Freddy's back, but film settles for clever rather than chilling

October 14, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Onward, pagan soldiers!

The latest Freddy Krueger film, "Wes Craven's New Nightmare," has arrived, with a much purer pedigree than any Freddy since the original "Nightmare on Elm Street." That's because the original was created by Craven, a horror auteur, and then passed on to mere mortals while he tried to make a mark in mainstream films, such as "The Serpent and the Rainbow." Now he and his original creation have reunited, around a particularly nasty, devilish idea.

Others in that first film return as well: Heather Langenkamp, the original Nancy, as well as John Saxon, who played her father. But the movie isn't a sequel or, really, even a fiction; it's one of those infernally precious Pirandellian puzzle pieces, a nesting of clever boxes within boxes with the largest box being something called "reality."

Langenkamp, in short, plays a character called "Heather Langenkamp," a former horror film actress now working in TV and raising a young son. John Saxon is "John Saxon," fallen '50s leading man now doing authoritarian character roles.

The one and only Robert Englund, so devilishly vivid as Freddy, plays "Robert Englund," celeb horror film star now cashing in with campy guest appearances. (Of course, he also plays Freddy, though even the credits preciously list "Freddy Krueger" as "himself.") Why, even Wes Craven appears as . . . Mamie Van Doren! No, no, he plays "Wes Craven," horror auteur and brooding genius. Finally, Robert Shaye, the chairman of New Line Pictures, appears as "Robert Shaye," chairman of New Line Pictures. It must be said: he's one of the few people on Earth who cannot manage to be convincing as himself.

Is it real or is it Memorex? Is anyone likely to care? Probably not. The film is a prime example of what is meant by the phrase "too clever by half." In fact, it's so busy being clever, so busy showing off its dazzling narrative stratagems, it never really becomes gripping. The layers of cleverness, the dense accrual of possibilities and permutations, keep getting in the way.

The principal narrative event of the movie is -- grad students, start your pens -- the writing of its own script. That is, high in his hilltop aerie, Wes Craven is toiling away on the last, the ultimate, the purest Freddy of them all, something so strange and weird that he can only write after having a nightmare. Meanwhile down in the dreary flatlands of the San Fernando Valley, Robert Shaye has put in a call to Heather because he wants something from her: He wants her to star in Wes's new movie.

But strange calls, earth tremors, odd mail, nightmares and, worst of all, the peculiar behavior of her son (who, to hopelessly muddy the waters, is not her real son but actor Miko Hughes), have her unsettled. She senses that something is lurking nearby and that something needs a new hat, a skin graft and a left-hand manicure in the worse possible way.

It's not a bad idea for a movie: A bunch of Hollywood creeps have made themselves rich by inventing a weirdly resonant psychopathic butcherer of teen-agers, and now, by some short-circuit in the rational universe, the actual creature has come off the screen and he's stalking them. He gets a few, too, in some spectacular ways.

Craven even has a provocative theory to explain it: Suppose the real Freddy were some kind of otherworldly demon who wandered into our dimension but could only be trapped in "stories." So when he's snared in the original "Nightmare on Elm Street," the world's daily ration of murder is somewhat lessened. But now the "Nightmare" series has bombed out and Freddy's getting restless again. Somehow he must be retrapped in a vigorous narrative and held there.

But "Wes Craven's New Nightmare" isn't that vigorous narrative. It's too fitful and it relies far too much on the ancient it's-only-a-dream bit of malarkey to justify its frequent tilts into horror surrealism. This bit that was old when Wes Craven was in diapers.

But fear not: If indeed it takes vigorous narrative to put Freddy in chains, then you may rest assured he's miserably imprisoned within the sturdy walls of "Pulp Fiction."

"Wes Craven's

New Nightmare"

Starring Heather Langenkamp and Robert Englund

Directed by Wes Craven

Released by New Line Cinema

Rated R

... ** 1/2

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