When Wes Craven made his directorial debut in 1972 with The Last House on the Left, the film's ad campaign proudly proclaimed, "To avoid fainting, keep repeating, 'It's only a movie.'" But 1994's New Nightmare, which he wrote and directed, completely disrupted that notion.
In New Nightmare, the seventh installment of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, producer Bob Shaye plays himself as he brings Craven back to the franchise and courts Heather Langenkamp to star in a brand new Nightmare film — despite the fact that her character Nancy died in 1987's A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, and Freddy Krueger himself bit it, seemingly for good, in 1991's aptly titled Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare. But as the lines between reality and fiction blur, it becomes clear that what Craven is writing is the movie the audience is watching, a meta-mindfuck in which Langenkamp stars as both herself and Nancy, the original Nightmare on Elm Street Final Girl.
Years before the trend of actors playing distorted versions of themselves — in shows like ABC's Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 and films like 2013's This Is the End — New Nightmare was groundbreaking for casting its star Langenkamp as Langenkamp, alongside Craven, Shaye, and Freddy portrayer Robert Englund as themselves.
As a thoroughly self-referential subversion of audience expectations, New Nightmare's established a move toward metafiction in horror that continues to play out, from 1996's Scream, also directed by Craven, to 2012's brilliant satire The Cabin in the Woods.
"It wasn't really breaking the fourth wall; it was breaking the fourth dimension," Langenkamp told BuzzFeed News in an interview at AFX Studio, a makeup and special effects company that she owns and operates with her husband, David Leroy Anderson. "It's not like we're looking at the audience and winking at them. We're taking the audience into a new spatial relationship with the real lives of people who act in them."
Breaking the fourth wall, or dimension, is an inherently distressing concept — it disrupts the sacred relationship between the audience and the movie — but breaking the fourth wall in horror is downright terrifying.
Because in horror, when you knock down that wall, you might not like what you find on the other side.
It was in a phone call that Shaye first revealed his tentative plans to bring Freddy Krueger back — with Craven at the helm. "It's almost exactly like in the movie," Craven recalled to BuzzFeed News in an interview at his Hollywood Hills home.
Craven was resistant, and with good reason. He had grievances over how he'd been removed from the franchise — the details of which he hashed out with Shaye and is no longer interested in discussing — but beyond that, he worried that Freddy's devolution from sadistic child murderer to pun-happy quipster, along with increasingly convoluted plots, had pushed the Nightmare series past the point of no return.
"I said, 'Wow, it seems like the stories were getting more and more sui generis,'" Craven said. "It didn't seem like there was any linkage that much except Freddy."
Then came what Craven calls his "aha moment": Inspired by his conversation with Shaye, he would write a script for the seventh movie that was largely about writing a script for the seventh movie. It would be a return to the beginning of the series — with original heroine Langenkamp as the lead — but also a significant step forward. If A Nightmare on Elm Street smudged the lines between reality and dreams, New Nightmare would do the same for reality and fiction.
"But I still didn't have a story," Craven said. "I decided to have a lunch with Robert Englund, and I decided to have lunch with Heather. It was interesting from both how the movies had changed their lives, and they were imprinted with it, whether they liked it or not."
With that — and Englund and Langenkamp's willingness to participate — Craven had his fleshed-out idea: "'We should make a movie about everybody who made the movie and the issues that come up and how it's become part of the culture,'" he said. "So I pitched that to Bob, and I said — I think what I wrote in the script was — 'You'll have a scene too.' And he said, 'I kind of like that.'"
Of course, it wasn't quite that simple. Writing the script was a balancing act for Craven, who had to make the film self-referential without pandering. It had to be witty without losing its thrills. And it had to be complex without being alienating.
Although Langenkamp was excited by the project, she was anxious about how the film would be received. After all, the latter installments in the Nightmare on Elm Street series were more about big kills than big ideas. And here was something dense and cerebral, a movie more about Langenkamp than about Krueger.
"I thought, I don't know if it's gonna be successful," Langenkamp said. "Nobody's gonna be ready for this."
For the actor, playing New Nightmare's Heather was the best role she'd been offered since she played Nancy. But while Craven did let aspects of the real Langenkamp inspire the fictionalized version of her, she wasn't interested in just being herself. The Heather in the movie is high-strung, damaged, and eager to escape the specter of Nightmare on Elm Street. The real Langenkamp, in contrast, has a much more laid-back reaction to the series and still makes appearances at fan conventions, often alongside Englund.
"There's no way that I would have played myself as I really am," she explained. "That wouldn't have been great for the part, and it wouldn't have been true to the Heather that Wes was thinking about. The Heather that Wes wrote was kind of stressed out and was very edgy and was bordering on not quite having her act together."
