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The Netflix Files Presents: Halloween Horror Week - A Salute to Wes Craven

Earlier this year, the horror genre lost arguably it's most influential icon: Wes Craven. Nicknamed the "Sultan of Slash", the writer/director's contributions to the genre spills across the cinematic landscape, even to this day. Remember how production company Lions Gate Films went from obscure indie company to a legitimate powerhouse, thanks to the the success of the Saw film series; even dubbing it, "the house that Jigsaw built?" Craven did the exact same thing for New Line Cinema with the Nightmare on Elm Street series, even bringing actor Johnny Depp to prominence. What about how Jigsaw, Michael Myers and Jason have become twisted main characters that you want to root for? Again, that bears a debt to Mr. Craven, as actor Robert Englund's Freddy Kruger became the main draw to the Elm Street sequels, mostly for his dark sense of humor and creative ways he slaughters his victims. Even the ways Jigsaw makes and plants traps for his victims to be brutally killed, maimed and slaughtered owes a tip of the hat to Wes, as he makes the scenes of intense violence and bloodshed as gross, twisted & unpleasant to watch as possible, from films like the highly controversial Last House on the Left in 1972 and The Hills Have Eyes five years later; to the Scream movies.

There's also another added element that can be felt and that has been used numerous times: Craven's use of meta-humor; a way for filmmakers to call attention the tropes and cliches in their own movie, as well as in other movies. Today on Halloween, I'm going to review Craven's first foray into horror/satire, Wes Craven's New Nightmare. It's been a full ten years since Heather Langenkamp (who plays herself) took on the iconic role of Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street, and New Line Cinema calls her for a pitch meeting to reprise her role in a new installment of the Elm Street series. At the same time, Heather has been having dreams about gruesome murders on set, as well as seeing Freddy Kruger in her dreams, terrorizing her and her son, Dylan. It isn't until her co-star Robert Englund, the man who plays Kruger and writer/director Craven himself begin having nightmares about this new Kruger that Heather realizes that she is being drawn into Freddy's world - this time, the glove-wearing serial killer is playing for keeps.

Let me blunt: of all the movies I've reviewed for my holiday-themed week, New Nightmare is by far my favorite for a variety of different reasons: first, I love the clever, and tight script by Craven, by using the world her created as his play box for this installment. It's a film about making a film, but as we go further into the story, our sense of reality is thrown into question: is this all happening in real time, or is is this all a part of someones imagination? Despite seeing the picture through Heather, we're still not entirely sure if the third act is her playing Nancy while the cameras are rolling, or if Langenkamp is dreaming about the scenario in her head, or in Craven's. As a result, we're kept on our toes and guessing as to what's happening in the story. Whilst the writer-director is playing with our perceptions of reality, he's also making statements about how film plays it's own role - specifically how we respond and how it shapes our own perceptions in life, and the people who make it. Heather is hesitant to return to the franchise after two movies and how "Freddy" died in Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, especially since her character Nancy perished battling him in the third installment of the series, Dream Warriors. She's also afraid of being synonymous with "Nancy" through her career and what that persona, being attached to the Elm Street series, means for her young son. Those perceptions play out across the film, from being prank called by a Freddy-voice, to the scenes where Dylan is kept in the hospital for an extended period of time, due to the head nurse's suspicion that Heather is abusing her child and because of her past history of appearing in the horror movies.

Perhaps what's most enjoyable about this fresh take on the series is the how Langenkamp, not the new iteration of Freddy Kruger, nor Robert Englund himself, is the star of the movie. The earlier scene where she appears on a talk show, only to get upstaged by Englund in full Kruger costume is commentary about how this horror favorite has become the star of the franchise. We don't even see this newer, meaner Freddy until midway through the second act, and by the third act, where he becomes the primary antagonist, the focus is still on the fictionalized Heather character and her journey to come to grips with how she'll always be tied to the franchise, for both the good and bad. It's a stellar performance by her, plain and simple.

Wes Craven's New Nightmare is a perfect example of the legacy of the famed horror filmmaker, and what makes him so special: lacing the fears of the characters as a backdrop for a physical manifestation of what they fear, sharp moments of comedy and commentary, and well-rounded performances by the actors, including Craven playing himself. There have been other films and filmmakers who have used the horror genre as a launching pad for larger ideas, and a few of them I consider to be solid to modern-day horror classics, like Craven's own Scream, Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods, and You're Next! Sometimes you get stuff like The Purge and Diary of the Dead, which aims to be clever in it's social commentary, but ends up being muddled and/or not completely fleshed out. And then you get icky, pointless and mean-spirited crap, like the final movie I'm reviewing for Halloween Horror Week: Tom Six, you're no Craven, Goddard, or George A. Romero, and your disgusting meta torture flick Human Centipede: Full Sequence proves it.

*** 1/2 stars out of ****

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