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Sunday Scaries: Wes Craven’s Déjà Vu

Note: Spoilers ahead for the Scream and A Nightmare on Elm Street series.

You know what’s a really good horror movie? New Nightmare. It didn’t perform very well at the box office and it seems like most fans remember it today as “that one odd out-of-continuity entry in the franchise,” but for my money, it’s second only to the first A Nightmare on Elm Street as the best one in the series, my personal second-favorite movie from the late horror filmmaker Wes Craven, and second only to Candyman as the overall best slasher of the 1990’s.

This was Craven’s first foray into postmodern metacommentary on the genre he reshaped in 1984. After spectral dreamworld killer Freddy Krueger definitively, 100%, we-totally-promise-he’s-dead-for-good-this-time died in Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, you’d be justified in thinking a return to that well would require a desperate, pathetic retcon of some kind. But not here! To avoid pandering to or insulting the intelligence of his fans, he found an interesting workaround that seemed weird but ended up being quite clever – in New Nightmare, the A Nightmare on Elm Street movies exist… as movies! And Wes Craven exists as himself! And so does Robert Englund the actor! And Heather Langenkamp returns not as Nancy Thompson (who died in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors), but as a version of herself; the actress who walked away from movie stardom, settled down, got married, and became a mom.

Such a canonical remove allowed for creative freedom to explore what these characters and stories mean, on a deeper level, to both their fans and creators. It was self-referential without being masturbatory about it, and mercilessly skewered how ridiculous and un-scary the franchise had gotten in later years while paying earnest tribute to how powerful the original concept remains. Craven successfully salvaged his creation from the embarrassing clown he had become by restaging some of the most memorable kills from previous films in a darker, more vicious register. By playing “Heather Langenkamp,” Heather Langenkamp got to express, through this performance, what the role of Nancy Thompson has meant to her, and all the unfortunate baggage it came with in her real life.

And while transforming your series mainstay into a literal narrative construct who can be defeated by the power of storytelling does pretty much kill your ability to extend your franchise any further, that’s okay. Especially when it became so ubiquitous as to be played-out with subsequent generations of moviegoers. It’s probably the closest any slasher has come to its own Adaptation or . Best of all, it was Craven’s personal last word on it. He closed the book on his series, on his terms, and in a way that was fun, inspired, and actually scary by not just respecting, but actively reclaiming the essence of what made the series so popular in the first place.

Two years later, Craven would create the other slasher franchise he was best known for: Scream. Personally, I find those movies a little too smug in their winking awareness of horror tropes as an excuse to indulge in them, but I’m definitely in a minority since the first two held the record for highest-grossing slashers of all time (unadjusted for inflation) for over two decades, finally being toppled by David Gordon Green’s Halloween in 2018. Unlike A Nightmare on Elm Street, he personally helmed all entries in what became a trilogy that concluded in 2000 on a note that… I mean, I didn’t care about, but must have felt satisfying for devotees of the whole saga.

Then, after directing a few small-scale thrillers throughout the Aughts and even contributing a segment in the short film anthology Paris, je t’aime, Craven re-teamed with series screenwriter Kevin Williamson eleven years later to bring back Ghostface for another round of self-referential slasher shenanigans in Scream 4. Or is it Scre4m? Not sure… let’s stick with the former spelling. But one thing I am sure about is that whatever Craven and Williamson’s motivations for putting out an extension to their already-concluded trilogy, genuine self-motivated creative desire could not possibly have been one of them, based on the evidence presented on the screen.

This movie brims with resentment, to an incredible degree. What was a jocular “Haha, aren’t these slasher tropes kinda silly? Let’s have fun with them!” attitude gives way to a barely disguised contemptuous “Horror sucks now, and it’s all the fault of Kids These Days who just want nonsense and endless sequels, and everything wrong with them and the genre and all of cinema are right here in this movie. Fuck you for making us do this.” Similar to New Nightmare, there’s a sort of art-imitates-life metanarrative when Dewey and Gale’s marriage is portrayed as on the rocks while real-life couple David Arquette and Courteney Cox were going through a trial separation during principal photography (Arquette would officially file for divorce a year after this film’s release). But unlike Langenkamp’s foray into blending real life and fiction, Scream 4 doesn’t really “do” anything with this except just call attention to it.

The explanation for a killer emerging with the same mask and modus operandi this time somehow manages to feel both convoluted and facile, as if overexplaining the pretty dunderheaded mechanics of their in-universe justification will make this redux feel any less contrived. There are a bunch of new characters set up as obvious stand-ins for wide-eyed fans whose real purpose is to just show up and shower deference on Sidney, Dewey, and Gale because, well, they’re the main characters we all know so they’re the aging “legends” the young actors have to step aside for, at the expense of their own development.

But the worst part of Scream 4 is the palpable lethargy to the suspense scenes. Iconic setpieces and kills from previous movies are blandly recreated in Scream 4, but that only draws attention to how much more inspired the original scenes felt to a prior generation and how going through them again feels like a sad reunion tour from an over-the-hill rock band. At every moment you’re watching it, you can’t shake the feeling that this was made by people who didn’t really want to make it, but Hollywood wouldn’t fund any of their other projects and threatened to tack on their own extension to the series without its original creators so hey, might as well be the ones to rehash this ourselves because audiences just want to see the same IPs over and over again, amirite?

It’s just sad, honestly, watching something so baldly mercenary express such bitterness about the circumstances that brought it into existence, and then go through the fan-service motions anyway. Even if there’s a part of me that sympathizes with the frustration, that doesn’t make the movie any less of a chore to sit through.

For… some inexplicable reason, I kept thinking about Scream 4 after watching The Matrix Resurrections. Not sure why.

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Written by Robert Hamer

Formerly an associate writer for recently-retired Award Circuit, Robert Hamer is a veteran who spends his time obsessing over movies and pop politics.

He is returning to film and awards season commentary to return to a sense of normalcy in these plague-ridden times of rising fascism and late-stage capitalist dystopia. Join him, won't you, in these unorthodox attempts at cinematic therapy?

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