Category Archives: Horror

DRACULA WEEK DAY 5: Gerard Butler in Dracula 2000

Dracula 2000Director: Patrick Lussier

Writer: Joel Soisson & Patrick Lussier

Cast: Gerard Butler, Christopher Plummer, Jonny Lee Miller, Justine Waddell, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Jennifer Esposito, Omar Epps, Sean Patrick Thomas, Danny Masterson, Lochlyn Munro, Tig Fong, Jeri Ryan, Shane West, Nathan Fillion

Plot: Matthew Van Helsing (Christopher Plummer) is an antique dealer in London in the year 2000, and constantly attempts to downplay the tales of his grandfather Abraham, who supposedly inspired the vampire hunter character in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. His secretary, Solina (Jennifer Esposito), helps her boyfriend, Marcus (Omar Epps) break into Van Helsing’s vault. They set off a series of traps, killing several of the thieves in the process. The survivors steal a silver coffin, which they take with them as they flee to New Orleans. Van Helsing and his apprentice Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) pursue them. On the way over one of the thieves, Nightshade (Danny Masterson) opens the coffin to find a corpse covered in leeches. The corpse rises and attacks him, slaying two thieves to regain a healthy, human form – Dracula (Gerard Butler).

In New Orleans, at Mardi Gras (because in Hollywood, Mardi Gras happens every day of the year in New Orleans) we meet Van Helsing’s daughter Mary (Justine Waddell) and her friend Lucy Westerman (Colleen Fitzpatrick). Mary, who has been having nightmares, finds herself with an unexplained psychic link to Dracula. She turns to Father David, (Nathan Fillion) an old friend who knew her late mother, hoping he can help her uncover the secrets she carried with her, but he knows nothing that can help her. Van Helsing arrives in New Orleans to see news of a plane crash in a nearby bayou, and sees the silver coffin among the wreckage. Reporter Valerie Sharpe (Jeri Ryan) is on the scene of the crash – and soon becomes one of Dracula’s new brides. Simon and Van Helsing find the bodies of Marcus’s crew, only to find they’ve become vampires.

Van Helsing tells Simon that Dracula cannot be permanently destroyed, even by the normal methods of killing a vampire (stakes, silver, sunlight). He has spent his life seeking a way to kill the beast, to no avail. What’s more, he’s not Abraham Van Helsing’s grandson, he is Abraham, having prolonged his life by leeching Dracula’s blood and injecting it into himself. All he knows is that Dracula hates God and Christianity, presumably lining him up for a correspondent’s job at MSNBC. Dracula seeks Mary, but instead encounters Lucy, who he bites. Mary sees a flash of Lucy’s assault just as Simon approaches her with the promise of explaining why her mother took her across the world to escape her father. As she leaves, he’s attacked by Marcus, but slays him.

Van Helsing tracks Dracula to Mary’s house, but is killed. Mary finds him under the bed, and is soon assaulted by Dracula’s three new brides: Solina, Valerie, and Lucy. She learns the telepathic link she has with Dracula is because her father had injected himself with the vampire’s blood. Dracula shows Valerie the truth of his origin – he is Judas Iscariot, betrayer of Jesus Christ, condemned to walk the Earth ever since the night of his great sin. He takes her to Simon, captured by the Brides, and offers him to Mary: drink his blood and join them as a vampire. She tricks him and they fight, slaying the Brides. After a struggle, she wraps a cord around his neck and pushes him from the roof, hanging him, just as Judas was hanged for his sin, as the sun rises. He catches on fire when the sun touches him. Mary, however, remembers that her father said none of the normal ways to kill a vampire work on Dracula, and vows to return to London to watch in case he ever returns.

Thoughts: Produced by Wes Craven, whose name has turned up in previous movie studies a time or three, this is an odd telling of Dracula. Although it acknowledges the classic story, it also borrows elements from it, making Dracula 2000 an attempted hybrid between a sequel to Bram Stoker’s original and a contemporary remake of the same.

Craven’s greatest work – and here I am thinking specifically of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream,  which the movie poster vehemently reminds us of – fall into the “slasher” category of horror. Dracula, however, is a different kind of beast, and the same things that work for Freddy Krueger or Ghostface don’t necessarily work here. The weaker elements of this movie, in fact, are those that attempt the same sort of jump scares or plot twists that make up the very DNA of a slasher film, but feel a good bit sillier in the context of a vampire movie.

Speaking of silly, I know this is just my personal sensitivity as a lifelong Louisiana boy, but I really would love to get my hands on whoever dressed the extras in this movie and batter them in the face with an oversized set of Mardi Gras beads. People don’t always dress for a party here, nor does everybody in the city show up wearing oversized novelty hats. The fact that this story takes place at Mardi Gras bears absolutely no bearing on the plot, making it just another case of Hollywood thinking it’s like that here all the time. And the “local” news reporter who asks “what’s the deal with these bugs?” It’s Louisiana, jackass. That’s the deal. We gots bugs.

But I digress.

One thing about this movie I do find interesting is the origin story of Dracula. This is one monster that I always feel is actually stronger when he has a religious bent of some sort. Perhaps it comes from the old notion that he can be driven back by a Crucifix, but Dracula as an enemy of God is a concept that makes sense to me and I think works for the character. (It was, in fact, a strength of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.) Casting him as Judas, however, doesn’t quite do the trick. It may seem to fit the requirements, but it also betrays a rather fundamental misunderstanding of Judas as he was presented in the Bible – he never hated Christ. And come on, even if we’re to believe that Dracula didn’t hate Jesus in the beginning, but grew to hate him due to his curse, it’s not like he didn’t have it coming. Plus, the Biblical flashbacks in this film are pretty cheesy, clear soundstage set-ups and not convincing at all.

Gerard Butler – who, by the way, isn’t nearly oily enough in this movie to be recognizable as Gerard Butler – doesn’t have as much to do as Dracula as you would think. He basically is called upon to stand around looking menacing, throw people smaller than him through scenery, and seduce beautiful women. He has a better job than any of us, is what I’m saying. But he plays Dracula as more of a force of nature than a character, with little dialogue and littler personality.

The rest of the cast is largely forgettable – sitcom actors and other b-movie stars or musicians taking a stab at acting. Only Christopher Plummer has any real acting chops, and he’s hamming it up with the rest of them. It’s telling that arguably the supporting performer in this movie with the best post-Dracula career is Nathan Fillion, who appears for all of five minutes.

The design aesthetic is so, so nineties. It’s not enough that our hero have a gun, it has to be a gun with a detachable knife. Hallways must appear endless. Even the Crucifix Simon gives Mary at the end has a hidden blade inside it. Admittedly, there’s a practical purpose for it, but it still feels like overkill.

Overall, it’s hard to really recommend this movie. From a technical standpoint, it’s superior to Blacula, but damn if that movie won’t stay with me more. This film has two direct-to-DVD sequels as well, and while a weird part of me wants to seek out Scream, Blacula, Scream, and all of me wants to continue watching more of Christopher Lee in the Hammer Dracula movies, if this is the end of my road with Wes Craven’s Dracula, I think I’m okay with it.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

DRACULA WEEK DAY 4: Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Bram Stokers DraculaDirector: Francis Ford Coppola

Writer: James V. Hart, based on the novel by Bram Stoker

Cast: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves, Richard E. Grant, Cary Elwes, Billy Campbell, Sadie Frost, Tom Waits, Monica Bellucci, Michaela Bercu, Florina Kendrick

Plot: In 1492, the warrior Vlad Dracula (Gary Oldman) returns from battle to find his wife Elisabeta (Winona Ryder) has killed herself after hearing a false report of his death. Enraged, Dracula renounces God and stabs a cross, which begins flowing with blood. He drinks the blood and screams.

Over four hundred years later, solicitor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is given an account from his colleague Renfield (Tom Waits), who has gone mad. Harker says goodbye to his fiancé, Mina (Winona Ryder again) and travels to meet his new client, Count Dracula of Transylvania – now a frail-looking old man, but with horrible power. When Dracula sees Harker’s photograph of Mina, he is stricken, believing her to be the reincarnation of his long-dead wife. Harker explores the castle, only to be found and fed upon by Dracula’s three “brides” (Monica Bellucci, Michela Bercu and Florina Kendrick).

Mina’s friend Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost) is romanced by three separate men: a visiting American, Quincy Morris (Billy Campbell); Dr. Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant); and Lord Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes). She ultimately accepts Arthur’s proposal of marriage. Dracula, meanwhile, has boxed up himself and the most important parts of his household and is sailing to England and his new property in Carfax Abby. As they arrive in England, Dracula transforms into a wolf-like monster and seeks out the home of Harker’s fiancé. Mina awakens to see Lucy, mesmerized, leaving her home in the midst of a storm, and finds her being ravaged by the wolf-man. When he sees Mina watching, he flees. In the morning he appears as a young man, and introduces himself to her as “Prince Vlad of Sangre.”

Concerned for Lucy’s ailing health, Seward calls for Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins). He arrives to see Lucy again being drained of blood, this time by Dracula in shadow-form. He gives her a transfusion from Arthur. Elsewhere, Dracula plies Mina with absinthe, wooing her slowly. Harker manages to escape from Dracula’s brides and sends for Mina to join him so they can finally be married. When she bids farewell to her “prince,” he goes into a mad fit and kills Lucy. After her funeral, Van Helsing convinces her three suitors to join him in opening her crypt, only to find it empty. Lucy, now a vampire, enters the tomb with a small child intent on feeding, and the men slay her. Harker joins them and tells them Dracula resides at Carfax Abby, and they plan to destroy him.

Van Helsing and the others go to the Abby and begin destroying the boxes of Transylvanian soil Dracula must sleep in. He, meanwhile, visits Mina, who begs him to grant her his gift of eternal life. As she drinks his blood, Van Helsing and the others burst in and force him back. He transforms into a horde of rats and escapes. He takes a ship to return home, but the others take Mina by train, a much faster voyage. Van Helsing and Mina travel to the castle, while the others try to head off the gypsies transporting Dracula’s casket. The Brides attack Van Helsing, but he manages to track them to their crypt and slay them by the light of day. The hunters catch up to Dracula at the castle. Morris dies in the battle, but not before stabbing Dracula in the heart. The wounded vampire crawls into the chapel where his curse began and dies, Mina by his side. She professes her love to him before cutting off his head, releasing him from his curse. A fresco appears, picturing the human Vlad and Elisabeta rising, at long last, into Heaven.

Thoughts: You’ve got to give Francis Ford Coppola credit – the man doesn’t do half-measures. From the first moments of the film, when we see Gary Oldman marching around in blood-red armor sculpted to suggest bare muscle tissue, we know we’re in for a wild sort of ride. That’s only where it begins, though – Coppola took great pains to give this film a unique look, eschewing camera tricks, even the sort of green screen that was common when the film was made in 1992. Every effect is practical, including the projection of words on the faces of actors, the reflection of enormous eyes onto glass windows, and some frankly humorous model train work. Lightning strikes don’t look remotely realistic, instead giving the impression of someone shining a flashlight through a cut-out flat behind the actors. It’s as if Coppola decided that he was by god going to make sure everything he captured on film was no more complicated than he could have gotten out of a community theater production of the story. And boy, did he succeed.

Despite the inherent goofiness of doing something this way, though, I find that the look of the film is one of the first things I loved about it. This doesn’t look like any of the other Dracula movies I’ve seen… hell, it doesn’t look like any other movie I’ve seen. It has a unique sort of style, not just in the design but in the way all the elements come together, that appeals to me in ways I can’t fully articulate. Let’s just say there’s something really cool about all of it, the same way you realize your dad was kind of cool when you get older and catch yourself making the same kind of jokes that embarrassed the hell out of you when he told them to your friends.

On the plus side, some of the monster effects are really cool. While certain other films downplayed the notion that vampires could change their shape or were limited by the effects of the time, Coppola pulls off a pretty convincing monstrous transformation on the screen, with Oldman metamorphosing from a pale creature to a hairy, wolflike beast. (Yeah, folks, in classic lore vampires could turn into bats or wolves. Also mist. It’s cool.) The design of the human-sized bat is really creepy and worthy of the nastiest supernatural horror flick. The set design is impressive, and the costumes are top-notch.

Gary Oldman… if ever there was an actor who gave himself entirely to the movie, it’s Gary Oldman. He’s given us the finest interpretation of Commissioner James Gordon ever to fit a Batman movie, and he’s also given us the insane, over-the-top lunacy of The Fifth Element. One thing you can count on is that he never phones in his performance. In this film, he revels in the cheesy dialogue and ridiculous character work he’s asked to do. Every chunk of scenery to be chewed, every wild arm flailing or preposterous accent… when Gary Oldman presents it to you, you know he believes it.

Winona Ryder is pretty effective as Mina, pulling off a passable British accent and a convincing amount of young naiveté, as befits the character. Anthony Hopkins brings his usual air of class to Van Helsing, and Cary Elwes continues to prove, as I asserted back during Robin Hood week, that he should have been born in an earlier era, because he has the presence of a grand star of cinema’s Golden Age. Keanu Reeves plays Keanu Reeves.

I’m a little weirded out by the ending, to be perfectly honest. Coppola appears to be trying for some sort of fable about the healing power of love, showing some sort of redemption for Dracula after Mina’s love “sets him free” (by means of brutal decapitation). That’s all well and good, lord knows there aren’t many people that believe in true love as much as I do, but is Dracula really the best place to insert that particular moral? The man is, by every definition of the term, a terrible monster. He chose to turn against God, he brutally murdered countless people over 400 years, but at the end he seems to get a pass just because he got a woman (that he gave the vmpire equivalent of a roofie) to say she loves him. That’s the ending of Beauty and the Beast, except that the Beast was only guilty of kidnapping and a little mild verbal abuse. How does Dracula deserve redemption?

That aside, I enjoy this movie quite a bit. It’s a well-made production with its own look and feel that sets it apart from any other version of the character, and for me, that’s one of the most important things you can look for in a movie.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

DRACULA WEEK DAY 3: William Marshall in Blacula (1972)

BlaculaDirector: William Crain

Writer: Joan Torres & Raymond Koening

Cast: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Denise Nicholas, Thalmus Rasulal, Gordon Pinsent, Charles Macaulay, Emily Yancy, Ted Harris, Rick Metzler, Ketty Lester

Plot: In the 18th century African Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) seeks out the aid of the regal Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay) in helping him snuff out the slave trade. Dracula refuses, attacking Mamuwalde and cursing him to share in his vampirism before christening him “Blacula” and sealing him in a tomb.

Over 200 years later, long after Dracula’s death at the hands of Van Helsing, his property is purchased by a pair of interior decorators (Ted Harris and Rick Metzler) who find Mamuwalde’s coffin and bring it to Los Angeles. There, as they examine their purchases, the vampire awakens and slays them both. At the funeral for one of the victims, Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulal) examines the body to find it surprisingly empty of blood, despite his mother’s request he not be embalmed. Mamuwalde encounters Tina Williams (Vonetta McGee), whom he takes to be the reincarnation of his wife, Luva, and attempts to pursue her, but loses her when he’s struck by a taxi cab. The driver (Ketty Lester) makes for a good snack. Gordon is summoned to examine the driver’s body and finds her injuries, like the decorator’s, to be consistent with the legend of the vampire.

Mamuwalde continues to stalk and slaughter the friends of his victims, while Dr. Thomas begins a search for the serial killer. When he opens the grave of one of the victims, he finds the man has transformed into a vampire. After a brief struggle, Gordon stakes him through the heart. Mamuwalde, meanwhile, has found and romanced Tina, who becomes engrossed in his promise of eternal life if he makes her a vampire as well. Gordon shows Lt. Jack Peters (Gordon Pinsent) the transformed cab driver as she attacks, but is destroyed by sunlight. Together, Gordon and Peters begin to hunt the monster, not realizing Tina is now dating the beast until Gordon develops a picture he took only to find Mamuwalde doesn’t have an photographic image.

