New Nightmare Is Wes Craven’s Meta Masterpiece

As the Scream franchise returns to theaters, we look back on the impact Wes Craven's true meta masterpiece, Wes Craven's New Nightmare, should have had.

Wes Craven's New Nightmare
Photo: New Line Cinema

It’s always been difficult to describe what a phenomenon 1996’s Scream was to anyone who wasn’t around to properly experience its debut for themselves. Scream wasn’t just the movie that helped show that horror films (specifically, gory, slasher-style horror films aimed at a younger audience) could still be blockbusters; it was the movie that gave a new generation of horror fans something to proudly call their own. For over 25 years, we’ve been praising Scream for its intelligence, its cast, its scares, and its infinite rewatchability. 

More than anything though, Scream is praised for its “meta” commentary and the ways it both mocked and celebrated the entire genre. At a time when Gen X cynicism and the rise of video stores left so many horror fans of a certain age feeling like they had seen it all before, Scream boldly invoked the names of the most popular horror franchises while skewering their clichés with the ruthless efficiency of the famous slashers the film casually name-dropped. Scream pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of being both a perfect gateway horror film and the movie which brought up on the biggest screen possible a conversation that hardcore horror fans were already having.

Yet Scream is not director Wes Craven’s meta masterpiece. It’s not even his best meta-horror film of the 1990s. That honor belongs to 1994’s Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

There are times when New Nightmare feels like a fever dream worthy of the Nightmare franchise itself. While I advise anyone who hasn’t seen it to find a way to do so as soon as possible, the film’s basic premise sees actress Heather Langenkamp, the actual star and original final girl in the first A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), debate whether to star in another entry into the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise just as a series of strange events involving herself, her husband, and her son bring some of the horrific set pieces of those movies a bit too close to home. 

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Following a conversation with Wes Craven (who, naturally, plays himself), Langenkamp starts to realize that the Nightmare movies essentially awoke, contained, and paid tribute to an ancient demon who may soon be free to roam our world now that the film series has ended. Langenkamp must then find the courage to play Nancy one more time in order to (at least temporarily) defeat the evil entity that seems to be taking the form of Freddy Krueger. 

New Nightmare is sometimes summarized as “the horror movie about the making of the horror movie that you’re watching,” and that’s certainly how I remembered it for quite a few years after seeing it at a young age. That final shot of Heather essentially reading the script of the film you just watched is a lasting and powerful image that also left some with the cringe-inducing feeling that they had just watched an interesting (but gimmicky) movie in which a filmmaker disappeared up his own ass for 112 minutes in order to celebrate his works and brilliance. 

New Nightmare is so much more than that, however. It is a thoughtful, complicated, and critical look at the horror genre expertly delivered by one of the few people in Hollywood at that time with the perspective and power required to make even half of this movie’s best ideas work. 

Wes Craven's New Nightmare Heather Lagenkamp

Wes Craven occasionally uses New Nightmare to comment on the cultural impact of horror movies in a way that some have said feels strangely conservative. After all, what right does a director who burst onto the scene with Last House on the Left (an especially brutal rape-revenge film marketed with help from the line “It’s only a movie”) have to write multiple scenes in which characters suggest to Heather that the horror movies that made her famous may have contributed to her child’s deteriorating mental state?

Yet I’ve always felt that Craven was more interested in using those scenes to once again acknowledge the conversations that we were having about horror films rather than run away from them for the sake of convenience. If anything, the fact that one of the film’s biggest critics of horror (Dr. Heffner) is named after Richard Heffner (the often intrusive head of the MPAA during Craven’s career) tends to suggest that Craven wasn’t really entertaining the idea that he played quite as big of a role in the literally crumbling (thanks to a recent earthquake) society that we see in the film.

That isn’t to say that Craven doesn’t use New Nightmare to be critical of the genre. In fact, the greatest strength of the movie is the way it criticizes, examines, and ultimately pays a great deal of respect to the power and influence of fandom, and the sometimes negative consequences of franchise filmmaking. 

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There’s a scene in New Nightmare that sees Langenkamp visit New Line Cinema: a studio that has often been called “The House that Freddy Built.” Sure enough, we soon see that New Line founder Robert Shaye’s office is filled with Freddy pictures and memorabilia. 

While there is certainly something terrifying about the idea that this demon the Nightmare franchise unleashed now has a temple dedicated to him in downtown Los Angeles, Craven is also clearly using these scenes to comment on how the franchise grew into this bizarre and almost cuddly cultural institution, largely without his involvement. We see fans practically worshiping at the altar of Freddy during the movie’s memorable talk show scene, Robert Englund appears as himself in a scene that shows him seemingly struggle with how much the Freddy role has worked its way into his life, and even the demon who haunts Heather feels obsessed with recreating the events of the original film in a way that suggests it too is struggling to separate the movie from reality (or simply doesn’t wish to make the distinction).

Craven’s displeasure with the Nightmare sequels (as well as his growing fatigue of the horror genre at that time) are hardly secrets, but there is something sly and amusing about the way that he seems to be saying that Freddy’s gradual transformation into a cultural icon fueled by a comedic turn Craven didn’t necessarily intend might’ve angered the demon by making us less afraid of him. At one point, Langenkamp even says that “every kid knows who Freddy is. He’s like Santa Claus or King Kong,” which was certainly true despite the fact that the Nightmare films were never meant to be seen by children. It’s less of a condemnation of those who “let” their kids watch those movies (Craven shows that kids will often find a way to watch them regardless of permission) and more of a darkly humorous way to portray us as the hapless humans so desperate to take photos of King Kong that we don’t even stop once we realize how much we’re angering him in the process. 

