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Summer Series 2: The Karate Kid

Unlike the first franchise in this summer’s experiment, the Karate Kid is a franchise I was intimately familiar with as a child. I don’t know if anyone my age couldn’t recite the first movie by rote, and I know I watched the second one dozens of times over the years as well. I don’t quite remember the third one, although I’m sure I saw it at least once, and I’ve never seen The Next Karate Kid at all, so that will be an adventure. I know there was a remake a few years ago starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith. I’m not counting it, as it’s obviously a total reboot and therefore not part of the original series, and also Jaden Smith is the most pretentious thing outside of a cologne commercial I’ve ever seen.

Karate KidThe Karate Kid (1984)
Director:
John G. Avildsen
Writer: Robert Mark Kamen
Cast: Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, Elisabeth Shue, Martin Kove, Randee Heller, William Zabka

Thoughts: As I said, I watched this movie a lot when I was a kid, but I haven’t seen it in years. When the opening credit sequence began, with Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) and his mother Lucille (Randee Heller) loading up a station wagon in New Jersey to move across the country to California, I didn’t remember it at all. I was a bit taken aback, but once the dialogue started it all started clicking back, I found myself anticipating the lines before they started. There’s something great about watching an old movie for the first time in a long time. It’s kind of like coming home.

Anyway, the story is pretty universally known at this point – Daniel moves to a new town and falls for a girl named Ali (Elisabeth Shue). Ali’s creepy ex-boyfriend Johnny Lawrence (perennial 80’s movie douchebag William Zabka) beats him up using the skills he learned from his Karate sensei, John Kreese (Martin Kove). Just when things seem darkest, Daniel meets his apartment complex’s handyman, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita, in a genuinely iconic performance), who reluctantly takes Daniel under his wing and begins teaching him to defend himself.

I forgot just how long the build-up was in this movie. Daniel’s troubles take up an enormous chunk of the beginning, and in fact, he encounters Mr. Miyagi several times before he finds out the old man is a Karate master. Until that point, it’s about building the relationships between Daniel and his mother and Daniel and Ali, both of which work well. Maccho and Heller have great mother-son chemistry, with her gentle nagging and his quiet frustration rubbing each other just the wrong way. It’s also a more honest relationship than you see in a lot of movies – it seems like most of the time parents and children in cinema either have a flawless connection or are at each other’s throats with nothing in-between. Here it’s clear that Daniel and Lucille love each other deeply, but at the same time, the move west has caused undeniable and unavoidable friction between them. Ali is kind of a typical 80s teenager, at least for a PG movie and not a slasher flick, but part of that is due to Elisabeth Shue. Between this movie and Adventures in Babysitting, she was every 80s boy’s childhood crush at some point.

As this is going on, we see Daniel and Miyagi starting to bond. Miyagi helps him several times, teaches him how to trim a bonsai tree, makes him a disguise so he can go to the Halloween dance without being pulverized… and then the ass-kicking begins. Morita’s performance here, even 30 years later, is absolutely flawless. He’s a good man, a kind man, but a man who has seen enough violence and doesn’t want to see any more. Even when he sees Daniel practicing karate from a book, even when he sees the results of one of his beatings, it’s not until he has to step up and defend Daniel from nearly getting killed by a whole mob of Cobra Kai that we get any hint of the fierceness he’s capable of. And it’s only when Daniel practically begs him that he agrees to teach his young friend to fight for himself.

Plus he was more than capable of holding his own against the youngsters. Morita was 52 when this movie came out, but he played the character as that sort of wizened, ageless Asian character that seems to carry around an age that transcends his body. That’s why it’s so awesome to see him beat the crap out of William Zabka in such a convincingly choreographed fight scene.

Speaking of Zabka, it’s funny how time can change your perspective on a movie. When I was a kid, I always thought of Johnny Lawrence as the bad guy in this film. And while he’s certainly not a good guy, watching it again for the first time in years, I’m starting to see that Martin Kove’s John Reese is the real villain here. Johnny and his buddies are thugs, to be certain, but they learned to be thugs from Reese. This man is supposed to be a teacher. A mentor. Instead, he’s taken something that’s supposed to be about discipline and control and turned it into a weapon. He refuses to tell his attack dogs to leave the new kid alone, he tries to pick a fight with an old man, and he orders a teenage boy to lay a brutal and illegal hit on another one. That’s way more insidious to me now than some high school punk who beats up the new kid.