The cops swarm the city, seeking not only Mamuwalde, but his assorted victims, each of whom is rising and transforming. They track him to a warehouse, where an entire horde of vampires attacks and slays a police officer. They barely escape with their lives and the police issue a city-wide curfew in the hopes of depriving the vampires of potential victims. Tina, however, slips out and seeks Mamuwalde, who transforms her into a vampire. Peters kills her, devastating Mamuwalde. His reason for living gone, the vampire steps outside and allows the sunlight to reduce him to ash.

Thoughts: Perhaps I’m cheating a bit with this film. After all, Dracula himself is a supporting player at best – but in dealing with the pedigree of this character and the various interpretations he’s enjoyed over the decades, it’s hard to ignore William Marshall’s turn in the cape and fangs. This is the first time I’ve delved into the Blaxplotation subgenre here in Reel to Reel and with good reason – a lot of those movies are terribly goofy and many of the others are instantly forgettable. Something about Blacula, however, has withstood the test of time, even if it’s mainly as a curious footnote in the horror genre.

William Marshall’s “Blacula” isn’t exactly a legendary hellbeast. In fact, he works far better as a parody of the vampire than as a monster himself. The shots of him looming in the corners, ready to lunge, are laughter-inducing. This may be an example of cultural dissonance, I suppose. It’s possible that the audience of 1972 could have viewed this and enjoyed it as a legitimate creepy good time. But somehow, the various musical breaks and campy nature of the vampire’s performance make me doubt it was terribly frightening even then. (The cheesy 70s soundtrack doesn’t help the situation.)

Speaking of cultural dissonance, this is one of the few times since I’ve started these reviews that I’ve actually caught myself irritated at an older film that doesn’t accept the tropes of a more recent one. As Gordon and Peters are attacked by the vampires in the warehouse and their redshirt cop buddy starts pumping useless bullets at the bloodsuckers, I found myself asking why they didn’t just start staking them in the heart. It wasn’t until a minute or so later that I remembered the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, From Dusk ‘Till Dawn and the Blade trilogy were still two decades away from making a staking seem like a walk in the park. Back in the 70s, it still took effort to kill a vampire.

The rest of the movie works better than the title character. When each of Mamuwalde’s victims transforms into a vampire they provide a brief but legitimate scare. The cab driver in particular is rather effective, leaping at the camera even as she goes after Pinsent. Her makeup is far more convincing, her performance far more menacing in the few seconds before she’s destroyed by the sunlight. The vampire horde is actually really creepy, feeling slightly zombie-ish, but scarier in that these are creature that still possess intelligence. Unlike zombies, vampires retain their mortal selves in many ways, making the evil that lurks beneath even more pronounced.

Thalamus Rasulal makes for an effective Van Helsing substitute in this modern retelling, accepting the reality of his situation relatively quickly and teaching himself what to do to combat the threat of the vampire. He’s our de facto hero, and helps propel the story where you want it to go. His performance actually helps spur one of the few real innovations in this film – once provided with some solid evidence, the police join in the search rather than turning into stonewall skeptics the way the usually do in genre movies. Not only does Peters easily buy into the notion that there’s a vampire stalking his city, but he manages to get the entire force in on the action. I can’t think of a single horror movie before or since where such a thing happened unless the situation reached the level of a full-on apocalypse.

The final scene of the movie, as Mamuwalde melts in the sunlight, would make a remarkably effective visual stunt if not for the fact that the makeup and worms are applied to a dummy that doesn’t quite seem to fit the proportions of the actor. In a way, that’s not a bad metaphor for this movie as a whole – it has all of the traits you want in a good vampire movie, but doesn’t entirely succeed at convincing you you’re watching an honest effort to scare anybody. I’ve seen worse movies – I’ve even seen worse Dracula movies – but this movie somehow just feels more like a cultural oddity than anything that will leave a lasting impression on me.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

DRACULA WEEK DAY 2: Christopher Lee in Horror of Dracula (1958)

Horror of DraculaDirector: Terence Fisher

Writer: Jimmy Sangster, based on the novel by Bram Stoker

Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, Carol Marsh, Olga Dickie, John Van Eyssen, Valerie Gaunt, Charles Lloyd Pack, Barbara Archer, Janina Faye

Plot: Librarian Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) is called to Castle Dracula by its mysterious count (Christopher Lee). He encounters a strange woman (Valerie Gaunt) who begs him to help her escape, but she flees as Dracula makes his appearance. Dracula has summoned Harker to index his enormous collection of books, and encourages him to make the castle his home as he works. As Dracula leaves him, Harker pens a journal entry that reveals his true intention – to end the Count’s reign of terror forever. That night, he again encounters the strange woman from before, and she again begs his help, only to bite him on the neck. As she does so Dracula appears, blood on his mouth, and he attacks the woman. Harker grapples with the Count, but is defeated, and Dracula takes the woman away. Harker wakes up in his bedroom the next morning, a pair of fang-marks on his neck, and decides he must exterminate Dracula before sundown. He finds the crypt and drives a stake through the vampire woman’s heart, awakening Dracula just as the sun goes down. Dracula seals Harker in the tomb.

Some time later Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) stops at a tavern, seeking word of the missing Harker. A tavern girl gives the Doctor a book she found – Harker’s journal. He finds Castle Dracula and the bodies of both the vampire woman and Harker. Van Helsing returns to Harker’s bedridden fiancé, Lucy (Carol Marsh) to tell her of Harker’s death, but her brother Arthur (Michael Gough) and his wife Mina (Melissa Stribling) hide the truth from Lucy, unaware that she is already being visited by Dracula in the night. He is biting her, draining her slowly, preparing her to become his new thrall.

As Lucy is treated for what her doctors believe to be anemia, Van Helsing recognizes the symptoms of a vampire attack. He orders the windows in her room shut at night and the room filled with garlic cloves. At Lucy’s behest, though, her housekeeper (Olga Dickie) opens the windows and removes the garlic. In the morning, Lucy is found dead. Later, the housekeeper’s daughter Tania (Janina Faye) claims to have encountered her dead “Aunt Lucy.” Arthur goes to her tomb that night and finds it empty. Lucy, now a vampire, summons the child to her and they encounter Arthur. Van Helsing saves him and stakes Lucy, sending her to a true rest. Arthur gives Mina a cross to wear, but upon touching it she shouts and collapses, the cross burned into her flesh. She, too, has been touched by the vampire.

That night, Dracula comes for Mina again, draining her so completely Van Helsing has to give her a transfusion of blood from Arthur. Van Helsing finds Dracula’s coffin in the cellar, but the Count takes the moment of distraction to take Mina and flee. They chase him back to Castle Dracula, where Van Helsing exposes him to the light of the sun. Dracula shrivels and turns to dust, his reign of terror ending… until the sequel.

Thoughts: It is utterly unforgivable that I’ve been conducting these movie studies for three consecutive Octobers now, and this is the first time I’ve touched upon the storied Hammer Films catalogue of horror. While Hammer may not have the immediately recognizable icons of Universal (although they in no small way owe their fame to remaking the characters Universal made famous), it’s no less an important chapter in the universe of terror, and I should have delved into it a long time ago.

That said, I picked a great film to begin my Hammer Horror education. Horror of Dracula was Christopher Lee’s first time portraying Count Dracula, and he did a fantastic job in the role. Although largely absent from the middle section of the movie, his presence is compelling and powerful, a real menacing figure worthy of the Dracula name. In the final confrontation with Van Helsing, he momentarily devolves into a mad, snarling beast, and it’s a great moment. You’re terrified of him, you think he’ll rip Peter Cushing’s throat right out. He’s a monster in the best sense of the word.

He’s also the subject of some pretty impressive special effects. When the sunlight kills him at the end, the way he wilts away into nothing is really remarkable for a 1958 film. Hammer truly was on the top of its game.

As Van Helsing, Peter Cushing makes for a great hero. There’s an authoritative sense to him – he’s a man you want to trust in the middle of a terrible ordeal. He carries a gravity and a power that makes the situation seem just as serious as a horror film should seem. Even now, over 50 years later, this really works as a horror classic.

The structure of this film is odd. It’s based on the original Dracula novel, at least in part, but both the plot and the characters presume a great deal of familiarity with the Dracula concept even before the film begins. Harker knows who and what Dracula is and has a plan to destroy him from the very outset, although Dracula seems at least initially fooled by his façade of being a simple librarian. It’s almost as if the film’s heroes had read the novel and decided they wanted to cut off the monster at the pass. Of course, that sort of genre awareness seems to evaporate when Harker reaches Dracula’s crypt and stakes the woman first. Seriously, man? You always kill the boss first, if you’ve got the chance. It’s like this 19th century character from a 1950s movie had never played a video game or something.

Although clearly inspired by Bram Stoker, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster took some unusual and rather inexplicable liberties – changing Harker’s love interest from Mina to Lucy, making the two sisters-in-law, making Arthur Mina’s husband and so on. All in all, the film succeeds in telling a perfectly coherent story, but it’s not exactly the same story as the book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but it is a… thing. That happened. And I find it curious enough to point it out. The film also attempts to distance itself from the novel, accepting the by-then common conceit that the vampire cannot venture out in the daylight (absent from the novel) and dismissing the idea of the vampire changing its shape as “pure fallacy” (this idea was present in the Stoker original). I’m truly not sure what to make of it. The writer really seems to be struggling to buy in to the existing Dracula mythology, while picking and choosing the parts he likes and bringing in other elements pretty much at will. I don’t know how a storyteller reconciles those two impulses, but Sangster at least manages to turn out an entertaining story in the mix.

If nothing else, the movie is plenty of fun and a great film to throw on during your Halloween party… or any other time you’re looking to have a creepy good time.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

DRACULA WEEK DAY 1: John Carradine in House of Dracula (1945)

House of DraculaDirector: Erle C. Kenton

Writer: Edward T. Lowe Jr.

Cast: John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr., Martha O’Driscoll, Lionel Atwill, Onslow Stevens, Jane Adams, Ludwig Stossel, Glenn Strange, Skeleton Knaggs

Plot: Count Dracula (John Carradine) approaches a scientist, Dr. Franz Edelmann (Onslow Stevens), and asks him to discover a cure for his immortal curse. Edelmann and his hunchbacked assistant, Nina (Jane Adams) study Dracula’s blood and discover an unknown parasite. As Edelmann begins his experiments on Dracula a new patient arrives – Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), who seeks a cure for his own curse. When told the doctor is unavailable, an upset Talbot flees to the police station and demands to be locked up. The police summon Edelmann to examine him, and he arrives just in time to witness the rising full moon and Talbot’s transformation into the Wolfman.

Edelmann believes he can cultivate a mold that will allow him to reshape Talbot’s skull, which will relieve the pressure on his cranium and prevent his transformation. (It doesn’t make a lot of sense in the context of the movie either.) Unwilling to wait for enough mold to be cultivated, Talbot flings himself from a nearby cliff. That night, as Edelmann searches for Talbot, the Wolfman attacks him. Talbot changes back before Edelmann can die, and the doctor discovers he’s hiding in a cave perfectly suited to grow the spores he needs. As they search the cavern, they find something totally unexpected: the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange). Because what the hell. They bring the monster to the hospital, hook him up to machines that can bring him back to life, then decide not to do it. This should end well.

Dracula, remembering that his name is in the title of the movie, stops by and sees Edelmann’s assistant Miliza (Martha O’Driscoll) playing the piano. For no discernible reason, he uses his power to mesmerize her. Wary, Edelmann tells Dracula he will require another transfusion to test his theory, and Dracula agrees. Edleman falls asleep during the experiment, though, and Dracula reverses the transfusion, placing his own blood into the doctor’s veins before fleeing. Edelmann follows Dracula to his coffin, which he drags into the sunlight and opens, reducing the vampire to a skeleton and laughing at the fact that there’s still a third of the movie left to go.

The transfusion begins to affect Edelmann, darkening his eyes, causing his reflection to vanish. He is becoming a vampire. This conveniently leads to him having a dream sequence largely made up of clips of earlier Frankenstein movies, which tempts him to resurrect the monster. The good in him forces back the evil, and he decides to use the spores to operate on Nina while he’s still himself. She convinces him to use his time to operate on Talbot instead, and he does so, knowing it will not be until the next full moon that they can be certain he was successful.

Edelmann, meanwhile, begins to succumb to the vampire, killing a villager and fleeing the same crowd of angry townspeople who spent most of the 1930s and 40s waiting for Universal to make another monster movie so they could find work. The police come to Edelmann’s hospital, believing Talbot responsible for the murder. Talbot realizes Edelmann is the real killer, and he pledges to help him stay sane long enough to help Nina, then destroy the evil within him. As the next full moon approaches, Talbot is astonished to find he does not transform: the operation was a success. The Wolfman is no more. As Nina tries to tell Edelmann, she finds him resurrecting the Frankenstein Monster, having given in to the evil within him. He kills Nina and has the monster attack the police. Talbot retrieves a police weapon and guns down Edelmann as the mob arrives for their scheduled appointment. The lab catches on fire, because 1945, and the monster is destroyed as the mob, Talbot and Milizia flee.

Thoughts: By 1945 the Universal Monster franchise had largely evolved into a bizarre mishmash where the monsters – particularly the three heavyweights – appeared in each other’s films indiscriminately and with little to no regard to continuity. Just the year before, in House of Frankenstein, audiences saw Dracula, the Wolfman and Frankenstein’s monster each meet their demise, but here they are without any attempt at an explanation. Today we’d just call it a “reboot” and pretend the earlier movies never happened, but nobody wants to ignore the Universal Classics… nobody in their right mind, anyway.

If there’s one thing this movie proves, it’s that trying to come up with a scientific explanation for what has always been supernatural in-canon is usually a bad idea. The parasites in Dracula’s blood are bad enough, but the explanation for Larry Talbot’s transformation Wolfman is close enough to “it’s all in your head” as to almost be insulting to fans of the character. One can easily believe George Lucas watched this movie just before he whipped up the concept of Midi-Chlorians.

The good news is, no matter how crappy the plot of a movie, it was always a treat to watch Lon Chaney Jr. and Glenn Strange in their legendary forms. Chaney’s Wolfman has always been the saddest and most tragic of the Universal monsters, a creature that wishes for nothing but peace but is utterly unable to find it. When Stan Lee created the Hulk, he always credited inspiration coming from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but I’ve often thought the sad case of Bruce Banner had more in common with Lawrence Talbot. And with that in mind, it’s nice to see him sort of get a happy ending for a change. Sure, by the time he met Abbott and Costello three years later he was the Wolfman again, but so what? Frankenstein wasn’t burned anymore and Dracula had regenerated from a skeleton back into Bela Lugosi somehow. Who cares? It’s the 40’s! Party!

Anyway, on to Dracula himself. John Carradine as the legendary nosferatu has surprisingly little to do in this movie, even though he’s the title character. (In truth, at this point Universal’s naming convention was practically random: grab the name of any monster that appears in the movie and add a few other words. This film could just as easily have been titled Curse of the Wolfman or Return of Frankenstein or Dr. Edelmann’s Wonder Emporium and it would have been equally – if not more – accurate.) To Carradine’s credit, in the time he’s on screen he puts forth a solid performance. There’s a charm and a menace to him, and one can believe a woman would allow herself to be in his presence long enough to be affected by his hypnotic powers, which is convenient, because that’s exactly what the alleged plot calls for.

That said, the Dracula in this film is written in a terrible fashion. He begins the story by seeking a cure for his vampirism (something he never showed any particular interest in before), then starts going right back to his old “hypnotize ‘em and suck their blood” routine as if he wasn’t tired of that crap at all. He falls for Edelmann’s transfusion trick entirely too easily, then sabotages the very experiment he asked for in the first place. I spent half the film watching Carradine and shouting: “WHY ARE YOU DOING THINGS? STOP. THIS MAKES NO SENSE. YOU DON’T EVEN HAVE A HOUSE.”

The real star of this movie is Onslow Stevens as Dr. Edelmann, who starts out as a well-meaning scientist skeptic before becoming a creature of cartoonish evil. The dream sequence he has is nearly laughable, as his “good” and “evil” selves seem to argue over whether or not to resurrect the Frankenstein Monster… as if there could be any doubt that he would. Stevens does a great job with what he’s given, he’s just not given A material.

