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<i>Wes Craven’s New Nightmare</i>: A Horror Film Ahead of Its Time

There's been much talk and speculation about the relaunch of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise -- it may have a lot to do with the replacement of famous Freddy Krueger portrayer Robert Englund with Jackie Earle Haley, and the new, more realistic burn makeup the character sports, but otherwise the movie is pretty similar in premise and execution. But this is not the first time Freddy has been reinvented. In 1994, his creator Wes Craven wrote and directed the seventh installment in the series, Wes Craven's New Nightmare, which not only featured new Freddy makeup, but also a new, meta look at the character that would have changed the way we looked at horror films and at movies in general... had anyone actually gone to see it. Although it was the lowest-performing entry in the franchise, and led to a ten-year hiatus, it was the first one to go out on a limb and try to do some things differently. These are just a few of those things.

1. It Let Actors Be Themselves
Nowadays, you can't throw a rock without hitting an actor playing a "version" of themselves, but back then it was rare, especially for such an extensive part. Heather Langenkamp, who played Nancy in the early Nightmare movies, appears in nearly every scene as herself, an actress who is tormented by a stalker's letters and phone calls, as well as bad dreams about making another Elm Street movie. Additionally, actors John Saxon and Robert Englund play themselves, with Saxon confusing his movie persona with himself and Englund painting his nightmarish visions of Krueger. Since then, we've seen plenty of other actors get drawn into supernatural tomfoolery -- John Malkovich entered his own head in Being John Malkovich, Paul Giamatti chased down his stolen soul in Cold Souls and Bruce Campbell was mistaken for his demon-fighting Evil Dead character in My Name is Bruce. (Similarly, Bill Murray's re-enactment of scenes from Ghostbusters amidst the zombie apocalypse in Zombieland was a brief but powerful bit of meta moviemaking.)

2. It Put Craven in Front of the Camera
Although directors often appear in their own movies -- usually playing cameos, unless you're talking about an Eastwood or Allen type -- New Nightmare remains one of the few mainstream movies where the director (or writer, or producer) appears in his own film as himself. Wes Craven plays himself in the opening on-set scene and in a large scene mid-movie where he reveals that he's been working on a script that mirrors Heather's real life. He's been driven to write this new Nightmare movie by his own nightmares, and the script has told him that Freddy is real, and was only trapped in the movies until the series dried up, at which point he broke free. A decade later, writer Charlie Kaufman would win acclaim for his screenplay for Adaptation, in which he writes himself into his adaptation of a dull non-fiction book and becomes part of the rapidly escalating action.

3. It Raised Questions About Horror's Influence
In New Nightmare, there's a point in the film where you wonder if it's all in Heather's head. Has her son been keeping himself awake to escape Freddy, or because watching his mother's movies and buying into his mother's mania has simply made him afraid to go to sleep? In 1990, Italian horror master Lucio Fulci starred in his own A Cat in the Brain, where he tried to reconcile his gruesome movies with several copycat murders across the city. Was he responsible, or had he merely influenced the killer with his patented brand of gore? New Nightmare ultimately shows Freddy to be very real, and does its best to vilify the doctor who suggests otherwise, but the questions it raised still remain.

4. It Showed Horror Had Rules
If there was one thing that hastened the decline of horror movies in the early 1990s, it was that people were tired of watching the same stupid people make the same stupid mistakes and get stupidly killed over and over. New Nightmare had a main character who knew the rules, having survived a franchise, and knew when it was necessary to stay awake and when to go to sleep and bring a knife. Rules became a common theme in subsequent horror films, including the Saw movies, Behind the Mask and the Scream franchise. Speaking of Scream...

5. It Jump-Started the Genre
Coming just two years before Scream, New Nightmare was a prototype for the blockbuster trilogy, in which the killers and the victims are both students of horror movies, and films-within-the-film are made to capture the events we saw in the previous installment. (Scream 3 actually takes place on the film set where they're re-creating the events of Scream 2. Fan of the trilogy or not, it kicked off a veritable horror revival that tended to play with familiar stories (Urban Legend), remake old horror movies (The Haunting) or parody all of the above (Scary Movie). Whether we should really be thanking New Nightmare for that last one is up to the individual.

Which is your favorite Nightmare movie? Let us know in the comments, then check out the superstars of Elm Street's most nightmarish roles!

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