Again, because it’s been so long since I saw the movie, I’d forgotten just how 80s this soundtrack is. Virtually every song pumped in the background evokes feelings of elementary school for me, some of them going so far as to cause me to wistfully remember Kids, Incorporated. If you know what I’m talking about, I assume that you, like me, are currently being bombarded by Facebook posts by former classmates talking about an unpcoming reunion and making you feel about a million years old.

We all know how Daniel wins, taking out Johnny Lawrence in the final battle (which is technically illegal, as he hits him in the face, but the judges seem to ignore that – I’m going to assume because they all know John Reese is a jerk). When you’re a kid, this is wish fulfillment at its finest – the boy takes down his oppressor. He proves himself the better man. Every boy my age wanted to be Daniel, every one of us wanted to be trained by Mr. Miyagi. And yeah as an adult it’s easier to look back and see that in the real world a confrontation of this sort probably wouldn’t solve the problem. Johnny wasn’t going to be nice after being taken down in the ring. The Cobra Kai kids weren’t going to leave you alone after you beat them. If anything, it would probably simply escalate the problem. But in Movieland it doesn’t matter, in Movieland Daniel wins and the rivalry is settled for all time. Hell, in Movieland the defeated Johnny actually hands Daniel the trophy.

The real world doesn’t work that way. But man, it’s nice to look back a movie like this one, where it does.

Karate Kid Part IIThe Karate Kid Part II (1986)
Director:
John G. Avildsen
Writer: Robert Mark Kamen
Cast: Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, Martin Kove, William Zabka, Yuji Okumoto, Joey Miyashima, Danny Kamekona, Tamlyn Tomita, Nobu McCarthy

Thoughts: The Karate Kid Part II begins with a brief prologue that takes place right after the first movie ends. Right after the tournament, Miyagi encounters Kreese berating Johnny for losing, and winds up humiliating him in a fight by only acting defensively, then refusing to strike a killing blow. This was actually an unused ending written for the first movie but not filmed until production began on part two. I don’t know if it was changed at all, but it works very well to bookend the film, providing Daniel’s first lesson in his second adventure.

After the prologue we fast-forward six months to the end of the school year, where Daniel’s life is crapping out on him again. Ali has dumped him and his mother is being sent to Fresno for two months, so Miyagi decides to help him focus by having him build what turns out to be a guest room so he can stay in town. His relief is almost immediately derailed though, when Miyagi gets a letter from Okinawa telling him that his father is dying.

There’s a great moment early in the film when Miyagi is about to board the plane to go back to Okinawa only for Daniel to come running up behind him, having emptied his savings account to buy a plane ticket. This scene demonstrates two things. First, it shows just how deeply the affection these two characters have for one another runs. Second, it flips things from the first movie. In Part I, Daniel was the one who needed help from Miyagi. Here, Daniel is asking Miyagi to let him become the helper. The role reversal becomes plainer later on, but this helps show how Mr. Miyagi mostly takes the protagonist role from Daniel this time around. Later, when Miyagi’s father dies, Daniel tells him a story about the death of his own father, and Morita squeezes out very convincing tears. The student has become the teacher, and it’s done very smoothly.

Miyagi’s arc continues nicely from the first movie. When Daniel was first in trouble, it took an extreme situation to draw him out and you could tell there was a reason he didn’t want to fight. Here we find that reason. Again no matter how much Sato and Chozen provoke him, he doesn’t decide to fight back until it’s necessary to defend somebody else. The first time it was Daniel, this time it’s his entire village in Okinawa that’s in jeopardy. I doubt Kamen and Avildsen (who wrote and directed both movies, respectively) planned things quite this far when they were working on the first script, but the pieces come together very well.

That said, this movie does share a bit too much of the DNA of its parent, almost making it a clone. Miyagi’s former friend Sato (Danny Kamekona) takes over the Kreese role, Sato’s nephew Chozen (Yuki Okumoto) is the new Johnny Lawrence. Miyagi’s lost love Yukie (Nobu McCarthy), the woman who came between him and Sato, has no analogue… but there’s her niece Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita) to take over as Daniel’s love interest. And just like the original the climax of the film boils down to a fight scene in which Daniel uses a “special move” he picked up from Miyagi almost as an afterthought in order to win.

