We're doing our best to honor Wes Craven, who passed away on Sunday at the age of 76, every step of the way this week with our columns. For the newly revived FACE-OFF, I figured a Craven vs Craven battle would be fitting. So I'm going with perhaps his most beloved film, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, and pitting it against Craven's true sequel to the '84 classic, WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE. Having just re-watched both of them, I was genuinely delighted to find they remain timeless - not to mention damn good. The OG is a classic, yes, but do not count out Craven's fascinating follow-up. This is not going to be an easy Face-Off; in fact, it could end up being a tie! Let's find out, kiddies!
A group of high schoolers learn they're all suffering from the same eerie dreams, in which a razor-clawed man with a burned face mercilessly hunts them. Eventually, the group begins dying off when this specter, called Fred Krueger, begins to murder them while they sleep. Only the last girl standing, Nancy Thompson, is able to figure out Krueger's plan, and soon endeavors to bring him into the real world where she can kill him.
After years of trying to forget her ELM STREET past, actress Heather Langenkamp is plagued by strange occurrences that are seemingly related to her old on-screen nemesis, Freddy Krueger. Frighteningly, her young son Dylan appears effected by the creepy phenomena as well. Langenkamp soon learns that an age-old demon, using Freddy Krueger's visage, has targeted her and her son, hence Heather has to become Nancy Thompson one last time. Wes Craven himself is even inserted into the proceedings, as he's in charge of writing a new story that will effectively contain the demon. It's weird stuff.
It's easy to forget you don't actually see as much of Freddy in the original NOES than you're used to. He's usually shrouded in darkness, his scarred appearance discernible but not incredibly clear. That makes it scarier. Personality-wise, Freddy's focused on murder and not much else. He didn't really gain his affinity for lame puns until the second entry. That's not to say he's completely humorless, but the quips are in short supply.
Answering the wishes of millions of fans tired of Freddy Krueger's bad nightclub act shtick in the sequels, Craven wisely made Freddy (or the demon utilizing his form, if you prefer) a spirit far more sinister and mean-spirited than we had become familiar with. Gone, for the most part, are the wisecracks; in fact, Freddy's a man of few words here. The slightly retooled design is effectively ominous too; Freddy's eyes are particularly unnerving, and his glove is absurdly menacing.
Bright-eyes, innocent smile, sunny disposition. For the most part, it would appear Nancy Thompson is easy prey for a supernatural psychopath on a mission of vengeance. But don't let the good girl look fool you; Nancy is prepared - and then some - to handle Freddy Krueger after he's offed her best friends. By the end, Nancy not only establishes herself as a Final Girl for the ages, but as one of the most badass heroines in horror movie history.
Craven cleverly meshed reality and fiction here, making it clear Heather Langenkamp was not especially fond of her association with NOES and Freddy, rebuffing ideas that it would be a good idea for her to star in another sequel. That said, when the going gets tough, Langenkamp is back to her take-no-shit self, proving yet again an able foe for the demonic Freddy. Add some maternal instinct to the mix (her damn son is always in peril) and Heather is just as fierce as Nancy Thompson ever was.
So many great visuals to be found in Craven's disorienting, creepy dreamworld. Those fleeting glimpses of Freddy are truly scary (except for his little jog down the alleyway). Tina's death remains one of the most chilling moments in modern horror. Nancy's boiler-room nightmares are classics. Who could forget Johnny Depp's experience with the most uncomfortable mattress in history? Plus: The sight of Ghost Tina spewing a snake out of her mouth; Freddy bursting through Nancy's mirror; the tongue through the phone; the mushy stairs! The list goes on and on.
The opening nightmare, where a rogue Freddy glove goes on a make-up artist killing spree, is a damn fine way to kick-off the film. Later, Heather's hubby gets slashed to death by a claw that arrives from within his car seat. A particularly freaky scene in a hospital sees Heather's son spewing black sludge all over her before a doctor comes in wielding Freddy's glove. Soon after, we get a nifty "remake" of sorts of the infamous ceiling-murder from NOES. The vivid finale, taking place in a hellish underworld that serves as the demon's lair, is a memorably surreal capper, although it admittedly isn't quite as effective as what came before it.
What to say about the crafty/scary world Craven builds here that hasn't been said a million times before? Watching it now, thirty years since the movie was released and having seen it countless times, it's still a movie chockfull of tantalizingly wicked ideas and horrific sights. Almost all of the special effect sequences hold up, too: Moments such as the ceiling-kill, Freddy's face being ripped off, Depp's bed gushing blood and goo are still damn impressive to behold. Craven ably handled the young adults in the picture, giving his four leads a suitable All-American quality and making them believable protagonists worthy of our investment. Nancy Thompson is probably the best Final Girl of all time; not a cowering waif but a take-charge badass. And we can't forget just how imposing a screen presence Freddy was... and still is.
New Nightmare was so ahead of its time when it first came out, I don't think people were actually prepared for it. But looking back on it now, Craven handily made an original "meta" movie that works on various levels: taken at face value, it's a fun horror movie and worthy NOES sequel (and even remake in some regards), but peel away the layers and you find Craven has a lot to say about horror movies in general, and the NOES franchise especially. Add to that a very human story of a mother protecting her child at all costs, sprinkle in some witty jabs at Hollywood's obsession with sequelizing, and New Nightmare even works as a drama and dark comedy at different points. Finally, what a great, bold idea it is to take your famous antagonist and make him an instrument for a malevolent entity, effectively reinventing the character while remaining true to his persona. Craven truly threw us all for a loop with New Nightmare.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET
Surprised it was such a tight race? It's stunningly hard to pick one over the other; they're both special in different ways. It's easy to forget how intriguing and intelligent NEW NIGHTMARE is. It is at once a semi-remake and a semi-sequel, but wildly original in its own right. All that said, the original NIGHTMARE wins just because it's the groundbreaker, the intro to cinema's most iconic boogeyman, and one of the most original horror movies ever made, one that spawned a million childhood nightmares. Thanks, Wes. Sweet dreams.