This is not a very good movie, to be blunt. But even the worst of the Universal Monster pictures had a strange sort of charm to them… the fun of seeing these characters overcame the cheesy effects or the ludicrous storylines. While this should never be anyone’s first choice of a monster movie to watch, if it’s available or if you’re doing a marathon of the classics, it has its place.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

The Showcase Gang’s Nightmare on Elm Street Marathon

Tnightmarelogohe year after my epic one-on-one battle with Jason Voorhees, I rounded up some of my friends to join me in combat with Wes Craven’s most famous creation, Freddy Krueger. The Showcase Halloween Marathon has been a tradition ever since, although in 2007 our podcast was still focused almost entirely on comic books, so I blogged this rather than record an episode of the show about it. Here, in all its classic glory, is the tale of the year Mike Bellamy, Kenny Fanguy and (eventually) Jason Champagne joined me for a seven-film Nightmare on Elm Street marathon…

OCT. 30, 2007…

Like with Jason last year, I had never seen all of Freddy’s films before. In fact, I’d only seen the first one, parts of New Nightmare, and (of course) Freddy Vs. Jason, which we had originally intended to include in the marathon, but decided against on the grounds that A) I’d already reviewed it last year and B) it was 1:30 in the morning when we finished New Nightmare – those of us who made it to the end, that is. Not all of our intrepid panelists made it there. Who survived? Read on. And be warned: spoilers abound.

nightmare1A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).

The film that started it had us laughing even before the credits finished when we saw the immortal phrase, “And introducing Johnny Depp.” Sporting a haircut and a sweater vest that made Zack Morris look like Rob Zombie, it’s easy to forget that Depp got his big break making out with the girl from Just the Ten of Us (Heather Langencamp as Nancy) and getting slaughtered by a guy wearing a red-and-green Christmas sweater. The plot really kicks off as Nancy and her friend Tina (Amanda Wyss) begin comparing notes on their horrible, horrible dreams of the night before – dreams of a terrifying man with knives for fingers. When we get to the line, “Nancy, you dreamed about the same creep I did,” it’s all I can do to keep from laughing. This scene has been parodied and repeated so many times it’s impossible to even take the original seriously any more.

Tina’s boyfriend Rod, as horror movie teenagers are wont to do, shows up to do things with Tina that her mother certainly wouldn’t approve of. It is at this point that we first really begin to appreciate the greatness of Mike’s surround sound set-up. While Tina and “Rod” are doing it in surround sound, Johnny Depp groans and utters the line of his career: “Morality sucks.”

We finally reach a genuinely scary moment about ten minutes in when Nancy, sound asleep in her bed, is awakened by a stretching sound that turns out to be a hideous, knife-fingered fiend trying to burst though a thin membrane of the wall. It’s at this point that we remind each other that the first movie in this series is actually pretty good, and will not be as easy to make fun of as later installments. I am proven wrong, however, as Freddy goes for his first kill. While he slaughters Tina in her sleep, her idiot boyfriend stands there in his tightie whities, impotently watching as she’s hacked to bits. “That’s got to suck,” I observe. What really sucks about the town of Springwood becomes apparent soon afterwards as they show Tina’s butchered body carted off on the morning news. And people ask what’s wrong with the media in this country.

Nancy has to face Freddy in her dreams again, as he drags Tina’s corpse into his Boiler Room set. We all cringe as Freddy begins scraping his knives on the pipes in his dream-Boiler Room, and Mike compensates by making “bllbgbgbgbgbg” sounds. (That was typed phonetically.) Nancy later sits up with her butt-ugly mother, whose solution to everything wrong with the universe is to, as Kenny suggests, “drink until she’s pretty.” Mom finally makes the fateful revelation we’ve been waiting for since the film began: Freddy Krueger was a child murderer who got free on a technicality, so a group of parents got together, doused him in gasoline, and burned him to death. Now, his malevolent spirit is murdering the children of the people who killed him. Johnny Depp buys it while he’s supposed to be staying awake (this would become a theme for the movies – virtually every character ever specifically warned not to go to sleep winds up going to sleep and getting slaughtered), and Nancy goes into her dreams for a final confrontation with Freddy.

The thing about the original Nightmare is, despite some terrible acting and scenes that are now clichés because they’ve been done so many times, it’s actually a pretty decent movie. Freddy, at this early stage, is a dream-demon who can take whatever it is you fear and turn it against you. That’s a pretty potent weapon. The ending of the first film is surprisingly bleak, as Nancy SEEMS to escape, but we’re left with the impression that she’ still trapped in her dream. She and the dead kids get carted off in a convertible with a Freddy-pattern top. It’s okay, but not a great film by any means. Now to see just how bad it could get.

Nightmare2A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985). For the second go-round Kenny, who had been planning to leave after the first film, decided to stick around using the logic, “This is more fun than I thought.” Well duh – watching bad horror movies with your friends? If there’s a better way to spend a weekend in October, I don’t know what it is.

The second film begins with a far more effective dream sequence than the first, as a dork on a school bus (Mark Patton as “Jesse”) dreams about the bus running off the road and winding up atop a tall stone pike where Freddy attacks the dork and two remaining teenage girls on board. Jesse wakes up covered in a cold sweat that makes him look like a parody of the guys in the film 300 and we start to realize the premise: Jesse’s family has moved into The House that Nancy lived in during the first film. Jesse picks up a neighbor girl named Lisa who looks like a younger, more attractive Meryl Streep (I don’t mean that as a compliment), and goes to school where he gets pantsed during gym class – which, as Mike notes, is the most nudity we’ve yet gotten in this series. The two guys begin beating each other up, then the coach has them do push-ups together, at which point they begin conversing as though they’re best friends. “How long will we be doing this?” “For a while. So, you new in town?” When the dork reveals to the bully, Grady, that he just moved to town, where his parents bought a house on Elm Street, Mike informs us that he’d totally forgotten we were watching a Nightmare film. This is actually fairly acceptable, as the previous 10 minutes more closely resembled an ABC Afterschool Special from the 80s. This does not, however, prevent us from mocking Mike.

Jesse continues exploring his new home. Although the door and staircase is pretty much the same, the rest of the house has undergone a redecorating scheme for which Jesse’s parents deserve to die. When Jesse’s dad refuses to let him out of the house until he cleans his room, he puts on 80s sunglasses and dances lasciviously to music just in time for Lisa (evidently the “rich girl” in the neighborhood) to pop in. As she helps him clean up, she uncovers the Lost Diary of Nancy Thompson, which has been there for five years. (Hey! We’ve established a timeline!) They begin reading the diary (Jesse at one point is looking at a page that was clearly blank when he turned it) and read about Nancy’s teeeeeeeeerrible dreams.

In his own dreams, Jesse keeps getting approached by Freddy, who wants his “help” for some reason. It gets worse when one of their pet birds kills the other, attacks his father and then blows up, for which his father (showing the sort of logic that has made horror movie parents stand out since the dawn of time) blames Jesse. He rushes off to Don’s Place, a dominatrix-style bar where evidently no one feels the need to check the identification of an obvious minor for either admittance or the purchase of alcohol. He meets the coach there, who takes him back to the school, makes him run laps and take a shower. If you can make heads or tails out of anything written in this paragraph, you’re a better man than I, because although that’s pretty much a blow-by-blow account of the next few scenes, it’s completely incomprehensible. It is at this point that Mike and I start shouting out how ridiculous what we’re watching is and question whether or not this movie was written during a fever dream. When the coach begins getting attacked by balls (Kenny: “Every straight man’s worst nightmare”), I begin to sincerely hope that the second film will prove to be the worst in the series.

Coach gets killed, but then we see startled Jesse, still in the showers, wearing Freddy’s glove, at which point he screams in such a way as to make Nathan Lane seem masculine. Lisa invites Jesse to a party (really? With people getting murdered left and right?), where she confronts him about his crazy behavior. Her friends, meanwhile, are waiting for her parents to turn off the lights, at which point they begin screaming like maniacs and turn the music fifty times as loud. You see, teenagers in Springwood suffer from the misapprehension that the minute the lights go out, parents are comatose. Meanwhile, Jessie and Lisa start making out, which gets Mike very excited (draw your own conclusions) until Jesse’s huge purple tongue comes out. He rushes away, prompting Mike to speculate, “he just realized he’s gay.” I chime in too – “He’s going to Grady’s house.” This is almost an amusing comment… then, a second later, he suddenly appears in Grady’s house, LEAPING ONTO THE SHIRTLESS GRADY’S BED. We didn’t hear anything else in the movie for a good 45 seconds because we were laughing too hard.

The terrified Zack asks Slater – sorry, Jesse asks Grady to watch him sleep, which Grady is disturbingly willing to do, right up until he does the one thing he was warned NOT to do – go to sleep. This begins a surprisingly effective sequence of Freddy bursting out of Jesse’s body. For the first time in a half-hour we see something intense enough to remind us this is supposed to be a horror movie. Grady gets butchered and Jesse, covered in blood, runs to Lisa and begins confessing to all the murders. Rather than screaming and calling the police, she puts the blood-covered boy on her parents’ clean couch and starts reading a passage in Nancy’s diary that is intended to explain everything, but in fact, is utterly nonsensical. Which is when Jesse turns into Freddy and decides to attack the par-tay. The pool boils, whale songs begin playing for no apparent reason, and Freddy-in-Jesse attacks Lisa, who pleads with him until he runs off, bursts through the patio door and begins carving up the kids there. Lisa’s dad comes out with a shotgun, but she stops him from shooting Freddy. She and the psycho killer share a long, lingering moment, and he vamooses, so of course, she goes after him. She goes to the power plant where Freddy once worked, now guarded by dogs with ugly human faces, and enters the Eternal Boiler Room of the Damned. Freddy goes after her, prompting her to proclaim, “I love you Jesse!” This is evidently the magic word – Freddy starts bleeding (or is it Jesse in Freddy?) She kisses him in a really stupid attempt to get Jesse out, and this somehow sets the whole place on fire. Freddy begins to melt – really – and Jesse climbs out of the charred husk. She hugs him and the scene fades to a school bus. Mike, Kenny and I all scream, fearing we’ve returned to the beginning of the movie, but instead, he’s just hopping a ride to school with ol’ Lisa and her friends, who are highly enthusiastic about the party in which several of them got killed. There’s the requisite fake scare in which you think Freddy is driving the bus, then the requisite REAL scare where he attacks again, and that – blissfully – ends the film. Watching this, I’m trying to figure out why the hell they made a third Nightmare. But they did make another one… and thus, we will watch it.

Nightmare3A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987). Mike, putting the DVD in the machine, begins singing 80s hair metal and announces that “Dokken made the soundtrack!” Kenny and I look at him like he’s lost his mind. Our friend Mike, you must understand, has a greater love of hair metal than any other bald man in North America.

This film begins with a quote from Edgar Allen Poe in a misguided attempt to make us think it’s highbrow, then we switch to Patricia Arquette – Kristin — eating dried coffee and drinking Diet Coke. (This is what everyone did in the 80s). She’s apparently making a replica of the house from the first two movies out of popsicle sticks. She has a dream in which she enters the popsicle stick house, gets chased by Freddy, and winds up in a room full of hanging corpses. Suddenly, the three of us take notice – this is already better than the entirety of the second movie. Although as Wes Craven returned to work on the screenplay here, that may be the reason.

We then cut to a psychiatric hospital where Morpheus the Orderly (yep – “Larry” Fishburne) is tooling around attributing the stupid kids of the 80s to the drugs their parents took in the 60s. Kristin has been brought there because Freddy made her cut her wrists and they think she’s a suicide attempt. She’s just fine until they try to sedate her. As she holds off the docs with a scalpel, she begins chanting the Freddy rhyme… One, two, Freddy’s coming for you… She looks like a loon…

Then, like Superman rising from the grave, Nancy appears. Yes, Heather Langencamp, the Survivor Girl of the first film, is back. She’s a little older, with a streak of grey in her hair leftover from the first movie and a librarian suit, but tough enough to pop in and hug Kristin into submission. Dr. Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson) praises her work as being good “for an intern,” and she smiles a smile that includes about 70 teeth and informs him that she has experience with pattern nightmares. This is intended to be funny.

Kristin has another dream in which Freddy (for the first time showing some decent shape-shifting powers) tries to EAT her, but she somehow manages to summon Nancy into the dream to help her fight. They escape by the skin of their teeth and Nancy, knowing just what’s going on, confronts Kristin about the house in her dreams. Turns out, Kristin has the power to pull other people into her dreams – a power that will clearly come in handy as the film progresses. She takes Kristin to a support group of kids who have all been suffering from dreams about a psycho with knives for fingers, where Dr. Nurse Ratchet dismisses their dreams as being the result of guilt and repressed sexuality. She’s apparently seen one too many horror movies.

(At this point, our buddy Jason Champagne popped in to join in the riffing. Whether his comments are as witty and pithy as ours remains to be seen, but it’s generally agreed they can’t be worse.)

Nancy begs Neil to prescribe a new drug called Hypnocil to suppress the dreams of the other kids. He refuses, which really sucks for the kid who keeps marionettes in his room, and we see as one of them morphs into a stop-motion animation Freddy. I run it by my fellow geeks, and we universally agree that the stop motion is, in fact, scarier than any of the CGI of later movies, and that people should use it more often. Freddy turns the kid into a marionette using his own tendons — which again, marks this as a considerably scarier film than part two – and forces him to climb to the top of a tower. Two of the other patients see him and – naturally – the one who CAN’T TALK is sent for help. This ultimately results in a bunch of psycho kids screaming out the window while Puppet Boy plummets to his death.  “Now this is gonna be a setback for their therapy,” I say.

In therapy the next day (told you!), the doctors try to dismiss the death as a sleepwalking accident, sending one of the kids into a fit where he gets dragged off to the “quiet room.” Neil prescribes a dose of Hypnocil against Nurse Ratchet’s objections.  It’s too little too late, though, and when a second patient is killed (again ruled a suicide — because EVERY emo teen kills herself by smashing her head through the picture tube of a TV mounted seven feet up the wall), Nancy tells the group about her own encounter with Freddy. She reveals that this group is the last group of kids whose parents were involved in Freddy’s murder. Neil hypnotizes the group into Kristin’s shared dream, the kids learn they have super powers in Dreamworld. The one in a wheelchair can stand up and do magic, another is super-strong, one can do gymnastics… and Joey (Mute Boy) is going to boink the hot nurse on the ward. As he and the nurse are off playing patty-cake, though, she winds up tying him up with her tongue (this series has a thing for tongues) and turns into Freddy, who makes the obligatory joke about the kid being tongue-tied before torturing him into a coma. Nurse Ratchet finds poor Joey unconscious and the others all asleep. While things look bad for the kids, Mike is ecstatic because he got to see the Nurse’s boobs. The promise of the Slasher Film has been fulfilled.

Neil encounters a freaky nun in the closed wing, where she reveals that in the 40s a woman named Amanda Krueger was locked in the hospital and raped hundreds of times by the criminally insane lunatics, producing Freddy: “The bastard son of a hundred maniacs.” She tells him the only way to stop Freddy is to get his remains and bury them in Hallowed Ground, or at least douse him with Holy Water. Why does she know this? Because in horror movies, someone always knows stuff like that. Also, because she’s Amanda, and dead herself, although we don’t find that out until the end, so forget I said anything. Anyway, Nancy and Neil scrounge up Nancy’s father, who has spent the six years since the first movie drinking the alcohol her mother didn’t get around to drinking before Freddy got her. Neil and Daddy get some Holy Water and a Crucifix, suffering from the misapprehension that Freddy is a vampire, and Nancy – upon discovering Kristin has been locked up — rounds up the three remaining kids for their “last group session.” She and the kids hypnotize themselves into the dreams just in time to join Kristin in battle with Freddy, which gives Mike a chance to scream along with more 80s rock. Freddy divides up the kids to fight them one at a time: killing the ex-junkie with needles (kind of an intense scene) and the Dungeons and Dragons geek in a way that makes you wonder why he never whipped up a Plus-Five Sword of Ass Kicking or something.