Chozen, however, is more than just Johnny Lawrence redux. While Johnny was a bully, everything he did in the first movie was easy to chalk up to teenage bravado. Chozen is brutal and far crueler than Johnny ever was. He beats Daniel severely more than once, trashes Miyagi’s father’s house and garden, scams farmers in the town who rely on his family business for their livelihood… he’s an outright criminal. And while it may have been a bit of a stretch for Johnny to hoist Daniel’s trophy and proclaim, “You’re all right, Larusso!” it would be simply inconceivable for Chozen to do such a thing. Even after Miyagi saves Sato’s life and he relinquishes his vendetta, Chozen still carries around that chip, that blow against his “honor.”

But there’s enough that’s unique to this movie to make it compelling. It builds on the characters, particularly fleshing out Miyagi’s backstory, in a very pleasing way. For example, Miyagi tells Daniel that his father took him fishing as a child in 1927. Morita wasn’t even born until 1932, validating my feelings during the first movie about the ageless quality they tried to give the character. The final fight, this time between Daniel and Chozen, is also markedly better than the Daniel/Johnny fight. In fairness, though, in the first movie the fight was a strictly regulated battle for points, except for the judges letting Daniel get away with that kick to the face. This time, Chozen fights to kill and Daniel fights for his life. It’s a more brutal fight, with some pretty good choreography and a finale that bounces back to Miyagi’s defeat of Kreese at the beginning of the movie.

The first Karate Kid would have stood perfectly well without ever having a sequel but The Karate Kid Part II was a pretty good sequel to have.

Karate Kid Part IIIThe Karate Kid Part III (1989)
Director:
John G. Avildsen
Writer: Robert Mark Kamen
Cast: Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, Martin Kove, Randee Heller, Robyn Lively, Thomas Ian Griffith, Sean Kanan

Thoughts: I only vaguely remember The Karate Kid Part III, but I find it amusing that – like Part II – it kicks off with a montage of moments from the first film. This montage also picks up the Part II prologue, where Kreese wound up with a pair of bloody fists after Miyagi refused to fight him. Did the 80s really have that big a problem with people forgetting what happened between installments of a film series? Is that simply something I don’t remember?

Anyway, after ignoring the rest of Part II, Part III jumps ahead in time to show us Kreese, now a broken man with an empty dojo and no students left. He goes to his old army buddy Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith), a millionaire businessman who he owes back rent on the dojo. Terry isn’t mad, though, far from it. No, he wants to plot with Kreese to get revenge on Daniel and Miyagi for humiliating him. Our dynamic duo, meanwhile, are returning from Okinawa only to find that their apartment complex has been sold and Miyagi is out of a job. Oh, and Daniel’s mother has gone back to New Jersey to tend to a sick uncle and he’s been dumped again. I don’t know what this kid was doing between movies to drive these girls away, but he had to knock it off. In fact, when he meets this film’s love interest, Jessica (Robyn Lively), she preemptively breaks up with him by saying she’s got a boyfriend “back home” that she’s going back to after Thanksgiving. Before I met my wife, I always thought I had the worst luck with women in the history of the planet, but watching these movies back-to-back has made me realize I can only play for the Silver in this competition.

Anyway, Daniel again blows his college money for Mr. Miyagi’s benefit, this time helping to open a store selling bonsai trees. This is the same money he just brought back from Okinawa, mind you which means that all three of these movies take place in less than the space of a year. Ralph Macchio was 23 when the first one came out, and still capable of passing as a teenager. By 1989 he was pushing 30, and while he still had a babyface (and does to this day, honestly), it was getting harder for him to pull off playing the “Karate Kid.”

The Daniel/Miyagi stuff is strong, but Silver as a villain is comical. With his greasy, slicked back hair and his casual racism (I never noticed the ethnic slur Kreese used in the prologue of Part II when I was a kid, but I caught it this time, and when it showed up again in the recap in Part III, and again when Silver says it a few minutes later), it’s as if he plucked all the bits and pieces of his existence out of a Bad Guy Catalogue and turned into a generic jerk. He’s constantly turning up in bubble baths or saunas while he wheels and deals, recruiting a ringer named Mike Barnes (Sean Kanan) to fight Daniel as he defends his tournament title. Of course, he doesn’t know that Miyagi has no intention of sending Daniel out to fight again. After all, a big part of Part II was Daniel learning the lesson of what real Karate is, and how it should be used for defense, and that fighting for the sake of a trophy would be stupid, which is why Silver exists in the first place. There needs to be some reason for Daniel to do Karate, or neither of the words in the title would make sense.

