Episode #113 of The Swampflix Podcast: Scream, Queen! (2020) & Mark Patton’s Nightmare on Elm Street

Welcome to Episode #113 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, and Britnee revisit the most hotly debated outlier in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), with a particular focus on its homophobic & homoerotic subtext as detailed in the documentaries Scream, Queen! (2020) & Never Sleep Again (2010). Enjoy!

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– Britnee Lombas, James Cohn, and Brandon Ledet

Scream (1996) is a Modern Horror Classic, but It’s Not Wes Craven’s Meta Masterpiece

When Wes Craven passed away in 2015, I commemorated the loss by revisiting what I’ve long thought to be his crown jewel, New Nightmare. The late-in-the-game Nightmare on Elm Street sequel is a meta reflection on the philosophical conundrums of the director’s own work. By creating the evil of Freddy Krueger in his fiction, what exactly was Craven unleashing into the world and what power did he hold over that evil once it seeped into public consciousness? This intellectual launching pad allowed the director, who appears as himself within the film, to not only lament & poke fun at the way his vision had been bastardized by the Elm Street series’ diminished returns sequels, but also to engage with the nature of Art & Horror as ancient societal traditions & metaphysical lifeforms all unto their own. It continues to surprise me that the Scream series that followed the trail of these meta-critical inquiries is generally held in higher regard than New Nightmare, despite their much shallower mode of self-aware criticism. 1996’s Scream is a modern classic that completely rejuvenated the teen slasher genre, altering the trajectory of mainstream horror as an art form for many years to come. Scream is a great film. However, its meta-commentary on the nature of horror isn’t nearly as philosophical or as ambitious as New Nightmare‘s, as it shifted Craven’s focus away from self-examination & towards the deconstruction of tropes.

I was very young when Scream hit theaters in the mid-90s, so the film served as my Rosetta Stone for a genre I didn’t know much about at the time, outside titles like Killer Klowns from Outer Space & The Monster Squad. Its hook is that it’s a slasher film where every character is highly aware that they’re living in a slasher film. Before setting in motion its A-plot hybrid of Prom Night & John Carpenter’s Halloween, Scream opens with a vignette homage to When a Stranger Calls. A (supposedly) teenage Drew Barrymore is harassed over her parents’ cordless phone by a masked, off-screen killer who grills her over the line about her favorite scary movies. Their verbal cat & mouse game escalates to real life violence in a trivia game about horror classics like Halloween & Friday the 13th. When Barrymore gets enough answers wrong, she’s brutally murdered. This opener has become more infamous than the film’s main plot in some ways, if not only for the shock that Barrymore is so easily discarded after featuring prominently in the advertising (which might in itself be a nod to Vivian Leigh’s role in the first act of Psycho). Scream’s main plot follows (a conspicuously twenty-something) Neve Campbell as she attempts to survive her final year of high school despite being stalked by the same serial killer from that opening vignette. As the killer’s catchphrase is “What’s your favorite scary movie?” and most of Campbell’s friends appear to be horror nerds (including a video store clerk played by Jamie Kennedy), Scream allows itself to name check nearly every classic horror title it apes in its own dialogue: Psycho, Carrie, Friday the 13th, Candyman, Basic Instinct, Prom Night, The Silence of the Lambs, the list goes on. The film even openly jokes about the declining quality in Nightmare on Elm Street sequels and features a brief cameo from Wes Craven himself as the high schools’ janitor, wearing Freddy Krueger’s exact sweater & fedora costume. Having since caught up with virtually all of these reference points in the two decades since I first saw this film as a child, these namedrops now play like adorably clever winks to the camera. In the mid-90s, however, that list was a doorway to a world of horrors I would take mental note of for future trips to the video store. It was essential.

As a more seasoned horror nerd, my appreciation for Scream has shifted away from its direct horror references to its broader deconstruction of slasher genre tropes. As fun as it is to hear characters reference The Howling as “the werewolf movie that has E.T.’s mom in it,” it’s much more rewarding to pick apart the mechanics of the genre while still delivering on their basic chills & thrills. Neve Campbell is immediately introduced to us as a virginal Final Girl archetype, wearing the girliest white cotton nightgown costume imaginable for a “high school senior.” Despite her self-awareness about that archetypal role in horror films, she lives out her Final Girl duties in a textbook manner. In one breath she’ll deride how it’s insulting that female horror victims are idiotic enough to run up the stairs instead of out the front door, then in the next breath she’ll allow herself to be chased up the stairs instead of running out the front door. Characters seem totally aware of the mistakes that get victims killed in slashers, warning each other not to drink, fuck, or say things like “Who’s there?” or “I’ll be right back.” Despite a verbal assurance that “This is life. This isn’t a movie,” the soon-to-be-victim teens make all of these exact mistakes anyway and immediately suffer the consequences. The movie is so aware of its own participation in well-worn slasher tropes that even decisions like casting twenty-somethings to play high school students feels like an intentional choice of self-parody when it could just as easily be a genuine participation in a Hollywood cliché.