While Neil and Daddy look for Freddy’s corpse, which apparently the parents dumped in a junkyard in the trunk of, as Jason observed, “Christine,” the last three Dream Warriors rescue the comatose boy and take the fight to Freddy, who shows off the faces of his victims screaming on his flesh – a nice, gross little image. Back in the junkyard, cars start coming alive and Neil and Dad have to fight Freddy’s skeleton – again, stop motion; again, actually pretty cool. Mike asks a rather pertinent question now – we thought Freddy could only attack you through your dreams (or through Jesse). I theorize that, since this is the location of his physical body, he has more power here. I’m probably talking out of my ass. The others in Dreamworld wind up fighting Freddy in a funhouse full of mirrors, where Mute Boy blows him away with a sonic scream and Daddy, who died in the junkyard, pops in to tell Nancy he loves her. It’s so sweet that Mike and Jason begin arguing that they’re watching the end of Legend of Zelda – until, naturally, Daddy turns into Freddy and kills Nancy. She pops up again, though, just in time to stab him with his own blades. Neil, in the real world, dumps the Holy Water onto Fred’s corpse, and he blows up. He blows up good. Nancy dies, Kristin cries and the audience thinks that maybe, just maybe, this series is over. This was the 80s, people didn’t realize the neverending nature of these films yet.

Nightmare4A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988).

Four tries to start with a step up from three, beginning with a Bible quote to top Edgar Allen Poe. Kristin is back for another round (although Patricia Arquette didn’t return – Kristin is played by Tuesday Knight… really…), trapped in The House in a rainstorm. She gets blown into the basement, where she faces Freddy’s infamous boiler room. Desperate, she calls out to Token Black Guy and Mute Guy from the last movie, who ARE played by the same actors. They remain skeptical, and TBG’s dog gives Kristin a playful bite of flesh taken out of her arm before she wakes up and goes off to meet with her boyfriend Rick and his sister, Alice (Lisa Wilcox). Their father chastises Alice, shouting, “Are you dressing like THAT?” The girl in question, however, has a dowdy plaid jumper and yellow sweater on. Most parents would want their daughters to dress in such an unattractive manner. It would virtually guarantee they remain a virgin and – by proxy – alive by the end of the movie.

Kristin, Rick and Alice meet up with a friend with hair about seven times larger than her body, and the Coalition of Geeks sits there trying to figure out who the actress is. That’s when it hits me. “She’s the other sister from Just the Ten of Us!” I exclaim. “The blonde!”

“The slutty one!” Jason shouts. “My favorite!”

That night, TBG’s dream takes him to the junkyard where Freddy was buried in the last film. His dog is trying to dug up Freddy’s bones, and – and this is the scene where Mike declares the franchise jumped the shark – the dog PISSES FIRE on Freddy’s bones. The ground splits and we see the skeleton come back together, and the burned flesh flow back over his body. Freddy’s back. Freddy isn’t happy. Freddy kills TBG, who actually says, “I’ll see you in Hell.” The reply, “Tell ‘em Freddy sent you. One down… two to go.” Next Mute Boy, who is no longer mute, wakes up to find a naked woman in his waterbed, just before Freddy gets him. Well, he should have learned – every time in his life a woman has showed any interest in him, it turned out to be Freddy.

We return to Kristin, who is smoking an unlit cigarette (seriously), and has a serious heart-to-heart with Alice, who Jason has a crush on at this point. She gets to class late, realizes her friends are absent and gets knocked out, only to be awakened by… Robert Englund in drag. As a nurse. Oh, sweet mother of God, Robert Englund makes one ugly woman. Thank God he turns back into Freddy a few seconds later. At this point, it becomes clear they’re trying for comedy, because otherwise they would have used an actual woman in that role, even in the dream, like they did with earlier movies. Alice and her friend, a girl who apparently is a female clone of Steven Q. Urkel, tries to hook her up with some random guy (Dan) she has a crush on. Kristin’s mother, the killjoy, chastises her for not sleeping, despite the fact that her daughter was nearly butchered by a serial killer in her dreams just one movie ago. As it turns out, she’s trying to drug Kristin and put her to sleep.  She succeeds. In Kristin’s dream, Freddy chases her (and a little girl – coincidentally named Alice) on a beach, sending Kristin into a pit of the least convincing quicksand in movie history. The sand dumps her into The House, where she flees to the boiler room basement and faces him yet again. Freddy hurls her into the Furnace, adding her to his collection of souls, but not before she somehow passes her “power” on to Alice.

Urkella stays up all night studying for a test, which of course leads to her falling asleep and getting killed, making Alice realize that she’s drawing people into her dreams the way Kristin did. With Kristin – last child of Freddy’s killers – dead, she theorizes that he now needs someone to bring new victims into the dream. She then goes to a class where they’re learning about dreams AND the “Dream Master” (as a high school teacher, I am forced to ask what the hell class she’s taking. I’ve got to jump through eighteen kinds of hoops just to show clips from Romeo and Juliet.) As she drifts off, she accidentally drags her brother into a dream about the bathroom from Hell. He escapes through the elevator (from Hell) and winds up fighting Invisible Freddy in a Dream Dojo. I have to theorize that Ralph Macchio, wisely, passed on this role. Freddy kills him, windows blow up, and Alice realizes that she has got to stop falling asleep in class, which is honestly the most valuable lesson of this entire series.

Back home, she begins playing with Rick’s nunchucks (or actually, a stunt double wearing a really bad wig plays with them), and her friends notice that she’s changing a little after every murder. Unfortunately, they don’t actually do anything about it, and Freddy gets her to pull Big Hair Girl into his dream while she’s working out. Freddy takes her out in a trap devised by Rick Moranis, while Alice and Dan get stuck in some sort of utterly ludicrous time loop, trying to get to BHG in time. (Hint: they won’t.) Instead, they wind up in a car wreck that Dan barely survives. He goes into surgery, while she races home and puts on all of her dead friends’ clothes, including some funky-fresh contraption that Urkel made before she bought it. Just to prove how much she’s changed, she says the F-word… and goes to sleep.

She faces off with Freddy in a pretty decent fight scene in some sort of dream church, finally turning a mirror on him and having him ripped apart by the very souls of his many victims, which was a satisfying ending. Cheesy writing aside, I kinda like this one. They pulled off a pretty interesting switcheroo – making Alice look like just another victim at the beginning, but slowly turning her into the new Survivor Girl (and a hot one at that).

Nightmare5A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. (1989).

Part five actually begins with a horribly shot sex scene that caused Mike and Jason to scream at the guy involved (it turned out to be Dan) to get out of the way so we could see Lisa Wilcox, back again as Alice. She steps into the shower (where Mike was happy to see her body double through the frosted door), but soon the drain clogs with yellow bile and the entire shower floods – yep, Freddy’s back. My question here is, why is it always so hard to kill one girl throughout the entire movie, only to wind up getting hacked to bits in the first act of the next sequel?

Fortunately, she DOESN’T get killed right away. (I’m glad, I like Alice.) Instead, she winds up imagining herself as Amanda Krueger, trapped in a ward full of psychopaths, about to get all the torment Amanda went through – until she manages to wake up. It’s graduation day! She’s out of Springwood High! She’s managed to make new friends since the last movie (fortunate, since her last batch all died). There’s Model Girl, with Obnoxious Mother, Lusty Comic Book Boy, with Alcoholic Father, and Swimmer Girl. Oh yeah – this is going to end well.

Alice again dreams herself into Freddy’s past, witnesses Freddy’s birth, and winds up facing Baby Freddy (which I believe was a failed pilot for a CBS Saturday morning cartoon) in the same dream-Church where she beat him last time.  It’s at this point that Mike points out that, unlike so many horror franchises, the story really has progressed pretty well. Except for part 2, the series has a fairly tight continuity that we all appreciate. By the time we finish this conversation and again discuss pizza toppings, Freddy’s back to full power and gunning for poor Alice. She’s rescued by the spirit of Freddy’s mother, who is begging Alice to help her “release her from her Earthly prison.” Free again, Freddy goes straight for Dan, who survived a car wreck in the last movie. In the name of poetic justice, Fred throws him through a windshield this time, then turns into the Go-Bot motorcycle dude to really do a number on him. It just goes to show you, never fall asleep at the wheel.

Alice, distraught, passes out and wakes up in the hospital, where the doctor tells her that she’s gonna be just fine… and so will her baby. (The titular “Dream Child,” I’m guessing.) While in the hospital, she meets a freaky kid named Jacob who’s really, really sorry her boyfriend died. Freak. By the time Alice’s next friend gets killed, Jason is making jokes about how the Lusty Boy is clearly gay. He says this about everyone: Steven Segal, Clay Aiken, Rosie O’Donnell, Charlemagne… it’s actually tiresome. “Methinks the man doth protest too much,” I say, mocking Jason’s tendency to drift towards that particular conclusion, especially since Jason is looking the guy while the rest of us are looking at Alice in her tight, stonewashed jeans. Anyway, the comic guy winds up drawing himself into The House, and Alice desperately draws herself in after him. He gets lost, but Alice runs into Jacob again, who is now sad about Alice’s other dead friend as well. Jacob starts screaming at Alice for “not wanting” him, and rushes off to be with his friend “with the funny hand.” She makes it back to Lusty Boy’s home, where he’s cut up, but okay.

Alice gets an ultrasound, then falls into a dream where Freddy dumps some of the worst special effects yet seen in this franchise into her uterus. Lusty Boy shows up with a bunch of newspaper clippings about Freddy, but Swimmer Girl refuses to listen, dumps them out of his hand, and storms out. We all decide at that point that Swimmer Girl is, in fact, the worst friend ever, and we are looking forward to her death scene. Later, we get three scenes going on simultaneously. Alice is searching for Freddy’s mother, Swimmer Girl is soaking in a hot tub (asleep) and Lusty Boy falls asleep, surrounded by comics. Mike, Kenny and I start pointing out individual issues and identifying the ones we own. We are true comic geeks. Swimmer Girl, meanwhile, takes the worst high dive since Greg Louganis and winds up almost buying it, but Alice saves her. Comic Book Guy, in his dream, finds an issue we automatically know isn’t a real comic book and therefore will be a plot point, because none of us own it, and is sucked into it. He fights Freddy in a world of black and white comic book artwork and, fulfilling a prediction Kenny made earlier, he turns into the character he’s been drawing since the beginning of the film and tries blowing Freddy away. Freddy pops up in a Dick Tracy-esque supervillain garb and hacks him up like a paper doll.

Alice heads back into dreamland’s version of an M.C. Esher drawing, where Freddy has Jacob in his clutches. The special effects in this film really took a downward spiral, with some of the most obvious green-screen in the whole series.  Freddy bursts out of Alice in a way that makes me wish it looked as good as it did when he popped out of Jesse back in Part 2. Swimming Girl, meanwhile, manages to track down Amanda’s ghost, who says “thank you” and vanishes. Apparently, that’s ALL anyone needed to do. The ghost shows up in dreamland, where she sics Jacob on him. He turns Freddy’s own tricks against him, specifically his oft-used tongue routine, and Freddy gets sucked back into Amanda’s womb. Jacob returns to Alice, and Amanda rushes off to trap her son once again. Jacob is born, everyone is happy (including Swimming Girl, who should have died) and we get one last Final Scare, just like always. Definitely a middle-of-the-road episode – not great, not terrible, but somewhere in-between.

Neeeeeeeext…

Nightmare6Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991).

In 1991, New Line Cinema made an attempt – as all horror franchises eventually do – to end the series with this “Final Nightmare,” which is set a nebulous “ten years from now,” in which mysterious suicides are plaguing the town of Springwood, Ohio. “The Last” teenager in town has a disturbing falling dream, waking up safe in his own bed… except that his house is now falling from an enormous height. The tornado music from The Wizard of Oz starts to play, just in time for Freddy to fly by on a broom. No, seriously. They even copied the shot of the house coming in for a landing next to The House. By the end of the first sequence, it’s apparent that they’ve really amped up the camp on this one. Mike is disturbed, and Jason is encouraged. Draw your own conclusions.

Our hero falls out of a plane and flees Springwood for a neighboring town where we meet the local group of teenagers, including kickboxer girl, hearing aid boy, and future C-list star Breckin Meyer, who has a ponytail we all would like to cut off. The Last Teenager from the plane – cleverly named “John Doe” — is brought to the shelter where the kids are staying, and his shrink finds a newspaper clipping among his belongings concerning one “Loretta Krueger.” When the Maggie, the psychiatrist,  and John Doe have bad dreams at the same time, she decides to take him back to Springwood for no apparent reason, unaware that the other three teens are hiding in the back of the van. They stop off at the world’s crappiest town fair, where they find no teenagers, but an incredibly overeager couple of Tom Arnold and Roseanne Barr (no, seriously). Roseanne wants to keep them like lost puppies, but Tom is terrified of them when the clock tower rings. If that sentence makes no sense to you, now you know how we felt when we watched the movie.

Maggie, showing the level of trust and encouragement that all teenage stowaways deserve, give the three of them her van and sends them “home,” but they wind up getting lost and driving around circles around a run-down, practically abandoned Springwood. Eventually, they enter an abandoned house that suddenly transforms into THE House. Get scared. Maggie and John Doe go to the high school, where a loony teacher is teaching an empty class, and they find a scrapbook of Freddy’s kills, where the clipping about Loretta obviously came from. The loony teacher lets it slip that Freddy had a heretofore unmentioned child that was taken away and dumped at the orphanage. Jason announces that, although the opening sequence was “neat,” the movie is “kinda sucky” now. It is impossible to argue.

Back in The House, Hearing Aid Boy falls asleep and gets his ears cut out by Freddy. There’s a scene here where Freddy dances around, laughing behind his back, but he can’t hear him. We all felt quite guilty about laughing at that.  But by the time Freddy pulls out the magic expanding chalkboard to toy with his hearing, I look at the guys. “You know, this sucks as a horror movie,” I say, “but as a comedy, I’m kinda starting to like it.”

At the orphanage, Maggie and John Doe find a drawing of a small family with Freddy, which John immediately concludes means he’s Freddy’s son. (Huh?) They meet up with Kickboxer Girl and rush back to find Breckin Meyer, who’s watching a TV show featuring a surprise cameo by Johnny Depp getting hit in the face by a Freddy-wielded frying pan. Breckin is then captured in a crappy 8-bit Nintendo Game. Well… maybe it’s a little better than 8-bit… 9-bit, maybe.  The others enter the dreams to duel Freddy, who laughingly informs John that he’s not his son – he just wants his daughter back. At this point, the room has shifted to an argument between Mike and Jason, who feel like the entire franchise has lost its way, and Kenny and I, who feel like they’ve clearly given up on horror and are trying to make a really bad comedy, and succeeding.

John dies painfully, and Freddy absorbs his soul, then leaps into Maggie the shrink’s mind. She rushes home and begins demanding to know who her real parents were – yep, she’s adopted. Raise your hands if you were surprised by this development. That’s what I thought. She gets sucked into a dream, remembering being a child and finding Daddy’s Special Workshop. Freddy finds her and informs her that stealing the children of Springwood has been his retribution for them taking her away, and together, they head out to her shelter, which – although it isn’t in Springwood – ironically enough turns out to be on an Elm Street. I do have to admit, the line “Every town has an Elm Street!” was actually pretty cool.

Maggie, Kickboxer Girl and the Doc concoct a scheme to send Mags into the Dreamworld wearing 3-D glasses (the last reel of this clunker was in 3-D), grab a hold of him, and pull him into the real world where he can die. She falls into Freddy’s 3-D Nightmare, where she sees him face his foster father, Alice Cooper, and then watches the night of his death. I’m sure this all looked cool in 3-D, but we watched it in 2-D, and it didn’t work nearly as well. As he died, we watched the Dream Demons cut a deal with him, turning him into the eternal demon we know him to be.

