If Pirandello had ever made a splatter movie, it would probably have been along the lines of Wes Craven's New Nightmare--the title might be Five Knives in Search of a Sequel. Wes Craven, writer-director of the first (and only good) A Nightmare on Elm Street film, back in 1984, has now fashioned a sequel which takes a step out rather than a step back. Craven himself is a character in it, as is New Line producer Robert Shaye, and many other real people associated with the Elm Street series, all playing themselves. The heroine of the film is a person named "Heather Langenkamp," played by the lispy actress of the same name who played the heroine of the '84 film. She's having the same dreams from which her character suffered in that film--they're haunted by the razor-finger-wielding bogeyman Freddy Krueger. Her son, played by a baleful-looking little squirt named Miko Hughes, is also troubled, and has begun to lapse into a trancelike state and say things like "Never sleep again!" in an unearthly growl. Heather learns that Craven is writing one more Elm Street picture and that she's wanted to star in it. Eventually, she also learns that Craven, Shaye and her old co-star Robert Englund (who gave life to Freddy) are all sharing her dreams. Indeed, the script Craven's writing is based word-for-word on what Heather has been going through. Craven theorizes to her that--if I'm getting this right--Freddy's spirit has gotten too powerful for the comfortable prison of movie fiction, and that it's necessary to make one more sequel to sort of rebottle the malevolent genie.
Well, as justifications for sequels go, this one is at least original. But coming up with a Pirandelloesque premise certainly does not mean you're Pirandello. The Chinese-box plot, clever though it is, is really just a gimmick on which to build a scare picture. It's not even a very original notion--The Dark Half used a variation on it, as did, in other genres, The Last Action Hero and The Purple Rose of Cairo.
There's nothing wrong (particularly at this time of year) with a good scare picture, of course, and Craven, though terribly erratic, is often worth the gamble. Though his debut film, The Last House on the Left, is bafflingly overrated, some of his later work, like the original Elm Street or his uneven but potently grisly black comedy The People Under the Stairs, is as imaginative as this "raw" type of horror gets. For the first hour or so of the New Nightmare, Craven experiments with generating terror from the dark side of a Hollywood celebrity's life--earthquakes, obsessed fans, ringing phones, early work that embarrasses you now that you have kids. Most of the chills in the film come not from Freddy or from the routine splatter-and-bombast finale, but from these eerily everyday sections, in which Craven simply observes the tensions of Heather's life through a horror-movie lens. This isn't enough for a whole movie, admittedly, but Wes Craven's New Nightmare is a nice, respectable try at fiddling with the conventions of the form. There's also amusement value in Englund's cheeky dual performance, and the rather endearing stiffness of Craven and the other nonactors, and the flat but strangely affecting nonacting of Langenkamp.
Elm Street's John Saxon has an extended turn as himself, and several other alumni of the series are quickly glimpsed. What a shame that Johnny Depp, who played a supporting part in the original Elm Street (his film debut, as I recall), couldn't have been persuaded to appear as himself, and bring a whole different level of Hollywood glamour into Freddy's glove range. But then, one look at the vacant stares of the latter-day Depp and his paramour, Kate Moss, and Freddy might have fled back to the netherworld, spooked.