As amusing as those observations are, New Nightmare’s darkest and most lasting meta musings are reserved for the very real impact these films and franchises can have on the lives of those who help make them. 

Throughout New Nightmare, we watch Heather struggle to decide whether to return to the franchise or to take some of the troubling events that have been occurring as a sign that it is time to put that part of her life behind her. While some will read that conflict as an actress trying to break free of typecasting and the role that defined her career, scenes involving references to someone who has been stalking Langenkamp, as well as some truly awkward (almost nightmarish) interactions with franchise fans, make it clear that Lagenkamp has very valid reasons for not wanting to be thrown back into the spotlight as Nancy. 

While the stalker angle was inspired by a real-life incident involving Lagenkamp and someone who started stalking her following the cancellation of the show Just the Ten of Us, it’s hard for me to watch these sequences now and not think of the real-life story of Nightmare on Elm Street 2 star Mark Patton.

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For those who don’t know, Patton’s life and career were changed forever by that film’s homosexual subtext and some of the circumstances of the movie’s release. There was a debate at the time over whether the film’s not-so-subtle themes were an inside attempt to mock Patton (a gay man), but the entire experience further complicated Patton’s already complicated efforts to make it in Hollywood as a gay actor during the societal stigma of the AIDS crisis. As brilliantly detailed in the documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare On Elm Street, Patton long struggled with embracing his role in Nightmare on Elm Street 2 which had simultaneously become this source of pride and joy as well as this part of his life that had caused him to confront the horrors of the film industry as well as deal with some in the franchise’s “fan” community who mocked him, sent him hateful messages, and generally suggested he and his movie didn’t really belong in the series.

Though New Nightmare was written and released before Patton’s story had fully played out (Craven has even said he wrote a version of the New Nightmare idea as his original idea for Nightmare on Elm Street 3‘s script), the concept of struggling with how to accept being part of a franchise that invites success and pain into your life is a horror that certainly isn’t limited to Elm Street.

The real-life stories of actors like Kelly Marie Tran remind us that even dream roles can sometimes turn into nightmares if a franchise’s fans decide to set their sights on you. When viewed through that context, it’s easy to see why Heather Lagenkamp’s New Nightmare character isn’t jumping at the chance to play Nancy again. Things worked out better for Lagenkamp in real-life, but too many people have had to struggle with living as both themselves and their characters due to the reactions to the films they were in. 

That’s what makes New Nightmare such a brilliant bit of meta filmmaking. For as great as Scream is, its “metaness” is often delivered with its tongue in its cheek and in a way that wants to make the audience think it’s smarter than the movie itself is actually being. Sidney talks about running up the stairs instead of out of the front door and then does just that. Randy mentions the killer getting up for one last scare before the killer gets up for one last scare. The movie often acknowledges the absurdity of the typical slasher playbook then runs a page from it. We’re meant to buy into the idea that acknowledging a cliché is roughly equal to subverting it. While that approach can be fun, there are times when you can’t help but wish the movie would use its awareness of what usually happens to do something truly different.

New Nightmare is not immune to those winking at the screen moments, but Craven’s script benefits from experience and perspective that Kevin Williamson’s Scream screenplay doesn’t always utilize. New Nightmare condemns and celebrates the horror genre while blasting franchise culture even as many of those involved with the film both on and off-screen celebrate their return to that franchise and desire to “get it right.” All the while, it manages to tell a distinctly “Nightmare on Elm Street” story that feels at home with the rest of the series, even as it plays with the foundational components we were led to believe made those movies work. New Nightmare uses meta storytelling as a way to be more reflective than referential.

It would have been possible to tell the fictional part of New Nightmare‘s story with fake people and a fake franchise, but by invoking the Nightmare name, the movie establishes a strong emotional connection that makes it easier to process and appreciate its boldest ideas. It forced us to examine the unique role of the Nightmare franchise on our world while telling a story where that franchise (and its slasher star) are both a literal and metaphorical demon.

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I understand why Scream was more successful than New Nightmare (it made about $173 million at the box office compared to New Nightmare’s $19 million). It’s a far more entertaining film that manages to work in some very clever (especially for the time) bits of meta-commentary without sacrificing too much of the thrilling “whodunnit?” slasher story at its core. It’s a remarkable movie, and the horror genre is generally better for its success. (It also benefitted from not opening against Pulp Fiction like New Nightmare did.)

Yet as we see more and more franchise films and legacy sequels follow in Scream‘s footsteps by acknowledging the thing that they’re supposedly subverting by often doing that thing anyway, I can’t help but feel a little bitter that Scream became this cultural reference point for meta filmmaking while New Nightmare is too often spoken of as “the movie Wes Craven made before Scream.”

New Nightmare may never be the crowdpleaser Scream is but its use of meta-commentary as a way to challenge us to carefully consider itself, the genre, franchises, fandom, and how blockbusters reshape our culture makes it the movie that (if you’ll excuse the use of a cliché these films would almost certainly mock me for invoking) we really need right now.