Back in 1996, Scream single-handedly redefined the slasher genre and revitalized horror—which was lagging at the box office in the early ’90s—with its metafictional, deconstructionist approach to the narrative. But it might not have happened without a film that came out two years prior and seemed to have flown under the radar: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. In the seventh chapter of the international phenomenon that was the Nightmare on Elm Street series, the creator of Freddy Krueger himself (as emphasized by the title) returned to the franchise to give his immortal villain one last curtain call. The twist was that the film took place in the “real world” and it explored the effects of the series on its cast and crew. New Nightmare was met with a fairly positive critical reception, yet tepid box office returns, which put the final nail in Freddy’s coffin. But both Scream and New Nightmare delved into the art of filmmaking from behind-the-scenes to in front of the screens, shrewdly using the techniques of reflexivity and self-reflexivity.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare revolves around Heather Langenkamp—the actress who played Nancy Thompson, the heroine of the original Nightmare—and her son Dylan (Miko Hughes), as an ancient, primal evil force under the guise of Freddy threatens to cross into our reality by possessing Dylan’s body. Think of it as a genie in a bottle, whose release is prompted by the conclusion of the Nightmare series with the broadly comedic Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare in 1991. At New Nightmare’s heart lies an exploration of the ramifications of horror movies on their creators and their families. In one memorable scene, Heather is reprimanded by the rigorous Dr. Heffner for letting Dylan watch her movies (amusingly, Dr. Heffner was named after a former MPAA Ratings Chief, Richard Heffner, who heavily censored Craven’s movies throughout his career). Thus, the larger question this movie poses is whether horror is detrimental to society.
This idea is pursued even further in Scream, where the teenage characters are not only influenced by movies but behave like a cynical generation raised by them rather than their absent parents. One character opines on A Nightmare on Elm Street, “Well, the first one was [scary], but the rest sucked.” Another warns, “You’re starting to sound like some Wes Carpenter flick.” And the finale of John Carpenter’s seminal 1978 slasher, Halloween, plays on TV during the film’s ending. These are examples of reflexivity, instances in which a movie references other movies or the world of filmmaking in general. Similarly, in New Nightmare, when Freddy steps out of his netherworld into the real world, his shadow passes across the wall in a direct nod to Murnau’s 1922 version of Nosferatu.
On the other hand, an instance of self-reflexivity occurs when a film comments on itself. In Scream, Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) discusses the rules of surviving horror movies, one of which includes never having sex, just as our heroine, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), prepares to lose her virginity to her boyfriend, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich). The film’s ultimate self-referential joke, of course, is that Sidney survives the bloodbath in the end. All of the genre rules are established, then turned, twisted, and spun. A New Nightmare example involves the scene where Heather meets Wes Craven, playing a slightly unsettling real-life version of himself, as he explains why Heather must be the one to defeat Freddy, only moments before words of their dialogue appear on the screen as a page from a developing screenplay.
In the original Nightmare, Craven innovated in the genre of “rubber reality horror” by creating an atmosphere in which neither we, nor the characters, are ever certain of what’s dream and what’s reality, but in New Nightmare, Craven explored a different kind of “rubber reality”: one between cinema and real life. Then in Scream, that “rubber reality” is pushed in another direction, where a film is specifically referencing itself as if characters themselves are aware they’re in a movie. Such is the case in the scene where Sidney tells Billy, “But this is life. This isn’t a movie,” to which he responds, “Sure it is, Sid. It’s all a movie. It’s all one great big movie.”
The purpose of reflexivity and self-reflexivity in these two films is to keep the audience off-balance and blur the lines between dimensions. The opening of New Nightmare mimics the opening of the original Nightmare, then reveals itself to be a film, smashing the fourth wall immediately, until it ultimately turns out to be Heather’s nightmare. Other references to the original film include the telephone receiver turning into Freddy’s tongue, and a character getting dragged across the ceiling. The film goes as far as to play clips from the original, but in a pointed twist, as seen through the eyes of the innocent Dylan. In the movie’s finale, reflexivity and self-reflexivity come together when John Saxon—who played Lt. Thompson, Nancy’s distant father—begins calling Heather by her character’s name, denoting what John Kenneth Muir calls “the final transformation” in his book Wes Craven: The Art of Horror. Once Heather’s “chic L.A. home turns into Freddy’s house at 1428 Elm […] reality has folded upon itself and Heather has, for lack of a better phrase, entered The Twilight Zone.”
The main difference between New Nightmare and Scream is that Craven wrote New Nightmare, while Scream was written by Kevin Williamson (31 at the time) and offered to Craven as a director-for-hire gig. In a 2014 Buzzfeed article, Craven offered, “[Williamson] was smart enough to—instead of the old fogey filmmaker and producer and actress and all those guys being the people who are in the self-reflective story—he made it the audience. […] And it just made a huge difference. Maybe there was too much narcissism or fascination with ourselves, or who knows. But that sort of flipping the flip, in a way, was a very smart thing to do.” In more ways than one, New Nightmare was Craven’s experiment that was expanded, transformed, and perfected in Scream, in large part thanks to Williamson.
Beyond the reflectivity and self-reflexivity in New Nightmare and Scream, the question of how horror affects its viewers is posed throughout both films. It seems what Craven was really dealing with was his responsibility as a filmmaker, as well his personal fears of how his films influence those who watch it, from children to those who might be motivated to carry out the film’s murders in real life. Although, during New Nightmare’s Blu-ray commentary, he admits his ambivalence about making films about violence. Wes Craven argues that real-life horror stories in mass media, which children see and know are real, dwarf anything that can be put in horror movies. Then he makes an analogy to an ugly person smashing a mirror, “It’s not the mirror that’s ugly, it’s what is reflected.”
Though for most fans, horror films offer an opportunity for catharsis or a social bonding experience, for some, they may cause lifelong trauma or inspire acts of violence. Does that mean they should be censored, as Heffner would prefer? Or do they have something to contribute to the conversation about violence in our society? In the Blu-ray interview, Craven, a former college professor with a master’s degree in philosophy and writing from Johns Hopkins University, mentions that going all the way back to Greek mythology, “a story about horror in a sense exorcises it or gives it a form. It’s the same as Nancy dragging [Freddy’s] hat out of her dream. It’s the beginning of being able to come to terms with it.” Muir agrees with this essential argument that horror is an outlet for people’s fears and tension of everyday living, “By associating Elm Street with Hansel and Gretel, Craven states that horror movies, like fairy tales, can be shared with children because they are cathartic exercises and altogether healthy.” Or as Craven puts it in the Buzzfeed article, “Stories and narratives are one of the most powerful things in humanity. They’re devices for dealing with the chaotic danger of existence.” And to that, I say amen and thank you, Wes Craven, for all the screams and nightmares.