Aside from the plot, the dialogue in this film is painful. When Barnes and his flunky harass Daniel and Jessica, the best insult she can muster up is “slimeball,” and the best retort he can summon is “Did your mother teach you that?” I was in middle school when this movie came out, and evidently, so was whoever wrote these lines. (To be fair, Robert Mark Kamen wrote all three movies, but claimed this time his script was warped so much that he walked away from the franchise.) Silver’s plot – which involves him pretending to train Daniel while his hired goon threatens him – is bizarre and pointless in regards to his actual goal. He makes a speech at the tournament about training people with “values,” then sends out his student to beat Daniel around and take cheap shots in full view of everybody, which seems somewhat counterproductive. The metaphor of a bonsai tree standing for Daniel keep turning up over and over again, growing beyond merely strained to obnoxious. And Jessica, frankly, is pretty worthless as a character. This isn’t a knock against the actress – Robyn Lively is actually quite charming – but she doesn’t do anything. She’s not even a damsel in distress, which may be a trite and outdated cliché, but at least it’s a role.

Oh, and Daniel wins thanks to a casually-learned “secret move” yet again.

A great original film, a decent sequel, a weak part three. Now for the capper, the Karate Kid movie I’ve never seen. Is it possible that it could dip from here?

Next Karate KidThe Next Karate Kid (1994)
Director:
Christopher Cain
Writer: Mark Lee
Cast: Pat Morita, Hilary Swank, Michael Ironside, Constance Towers, Chris Conrad, Arsenio Trinidad, Michael Cavalieri, Walter Goggins

Thoughts: Mr. Miyagi is in Boston to get one of those military decorations that the previous movies clearly established were meaningless to him. While there, he drops in to visit Louisa Pierce (Constance Towers), widow of one of his old army buddies. Louisa is having a tough time – not only is she a widow, but she’s raising her teenager granddaughter Julie (future Oscar winner Hilary Swank, but man, you never would have guessed it from this film), who has carried around an anger with the world since her parents died in a car accident. We know this because Julie announces it in some of the most forced dialogue ever written. She could have easily ended the speech by screaming, “THERE! Is THAT enough exposition for you, GRANDMA?” and I wouldn’t have been surprised in the slightest. At any rate, after approximately twelve seconds of movie time Miyagi tells Louisa to go chill at his house in California for a while so he can straighten Julie up.

Julie resists, of course, because there wouldn’t be much of a movie if she didn’t, and she gets mad enough to bolt into the street and almost get plowed over by a pizza delivery guy, which she avoids by jumping on the hood of the car. Miyagi recognizes the “tiger jump” she did, and gets her to admit she learned it from her father. They strike a bargain for him to teach her karate, which comes in handy after she gets suspended for fighting in school – although she was actually just trying to protect a hawk that’s kept in a cage on the roof… look, I know it doesn’t make any sense when I explain it but it doesn’t make any sense when I’m writing it either, so we’re on the same page. With her time off from school, Miyagi takes her to a Buddhist monastery where she learns to respect all life, which frankly doesn’t really seem like it was her problem in the first place.

And that’s the major problem with this film, friends. The writing in this movie is just plain sloppy. Aside from the awful dialogue, there’s the fact that Julie’s early exposition enunciation comes after her grandmother accidentally calls her “Susan,” her mother’s name. That would be a stretch in and of itself, but Louisa and Julie have the same last name, implying that it is Julie’s father who was Louisa’s offspring, not her mother. What’s more Julie’s dad learned karate from Louisa’s husband, who learned it from Miyagi… that feels like a father/son thing to me. More and more, Louisa shouting “Susan!” feels like lazy writing. This is the point where people in the comments will start saying things like, “well, maybe her parents weren’t actually married” or “what if Louisa had known Susan since she was a small child and thought of her as her own” or somesuch. My response to that is: if the movie intended for that to be the interpretation, then damn it, they should have said it somewhere. Otherwise it is sloppy damn writing.

Then there’s Michael Ironside, the bad guy in this movie, as Col. Dugan. Dugan is… it’s actually not clear what the hell he is. Is he an ROTC instructor? A really intense coach? Whatever. The point is, he teaches physical education by verbally brutalizing students, then punching one. Granted, I’ve never been in the military and I know they go to extremes to break their cadets down and bring them back up, but I can’t imagine a school in this country where a teacher who clocks a student in the jaw is going to have their job come seventh period. Not only does he stick around, but he’s training his students to be criminals with absolutely no coherent reason or motivation behind it.

