Fewer directors have had as varied and storied a career arc as Wes Craven.
The late great horror master passed away in 2015 and left behind a treasure trove of films that horror buffs know and love.
Cutting his teeth in the 70s gritty horror scene with movies like The Last House On The Left and The Hills Have Eyes, straight out of the gate Craven proved himself to be one to watch.
It wasn’t until 1984 and the release of his seminal A Nightmare On Elm Street that Craven, and indeed the entire horror genre, changed forever.
The original Elm Street had somewhat of a troubled production – David Warner was set to play the iconic Freddy Krueger but dropped out last minute, studio head Bob Shaye mortgaged his house to finance the movie, Charlie Sheen demanded too much money so Johnny Depp was cast instead – but what resulted was a watershed moment for the horror genre and sent the genre to new heights.
Craven saw very little success however.
Studio head Bob Shaye stood to lose everything if Nightmare On Elm Street flopped, so he took control of any future sequel rights and overrode Craven’s original happy ending, replacing it with the ambiguous ending audiences know today.
A bitter ten-year dispute followed, so when the Elm Street sequels dominated box office and video results for the rest of the 1980’s, Craven saw very little of that money.
Craven came back into the fold for the peak of cinema, writing the screenplay and producing A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.
However, my adoration for that film is for a separate article.
Craven flexed his new-found clout by giving the world movies such as Shocker, The People Under The Stairs, The Serpent And The Rainbow, and Deadly Friend, but none of these movies had the same cultural caché and notoriety as his beloved movie monster creation, Freddy Krueger.
After burying the hatchet with Bob Shaye in the early 90’s, and to celebrate the franchises 10-year anniversary, Craven set about making Freddy Krueger scary again after he was reduced to a character kids wore on their pyjamas and had his own novelty album.
New Nightmare is a frankly ingenious film, and in a just world, would have been as critically beloved as The Exorcist or Silence Of The Lambs when people talk about horror as high art.
Let’s not mince words here; if New Nightmare came out in 2019, it would get an Oscar nomination.
Birdman won Best Picture, Director and Screenplay at the 2015 Oscars, and hits upon a lot of the same points and beats New Nightmare does.
New Nightmare is Craven back in English teacher mode, discussing the absurdity and meta-text when a horror movie character that starts out as a menace becomes a pop culture hero.
Indeed, Craven hired David Cronenberg’s recurring cinematographer Mark Irwin to lend the film a certain sense of prestige and class.
If one watches Craven’s 1984 original Nightmare On Elm Street film, Freddy Krueger is on screen for less than 7 minutes.
He’s a menacing, scary and vile character that was killed by a vigilante mob.
He returns to kill teenagers in their sleep, and can be read as a physical manifestation of the sins of the father coming back to kill children.
So of course, he became the the face of yo-yo’s, playing cards, and action figures less than 5 years after the original movie came out.
As stated above, Wes Craven was an English teacher before he turned his hand to horror films, and New Nightmare is an academic essay about what happens when a horror character becomes accepted by the mainstream as a cuddly and cute figure.
M. Night Shyamalan tackled a similar topic earlier this year in Glass, where he discusses the role the superhero plays in the modern culture.
In both cases, audiences turned up opening weekend expecting a typical sequel where a hero battles a villain, and while we get that, the real meat of the movie is the more cerebral discussion to be had about the role of the narrative in the modern culture.
The thrust of New Nightmare centres around actress Heather Langenkamp, who played Nancy Thompson in the 1984 film.
Langenkamp plays herself in this film, in a sort of The Player-style role, and sees herself becoming the star of a real-life horror film as production ramps up on a new Nightmare On Elm Street movie she’s starring in.
Reality and fiction begin to blur as strange goings-on begin to pile up, and Heather must act to save her son from a new threat, that’s eerily similar to Freddy Krueger.
New Nightmare’s thesis statement scene is one where Craven and star Heather Langenkamp have a chat in Craven’s beautiful Hollywood Hills home.
Craven brings the film to a halt to explain the film, in a move that would be seen as genius today, but back then, was seen as self-indulgent.
He says that he wrote and directed the film we are currently watching, but the evil contained within the script has unleashed this new terror on the world, and the only way to send the demon back from where it came from is to make the movie.
At the end of the scene, the camera cuts to the conversation the characters just had and it’s revealed to be the screenplay.
The ending of the film hearkens to the end of Hansel and Gretel, where family members defeat an evil spirit with fire, and the script even calls itself out on it.
Ultimately, the film proved to be too clever by half by audiences, and was quickly forgotten as Pulp Fiction ran the table on what ended up being a vintage year for American cinema.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is exactly the kind of movie you’d expect from a former English teacher who’s just been given carte blanche to make whatever he wants.
Craven went onto make Scream in 1996, which made it the second time in 12 years he redefined another genre, and his later career is peppered with high points and low points – Red Eye is a cracking movie, My Soul To Take is a disaster – but for this writers money, Wes Craven’s finest moment came in 1994 with New Nightmare.