For some reason, I had in my head that this was a horror movie on the set of a horror movie, so when it kept going and that didn’t happen, I was left a bit puzzled. I’m glad, because that was sort of a played out idea even in 1994, but what we actually got was something more interesting, and a great deal better than the last two “Elm Street” efforts. Wes Craven, before writing the script for this, watched the entire series and said he couldn’t figure out the storyline at all – join the club, Wes!
Heather Langenkamp is a successful TV actress, happy to have left the world of horror movies behind, married to a special effects guy with a young son. It’s the 10th anniversary of the first movie, so she’s called to do some a TV interview, and joining her in full make up and character is “Freddy Krueger”, aka her friend Robert Englund. She starts having Freddy dreams, and this combined with the phone calls she’s getting from a stalker (Langenkamp had a stalker at the time, and gave Craven permission to work it into the script) leaves her feeling a little frazzled.
Then, she’s called in for a meeting at New Line Cinema, with their executives playing themselves too. Wes Craven (played by Wes Craven) is writing a new “Nightmare” movie, and would she like to be involved? She turns them down initially, and then her son falls sick and her husband is killed on the way home from work, which happens to be a secret project to build an animatronic hand for Freddy Krueger. So the film settles into a very well done, if not terribly horror-y, groove, as the family appear to be slowly losing their minds. The line blurs further when, rather than calling her own family, she calls John Saxon, her movie Dad. In fact, the only people she knows appear to be other people associated with the “Nightmare” franchise.
The tension ratchets, the kid appears to be more and more dominated by the mysterious dream-Freddy, and the line between fiction and reality blurs and eventually shatters. Craven and Englund appear to be suffering from the same sorts of nightmares too (Englund shot a scene where he was pursued by Freddy into a spider’s web, but it was cut for tone), and the underlying idea of the movie – about a demon who can be trapped inside a really great story, if only for a little while – is a superb bit of work and shows the awfully clunky parts 4 and 5 how to do it.
There are some remarkably large roadblocks in the way of this being a genuinely great movie though. First up is the kid, Dylan (Miko Hughes). Hughes seemed to get a lot of work as a child actor, so I have to assume he just sucked deliberately in this one. I can’t use enough negative words to describe his performance, he almost single-handedly ruins things and he’s in it A LOT. There are some very odd choices from the supporting cast, too – leaving aside the large number of non-actors with sizeable roles – such as the doctor who immediately suspects Langenkamp of abusing her child, and acts incredibly hostile all the way through. You are a bad doctor, lady! It’s also the longest of the Elm Street movies by a distance, but it still feels like they dropped some plotlines – for instance, a couple of people from the previous movies are seen at a funeral (Nick Corri and Tuesday Knight) but do nothing and have no lines. It feels like they trimmed other stories to have more Nancy and Dylan, and it was a bad bad idea.
But then there’s the home stretch, and that is absolutely amazing. The dream first-movie “reality” takes over, and it then becomes a sort of twisted speed-remake of part 1, with some really great little moments, showing that Craven, when he tried, could be a genuinely great horror director. HE even throws in a little reference to the worst special effect maybe of all time, the pipe-cleaner arms bit from part 1. It’s scary, paced well and makes up for a lot of sins.
Add in a surprisingly decent ending, and…it’s a tough one. How good can a last 20 minutes be to make up for an occasionally awful first 90? That question that gets posed – what sort of an effect to horror movies have on the people who watch or make them? – is interesting, but perhaps with Craven’s later movies, the question feels like it was answered better, later. Freddy looks great in this movie, a much creepier image, too. And there’s a lot to chew on, once you get past those big ol’ flaws.
I think a rewatch of this might be in order, because so much of what I thought about it is tied in to what I expected it to be. It’s an often thoughtful, extremely interesting take on the relationship between our reality and our stories, about how iconic roles and movies come to dominate peoples’ lives, about how “demons” are represented through fiction, and very cleverly done. If only that damn useless kid had been in it less!
Rating: thumbs up