By now, just over 25 years after its debut, it’s debatable as to whether or not the Scream series has quite the same inventiveness it once did. In 1996, the first film in the series reinvigorated the flagging slasher genre that director Wes Craven helped popularise in the 80s with the first A Nightmare On Elm Street. These highly profitable movies cost very little to make, relied on easily replicable formulas and, as a result, created new cinematic tropes like ‘Scream Queen’ and ‘Final Girl,’ as defined by film critic Carol Clover.
Come the mid-90s, however, and creatively, the likes of Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees were dead in the water. That was until Scream, with its meta-commentary on how one survives such splatterfests was released, cementing Craven as the comeback horror king.
Four sequels later, however, and the newest entry – which is confusingly called Scream but is essentially Scream 5 – is releasing into a cultural landscape where meta-ness alone isn’t always enough to distinguish oneself: it’s how meta you get. (See Adult Swim’s Rick And Morty for how this can be taken to almost story-breaking heights.) Scream (2022) will also be the first in the series to be completely devoid of Craven’s input: he passed away in 2015, ending a legendary career on a high note with Scream 4. But long before this, Craven pushed fourth wall boundaries with what some might consider his masterpiece – and the film that Scream owes much, if not all, of its existence to: Wes Craven’s A New Nightmare.
Released in 1994, New Nightmare marked the director’s return to the Elm Street series, the films of which had been churning along without him for close to a decade by then with mixed success. Much like the pattern of Hollywood nostalgia-baiters of late, including Terminator: Dark Fate, 2018’s Halloween and now, 2022’s Scream, New Nightmare ignores a lot of established series canon to make itself a hybrid reboot-sequel long before such things became ubiquitous. Far more daringly, it makes the world of the first film exactly that – a film… Well, mostly.
The opening sequence lures you into thinking you’re going along for another standard jaunt with the jumper-wearing dream demon: creepy dungeon-esque location, dim lighting and Freddy’s glove being forged, soundtracked by those familiar synth pangs. Then the reveal happens – the camera pulls out and we find ourselves on a set, a new Elm Street movie being made right before our eyes. Meanwhile, actress Heather Langenkamp appears not as OG Final Girl Nancy, but as Heather Langenkamp, complete with her real-world career choices.
This is also true of Freddy actor Robert Englund, who shows up on a talk show with a reluctant Langenkamp and then spends most of his time reclusively painting in his mansion. It’s also true, most surprisingly, of Wes Craven himself, who is behind the current reboot taking place within the world of the reboot we’re watching. Even production company New Line Cinema (the ‘House that Freddy Built’) play a part, providing the setting for a meeting between Langenkamp and Craven.
This sense of mundane realism comes in stark contrast to the highly fantastical nature we’re used to from Elm Street – and deliberately so, as when a further twist is added, New Nightmare begins to unravel the distinction between dreams and reality even more, not to mention the distinction between the character’s reality and ours. When Langenkamp starts dreaming about Freddy and goes to Craven for answers, the director – who has been eerily writing the film we’re watching as it happens at his desk – confesses that Freddy has, in fact, been a real evil entity all along, prevented from escaping the dreamscape by the creation of the films. However, with the series having then concluded with Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, he’s now uncontained.
One could read into this as some kind of comment on Craven’s relationship with the film series that, before Scream, he’d become most closely associated with. Having been gone so long, the writer/director perhaps felt compelled to have the real final word on Freddy, lest terrible things happen. (Unfortunately, he didn’t – the absurd nonsense of Freddy vs Jason followed later on.)
Though Craven didn’t write Scream, the blueprint for its self-awareness is clear, albeit much watered down. Perhaps the thickest layering of this nature (the film-within-a-film thing) we get in Scream is the fictional ‘Stab’ franchise, which adapts the events of the Woodsboro Murders from Gail Weathers’ novels and becomes a major focus in Scream 3 – though not to the film’s favour, sadly. Released just two years after New Nightmare, the first Scream also plays to the kind of audience that would have appreciated the former’s ambitions by heroising the film nerd on screen in the form of Randy Meeks, who becomes aware that adhering to the tropes in slashers that allow prospective victims to survive could help he and his classmates endure Ghostface, who emulates such villains. Just to hammer it home further, the sequence in which he explains these rules is prompted by a TV screening of the first Halloween film – the one all slasher movies, including Craven’s Elm Street, take after.
The Scream films are much lighter in tone than New Nightmare, which pointedly makes Freddy far less comically-minded than he became in previous instalments. Here, he’s a full-on demon, complete with a harder-edged face and less inclined for some light banter in between murders. Scream is also much lighter in its self-referentiality, in that the broader cliches of its genre are pointed to for satirical purposes, but not really deconstructed in the way that they are in, say, Cabin In The Woods; Scream is more reverential than it is cynical.
In New Nightmare, on the other hand, Craven tears down the fourth wall entirely in order to push the concept of Elm Street to breaking point. At the same time, Freddy’s myth becomes even more potent: The series’ entire premise, after all, is that dreams can be indistinguishable from reality until we know we’re having them, and our dreams are very susceptible to being influenced by what we see in TV and film. So, if you watched an Elm Street film and subsequently dreamed about Freddy, does that count as a manifestation of the dream demon in our world? New Nightmare makes us ponder such questions, making Freddy more ‘real’ than he’s even been.
We could go one step further though. There are small but noticeable allusions to Freddy in some of the Scream films – the most obvious being a janitor (played by Craven) wearing his iconic red and brown jumper in the first one at Woodsboro High School. The jumper appears again in Scream 2 in Sidney Prescott’s dorm room and in the costume department on the set of a Stab film in Scream 3. And though it’s not in connection to Freddy, Craven – a canonical Elm Street character – has another cameo in a deleted Scream 4 scene.
If one wanted to go full Randy Meeks with this, you could argue that the world of Scream might even exist within the world of Elm Street, as Freddy traditionally leaves context clues of his existence scattered among his victims’ dreams. (He’s nothing if not narcissistic.) If Scream really were just one big Freddy dream, Ghostface could merely be another guise of his following his ‘final’ defeat at the end of New Nightmare. Kind of gives a new meaning to the idea in psychoanalysis that cinema is a ‘dream machine,’ not to mention the one we’ve been discussing.
Is New Nightmare just the creative blueprint for Scream, or is it also the literal one? That depends on how tin-foil hatted you want to get with film nerdery, but it’s certainly true that the latter wouldn’t have been the same without the former.
Scream (2022) is in cinemas now.
words HANNAH COLLINS
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