We get a final scene with some unexpected backstory, and Maggie tries to yank him into reality, but when she wakes up, he isn’t there. She’s still seeing things like she did in her dream (in 3-D), and so they rush down to an arsenal of clubs and bladed weapons that you’re likely to find in any homeless shelter. They suit up and head out, only to find him in the basement – a scared, pathetic-looking man with no demonic powers, blaming everything on everyone who “hurt” him. Maggie and Daddy throw down, where she discovers hidden knife-throwing expertise and finally impales him with his own glove. Then she blows him up just for good measure.

It’s a pretty much unanimous opinion that this film is terrible. But at least we knew the last one in the series wouldn’t be, because we’d seen it before. Jason and Kenny left at this point, however, leaving Mike and I to brave through the final film in our marathon by ourselves.

Nightmare7Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994). For the last film in the franchise, creator Wes Craven came back to try to breathe new life into Freddy. In this film Craven is planning a new Nightmare movie, featuring Heather Langencamp, (Nancy from parts 1 and 3). In a neat bit of metafiction, Craven, Langencamp, John Saxon (who played Nancy’s father) and Robert Englund play themselves. Heather is now married to a special effects guy named Chase who made the new knife-glove (art imitating life — in her real life Langencamp has been married to makeup and special effects artist David LeRoy Anderson since 1990), and their young son Dylan (one of the annoying friends of the Olsen Twins from Full House) is intrigued by the robotics in the device – a fascination that’s killed off when it begins slaughtering people.  It’s okay, though, it’s just a nasty dream of Heather’s that gets interrupted by a grand ol’ California earthquake.

Heather, it seems, has been having problems with bad dreams since a crazed fan gave her some harassing phone calls a while back. Her ever-understanding husband assures her there isn’t anything to worry about, prompting questions as to what sort of special effects guy doesn’t know how a horror movie works. She comes downstairs to find her son watching one of the creepiest scenes from the first Nightmare on Elm Street, and he starts screaming like a loon when she turns it off. At the same time, the phone rings – it’s her stalker again, chanting the Famous Freddy Rhyme. By the time the next aftershock hits a few minutes later, Mike has decided he’s never living in California.

Heather heads off to do a talk-show appearance celebrating the 10th anniversary of Nightmare, where she’s surprised by Robert Englund in full Freddy makeup. The audience goes wild, and everyone seems to be clamoring for Freddy’s return, even though he’s “dead.” Robert quips with her about doing another movie together and – surprisingly – she gets a call from New Line asking her to come by and ask about a new project. They want her back for, as the producer calls it, “THE definitive nightmare.” Wes Craven has a new idea based on a new nightmare he had, but Heather is reluctant to get back into the game. And for good reason – she gets home to find her son screaming, with the babysitter impotently trying to snap him out of it. His favorite stuffed animal is lying there too, with four neatly equal slashes.

She calls Chase to come home, but it’s a long drive, and he starts to – ooooooh – fall asleep at the wheel. He clearly didn’t watch the movies his wife wasn’t in, or he wouldn’t have been surprised when the knives appear beneath his seat… or so it seems. His terrifying dream isn’t enough to wake him up before the crash. Back home, Heather snaps awake from a nightmare, and Dylan is up too. There’s a knock at the door – police with bad news about Chase. Amazingly, we’ve been watching these movies for about ten hours at this point, and this is the first time I’ve actually felt bad about one of the deaths. Just goes to show you how good Craven is.

There’s another earthquake at the funeral, and Chase gets unceremoniously dumped out of the casket. Heather looks down to see Freddy pulling him and Dylan into the silk, and dives after him, pulling him away from an even nastier glove than she was used to seeing. She snaps to, having been knocked out in the earthquake. Chase is still in the coffin, Dylan is fine, and everyone is pretty perturbed. Everyone leaves, but the camera lingers a bit on Wes – he seems to have that, “Oh no, this can’t be happening look.” Heather wakes up to again find Dylan watching the original Nightmare and walking in his sleep. He’s been hearing Freddy in his dreams, and he’s asking the tough questions about what happened to his daddy. Another point for Craven – this is the first film that really seems to show the impact of death on the family left behind. Dylan wants his mother to come with him into his dreams, but she can’t. After all, that sort of thing only happens in the movies.

She calls up Robert to talk about what’s been happening, only to find that he’s been having premonitions about an even darker Freddy himself. What’s more, Wes is working on the script and has reached the scene where “Dylan tries to reach God” – exactly what he did in the previous scene, in which he nearly killed himself on a piece of incredibly poorly designed playground equipment.  Freddy’s next attack lands Dylan in psychiatric care, and she rushes off to talk to Wes, who tells her he’s writing the new script based on his dreams each morning – he doesn’t know where it’s going, but it’s about an ancient evil entity that takes different forms over the years to murder innocents. It can only be captured, periodically, by storytellers who trap it in stories… but when the stories end, the monster escapes. Craven here has a delicious commentary on how the films were watered down after he left, and it really hammered home what’s wrong with Hollywood today.

Long and short – because she beat him in the first movie, Freddy has to go through Nancy to get free and terrorize the real world again. The only way to trap the monster? Make another movie. Dylan gets carted off to the hospital and Heather winds up having to take him into the Dreamworld to face the dark creature that has taken Freddy’s form. The “new” Freddy design here is great – familiar, but even more twisted, more evil. The final battle works very well, and we’re left feeling like we really did legitimately see something “new.”

As New Nightmare ended, Mike and I decided to pass on Freddy Vs. Jason, as it was already 1:30 in the morning and, frankly, we’re grumpy old men. Plus – as I mentioned before – I reviewed it last year. But Mike and I agreed that New Nightmare was easily the best film in the series, and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 easily the worst. And most importantly, we decided we had a hell of a lot of fun, and ended the night with a promise to get back together next October and do it again. I’ve done Jason Voorhees. Together we did Freddy Krueger. For the 2008 Halloween Party? It’s gonna be Michael Myers’ turn.NightmareRemake

Back to the present day here. Since this blog was written, of course, there’s been a new Nightmare film, a remake. We didn’t write a review of it, but my fiance Erin and I recorded a review for the podcast in 2010. For the sake of completion, here’s the blurb and link for that podcast episode:

2 in 1 Showcase Episode 174: Greetings From Pittsburgh

Blake and Erin get on the microphone together for another of their epic visits together. The two of them discuss their adventures seeking out new comic book stores, how Blake was worried about defending the honor of the New Orleans Saints in the midst of Steeler nation, the glory of Bacon Night, and what they thought of the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street. In the picks, Erin digs Power Girl: A New Beginning, and Blake was a fan of Young Allies #1.

Download the episode

Blake’s Friday the 13th Marathon

Many, many years ago, in a magical land called 2006, my local Wal-Mart had a sale on the Friday the 13th series. Although I’d seen some of the films before, I never saw all of them, and I took the opportunity to get the films, watch them all (some of them for the first time) and review them. It became an annual tradition. The next year, I recruited some of my friends to join me in a marathon of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, and when we launched our podcast, it became a special Halloween episode every year.

Earlier this evening, I got into a talk online about the merits of the various Friday films and that reminded me of this long-ago review. With Halloween coming up (my second-favorite time of year, after Christmas), I thought it might be fun to dust off that old post and re-present it here. I’ll unearth the other Halloween marathons too, and present them to you in the weeks approaching the big night. So let’s start here, from the long-ago past of 2006, when I reviewed all (at the time) eleven Fridays!

Friday Review Logo

When I was a kid, I didn’t watch scary movies. For one thing, my folks didn’t let me – which in retrospect is probably a good thing in light of reason #2: I would have wet the bed every night for a month after seeing one. I was kind of a skittish kid, and even as my classmates would talk about how cool Jason or Freddy Krueger were, as much as I tried to join in the conversation faking my way through it, I knew that actually watching the scary movies of the 80s would be a really bad move, especially for my bedsheets.

As I got older, I started reading the likes of Stephen King and began to appreciate films like Alien and The Birds. By the time The Sixth Sense rolled along, it had finally dawned on me that I was majorly into horror, and it wasn’t keeping me up at nights. Although I may succumb to the cheap startle in a horror flick like anyone else, by the time the credits roll, the actual sense of danger has evaporated and I’m fine. The real world is frightening enough.

Even though I was into horror, I wasn’t into what I think of as the “slasher” genre. Buckets of blood and piles of gore wouldn’t even elicit a cheap scare out of me, and I avoided the movies handily. Then, a few years ago, my buddy Chase began to teach me how to appreciate the movies not as horror, but as camp. They were goofy, they were cheesy, and they were way over the top… and that’s what you’re supposed to love about them. By the time Freddy Versus Jason rolled around in 2003, I had decided to see it with my friends, but before that I wanted to at least see how the stories had started. I’d already seen the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, but I hadn’t seen any Friday the 13th movies, so the week before the release I rented the first two. They were okay, but very different from what I’d come to expect. I saw Freddy Versus Jason and thought it was brilliant as camp. Eventually, I saw a few more Jason movies, Jason Goes to Hell and Jason X.

As I was preparing the Halloween Party for my blog I discovered the local Wal-Mart had a biiiiiiiiig display of horror movies for only $4.58 (or something like that) a pop. Included in the display were all eight of the old Friday the 13th movies, the ones done before Paramount dropped the property. As I already owned the three movies made by its new home, New Line Cinema, I decided to pick up one or two of the classics at a time. Then, once I completed the collection, I’d do a massive Halloween Party article reviewing not one movie, not two, but all eleven motion pictures featuring Jason Voorhees. Because I’m crazy, that’s why.

So as you read these reviews, keep in mind a few things. First up, this is written through the perspective of someone in his late 20s who has grown an appreciation for both horror and camp, but is well aware of the distinction between the two. Second, this weekend Friday marathon will be my first time watching many of these films. Out of an 11-film series, I’ve only seen #s 1, 2, 11, 9 and 10. Oddly enough, in that order. And finally, these movies have been out for years – decades in some cases. There will be spoilers, especially concerning the first movie which (let’s face it) is the only one in the series that really has a big enough twist to even constitute calling it a spoiler. So without further ado, let’s begin.

friday01Friday the 13th (1980)

The original Friday film was actually really reserved, especially compared to how far the series would go in future installments. Years after a pair of counselors at Camp Crystal Lake are murdered, the owner of the camp decides to reopen, apparently unaware that he is in a horror movie and these things invariably lead to people getting killed. As he brings in a group of teenagers to begin getting the camp ready for the summer – and this is the shocker – people begin getting killed. Particularly the more promiscuous ones, which in fact means virtually all of them, except for sweet little Alice. As Alice watches her friends die gruesome deaths all around her, she’s the one left to face the killer before it’s too late.

Like I said, this movie actually had a genuine surprise at the end, and if you don’t know what it is (or don’t want to know what it is), skip the rest of this paragraph. Actually, skip the whole article and go read my review of the Superman trick-or-treat pail again. Anyway, we’d spent the entire movie watching these kids get butchered by some unseen killer, and we thought Alice was finally safe when she met a nice, sweet little old lady names Mrs. Vorhees. Then Mrs. V begins telling the story of the camp, how a little boy drowned in the lake years ago because a couple of counselors were off being promiscuous in the fashion that gets teenagers in slasher movies killed instead of keeping an eye on the kid. Then Mrs. V goes a little loony, and before we know it, Alice is fighting for her life. Hence the twist: a cross-dressing Anthony Perkins aside, you just don’t expect the killer in a horror movie to be the little old lady.

It’s easy to forget, as the later films were focused firmly on making Jason an unstoppable machine, programmed to kill as many people as possible in as graphic a fashion as possible, that the original Friday was a pretty effective suspense flick for its day. It had all the hallmarks – surprising deaths, twists and turns and a killer you didn’t get to see until the very end. More than that, though, there weren’t even any hints of the supernatural killer Jason would turn out to be, except for a brief flash of him popping out of the lake in which he supposedly drowned at the end of the movie, in a scene that very easily could have been written off as a hallucination. The menace in the first movie was human – crazy Mrs. Vorhees, grief-stricken over her son, even muttering dialogue between herself and her boy in a particularly freaky sequence.

The acting was wooden, of course, and the effects don’t hold up at all, but all things considered, it wasn’t a bad little thriller. Which is what makes it so incongruous with the rest of the series. Now we want the big, crazy, over-the-top monster. The first movie doesn’t quite fit anymore.

Friday02Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)

Buoyed by the success of the film, the next year Paramount studios cranked out the first of what would be an interminable chain of sequels. We open up on Alice, who has apparently grown out her hair because she has nothing better to do while lying around having nightmares, then we get an extended sequence of archival footage from the first movie in case  there was anyone who missed it, which seemed kind of redundant to me as the gap between watching the first movie and the second was only as long as it took to put a frozen pizza in the oven. Plus there was a perfectly good sequence later in the film where one of the new teenagers told the story of the first movie as a campfire tale, which did the job perfectly well without boring the hell out of the people who’d seen the first one. Also, it was kind of stupid as it gave us a good 10 minutes or so of getting reacquainted with our heroine, Alice, before (spoiler for ya) she winds up getting killed by Jason before we even see the opening credits.

After the credits we find out it’s now five years later and a new group of counselors is heading out to the lake, but not to Camp Crystal Lake. To the Camp next door. Because if there’s a psycho killer on the loose, he won’t make the hike or something. Actually, most of the new campers don’t believe the story at all, which makes them feel downright foolish when the first person gets garroted against a tree trunk with a string of barbed wire.

This is Jason’s first time out as the killer (although he didn’t yet have his trademark hockey mask), and he was quite a different character from who he would later become. He still didn’t speak, and he had a burlap sack over his head for most of the film, but he wasn’t the mindless beast we’re used to. He actually had intelligence. He laid traps. He came up with some clever murders that didn’t rely on conveniently placed props or explosive devices. And what’s more, he was human. Strong, yes, and a cold blooded killer, but still not the super-zombie we would all grow to know and love. Still, it’s a step closer, and this is probably where real devotees of the franchise began to fall in love with it.

The ending works fairly well, as the Obligatory Last Teenage Girl pretends to be Jason’s mother and confuses him long enough for them to make their escape. Of course, as we know from the first movie, there’s still room for one more shocker at the end.

Friday03Friday the 13th Part 3 (1982)

The third installment in the franchise took an interesting path – the movie was filmed in 3-D. This was no doubt very cool in the theaters, but just makes it look a little silly on DVD without the benefit of the funky glasses. [2013 Note: Remember, I wrote this in a pre-Avatar universe where there was little to no demand for 3-D movies and I, as a viewer, had not yet grown violently angry about how the technique is overused.] There are tons of shots that clearly serve no other purpose than to take advantage of the gimmick – knives and pitchforks thrust right at the screen, a snake jumping out at you and other such things. There are also a lot of shots like this that probably seemed nonsensical even when it was in 3-D – a totally irrelevant shot of a baseball bat pointing at the screen while some kids are playing in the street, a few stoners shoving a joint at the camera, a yo-yo scene that no doubt got this film serious Academy Award consideration, a crazy old man waving around an eyeball shouting warnings and so forth. On the upside, we did get the funkiest opening credit sequence in the series so far.

The story is exactly what you would expect. The film opens with an extended flashback from the previous film, then we find out it’s the next day (which means it’s no longer Friday the 13th, doesn’t it?) as couple in a general store down the road watch the news reports about the killings. Things don’t turn out too well for them. Next, a group of teenagers decide to go up to “the lake” where a bunch of people have been killed, because teenagers were as stupid in 1982 as many of them are today, and Jason starts slaughtering them. Actually, the teenagers in this series are even stupider than most of the other ones – the girl whose family owns the farmhouse where the teens are staying actually escaped an encounter with Jason two years earlier, but she decided not just to come back anyway, but to bring all of her friends with her. She would most certainly be off my Christmas Card list.

We get a few series milestones in this film – we see Jason acquire his now-trademark hockey mask and machete, we see the beginnings of the strains of humor in the series, and we also introduce, for the first time, the Dork Factor in the character of Shelly, an afro-ed prankster who keeps scaring the hell out of the other characters in a series of pathetic attempts to be liked. I think we’re supposed to sympathize with him, but by the time he starts popping out of the water under the dock, we’re kinda waiting for him to die.