Scream’s meta-commentary on the slasher genre is much more clever & trope-aware than New Nightmare’s earnest, philosophical stares into the metaphorical mirror. This may be a symptom of the Scream screenplay being written by Kevin Williamson instead of Craven himself, who was certainly doing a bit of career-spanning navel gazing with his New Nightmare script. As intricate & delightful as Scream’s self-awareness of its participation in horror tropes is for a lifelong fan of the genre, the film’s not nearly as impressive in its thematic depth as New Nightmare’s more metaphysical interests. The closest the film gets to reaching those New Nightmare heights is in a sequence where a newscaster van is watching hidden camera surveillance footage of a teen party on a 30 second delay, helpless to save victims who are unaware of the killer behind them, despite shouting “Turn around! Turn around!” at the screen. It’s as if the characters themselves are watching a copy of Scream in that moment, which is an interesting logical thought loop the movie creates within itself. Since Scream’s release, I do feel like I have seen a trope-deconstruction meta-horror that does approach New Nightmare’s philosophical ponderings; Drew Goddard & Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods does a phenomenal job of satisfying both ends of that divide. What’s interesting now is that in the decades since its release Scream itself has become a kind of cultural object worthy of nostalgia like the countless slasher titles it namedrops in its dialogue. It not only has been spoofed by the (godawful) Scary Movie series (as if a self-aware meta horror needed spoofing) & was followed by four of its own sequels, but its 90s-specific details have amounted to a kind of cultural time capsule. 90s telephone technology & fashion choices, along with callbacks to a time when Neve Campbell was the star of Party of Five and Courtney Cox & David Arquette were America’s goofball power couple/punching bag have all aged the film in a way that’s ripe for its own nostalgia. Even the mask design of the film’s killer, colloquially known as Ghostface, has become just as iconic as the killer visages of Jason, Freddy, Michael Meyers, and any other fictional slasher villain mentioned in the film. Scream may not be as philosophically curious or thematically ambitious as New Nightmare is in its own self-examination, but it has proven to be one of Wes Craven’s most iconic works in its own right instead of getting by as just an empty callback to the titles that inspired it.

-Brandon Ledet

Wes Craven’s Crown Jewel: New Nightmare (1994)

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Just two weeks ago, we lost a cinematic great who was often overlooked for his accomplishments as an auteur, perhaps due to his extensive work in genre films. Wes Craven may have made an occasional goofy trifle like a Shocker or a Swamp Thing, but his more accomplished films have unmistakably reshaped the horror landscape in a significant way. I don’t have much of a stomach for them myself, but his early works The Hills Have Eyes & The Last House on the Left rang out like the enraged, too-believable battle cries of a deeply disturbed mind eager to unleash its violent cravings upon the world at large. Honing in that anger for something more purposeful & universally palatable, Craven later scared the every living shit out of mainstream audiences with A Nightmare on Elm Street, which did for the simple act of falling asleep what Jaws did for nightswimming. Craven’s instantly infamous Freddy Krueger creation, brought to disturbingly vivid life by actor Robert Englund, would’ve been enough to coast on for the rest of the director’s life, but instead Craven broke out into more surreal territory with The Serpent & The Rainbow, political satire in The People Under the Stairs, and the very nature of horror as a genre in the meta franchise Scream, among other projects. Craven was an inventive fella, to put it mildly. He was enthusiastic about exploring new, strange ideas that would allow his demented id to escape from his mild-mannered exterior, scaring his audience while simultaneously challenging them in unexpectedly intellectual ways, the latter being something a lot of horror peddlers don’t bother with often enough.

