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How Wes Craven’s smartest slasher reinvented a horror icon

You’ve never seen Freddy Krueger like this before.

As a society, we’re obsessed with charismatically evil villains, and perhaps none more than Freddy Krueger. Created by horror master Wes Craven for what was supposed to be a one-off movie, the Nightmare on Elm Street icon quickly took the world by storm — and then wore out his welcome.

As New Line Cinema greenlit sequel after sequel and continued to rake in the cash, Craven’s influence on the series rapidly dwindled. (Just four years after his debut in 1984, the demonic child murderer was appearing in Fat Boys music videos.) But underneath the sanitized cultural icon that old familiar evil lay waiting, and just when it seemed Freddy’s time in the spotlight was over, the Master of Horror returned to breathe new life into the series.

1994’s New Nightmare is a defining entry in ‘90s horror canon – it reinvented an icon and successfully predicted the genre’s trajectory, all while delivering those glorious Craven thrills. It’s also streaming now on HBO Max. Here’s why you should watch it before it leaves at the end of November.

The basic premise for New Nightmare was initially pitched by Craven as an idea for what would become Nightmare on Elm Street 3, his last creative credit on the initial series. When the film was released in 1994, not only was it a homecoming for the Nightmare franchise, but in a way, it was Wes’ return to a genre that he had helped lay the foundations of. With 1972’s The Last House on the Left, Craven established himself as one of horror’s most brutal and upsetting architects, and there are elements of New Nightmare that feel like an artist reckoning with their role in emboldening a studio culture that commodifies gore.

The film, which treats the events of A Nightmare on Elm Street and all of its sequels as a Hollywood franchise, finds series star Heather Langenkamp playing a fictional version of herself. After she’s cast in another Elm Street sequel, Langenkamp slowly discovers that an ancient evil has taken the form of Freddy Krueger and is trying to cross over into the real world.

Heather Langenkamp plays herself in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.New Line Cinema

Complete with a grim redesign to make him more menacing, Freddy is Craven’s anxieties about cinematic horror come to life and crawl out from behind the celluloid. There are even scenes showing Heather’s son Dylan (Miko Hughes) being hypnotized by the allure of the first Nightmare film, suggesting some concern about the accessibility of sensationalized bloodshed.

But New Nightmare isn’t simply a critique of a genre its director helped define. It also grabs slasher movies by the throat and drags them into a new age – one in which fans are no longer passive viewers but active fans. The movie is filled with visual and dialogue references that pay homage to the first film and reward dedication to the franchise. However, as the lines between film and reality blur for Heather and her son, the audience also gets exposed to the prison of nostalgia and stagnation they’ve helped cultivate. When Robert Englund shows up early in the movie to surprise a studio audience of rabid Freddy fans, the sequence is filmed with an almost cultish fervor, emphasizing the way modern culture worships the idea of Freddy while also turning him into a tap-dancing entertainer.

A studio audience cheers on Robert Englund/Freddy Krueger.New Line Cinema

But alongside Wes Craven’s razor-sharp wit and his unmistakable command over the forces of horror, New Nightmare marks a return to form by once again centering Heather Langenkamp’s vulnerability and resilience. Nancy Thompson is one of the most beloved Final Girls of all time and it’s because she’s compassionate, headstrong, and resourceful. Heather Langenkamp brings that same energy to playing herself as a mother and wife wrestling with the weight of her responsibilities to her family and the titanic consequences of fame.

The first half of the movie features a subplot in which Heather is the victim of an obsessive fan, something that happened to her in real-life while shooting the ABC sitcom Just the Ten of Us. Later on, Heather visits Wes Craven himself, who reveals that the evil stalking her was imprisoned within the first Nightmare on Elm Street movie, and now it’s up to her to imprison it once again by facing him head-on. Heather Langenkamp’s career was undoubtedly changed (for better or worse) by the success of that first movie, and the fact that she gets to reckon with the chaos of stardom by once again defeating the fictional evil that put her on the map is a beautiful and moving tribute from a director to one of his most cherished collaborators.

Wes Craven in New Nightmare.New Line Cinema

There’s so much going on in New Nightmare that it’d be easy to overlook the most crucial aspect of the film: the artistic catharsis it brought Wes Craven. The film opens with the creation of a new bladed glove, another reference to the original, before pulling out to reveal that the glove is an animatronic on a bustling film set. The voyeuristic mundanity of the scene is soon shattered when the glove comes to life and murders the SFX crew. Wes Craven made no secret of the fact that he never intended for A Nightmare on Elm Street to become a franchise, but in the dreamscape that is Hollywood, an idea can expand and grow larger than life if the demand for it is great enough.

After the evil has been defeated and the cataclysm averted, the movie ends on a quiet and intimate note: Heather and Dylan, safe but alone, opening the screenplay for the film and re-reading the events that have just befallen them. With New Nightmare, Craven was given the chance to deliver last rites to a franchise that he birthed and baptized in the first place, and those closing moments put Freddy to bed with a finality that feels like the ending of a bad dream.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is streaming on HBO Max through November 30.

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