Jason honestly doesn’t come off very well in this movie. Sure, he gets to kill people, but he often comes across as kind of clumsy – even buffoonish. The things the obligatory Last Surviving Teenage Girl does to him, successfully slowing him down just enough, turns him into a monster that Abbott and Costello could have had a ball with. I guess that’s understandable, though – in this installment, Jason is still at least kind of human. He still hasn’t become Superzombie. Not yet.

The story structure as a whole is pretty poor, actually. Early in the film one of the teenagers announces she’s pregnant, after which the filmmakers make the bold choice of completely ignoring that plot point for the rest of the film. Then, after an hour of fake scares and the occasional killing – often off-camera – we get ten minutes of a bloodbath, then the remaining 20 minutes are the surviving teenage girl running around and screaming.

Ah well, when I got into this, I wasn’t expecting Orson Welles or anything.

Friday04Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)

In perhaps the single most misleadingly-named film outside of The Neverending Story, the filmmakers tried to wrap up the series by killing off Jason far more definitively than they had in previous installments. Clearly, it didn’t take.

This time out, we begin with a montage from the three previous films, framed in the campfire story from Part 2, which actually works pretty well. Then we pick up right at the end of Part 3, as they take Jason’s body to the hospital. (The hospital? Come on, guys.) There, of course, he wakes up and kills a very nice young couple making the mistake of doing the dirty down in the morgue, which now that I think about it, doesn’t really make them all that nice to begin with.

Then our attention shifts to – you guessed it – a group of teenagers trying to have a fun little weekend. (Apparently the second, third and fourth films in this series all take place during a bizarre chronal anomaly which resulted in five or six Friday the 13ths being held one after the other, without any of those pesky Saturdays or Thursdays getting in the way). This time out, one of the teenagers has brought along her little brother Tommy – played by Corey Feldman. The sad thing is, were it not for Goonies, this clearly would have been the high point of his career.

The filmmakers then begin to try to make up for the lack of sex in Part 3 by throwing about ten times more than in the first two films combined. We’ve got twins, we’ve got vintage films, we’ve even got Crispin Glover as one of the teenagers who should have known better than to have sex while Jason was around. (The sad thing is, were it not for Back to the Future, this clearly would have been the high point of his career.)

I’ll give director Joseph Zito credit – this is the film where the deaths in the series really started to get elaborate. They weren’t too over-the-top yet, but Jason was no longer content with simple stab wounds and the odd strangulation. Here we’ve got people slaughtered with corkscrews, killed through movie screens, crushed through shower glass – he goes all out.

Then finally, little Tommy comes up with a plan. He shaves his head and pretends to be baby Jason, confusing the big brute. (Anyone who thinks this sounds suspiciously like how he was defeated in Part 2, there’s a reason for that. It is suspiciously like how he was defeated in Part 2.) Lil’ Tommy then gets Jason in the head with a machete, which apparently is supposed to be more effective than being knifed in the chest with a machete, hung in a noose and getting an axe lodged in his skull, because those didn’t seem to work in the last two films. Then, in a rare burst of common sense for these films, Tommy sees Jason’s hand twitch and, instead of screaming, running away and/or getting slaughtered after the killer appeared to be dead, he just picks up his machete again and goes to town.

So Jason is dead, but Tommy is clearly very disturbed by the whole thing. Still, it’s all over now. Right? Right?

Yeah. Right.

Friday05Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning (1985)

Paramount couldn’t even wait a year before changing its mind on this one. Apparently in this franchise, “final” means “final” in the same way that “dead” means “dead” in a comic book universe, a philosophy that would later be adopted by the makers of the Final Fantasy video game series and the Final Destination franchise.

Jason, who’s busy being dead, gets a break after three films that run right into each other. It’s a few years later and Tommy (now a rugged teenager played by John Shephard) has been institutionalized due to his childhood trauma. He’s sent away to a retreat where he shares his hideous rubber masks with Steve Urkel’s pal Weasel from Family Matters (not a joke, friends, I looked this up). As he tries to acclimate to life at the home, he meets the other teens, each of whom is troubled in his or her own way. One of them, for example, is troubled in that he goes bonkers and hacks up one of the others with an axe. This is widely regarded as a bad thing, as later that day other people start getting hacked up in ways very reminiscent of Jason’s murders at Camp Crystal Lake.

There’s lots of blood, lots of hacking, a truly disturbing eye fetish, and the psycho in the hockey mask returns. We’re all supposed to imagine that this is Jason back from the dead, but frankly, it’s not very convincing. Yeah, he’s tall, but the hockey mask is all wrong and the big, bulky Jason is now built like a skinny little basketball player. In the end Tommy and his friends (and here’s another spoiler warning) manage to kill off Jason by chucking him off the side of a barn onto a conveniently-placed array of spikes. As he dies, his mask falls off and we realize it wasn’t Jason at all, but Roy Burns, one of the docs who investigated the killing of the teenager back in the beginning… who evidently was his son, whose very existence he managed to keep a secret all this time. Okaaaaay, if you say so.

For all its flaws, I do believe in credit where credit is due. This movie comes across like a clear attempt by the studio to escape the crutch of having to kill off Jason in at the end of every movie only to have to bring him back at the beginning of the next one. Switching killers and then implying that the evil had traveled on to someone else at the end wasn’t that bad an idea, and at least was more intelligent than the Halloween franchise’s attempt to divorce the property from Michael Myers in its third installment. But let’s face it, fans of Friday want Jason, and this movie didn’t feature Jason at all. Hey, wait a minute… “didn’t feature Jason at all?” Wasn’t my stated purpose at the beginning of this experiment to review “all of the films featuring Jason Vorhees?” Could I have skipped this one on a technicality? Aw, crap.

Friday06Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

Okay, this is where it really started to get ridiculous.

About a decade after the events of A New Beginning (judging by the fact that Tommy is now played by Thom Mathews, who looks like he’s in his 30s, which is a neat trick for someone who just two movies ago was not only 12 years old, but also Corey Feldman), Tommy can’t escape the spectre of Jason. He grabs his friend Allen and… hey, wait a minute. Is that Horshack? Is that freaking Horshack from Welcome Back, Kotter? playing Allen? Okay, this movie automatically gets ten more cool points. Don’t worry, it’ll lose them by the opening credits.

Anyway, Tommy is freaking out about Jason, so he and Allen go to dig up his corpse and cremate him. Tommy freaks out, though, and stabs Jason’s body with a metal pole. This proves to be a really bad idea, when lightning strikes the body and reanimates it. Yes, friends, it’s Superzombie! He’s finally here! As he pulls himself out, Tommy runs away like a little scaredy cat and Jason imitates the opening titles of a James Bond movie.

Tommy runs to the police, who very presciently throw him in jail, where Officer Expository Dialogue reminds him that they changed the name of Crystal Lake to “Forest Green” because they wanted people to forget Jason. Meanwhile a young couple in the woods runs into Jason and the girl utters a phrase that manages to even the movie out on the Cool-Point-O-Meter again, “I’ve seen enough horror movies to know any weirdo wearing a mask is never friendly.” Ironic, self-referential humor always appeals to me.

Back at Camp “Forest Green,” yet another group of teenagers is setting up to be counselors for the summer. Also, for the first time, we see some actual campers at camp. Go figure. As the teens get the camp set up, we visit a bunch of comical would-be-warriors playing paintball and taking it way too seriously, which is what makes it kind of cathartic when they start to die.

The survivalists are actually just the start of showing off the crapitude that would be Jason Lives. The filmmakers in this go-round really tried to go for the laughs in addition to the killing. There’s not anything wrong with this, in and of itself. There’s a proud tradition of horror/comedies, from the good ol’ days of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein all the way up to modern classics like Army of Darkness. The thing is, a good horror/comedy must be both frightening and funny. Jason Lives was neither.

The only really good thing I can say about this movie is that at least the filmmakers had the good taste not to blow their wad and have Jason kill off an entire cabin full of children when he burst in on one. That, I think, would have gone too far. Yeah, we want to see Jason killing, but killing punk teenagers. Fact is, in movies like this you almost kinda root for the killer, you want to see how he’ll up the ante. Going after the kids would have been too much.

Tommy again manages to beat Jason, this time following the completely out-of-the-blue announcement that “the only way to stop Jason now is to bring him back to where it began… Camp Crystal Lake.” And how does Tommy know this exactly? Apparently that home for troubled teens he stayed in during the last movie had an extensive course study on occult manifestations and how to exterminate them. That or the screenwriter was a hack, take your pick. Anyway, Tommy finds a convenient boulder which he wraps around a chain and puts in a canoe. Yeah, I know. Then, in a fairly unconvincing fight piece, he loops the chain around Jason’s neck and drops him in the lake. His girlfriend then jumps in to hit Jason in the head with a boat motor, and everybody lives happily ever after, except for anyone who actually paid money to see this. Horshack and self-referential humor aside, we’ve hit the real low point in this series.

Friday07Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)

C’mon, did anyone really think a little thing like being stuck on the bottom of a lake was going to stop Jason? Part VII opens up with another montage sequence of scenes from the previous films, all of which basically make one point that everyone seeing the movie already knows: Jason is a bad ass. Oh, and he’s stuck at the bottom of the lake. Jason is a bad-ass stuck at the bottom of the lake.

The movie opens with a little girl who runs out into a boat on the lake and somehow kills her father. Seems she’s got some telekinetic powers, those funky things. Years later, as (wait for it) a teenager, she comes back, lamenting her father’s death, and winds up accidentally freeing Jason from his watery prison. Soon, a bunch of teenagers up there for a birthday party start getting killed.

This is actually a vast improvement over Jason Lives. They filmmakers mostly abandoned the idiotic slapstick that killed the previous movie, and Tina – while coming across as a “Carrie Lite,” does make for an interesting adversary. Terry Kieser (the “late Bernie” himself) does a suitably despicable turn as a self-important doctor hoping to study her condition, with no thought for what havoc his little experiment may cause. This is also the first appearance of Kane Hodder, who would play Jason three more times and who many fans consider the definitive performer. He’s good – big, imposing, frightening, and the makeup and costuming has improved a lot as well. Chunks of flesh have fallen off, you can see spine and ribcage, and he really looks menacing for the first time.

Is it a great movie? No. But it’s better than the series had been since its earliest installments, and a well-needed jolt of what makes the monster so much fun.

Friday08Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)

It’s time to travel! With the Crystal Lake region done to death, for their final Friday, Paramount Pictures put Jason out to sea and then on to the mean streets of New York City. The film begins with a pair of rambunctious teens spending the evening on a yacht on Crystal Lake. (Apparently Crystal Lake is connected to a river. This was news to me.) While they’re having their fun, their anchor drags a submerged power cable into Jason’s body, jolting him back to life. The moral of the story? Once you’ve finally got Jason dead, put whatever’s left in a rubber box, for God’s sake. Jason thanks the teens who resurrected him in his own inimitable style, and then the story takes off.

The next day we see a group of high school graduates taking a cruise for their senior trip – a cruise to New York. You know, when I think of great cruise destinations, I think: the Caribbean, Cancun, New York. But that’s where they’re going, especially our heroine du jour, Rennie, who is terrified of the water. Would that this were the only thing to be terrified about. Jason has stowed away aboard the ship, and the killing begins.

For a movie ostensibly about Jason “taking Manhattan,” it sure takes long enough to get there. The first hour of the film takes place on the ship, with Jason killing people in various clever and distinctively nautical ways. Finally, the survivors make it to New York, and Jason is hot on their heels, ready to begin the killing there. All the time, Rennie keeps having flashes of Jason attacking her even when he’s busy elsewhere.

I was actually surprised by this movie. Based solely on the title, I was braced for another Jason Lives level of camp and crap. The first hour, though, is actually pretty good. I’ve got a penchant for “claustrophobic” horror movies, where the protagonists are forced to fight for their lives in an enclosed space with little or no hope of escape, and the shipboard battles fit that bill very well. Once we make it to New York, it’s not as strong. It’s still basically the same few characters running around with Jason, occasionally drawing in a gang banger or bystander to take a hit and allow someone else to live another scene or two. The filmmakers totally squandered the potential of having a killing machine like Jason in a major metropolitan area – so much could have been done with that premise, but except for a brief chase on a subway car, it isn’t even touched on. I’m also not a fan of the new powers Jason started whipping out in this movie. Superzombie is one thing, but a psychic, teleporting superzombie? That’s a bit much. Jason works best as the unstoppable killing machine/mama’s boy. Let’s leave the psychic stuff for the Tinas of this series, shall we? They also worked in some unnecessary (and out of character) humor bits, like Jason scaring away a group of gang-bangers by taking off his mask and revealing his face, allowing them to escape. Um… since when does Jason actually care about scaring people? He just wants ‘em dead. For that matter, letting them escape is pretty preposterous too.

After this film, Paramount apparently gave up on the property, resulting in a four-year gap before the next movie, the longest at the time. Then New Line Cinema bought the license, but apparently not the trademark, because none of Jason’s subsequent appearances have appeared under the Friday the 13th moniker. In fact, the next time we saw Jason was in…

Friday09Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993)

Why New Line would resurrect the franchise just to (pretend to) finish it off is beyond me. Why they made their first venture into this series such a bad one is even more perplexing. The DVD I have features both the “R-rated” and “Unrated” versions of the film. I went with the unrated version for this review, assuming there’s nothing in the whopping three minutes of extra footage that would be too much for my fragile little mind.

The last time we saw Jason, he’d been wiped out by a wave of toxic waste beneath the streets of Manhattan. This time, the filmmakers (including Friday creator Sean S. Cunningham, who came back for this “final” installment) didn’t even go through the pretense of showing how this film relates to the previous one. Jason pops up at the very beginning, hale and hearty, chasing a girl in a towel through the woods. Oh, but she’s not just any girl in a towel – she’s an FBI agent. After several movies of trying to pretend Jason didn’t even exist, it seems the authorities have finally wised up. The girl is bait for a sting operation that involves lots of guns and at least one explosive charge. Jason blows up. Jason blows up good. We’ve got body parts strewn about, a head flying through the air and a still-beating heart lying on the ground. And that’s before the credits.

As the coroner examines Jason’s remains, he sees the still-beating heart and – because this is what coroners do with still-beating hearts – eats it. Then he goes on a killing spree of his own. Flash to a TV interview with a big-name bounty hunter, Creighton Duke, who claims that Jason has the power to change bodies the way normal people can change clothes, and only he knows how to defeat him. Back in Crystal Lake, he approaches a waitress at a local diner, saying that only she and her daughter can stop Jason once and for all, and if you don’t know where this is going yet, you haven’t watched enough horror movies.

What with one thing or another, we find out the waitress’s daughter, Jessica, is dating the TV host, Robert, and has a child of her own with a local boy (Steven) that she’s estranged from. The waitress is killed, Steven is thrown in jail and he meets Duke. After a nicely sadistic finger-breaking sequence, Duke explains what anyone who’s ever seen a horror flick should have been able to figure out for themselves – through some convoluted twist, the waitress was Jason’s long-lost sister, making Jessica and her child his last two blood relatives, which means they’re the only two people who can either kill him once and for all or bring him back to his own body.

Steven escapes from jail and hightails it to the Voorhees house, where he finds a book that one of the prop guys stole from the set of Army of Darkness but which otherwise serves absolutely no purpose. He also overhears Robert on the phone laughing over the fact that he swiped the waitress’s body and stowed it away here for the sake of ratings. It’s his last boast, however, as Jason’s previous host then takes his body, and continues the carnage.

Eventually, Jessica and Duke wind up at the Voorhees house, where he tosses her a switchblade which then mysteriously transforms into a… um… magic dagger. And he tells her that only she can send Jason to Hell, tonight, “for all time.” He also informs her that she can’t trust anyone, because Jason could be in anybody’s body at this point. This turns out to be true, but only because Jason has suddenly, spontaneously developed the power of speech. Sure, just because none of his other hosts could talk, why should it be a stretch that this one suddenly can?