I try to give screenwriter Mark Lee at least a little credit for winking at the fans’ expectations. When Miyagi agrees to teach Julie karate in exchange for doing all the homework she’s missed, he immediately tries to pull the ol’ “wax on, wax off” routine again, but she’s having none of it. Okay, clever. But then his alternative solution for teaching her discipline is having her babysit the hellions next door. Nineties-era feminism, ladies and gentlemen!

I’ll give him this too – although Dugan’s thugs are the antagonists here, the fights don’t really get physical until the end. Julie isn’t learning karate because she’s getting the crap beat out of her like Daniel did, she’s learning it as an anger management technique. (The real violence doesn’t happen until they attack her date after he has the audacity to point out that they nearly killed themselves when they bungee-jumped into the prom.) That, at least, is something different. And there are a few nice moments with Miyagi learning how to deal with a girl, including one rather charming moment where she thinks he’s giving her a karate lesson, but he shifts it into a dancing lesson to get her ready for the prom. Again this is not a great moment for women in cinema, but it feels nicely in-character for Mr. Miyagi, which is sorely needed, as nothing else in the entire movie feels even remotely like the original.

The weird thing is, despite the many, many flaws with this movie, I still think it’s better than Part III. This is different and is trying to do something new, which isn’t a bad thing, whereas Part III was pure rehash and really added nothing of substance to the mythology of the franchise. It’s not as good as the first two, but after Part III, The Next Karate Kid was at least a step up before the series died.

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Scrooge Month Day 7: George C. Scott in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1984)

Christmas Carol 1984Director: Clive Donner

Writer: Roger O. Hirson, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: George C. Scott, Frank Finlay, Angela Pleasance, Edward Woodward, Michael Carter, David Warner, Susannah York, Anthony Walters, Roger Rees, Lucy Gutteridge, Timothy Bateson, Nigel Davenport, Joanne Whalley, Kieron Hughes

Notes: This production of A Christmas Carol was a made-for-TV movie in the United States, aired on CBS, and netted George C. Scott an Emmy nomination for best lead actor in a miniseries or special. It was good enough to get a theatrical release in Great Britain. Scott himself, interestingly enough, owned the rights to the film, and it went into syndication for many years, gaining a large following. It wasn’t released on VHS until 1995, however, with a DVD release following in 1999. The film is still popular today, and is often seen on AMC at this time of year (although a few years ago, the Hallmark Channel managed to work it in between installments of their 60-day marathon of different original movies in which former sitcom stars or models play the children of Santa Claus attempting to find true love in the modern world).

Thoughts: From the first frame of the film, this edition of A Christmas Carol takes a markedly different tone than most. It opens up with Roger Rees’s narrator reciting the first line of the novel: “Marley was dead to begin with…” The scene is a hearse carting old Jacob’s coffin through the streets of London, and you get this terrible, all-pervading chill that makes you feel like you’re about to get the hell scared out of you.

Then the mood whiplash hits you, with a cheery fanfare and a burst of music that shows people walking around the city, cheerfully wishing one another Merry Christmas and celebrating with music and packages and a guy playing a trombone which – I know from experience – will freeze right to your lips on a day like that if you’re not careful. It’s a great contrast to Scrooge’s counting house, where Scrooge (George C. Scott) is berating Bob Cratchit (David Warner) for his picky request of a lump of coal to keep himself from freezing to death. Ah, we’re in familiar Dickensian territory now. When Roger Rees – now playing Fred – walks into the office, we’re getting right into the most well-known lines in Dickens’s remarkable catalogue.

Scott takes a different tack with Scrooge than many of his predecessors. While many of them being the film as an incurable grump, taking no joy at anything, Scott’s Scrooge is not above a good laugh in the face of his ever-so-foolish nephew. In this opening sequence, the filmmakers start adding to the Dickens story. In an early scene, for example, Scrooge encounters Tiny Tim (Anthony Walters) waiting outside for his father. It serves no real purpose other than to show Scrooge being a jerk even to a little crippled boy. Traditionally, Scrooge (and the audience) doesn’t usually see Tim until Christmas Present pops over to the Cratchit house. This, plus a few other minutes of Scrooge making deals, all go just to show him as an even nastier, more miserly creature than usual. Scrooge is usually a pathetic, greedy man. This is the first version of the story I’ve seen in which he actually seems to exude a little evil in his demeanor.