As it turned out, playing herself was a bigger departure for the actor, who strived to create some distance between her true self and the version she was depicting on screen. "I think more of me is in Nancy than in Heather," Langenkamp added. "When you're playing a character, you have freedom to invest it with so much of you that you feel is appropriate … With Heather, she's not an idealized character. She's not a heroine. She becomes maybe more heroic as the movie progresses, but that's not who she is as a character. So, as a result, I was really protective. I didn't want to be 100% identified with her, and I still don't! Because she's not a fully formed fiction. She's this weird half-breed of, supposed to be me, supposed to be in a fictional story. And so, as a result, I don't think I did invest her with as much of myself as I did Nancy."
Instead, what Langenkamp focused on was the central conflict in Heather's brain: Was she losing her mind, or had Freddy Krueger actually crossed over into the real world to terrorize her?
In the context of the Nightmare series, the latter interpretation feels more obvious. But New Nightmare is, at least initially, so grounded in reality that, at times, it does feel like the story of a woman who is losing touch with the world around her.
"You have to balance this idea that maybe she's going crazy, maybe she has some kind of weird Munchhausen's syndrome about her son," Langenkamp said. "All those emotions that you would have as a normal woman of course come into play."
It's another thematic link to the original Nightmare on Elm Street, in which Nancy is frequently told that she's not being rational: Dreams aren't real. But while the first Nightmare gave us the image of Tina's (Amanda Wyss) slashed nightgown to establish the stakes — what happens in the dream happens in real life — reality in New Nightmare is more contentious.
Just as reality and fiction blend in New Nightmare, the film itself drew from the real world — often in unexpected ways. The 1994 Northridge earthquake, for example — which rocked Los Angeles on Jan. 17 — occurred in the middle of production. New Nightmare already had an earthquake written into its script, but suddenly, production had access to real-life disaster footage they could incorporate into the final cut.
"Immediately, Warner Bros. was like, 'How can we use this for our marketing?'" Langenkamp said. "To be able to drive around L.A. and get destruction footage, everyone was gleeful about that. But it struck me as very Hollywood."
The eerily timed disaster was particularly strange on a film that details breaking the fourth wall: In this case, it was almost as though the earthquake had rumbled through it.
Langenkamp did stress that the footage wasn't "free," as some suggested, alluding to the lost lives and massive financial burden that Northridge caused. Though the actor isn't superstitious enough to assign any significance to the earthquake, she does acknowledge that elements of New Nightmare felt realer to her than anything from the first two Nightmare movies she did. The climax, in particular, inspired a real-life reaction.
"When he finally turns into a snake at the end and he's wrapping himself around my throat and strangling me that way, it's the only scene that I've ever had nightmares about, because it really, to me, was Freddy," Langenkamp said. "He humiliated me in a way. It was really scary. It was really mean-spirited. It was a very sexual power that he was expressing. There was nothing funny about it."
It's clear the lines between fiction, metafiction, and reality blurred for the actor herself as well. When talking about fan conventions, Langenkamp said, "Freddy and I have been able to stay on this eternal path of these shows and we go across the country and we meet fans." The next time she spoke about Englund, she returned to calling him "Robert."
As a mother of a 3-year-old son at the time of filming, Langenkamp was excited that New Nightmare gave her the opportunity to play a mother for the first time in her career. But as far as Craven was concerned, Heather's movie son, Dylan (Miko Hughes), was an answer to the question parents' groups have been asking for decades: What are horror films doing to our children?
"I think all of us, especially at that time, were thinking about — and that's one of the reasons I gave Heather a child — Are we damaging the innocent minds of the young?" Craven said. "I've kept my fingers crossed my whole career that somebody won't do a high-profile killing or something wearing a Freddy costume, or it could be proven some kid was damaged because of you. I thought it was all fun."
In New Nightmare, Dylan becomes possessed by Freddy and begins imitating him — only after he catches A Nightmare on Elm Street on TV. And by having Langenkamp play a version of herself, Craven was able to further complicate the notion of a parent's responsibility — while all parents want to protect their children from violence, Heather is herself an active participant in what she's trying to shield Dylan from. She chose to act in A Nightmare on Elm Street.
"It does kind of raise the stakes that they're real people," Craven continued. "You feel like, Just what has this done to my child that I'm in this film? Does it make my child vulnerable or a target?"
But as tempting as it might be for some to blame violence on scary movies, an argument that has been disproven but continues to resurface every time another real-life horror story hits the news, Craven notes that the genre didn't invent the concept of violence. And focusing entirely on the media as the cause ignores the inherent violence in a person who commits a horrific crime — not to mention the violence endemic to society as a whole.
