Inverse Movie Marathon: 'Wes Craven: New Nightmare'

This week 'Inverse' gets deep meta with Wes Craven's take on his classic '80s slasher film. 

Wes Craven posing for a photo

Each Thursday—well today it is Friday—this October at Inverse, I will watch a horror film with Winston Cook-Wilson, a horror film fan and expert, and talk about as much of the movie as much as I can get through — I scare easily. This is Scare Season.

David Turner: I scare easily. I say this again, because I stopped watching this movie within the first few minutes. The opening scene of filming Nightmare on Elm Street and then killing everyone on the set was, for a lack of a better four-letter phrase, a lot. But I kept going, only to see that it was all just a dream… or was it?

I don’t think I’ve seen the whole Nightmare on Elm Street film, but I knew enough of it through pop culture that so much of the film was so fucking strange. Once it’s established that this is a film about the actual Nightmare on Elm Street film series that is now dealing with the real threat of Freddie, it was fucking crazy. This was a far more twisted film than I expected. Winston, is all of the meta-ness part of the reason you enjoy the film? Cause it seems like a great film for someone that is a big fan of the series.

Winston Cook-Wilson: I like the Nightmare films — especially this one, which many fans consider the late Wes Craven’s masterpiece — but I would not describe myself as a hardcore fan. This October, I’ve been really getting into the ideas of becoming completist and digging hard into some of these horror franchises I’ve only skipped around in (Nightmare, Halloween, even Hellraiser), but otherwise I tend to just watch the ones people go to bat for most frequently.

The meta-nature of the movie I do like; It’s unique among Hollywood horror I’ve seen, and gives me a pleasant headache. Basically, the conceit — which real-life Wes Craven playing himself explains in the middle of the movie — is that the ungodly being/mind force Freddy Krueger can be held at bay — or trapped — by “storytelling.” Now that (in the universe of the movie) production has stopped on new Nightmare movies, Freddy is loose again, trying to get back up into the land of the living through Dylan, the son of Heather Langenkamp, who is the star of the Nightmare movies. Craven suggests this weird mousetrap effect: Freddy Krueger, the character, is a manifestation of this dark being who is attracted to Craven’s stories, even though eventually they’ll catch him. So Wes cooking up a new Freddy script during New Nightmare, Freddy gets wind of it, and starts making it into reality as Craven is writing it (Everyone else is playing their part too; Freddy is actually affecting the whole fabric of the universe here). But once the actual movie is made, presumably, then Freddy can be stopped — frozen in the world of the film.

It’s pretty heady stuff, but luckily it’s not just a high-brow concept; it’s a perfect vehicle for unusual scares, which is why Freddy Krueger movies are usually great, in my opinion. Because he’s fully supernatural — he can change form, haunt your dreams, and come into the real world — he can essentially do whatever-the-fuck insane thing he wants, whenever. There are almost no rules in these movies; Craven’s strength was always making the scares (and a bit of humor) the lifeblood of his movies.

So after I made you go back and watch a bit more, what sequences stuck you (or horrified you) the most?

DT: Honestly I was probably still most shaken by the opening just because I thought I was safe from death within the first five minutes. That is what I think made watching this a bit strange when my only understanding of these films is through pop culture and parody. There is a bit of internal logic about the films that are easily lost on me. The fact that you just described Freddie as essentially being able to kind of jump between dreams and real life is kind of a mindfuck that I didn’t expect going into the film.

Also I will say more so than the other couple of films we watched so far, I’d say that I felt I was watching the movie with my hands in front of my face just trying to avoid seeing Freddie’s claws slice through another victim. During the car crash I was tense the entire scene because clearly something terrible was going to happen, but until it occurred I just wasn’t sure what direction it was going to go for the kill. This is describing the basic conceit of horror films, but I think what’s interesting about the series so far is that even at its most meta, it follows the tropes that make me want to avoid watching horror films. The sense of unease and dread over every scene is hard for me to deal with, even if watching on a laptop through Netflix.

My last question for you goes a bit back to the premise. What exactly does this kind of premise want to convey to the audience? Because I feel watching it now, post-Inception part of me could not help but wonder what is even real or not real in this fictional movie centered around dreams. Perhaps I’m talking in circles, but were you able to parse my question?

WCW: I like your description of how horror works on you — I enjoy that feeling, or by this point in my life (the current apex of my horror movie watching) am so used to it that it’s just become like any other sensation or sense of anticipation I have during movies.

And I think that ties into the appeal of the unusual premise, which for all of its complexity, is mostly intended as a vehicle for scares and humor. By 1994, when New Nightmare was being made, conventions of horror movies had long been solidified. The idea of phoned-in or formulaic horror is very much a thing, and idiosyncratic directors like Craven are going for ways to disrupt people’s expectations, or take people out of their comfort zone structurally. In this film — and also in his Scream series, which would start two years later — Craven tried to do this by incorporating plenty of meta-jokes (or confusions) into that framework, to make for a weird plot structure. With Scream, he made waves because of the constant references to other horror films; New Nightmare is not the same kind of pastiche, but Craven constantly mimics shots and scenarios from his own original Nightmare on Elm Street.

But when you begin to lose track of what the fuck is going on (mostly, what is real or not — or, in Scream, a joke), Craven will hit you with the big scares. In this case, it might be Freddy’s claws coming at you from any number of places, or inspiring kids to attempt to communicate with God and then plummet off tall playground structures to near-death.

DT: Yeah there is a very good sense of the film always about to snap you back to reality with a gory death, in case the viewer is too paranoid to be engrossed in the film. I’m actually happy we made this choice halfway through. There was enough of the typical horror scares that under most circumstances I wouldn’t made beyond the first few minutes. I guess we’ll see what happens next week in the film choice, but this week was certainly a nice trip into the world of horror that I so often try to avoid.

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