My personal favorite Wes Craven film is 1994’s New Nightmare. It’s not his scariest, nor his most tightly-controlled work, but it is an incredibly smart picture that manages to bridge the gap between the dream-logic horror of A Nightmare on Elm Street with the meta genre reflection of the soon-to-come Scream franchise. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is a perfect way to remember the filmmaker for all he accomplished, not only because it marries those two defining moments of his career in a single picture, but also because he plays a role in the film as a fictionalized version of himself. The Scream franchise introduces its meta context by having the typical bonehead slasher victims be atypically self-aware of classic horror film tropes that usually lead to violent deaths, allowing for them to make commentary on the very film that they populate (eventually with their lifeless bodies). However, thanks to the dream logic of A Nightmare on Elm Street, New Nightmare allows itself even more free rein with its meta context. The movie itself is about the making of another Freddy Kruger picture, a cursed production that blurs the lines between reality & nightmare and free will & scripted fiction to the point where it’s near impossible to tell the difference between a character being awake, getting trapped in Freddy’s playground of the subconscious, or, worse yet, living out one of Wes Craven’s screenplays.

Set on the 10th anniversary of the original Freddy Krueger picture, New Nightmare stars Heather Langenkamp, who played the protagonist Nancy in the original Nightmare on Elm Street, as Heather Langenkamp, who played the protagonist Nancy in the original Nightmare on Elm Street. As the anniversary of the film draws near, threatening phonecalls (often accompanied by Earthquakes) that impossibly seem to be from Freddy Krueger himself torment the poor actress, establishing a mood of dread very early in the picture. The strange thing is that Langenkamp is good friends with Robert Englund, her colleague who portrays Krueger in the movies. Englund, playing himself (and Freddy, of course), is portrayed as a genteel dude here, spending his days idly painting in the sun room of a mansion undoubtedly funded by the success of the Elm Street films, a far cry from the undead homicidal maniac he embodies with Freddy. As mentioned above, Wes Craven also plays himself in New Nightmare. He explains to Heather that he’s been working on a script (or a “nightmare in progress” as he calls it) for a new Elm Street picture as a means to stop Krueger from becoming “real”. According to Craven, because Freddy was killed off in the 6th installment of the franchise (Freddy’s Dead: The “Final” Nightmare), he has been set free like a genie from a bottle, now able to manifest in real life, causing real havoc. The only way to stop Freddy, Craven explains, is to make another picture, an ordeal Heather is very reluctant to suffer.

There is so much to enjoy in New Nightmare & the film really does at times feel like all of the best elements of Wes Craven’s aesthetic conveniently gathered in one package. Striking an unnerving artificiality from the get go, the whole film feels like a constant dream state, a feeling that’s only amplified as the walls between the conscious & the subconscious, as well as the walls between the movie & the movie within the movie, begin to break down into a mess of Freddy Krueger themed chaos. As for Krueger himself, he actually doesn’t appear in his full form for much of the film. He’s more of a disembodied idea than a physical threat, often appearing solely as a clawed glove & at one point literally becoming larger than life by appearing in the clouds above a freeway. Heather’s horrified reaction to Krueger’s new, true-life form & his adoring fans’ gushing at his publicity appearances call into question Craven’s own thoughts on his creations & their fandom, particularly with the rougher work of films like The Last House on the Left. Otherworldly landscapes of bedsheets & subconscious dungeons recall the POV of a child’s imagination Craven so well captured in The People Under the Stairs. Although the dream state reflections of The Serpent & The Rainbow and the original Elm Street as well as the meta reflections of the Scream movies may have been more thoroughly solidfied in his other pictures, it’s nice to see those two worlds bounce off each other in such a satisfying way here.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare might not be his most technically accomplished film & it’s doubtful that it’ll be the one he’s most remembered for, but it holds a special place in my heart as a sum of the accomplishments of a director I grew up loving & fearing. When I heard the recent news that the incredibly gifted director had died, it was the first film I thought to revisit as a means of remembrance. It only helps that the director himself makes an appearance in the film to weigh in on the magical nature of filmmaking, directly referencing his personal compulsions to create, the often hellish compulsions that drive anyone to create, and the ways art can take on a life of its own outside its creator’s will or control. Besides being a great film as well as a reflection on the nature of horror as a genre & art as an enterprise, New Nightmare is a solid means to commemorating the accomplishments of a great director who is unfortunately no longer with us. He will undoubtedly be missed, but we’ll always have great films like New Nightmare to remember him by. Much like his creation Freddy Krueger, Craven lives on.

-Brandon Ledet