"There was something really profound with the whole treatment of horror in culture at that time, which was, it was something kind of disgusting. Proper people didn't associate with it," Craven said. "I had been a college teacher. I had taught Greek mythology. I had taught The Iliad and The Odyssey, Greek tragic drama, and it's all very bloody. So I thought, This is bullshit. Somehow, we should give voice to what this might be instead, sort of modern mythology. That appealed to me. And I thought, What if Freddy is coming back in reality because you don't have films to put this sort of spirit into a character like Freddy? There's something beyond Freddy that is the original wellspring."
In addition to addressing the conflict over how horror influences children, Craven also wanted to examine how horror audiences use movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street to process and ideally work through the actual horrors that surround them.
"You don't enter the theater and pay your money to be afraid. You enter the theater and pay your money to have the fears that are already in you when you go into a theater dealt with and put into a narrative," Craven said. "Stories and narratives are one of the most powerful things in humanity. They're devices for dealing with the chaotic danger of existence."
Even if he keeps coming back, Freddy can be defeated, and when the audience finds their point of identification in the Final Girl — Nancy, for example — they're able to experience that victory. New Nightmare, like A Nightmare on Elm Street, is ultimately the story of Heather's (or Nancy's) survival. It's through her role as Nancy, a fictional character, that Heather is able to overcome the evil that has wormed its way into her real life. She finds that power within the narrative.
"I've always felt like [Scream's] Sidney or Nancy could never go back to that state of mind that they were in before, but that's the life of a warrior, and in a sense, there are no more civilians anymore," Craven concluded. "You're a warrior. You're in combat. Because the whole world's in combat."
Despite being one of the most critically acclaimed entries in the Nightmare franchise, New Nightmare was a box office failure.
But Craven has some theories about that.
"If I had to do it again, I would not change the look of Freddy quite so much," he said. "The idea of changing him was to make it that this is the real Freddy, or this is the Freddy behind the Freddy, but the original — we were very close, but the colors were different, the colors of the sweater and everything — I think we'd lost some of the oomph from Freddy as Freddy reappearing."
But Freddy's makeup and wardrobe are a minor quibble. Craven's larger concerns about New Nightmare revolve around whether it works as a self-referential piece of fiction. Even if it's regarded as an early entry into the meta-horror movement, it could still be considered a failure, especially by those who never bought into its central conceit.
"The film was full of experiments," Craven continued. "Some of them worked, and some of them didn't work so great."
It was only two years after New Nightmare, when Craven collaborated with screenwriter Kevin Williamson on Scream that he began to get a clearer picture of where his own foray into metafiction might have gone wrong. Both New Nightmare and Scream break the fourth wall, but as far as Craven is concerned, the latter improved upon the ideas established by the former.
"[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," Craven reflected. "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."
Flipping the flip, as Craven said, and surprising an audience is especially challenging in horror, a genre that brings out the most devoted, diehard fans, moviegoers who have seen it all and aren't afraid to call out recycled tropes and well-trod plotlines.
But that's part of the brilliance of a film like New Nightmare, not to mention its spiritual descendants, Scream and Cabin in the Woods: These movies know the audience gets it, and they capitalize on that. "What you want to do is you want to put your audience off-balance," Craven explained. "You have to be aware of what the audience's expectations are, and then you have to pervert them, basically, and hit them upside the head from a direction they weren't looking."
Rather than attempt to regurgitate another soulless Nightmare on Elm Street sequel, Craven reinvented the form. That's not to say that he invented metafiction, but there's something particularly savvy about the way he brought horror into it. It appeals to an audience that enjoys the knowing winks — the same people, Craven noted, who yell, "Don't go in there!" at a character who clearly can't hear them. And it removes the boundaries between viewer and film. What could be scarier than breaking long-established rules?
When Craven wrote the first Nightmare on Elm Street film, critics and fans alike were loudly bemoaning that horror was dead. So he gave them something new.
"You have a responsibility to really help the genre grow, 'cause there's no limit to how profound it can become," Craven said. "If you go back to those guys like Fellini and Buñuel, talking about really profound things. Now, I don't know whether you can get a big audience with films that abstruse, but you can in horror if you scare the shit out of them about every eight minutes. So you do a fun deal with the devil: I've got to put a lot of interesting ideas, but I'll hide them and I'll also scare people and make them laugh."
With New Nightmare, Craven did just that and pushed the boundaries even further — and the effects of that are still being felt. Scream deconstructed the very nature of the slasher film. Cabin in the Woods dissected it.
"When you have an idea that really fascinates you and you can honestly say, 'I've never seen anything like that,' what you get is, you get that first audience goes out and tells everybody," Craven said. "And the reason they do that is they've never seen anything like it. You're trying to be the avant-garde of horror. That's where you want to be."