Against Wholesome Horror Films: I watch “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare”

Against Wholesome Horror Films: I watch “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” May 27, 2022

I loved A Nightmare on Elm Street before I even saw it. In elementary school I had a friend who had a Freddy hand (this really was a stranger children’s-marketing choice than the three toy Gizmos I had from Gremlins, but hey, it’s cool, it’s good old-fashioned nightmare fuel) and I did love this hand. It is commemorated in one of my favorite chapters from Punishment, viz. “Love Slaves of the Horror Hand.” It’s such a good horror hand!

Then I grew up, and assumed I wouldn’t actually like the movie that much. I’m not into slashers as a rule; even Halloween I only like. But when I finally saw the original NOES I was enthralled. It really captured the gooey logic of dreams: Freddy’s absurd undulating arms, the sticky stairs, the primary colors and the violence. It’s so attentive to its audience’s lowest pleasures (the hand in the bath!!!!!) without feeling contemptuous toward its characters. It’s sleazy but not cruel.

And Freddy, the child-murderer with the fistful of claws, is iconic. He fathered a raft of sequels and reboots, and I’ve finally watched the three that seemed like they might be worth it: NOES Pt II aka The Gay One, NOES Part III aka The Good One, and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare aka The Meta One.

They certainly lived up to their reputations! Part II would be perfunctory if it weren’t so insistently homosexual–it is both homoerotic and homophobic, truly the chocolate and the peanut butter of 1980s cinema. Worth seeing if you like that kind of thing!

Part III has so much more love for its characters, though. Nancy, the original heroine, returns as a psychiatrist treating the sleep disorders of a passel of alienated Elm Street teens. Nancy and her luxe locks urge the children to band together to defeat Freddy using the special abilities they have in their dreams. It’s a bit programmatic, but the imagery is still fresh and character-driven: I specifically loved when the surly girl turns herself punk, says, “In my dreams I am beautiful… and bad!”, and busts out two tiny switchblades. She sounds so young! So delighted in her degeneracy. I vibed with that chick immensely. Angelo Badalamenti’s music is great, and there’s quite a bit of fun with low or high camera angles, emphasizing the teens’ relative power (as the current threat to Elm Street) or powerlessness (as teenagers in a mental hospital). You can see the difference in the first two sequels from the set dressing: Part II has the usual rock posters on the kids’ walls, like Klymaxx and similar proofs of heterosexuality. Part III has unexpected, slightly haunting photos and pictures in the group-therapy room of the hospital, clasping hands and similar uncertain symbolism.

Part III also features a ton of Catholicism (the climax is just, let’s do a corporal work of mercy!) and a spectacular head-in-the-television kill. Well done, people.

And then I skipped the last two sequels and went straight for 1994’s New Nightmare. This is a weird thing that does come across as a passion project. It’s about Heather Langenkamp (played by Heather Langenkamp), the actress who played Nancy. She’s got a stalker who wants her to think Freddy’s real and Freddy’s back, and it turns out, of course, that her stalker is right. Wes Craven (played by Wes Craven) is writing a new Nightmare script, and the events of the script play out onscreen, as Freddy escapes the realm of modern mythology and appears to kill IRL.

There’s a lot of skill and love here, and it’s all done with so much commitment that I really wanted to like it. I disliked Scream a lot, but this movie felt weirder than that one, more private and compulsive. Stacie Ponder gets at what you might like here, if you see it: “New Nightmare is many things: a commentary on actors forever linked with a role, the effects of horror on audiences and children (won’t someone think of the children?), the effects of horror on the people who create it, the propensity of audiences to idolize the killers, and more.”

But for me, this story about stories was so much less interesting than a story about nightmares in suburbia. Stories-about-stories tend toward simplistic preaching anyway, lol The Power Of The Imagination or whatever, I find all that stuff really banal with a few exceptions (like the brilliant Paperhouse). I lean toward stories that attack storytelling, stories about the imagination’s power to distort and dehumanize. That’s a me problem, but I do think it’s fair to ask for something more shadowy and nuanced, from a horror film!, than a pamphlet about how horror is good for you. What if it’s bad for you? Can we not love things that are bad for us anymore? What is this, Communism?!

Craven argues that scary stories capture the evil in the world and protect us from it. This plays out very directly when Heather’s little son tricks Freddy because he remembers how Gretel tricked the witch in “Hansel and Gretel.” But on a deeper thematic level, the idea is that by imagining horrific events, we master them; we are always the teller of the story and so we have power over it. What is spoken shapes the horrific inchoate mass of unspoken fear, and once spoken, it is contained and becomes a kind of resource from which we can draw strength.

Lol I have so many problems with this movie. Let’s go:

# Because this is no longer a movie about nightmares, but a movie about the Nightmare on Elm Street series, things happen because they happened in the series or because they make a philosophical point rather than because they follow the phantasmagoric, hallucinatory logic of dreams. We get the sticky stairs again because we had them before. We get an oven because it’s in the movies, and because it allows the “Hansel and Gretel” thing to happen. None of the imagery here is gratuitous or absurd.

# NOES is a series about teens who are heavily associated with children, not adults. I love this; I talked about it in my Doxacon thing about authority in horror films. New Nightmare is all grown up. The real characters are the adults. The child exists solely to be threatened and protected. He has no inner life or nightmare imagery of his own. I guess I just found this an obnoxious perspective shift–a retreat into normality. And into navel-gazing. Part III featured needle tracks that open into terrible winking eyes. New Nightmare can’t go there because it’s about the problems of being a famous, adult storyteller, and it doesn’t have room for imagery of other people’s problems.

# Also, New Nightmare is ostensibly about the making of a film, but it’s aggressively uninterested in the material realities of that industry. Lol Elm Street is not exactly Anacostia, but at least it’s not inhabited solely by wealthy white people. There’s a wild little moment where Craven-in-the-movie hands something off to his Latina maid, and it’s so real, that lady would be there if this were real; and she has no lines. What are her nightmares like, you know? How much better would this movie be if it knew how to ask that one question?

(If all your stories are about “storytelling,” do you inherently overfocus on the people who can make a living telling stories? Cf. this essay about the class divide in Black pop culture. When is the “power of storytelling” just… the power of power?)

# Last, but most: Dreams are powerful because they come from within us yet seem to be beyond our choice and control. It’s precisely our powerlessness in the face of our dreams that make them so fascinating. A story about gaining control over our fear is inherently less sublime than a story about contact with all that lives within us, but lies beyond our reach.

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