Langenkamp, an actress who has a devoted cult following for her performance in “Nightmare on Elm Street.” She’s still on good terms with her “Nightmare” co-stars (including Robert Englund and John Saxon, also cast as themselves). But she’s extremely reluctant to appear in a brand-new “Nightmare” sequel, despite lucrative offers made by real-life New Line Cinema exec Robert Shaye and producer Sara Risher.
Unfortunately, even though she wants no part of another Freddy pic, Freddy just won’t stay out of her life. And her dreams.
First, the bogeyman disposes of her special-f/x artist husband (David Newsom). Then Freddy sets his sights on Langenkamp’s little boy, Dylan (Miko Hughes), whose worst fears about a monster lurking beneath his bed are entirely justified. When Langenkamp seeks help from Craven, the writer/director admits that the “real” horrors are exactly likethose he has glimpsed in his own nightmares. THat’s the bad news. The worse news is, Craven is transforming those nightmares into a new script. And the work-in-progress doesn’t look like it’s building to a happy ending.
When he isn’t playing fast and loose with what’s real and what isn’t, Craven drops a few intriguing hints that he had mixed feelings about the influence of his and other people’s horror pix. The stern-faced doctor (Fran Bennett) who diagnoses Langenkamp’s seizure-prone child speaks disapprovingly of the ways violent horror pix can harm impressionable kids. On the other hand, the name Craven gives the doctor — Heffner, a clear reference to the former MPAA ratings board chief — may be taken as a satirical jab at such criticism.
In the end , it’s clear that Craven views his grisly art as no more dangerous for children than fairy tales, a point he hammers home with verbal and visual references to “Hansel and Gretel.” As Langenkamp herself notes, “Every child knows who Freddy is. He’s like Santa Claus.”
Englund once again is in bravura form as Freddy, playing the flame-scarred, blade-fingered creep as much for nasty laughs as unnerving shocks. He has far less screen time as himself, buthe’s very effective in that role, too.
Langenkamp proves she is still one of cinema’s most resourceful scream queens here. Newcomer Hughes is adept at maneuvering through Dylan’s bizarre personality swings. It is more than mildly unsettling, however, to see this small child stick a sharp blade into Freddy’s back during the inevitable Armageddon that climaxes “New Nightmare.” This will only provide fresh ammunition for those who would brand Craven and other horrormeisters as irresponsible.
“New Nightmare” works best when it takes a straight-faced but gleefully fang-in-cheek approach to genre conventions. Surprisingly, it is least distinctive during what is normally the high point of a “Nightmare” pic, the fiery good-vs.-evil climax. This sort of thing has been done too many times already, both in the “Nightmare” series and the “Hellraiser” pix, to have the effect it once had.
The special effects team supervised by William Mesa perform far beyond the call of duty. Advances in computer-generated imagery and assorted other innovations make “New Nightmare” far more dazzling — and, at times, even scarier — than the 10-year-old original. Other tech credits are solid.
Don’t be too surprised if “Wes Craven’s Newer Nightmare” goes into production real soon. But it will have a tough act to follow.