Jason jumps into the dead waitress’s body, which then turns into his, and Duke gets killed as Jessica wastes precious seconds trying to get the dagger out from under a dresser because, apparently, she doesn’t want to bend over the extra three millimeters it would take to reach it. Steven and Jason have a big final battle scene while Jessica (again) tries to grab the dagger. She finally stabs him with it, which results in a peachy little lightshow and a bunch of hands popping up from under the ground to drag him off to hell. A couple of the hands also grab Steven and try to pull him down. Jessica winds up saving him, but she takes a really long time to decide to do it, considering that he’s the father of her child and has saved her life about a billion times during this movie.

The movie, as a whole, is full of plot holes, terribly convoluted and utterly out of synch with the rest of the franchise. It does, however, get points for the single coolest shot in the entire series at the very end. New Line took advantage of its new property to give fans something they’d been craving for a decade – as Jason’s mask lies in the dirt, one last hand pops up to drag it down with the rest of him… a hand with long, sharp knives on the fingers. That’s right, fans wanted to see Jason take on Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street fame, and now that New Line owned both properties, was it going to happen?

Yes. But not for another decade. At any rate, the only way this could be considered “The Final Friday” is if we assume future installments did away with the crutch of trying to place the events on Friday the 13th and decided they could happen at any old time. Still, it would take a good eight years before Jason would grace the screen again.

Friday10Jason X (2001)

After eight years, New Line decided “to Hell with this final stuff (pun intended), let’s bring him back. But this time… let’s make it a sci-fi movie!” So in the near future, Jason has been captured (how did he get out of Hell?) and is awaiting cryogenic suspension at the Crystal Lake Research Facility. One of the bigwigs has decided he doesn’t want Jason frozen, though, he wants him “soft” so they can continue to study his amazing regenerative powers. Which may well be the stupidest decision in the history of the planet. Jason, of course, cuts loose and begins a killing spree that doesn’t end until he and Rowan (the hottest female scientist) are frozen in cryogenic sleep.

Over 400 years later, they’re found by a group of scavengers (all of whom, coincidentally, appear to be teenagers) sifting through the ruins of a dead planet Earth. They find the two frozen bodies and bring them to space, anticipating that Rowan can be revived. She’s reanimated and brought around with the help of handy nanobots, and begin to study Jason’s corpse. Unfortunately, the scientists don’t seem to comprehend that with Jason, you don’t need nanobots to wake him up, you just need him to thaw out. And yes, the killing begins anew.

Jason slaughters lots of people really good, including the ship’s pilot, which in turn causes the spaceship to crash into the Solaris station instead of docking with it, as was the plan. The entire space station blows up, pretty much ensuring that Jason breaks his record for body count with this one. As the survivors flee, the professor who saw so much profit potential in Jason utters what has to be one of the dumbest things ever said in this franchise, “Guys, it’s okay! He just wanted his machete back!” Okay, yeah, they were going for the funny there, but still.

The survivors try to escape, and one of them finds love with his android (aaaaaaaw). Then he upgrades the android to turn her into a fighting machine, giving us the closest we’ll probably ever get to a Jason Versus Ripley battle scene. She blows him all to smithereens, but happens to knock his body right into the medical hold where all those helpful little nanobots are. So while the others wait for a rescue and prepare to blow up part of the ship so the rest of it will stay in one piece long enough, the shipboard computer (showing the sort of poor judgment that has given shipboard computers a bad name since 2001) rebuilds ol’ Jason. He’s not just Superzombie anymore. Now he’s Cyber-Superzombie! Sadly, his snazzy new duds don’t make him any more agreeable, and he keeps a-comin’. A few more people die, although remarkably, none actually are killed directly by Uberjason (one blows himself up, one dies in explosive decompression and the last one rides Jason into burning up in the atmostphere). Jason falls to the surface of “Earth 2,” and whatever’s left of him just happens to touch down on the bottom of a lake… beside which we have a couple of teenagers out camping. This is supposed to be poetic, I suppose. Anyway, the few survivors seem to have a little happily ever after potential, so good for them. As far as Jason, hopefully this little glimpse of the future was the last, because it just didn’t work. If it had been done right, this movie could have been another Alien. Instead, it was another Alien: Resurrection.

Friday11Freddy Versus Jason (2003)

If you’re wondering how Jason got out of Hell after part nine, this film would seem to be your answer. More importantly, it gave horror geeks something they’ve wanted for nearly 20 years – a face-off between the two most popular slasher film stars of all time. Ten years after the teaser at the end of Jason Goes to Hell, we open up with the story of Freddy Krueger, a child killer who was burnt alive by a mob of vengeance-seeking parents. Freddy’s demonic spirit couldn’t be quieted, though, and he gained the power to attack children and teenagers (always with the teenagers) in their dreams. Thing is, Freddy only has power over your dreams if you’re afraid of him, and the parents of his little town, Springwood, are drugging their kids to suppress their dreams and make them forget Freddy ever existed. Down in Hell, Freddy finds Jason Voorhees, and sends him back to the surface to wreak a little havoc, bring back the fear, and let him cut loose again.

Jason heads straight for the house where Freddy’s most infamous killings took place, and where there just happens to be a new teenage girl, Lori. Lori is depressed because her boyfriend, Will, up and moved away without as much as a goodbye, so her friends bring over a couple of guys to cheer her up. One of them goes upstairs for a little fun with his girlfriend, which is Jason’s cue to have a little fun of his own. The cops are called and Freddy is the immediate suspect, even if they don’t want to even say his name out loud. Freddy makes a play for one of the other teens, but he isn’t strong enough, so he give a brief soliloquy about letting Jason have some fun. After 10 movies with a bad guy who doesn’t even so much as grunt, it’s a little disconcerting to suddenly have a baddie who yammers on for hours on end. Of course, that’s one of the things that gives these two such distinct personalities.

Turns out, though, Will didn’t just run off from Lori, he was placed in a mental institution because Freddy was too strong in his mind. When he sees Lori’s house on the news as the scene of an attack, he and his friend Mark break out and run to the rescue. Back at school, the class nerd expresses his concern for Lori and a guy who apparently was cloned from Jason Mewes starts handing out flyers for a party. Will and Mark pop up with Freddy’s story on their lips and people start getting more and more terrified, which of course is just what Freddy wanted. Mark figures out that the institution was a place to quarantine everyone who had contact with Freddy, like he did when his brother, Scut Farkus, “committed suicide.” Fortunately, even after four years in a mental institution, he’s still got his van (which he apparently got when he was 14), and Will sets off to find the girls at Jason Mewes’ party, which happens to be in the middle of a cornfield.

One of Lori’s friends wanders off on her own and winds up getting drawn into Freddy’s Dreamworld boiler room, where he’s at his strongest. Before he can take her out, though, Jason kills her in the real world, denying Freddy his kill, which he doesn’t take well at all. Jason crashes the rave and some enterprising Horatio Sanz wannabe (I swear, when they decided to cobble together the two leads from previous movies, they just gave up on having any original characters in this movie) sets him on fire. In a dry cornfield. You know, it’s actually a mercy he was killed off before he graduated high school and entered the work force.

The kids escape and Freddy starts killing people himself. Meanwhile, the only cop in town whose head isn’t up his ass recognizes the similarities between the new killings and the Jason Voorhees legend. He meets up with the teenagers and they put everything together in a painful sequence of expository dialogue, culminating in them heading back to Will’s institution for more of the dream-suppressing drug. Freddy and Jason both show up to cause terror, and somehow along the way the kids decide that Jason is the lesser of two evils. They get him drugged up and haul him back to Crystal Lake, where he’ll have “home field advantage” over Freddy. While they’re doing this, Freddy and Jason face off in the Dreamworld.

The mandate must have been to have them battle on both of their home fields, because the kids manage to yank Freddy out of Dreamworld to do battle at Camp Crystal Lake, which has apparently been rebuilt and abandoned again since Jason Goes to Hell. As usual, both of them prove to be imminently distractable, which gives the remaining kids just enough time to set up a firetrap on the dock, which Jason really should have been ready for since Tommy Jarvis nailed him with the same thing in Jason Lives.

The final battle sequence is actually pretty satisfying. It’s a bit over-reliant on a highly convenient construction site there at the camp, but Freddy and Jason each get their licks in and there’s a lot of blood to go around. You’ve also got to give the producers credit for actually having the guts to show a winner. (Sorry, Freddy fans, but when one of the characters ends the movie with a head attached to his neck and the other one doesn’t, he can wink all he wants, but he’s still lost.)

So there you have it, sports fans. All 11 Jason Voorhees films, viewed and reviewed in a 48-hour stretch, because I clearly have lost my mind. What’s even crazier – I enjoyed it. Even the really bad ones. I’ve seen ‘em all now. The worst of the bunch? Easily Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. The best? I’m gonna call that a toss-up between Friday the 13th Part 3 (yeah, I know I was kind of down on it in the review, but this is the film where Jason as we know him really began to take shape) and Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood. The most fun? Freddy Versus Jason, because the geek in me will always give it up for a great crossover. Is this the end of Jason? Probably not – reports are that there’s a Freddy Versus Jason 2 in the works, possibly bringing in a character from a third horror franchise (God, I’d love to see Ash take on those two), and there’s supposedly a new Friday solo film in talks as well.

As for me, I think I need to cleanse myself – go watch some Looney Tunes or something to wash all the blood out of my system. But if you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed whipping it up, let me know. There are plenty of other horror franchises out there. Maybe in next year’s Halloween Party, it’ll be Freddy’s turn.

[And it was. But here, just for the sake of completion, is the review I wrote of the Friday remake in 2009.]

Friday 2009Friday the 13th (2009)

One of the many wonderful things about Erin is that she not only tolerates the kind of movies I watch, she makes me promise to wait for her to watch them. So today, she and I went out to catch the remake of the 80s horror staple Friday the 13th. If you may recall, a while back I actually reviewed all of the previous films in the franchise, so you can consider this a sort of addendum to that review series.

This film, like producer Michael Bay‘s remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is sort of an updating of the horror legend. The film begins some 20 years after the death of Pamela Voorhees, a mother who murdered a slew of counselors at Camp Crystal Lake whom she believed caused her son Jason’s death. (This, of course, was the plot of the first movie.) In the here and now, a group of teenagers (it’s always a group of teenagers) comes up to the lake in the hopes of finding a large crop of wild pot purported to grow here, quickly allowing the movie to cast aspersions on all three of the vices that get kids killed in these movies — sex, drugs, and alcohol. Six weeks later, the brother of one of the teens goes to the camp to search for her, at the same time as a second group of oversexed, alcoholic, pothead kids rolls up to spend a weekend away from it all.

“Away,” unfortunately for them, means “right in Jason’s backyard.”

There’s actually a lot of good in this movie. The plot isn’t just a carbon copy of any of the previous films, although the film goes out of its way to include all the tropes that made them popular. The brother, played by the kid from Supernatural whose name I can’t spell and am too lazy to look up, is a stronger male lead than most of the heroes of the franchise, and we get two fairly well-rounded female characters as well. The rest of the characters are all painful stereotypes, including the slutty blond, the jackass boyfriend and the black guy who feigns offense at unintended racial stereotypes. Seen it.

Jason himself is quite a departure from previous incarnations of the character. This is a much smarter Jason. He doesn’t just march through the film mindlessly killing everyone with whatever he has at hand. This is a Jason who thinks. Who sets traps. Who uses a light switch. He’s got a brain. As a result, he’s nearly an entirely different character.

In the end, actually, that’s the main drawback for the film. Jason is almost a different character, and the film is almost a different franchise. It’s not that it’s bad — I mean, it’s not great, but it’s at least as good as at least half of the old films. But it’s not really the same, and it’s supposed to be. It’s the Coke Zero of the franchise. You can tell it’s supposed to be the same, and it’s not bad, but it still tastes different no matter what the commercials tell you.

Crappy Movie Roulette: Puppet Master (1989)

Puppet MasterDirector: David Schmoeller

Writers: Charles Band & Kenneth J. Hall

Cast: Paul Le Mat, William Hickey, Irene Miracle, Jimmie F. Skaggs, Robin Frates, Matt Roe, Mews Small, Barbara Crampton, Kathryn O’Reilly

Plot: Following an opening sequence comprised of close-up shots of various puppets, we begin with an old man (William Hickey) painting and talking to a series of puppets that are moving independently, intercut with scenes of what appears to be the point-of-view shot of another puppet trying to sneak into a hotel, the Bodega Bay Inn. The puppet, a hook-handed creature with black eyes (Blade, according to Wikipedia), eventually makes it to the old man’s room while evading a pair of men in trenchcoats. As the two men – Nazis, as it turn out – approach, the old man hides his puppets and kills himself.

Fifty years later, we meet Alex Whitaker (Paul Le Mat), a psychic plagued with dreams of violence. He contacts three other psychics: Dana Hadley (Irene Miracle) and the husband-wife team of Frank Forrester (Matt Roe) and Carissa Stanford (Kathryn O’Reilly). The four of them are summoned to the side of their old acquaintance Neil Gallagher (Jimmie F. Skaggs) to compare notes. Upon arriving at the Bodega Bay Inn, now owned by Neil’s wife Megan (Robin Frates), they find Neil has committed suicide.

That night a puppet with a tiny head (Pinhead, evidently) climbs out of Neil’s coffin and begins roaming the hotel. At dinner, Dana tells Megan that Neil only married her for her money, prompting Megan to leave. Alex follows her and apologizes, explaining how Neil called them together years ago to study an Egyptian secret for imbuing life to inanimate objects. Later, Pinhead murders the hotel’s housekeeper and Megan faints when she finds that someone has propped up Neil’s dead body in a chair. As the psychics retire to their rooms, the puppets begin to roam the hotel, murdering Frank and Carissa in the midst of a sex-fueled “psychic experiment.”

When Neil’s body again is moved, this time to Dana’s room, she tries using her skills as a fortune teller to put him to rest. She’s instead attacked by Pinhead, who breaks her ankle to slow her down. Pinhead chases her to the elevator, where Blade slices her throat. Alex has a dream about Megan dancing with a masked man – Neil, as it turns out — followed by a flash of the three other psychics dead, with their heads in his bed. The real Megan arrives and tells Alex she has something to show him, just as she did in his dream. She’s found the diary of the old Puppet Master, who calls his creations “harmless,” but fears what they will do in the wrong hands.

In the dining room, Alex and Megan find the murdered psychics propped up at the table. To their surprise, they find Neil seemingly alive and well. He explains that he did, in fact, commit suicide, but not before using the old Puppet Master’s secrets to grant his body immortality. He had to kill the others, he explains, because their psychic link would eventually have led them to him. He’s tired of the puppets, though, and he tosses one aside, shocking the others. He also confesses to killing Megan’s parents to manipulate her into marrying him, granting him access to their hotel and leaving him free to search for the old man’s secrets. The puppets revolt, turning on Neil and killing him for good.

Thoughts: This is an odd sort of film, the kind of movie that has something to it, but overreaches. It’s a clear attempt by Full Moon Entertainment to start off their own horror franchise in the vein of Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street, and it would seem to have been at least partially successful… after all, as of this writing there have been a whopping ten sequels to this movie. On the other hand, those sequels (and this original) have all been direct-to-video and have limited cultural impact. If you were to show the average person a picture of Blade, the franchise’s most iconic puppet, they wouldn’t have any idea what they were looking at, and may even mistake him for a creation from the Saw franchise.

That said, let’s talk a little bit about what this movie does right. First of all, the puppetry is honestly not bad. The close-ups of the puppets, all done in a 1989 before CGI took over the movie landscape, appear to be legitimate puppet work, and it’s impressive. It’s slow, and it’s creepy, and that works to the movie’s favor. The shots that require a full-figure puppet to walk around in the frame are all stop motion. It’s not as impressive as the puppetry, but it’s not terrible. The greenscreen used to add them into the scene, however, is pretty bad, full of nasty and highly visible artifacting that pulls you out of the reality of the moment, such as it is.

It’s this, more than anything else, that hurts the movie. The puppets stumbling around in stop-motion look like nothing so much as a cartoon, and a silly one. Once you start seeing that, the fear level drops. You’re already dealing with puppets, after all, you have to work to convince the audience that they’re threatening. Child’s Play did it fairly well, but this movie doesn’t. The scene where Dana throws the Pinhead doll across the elevator looks like exactly what it is – a woman chucking a doll. It robs the creatures of any menace they possess. Sadly, it doesn’t go quite far enough to reach the “so bad it’s good” level of entertainment.

The characters are all pretty bland. Megan and Alex are both completely dull and blank, Dana is a stereotypical bitch (she even refers to herself as much) with a tacked-on southern accent, and Frank and Carissa seem to exist only to throw in a quick sex scene prior to kicking off the murder spree. You don’t feel for them, you don’t get to know them, you don’t care when they die and you don’t care if they survive.

Neil, as a villain, is weak as well. We’ve got the standard immortality motive, with a tacked-on excuse for him to murder the others. Why did he need to murder the other psychics? Because they would have found out he hadn’t really killed himself. Well… okay… but why did he feel the need to fake his suicide in the first place? Did the magic that animated him need his “death” in order to take effect? Could they have made that a little clearer? Or did he just get off on killing people – he did murder Megan’s parents with no remorse long before he was immortal, after all. Or maybe – and I know I’m reaching here – maybe the screenwriter just didn’t think things through all that well.

There’s a weird sort of attempt here at a Twilight Zone-style morality play. Neil wants something mankind isn’t supposed to have, he employs some homemade monsters to try to get it, and in the end those same creations turn on him. But that said, it fails to live up to the standards of Rod Serling, with a half-assed attempt at an ironic moral that might actually have worked in a half-hour TV show, but loses its steam in the film’s 90 minute running time.

In the end, Puppet Master is the sort of movie that isn’t quite good enough to be good and isn’t quite bad enough to be fun, which is the saddest kind of film to watch. That said, I’ve got other films in the franchise amidst my collection of crappy movies, and those may well be worth the watch. It’s often from mediocrity like this that truly insanely bad movies, the ones that are a blast to make fun of, flow in future installments.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Crappy Movie Roulette: The Invisible Maniac (1990)

Invisible ManiacDirector: Adam Rifkin

Writer: Matt Devlen, Tony Markes & Adam Rifkin (as “Rif Coogan”)

Cast: Noel Peters, Shannon Wilsey, Stephanie Blake, Melissa Moore, Clement Von Franckenstein, Claudette Rains, Eric Campanella, Debra Lamb, Gail Lyon, Marilyn Adams, Kris Russell, Rod Sweitzer

Plot: When young Kevin Dornwinkle (Kris Russell) is caught by his mother (Marilyn Adams) spying on his neighbor girl undressing, his mother brutally warns him that women are evil. Twenty years later, Kevin (Noel Peters as an adult) has become one of the preeminent scientists in the world, but fails in his attempt to turn himself invisible, instead going mad and killing four of his fellow scientists. He’s institutionalized, but escapes a few months later and gets a job as a physics teacher at a summer school, where he overhears a student named Gordon (Rod Sweitzer) planning to tease and torment him. At home, he continues to experiment on his failed invisibility serum, finally making a rabbit disappear. He uses the serum on himself, becoming invisible, but crashing to intense dreams about women teasing and taunting him, followed by an insatiable desire to use the serum again.

He’s later approached by a student named Vicky (Shannon Wilsey), who offers to do “anything” to get an A in his class. The same day, Gordon and his friends begin their campaign to antagonize Kevin, beginning with a belch and proceeding with the classic “everybody drop your books at the same time” trick. As they laugh, Chet (Robert R. Ross Jr.) is summoned to the principal’s office. The principal, Ms. Cello (Stephanie Blake) offers to help him with his grades in exchange for “special attention,” giving further credence to the audience’s theory that this movie was written by a repressed 12-year-old boy. Kevin later summoned to Ms. Cello’s office, where she tries to seduce him. When he rejects her, she threatens to call the police over a syringe she found in his classroom. To protect himself, he kills her. He returns to his class, where he’s hit by a good ol’ bucket of water over the door, then goes mad(der). He locks the doors to the school and goes on a killing spree, beginning by choking a student to death with a sandwich in what is probably the best scene in the film.

Having killed everyone else, Kevin returns home where he’s pursued by Chet, who’s got a gun and apparently word-a-day toilet paper, as he uses the word “astute.” Don’t give him too much credit, in the same scene he actually shouts, “Die, you invisible jerk!” Anyway, both Chet and Kevin wind up invisible and start pounding on each other before the gun goes off and a headless body appears. A pair of police arrive, find the corpse, and declare it a suicide. As they leave, Kevin reappears, laughing maniacally.

Thoughts: I asked you guys last week to pick a lousy movie for me to view in the first installment of “Crappy Movie Roulette,” and I’ve gotta say, you didn’t let me down. This is one of the worst produced movies I’ve ever seen.

Released in 1990, I’ve got to imagine this film had a budget of approximately seven dollars and eighty-three cents, most of which went to craft services. They couldn’t pay for any sets, clearly, or even bother to re-dress any of the sets they got for free. The top scientists in the world, for instance, meet in what appears to be the side conference room of a neighborhood church community center, which Adam Rifkin no doubt had to lie to get access to. There’s even a weird sense that we’re getting the opposite of product placement in this movie, outright product rejection, in that there are several close-up shots of radios and tape recorders, all of which seem to have had their labels peeled off in a half-assed attempt to remove the name brands. Casio wanted nothing to do with this film.

Rifkin is attempting to draw on the wild era of great 80s slasher movies, and as so often happens when people come in at the end of a trend, he takes it to ridiculous lengths. In 80s horror, of course, the killers’s victims are usually suffering a metaphorical punishment for their crimes – drugs, sex and alcohol being the most popular choices. In the world of The Invisible Maniac, that idea of the world providing the killer a slate of deserving victims is utterly absurd. Every woman in this movie exists for one of two reasons: to torture Kevin (his mother, the women in the scientific community), or to tantalize him (the girls in the class, and even the principal, who whips out the phone number and address of a student from her bra a good twenty minutes before summoning Kevin into her office for some quality time). Even the layout of the school seems to work against him. For the obligatory “sneaking a peek in the girls’ locker room” scene, rather than even trying to come up with some sort of plan (even Porky’s went to the trouble of showing them drilling a hole in the wall), the jock peeks through an air conditioning vent in the school gym, which apparently opens up directly into the shower. Purely from an architectural standpoint, that seems dubious.

Like any terrible movie, this film also has huge gaps in logic. What summer school, for example, has a need for a cheerleader squad practicing in full uniform? Why is it, just two weeks after escaping from a mental asylum and being all over the news, the principal who hires Kevin doesn’t recognize him as a psychopathic killer? Even in 1990, there must have been some sort of background check. And why do Dornwinkle’s clothes vanish with him when he turns invisible?

What’s more, this film doesn’t seem to have any sense of time. Young Kevin – as well as the neighbor girl he spies on – dress like refugees from a campy Saturday Night Live skit set in the 1950s… but when the “Twenty Years Later” card appears at the end of the scene, we jump to 1990. What’s more, this could easily have been avoided by just changing the card to read “Forty Years Later,” because Noel Peters looks like he’s at least 50 when he first appears on screen.

Nobody in this film can act, either – stiff line deliveries, melodrama that would get you kicked out of the least professional community theater, and worst of all, very few of them seem to be aware of the fact that they’re in a terrible movie. Only Gail Lyons, who plays the doomed April, seems to be in on the joke, hamming up her death scene as she’s strangled by the titular Invisible Maniac. She commits to pounding on air and even rolls her eyes as she dies in a method that seems to indicate she knows she’s in a flop and is making the best of a bad situation.

People often talk about bad movies, and about movies that are so bad that they’re good, movies that can be enjoyed in an ironic fashion, laughing at the absurdity of a failed attempt at art. There is, however, another level – the movie that is, as TV Tropes tells us, so bad it’s terrible. This is a film so poorly made that it actually laps itself on the bad movie scale, becoming something that’s not only painful to watch, but utterly absurd. Showgirls is the classic example here – so much blatant, absurd sex that it’s no longer even titillating, but just dull. The Invisible Maniac treads very close to that line, and even crosses it a few times before coming back at the end, where the death scenes are poorly shot and stupid enough that they’re laughable again. Drowning a girl in a fish tank? You got it. Submarine sandwich stuffed down a kid’s throat until it blows up like a cartoon fire hose? Done.

Is that enough to recommend the movie? Not really. It might find a worthy place in a bad movie night with your friends, and I’d love to hear the RiffTrax crew take it on, but it’s not really worth watching on its own.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Gut Reaction: Birdemic-Shock and Terror (2010)

birdemicDirector: James Nguyen

Writer: James Nguyen

Cast: Alan Bagh, Whitney Moore, Janae Caster, Colton Osborne, Adam Sessa, Catherine Batcha, Patty van Ettinger, Rick Camp, Stephen Gustavson, Danny Webber, Mona Lisa Moon

Plot: Rod (Alan Bagh), a preposterously successful software salesman, meets Natalie (Whitney Moore), an up-and-coming supermodel. As the two begin a romance that was clearly written in the stars, legions of birds lose their minds and begin attacking humanity because Global Warming is a thing. Warning: Do NOT attempt to take this movie seriously. Normally I would also include a spoiler warning, because I will talk some spoilers, but with a movie this remarkably stupid they aren’t so much “spoilers” as they are “cautionary examples.”

Thoughts: For a couple of years now, I’ve heard people talk about Birdemic: Shock and Terror as the new “So Bad It’s Good” movie, placing it in the ranks of dubious classics like The Room, Troll 2, and the über-entry in that category, Plan 9 From Outer Space. There are a lot of bad movies, but for a movie to be so bad as to be entered into that pantheon takes an awful lot of effort on the part of a director that is seriously delusional and, more often than not, a cast that wonders what the hell it got itself into.

My friends. On that front, Birdemic: Shock and Terror totally delivers.

James Nguyen’s 2010 film is the clunkiest, least-effective attempt at a “nature gone bad” horror film I’ve ever seen, so bad in fact that it’s hard to know exactly where to begin. It seems clear that Nguyen was attempting to emulate Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Birds, which also featured a young couple that meets early in the film, a slow build to establish their relationship, and a sudden, inexplicable attack by birds that dominates the rest of the movie. However, Nguyen manages to take these elements that Hitchcock used in a masterpiece and screw every single one of them up.

Let’s take the slow beginning. In Hitchcock’s film, while it does start slowly, he’s building an interesting group of characters with dynamics, personalities and relationships that could probably sustain a movie even without the threat of lunatic bird attack. Not so Nguyen. Rod works as a salesman for a software company that gets sold for a billion dollars (an even billion, that’s right) right after he makes a big sale worth a million dollars (after giving the client a 50 percent discount). Natalie, meanwhile, is informed at the beginning that she’s been selected as the next Victoria’s Secret cover girl, which delights her mother, who also suggests she look into selling real estate as a back-up. However, despite the fact that these two people are remarkably successful, almost every location in the film (including their homes, motel room, and places of business) look like they were shot in the same spare bedroom of a cheap apartment with a half-assed attempt at decoration by changing the bedspread and swapping out laughably small signs the local print shop turned out for a grand total of sixteen dollars.

What’s more, their incredible success never factors into the movie. Rod’s salesmanship? His money? Natalie’s… covergirl-ness? Once the bird attack begins — an unforgivably long 45 minutes into this stinker – all of that immediately becomes irrelevant. Again, this is Nguyen at least trying to emulate Hitchcock. In The Birds, many of the circumstances behind Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor’s meeting (oh geez, Rod Taylor, I just realized what Nguyen was trying to do there) cease to matter, but the character dynamics and the local politics of the small town they’re in are still important. For example, we feel bad when Rod Taylor’s ex-girlfriend dies trying to protect his little sister. When the main characters of Birdemic find their two best friends (who also happen to be dating one another, although somehow neither Rod nor Natalie knew this when they started dating) dead in a car, the audience really only wonders what the point was in including them in the film at all, as they contributed exactly nothing.

The only thing worse than the writing in this movie is the special effects used to create the birds. From the first time we see a bird – a trio of parrots circling a tree – it becomes clear we’re in for a treat. This is the worst, weakest CGI I have ever seen, without qualification. On TV, in theaters, in direct-to-video releases, on viral videos on the internet, every human being who has ever attempted to make pixels on a computer screen move was more successful than the people who made Birdemic. The dancing baby from Ally McBeal looks realistic and lifelike in comparison to the birds in this movie. They attack in droves, sometimes, dive-bombing random targets and exploding, with fire that stays exactly in the spot the bird made contact and burns upwards in a perfect column. They hover – eagles that hover – in front of windows or cars. And whenever one of the characters manages to shoot a bird, that bird they hit inexplicably becomes the only one in the shot, popping in a manner reminiscent of an arcade-style duck hunting game circa 1991.

There is one aspect, however, in which this film clearly and deliberately rejects the framework of Hitchcock’s classic. In his film, as well as in the Daphne Du Maurier story upon which it is based, no explanation for the bird attack is ever given. James Nguyen turns this trope on its ear by giving us multiple, increasingly stupid explanations for what’s happening, all of which boil down to the same thing: Global Warming. That’s right, friends, everything in this movie is because of Global Warming… somehow. One random scientist they meet standing on a bridge blames Global Warming for a pile of dead birds on the ground, but then soundly rejects the notion that it could be responsible for the bird attack. A nutcase in the woods (wearing a wig so terrible that your delusional Uncle Morty suddenly will feel incredibly dapper by comparison) blames Global Warming for the deaths of certain trees and the explosion in the bark beetle population, which… also somehow made the birds go crazy?

Whatever, it’s obviously Global Warming, because we are told the birds are only attacking people in cars or at gas stations. Except for that one time it kills a girl trying to go to the bathroom in the middle of an open field. We also have to accept the danger despite the fact that in the background of almost every single shot we can see a steady, orderly stream of two-directional traffic completely unmolested by birds, because Nguyen couldn’t afford to shut the roads down when filming and couldn’t be arsed to find a road that didn’t have a lot of traffic on it. If that wasn’t enough, the characters sometimes pause the film to talk – in stilted dialogue that would get you kicked out of a high school drama club – about how great their hybrid cars are, including one that gets exactly 100 miles to the gallon, and walk around discussing how great they think the movie An Inconvenient Truth is. (This is an actual line of dialogue: “What a great movie. An Inconvenient Truth.” Because evidently Rod’s idiot friends forgot what movie they all just ostensibly watched together. Incidentally, I’m told that film is the perfect choice for a double-date.)

Everything about this movie is horrible, ill-made, and heavy-handed. By the time it was over I expected to see Al Gore, the Dancing Baby and Alfred Hitchcock (appearing as a Jedi ghost) to release a joint statement emphasizing that James Nguyen in no way speaks for them.

BUT… you gotta watch this.

Don’t watch it the way you usually would, of course. Don’t just turn it on as a bit of entertainment for two hours, because it fails on every possible level. But when you get your friends together with the intent of ripping into a crappy movie, this is a perfect choice. If you get the RiffTrax version of the film, Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy give us one of the funniest riffs they’ve done in their decades of mocking terrible movies. Unlike some movies, which could be used for torture, this movie could be an alternative to taking anti-depressants. What’s better – popping a Xanax, or watching Rod and his friends use metal clothes hangers to try to fight off a flock of CGI birds that are hovering mere inches in front of their faces but that they cannot seem to hit, mainly because the computer effects team couldn’t move the birds somewhere that they might actually come close to one of the spastically-flailing hangars?

A while back, the TV show Mythbusters proved that – despite the old adage – it is in fact possible to polish a turd. They could have saved themselves the trouble and just watched Birdemic.

For my take on a much better film that uses some of these tropes, The Birds was one of the “bonus films” available only in the eBook edition of the first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen. It’s now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!