I really like Frank Finlay’s design as the ghost of Jacob Marley. We get the traditional brushed iron moneyboxes blending nicely into the iron chains, all of which match his clothes and skin and cold, dead eyes perfectly. The chains cross in front of him, meeting in an enormous lock that gives the whole thing a look of being intentional, being planned. A lot of Marleys have the chains just draped on them. This is a Marley for whom the chains were specifically forged.

Angela Pleasance’s Ghost of Christmas Past has a unique look as well. She carries her “cap” – the light of truth – which often accompanies one of the candle-like versions of the character. She’s not particularly waxen in her appearance, though. With her white-blond hair, loose robes and sprig of greenery clutched in her hands, she has a sort of elfin appearance, like she belongs in a version of a Tolkien story. She gives more attention to Scrooge’s father than most versions do as well. Usually, all we hear of Scrooge Senior is that he’s “kinder than he used to be.” This time, though, Fan (Joanne Whalley) brings him to a father who coldly insists a three-day reunion is sufficient and Scrooge is to be sent straight to Fezziwig’s to begin his apprenticeship. This time around, it’s not Fan’s death that hardens Scrooge’s heart. It’s quite clearly the tender ministrations of his father. It just gets worse as he sees himself leaving his beloved Belle (Lucy Gutteridge), then flashing to a later Christmas in which she is married with children and – worst of all – pitying poor, lonely Scrooge. When he uses Christmas Past’s own “cap” to smother her away, it’s almost a blessing.

Edward Woodward’s Christmas Present is about as traditional as it gets – an enormous mountain of a man draped in his green robe and holly wreath around his head. He has an energy that’s practically bubbling out, giggling in Scrooge’s face, but like much of this movie, his laugh is cold. It’s in his scene that I’m really starting to feel what sets this version apart from most others. Usually, the point of A Christmas Carol is that Scrooge has cut himself off from a warm world and he needs to find a way to let it back in. The impression George C. Scott’s version gives is that he lives in a world with very little pity, and he must work to earn back the comfort of the rest of the human race.

This segment, again, adds to the story. Bob Cratchit comes home to tell his eldest son Peter (Kieron Hughes) that Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, has offered him a job. Scrooge is convinced Fred is doing it just to spite him, but his veneer is cracking – when Bob says the blessing over their Christmas Eve dinner, Scrooge is unable to resist whispering an “Amen” along with the family, then promptly denies it to Christmas Present. When they hit the famous bit where Christmas Present throws Scrooge’s own words back at him – “decrease the surplus population” and all that – he does so not with the ironic amusement of most performers, but with a bitter anger. Once we get to the reveal of Ignorance and Want beneath his robes, it just seems like more of the same from him.

Scrooge, in fact, does his best to remain stoic, even in the Christmas Future segment while he watches Bob Cratchit discussing Tiny Tim’s death. While David Warner breaks down discussing his dead child, displaying depths of compassion not seen since his turn as Sark in TRON, George C. Scott just stands off to the side offering commentary. He’s seen it all, he needs to go. He has a sadness in his voice, but he’s trying to bottle it right up until the spirit shows him his own grave.

If this version of A Christmas Carol has a failing, it’s in its nihilism. This is a bitter London full of bitter people. Scrooge comes across not as the outcast he’s made himself, but as another cold man who reluctantly, in the end, decides to try to make his way into the minority of happy people. Sadly, this is probably a bit more realistic a depiction of the time period than most other versions of the story. Even if that’s true, though, it gives this film a powerful strike against it: we never feel like this is a Scrooge that has earned his redemption. Scott’s performance is good, but the world he inhabits feels a bit off, and for that if no other reason, this just isn’t one of my preferred versions of the Dickens classic.

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.

How The Neverending Story broke my brain

Neverending StoryA few days ago, my brother dropped a major knowledge-bomb on me. Limahl, the singer of the theme song to the 1984 film The Neverending Story, was not a woman, as I’d always believed. Limahl, evidently, is an English pop star, former lead singer of the group Kajagoogoo, and most definitely male. If you, like me, have gone your entire life hearing that song without seeing the music video, I have no doubt it’s as big a shock to you as it was to me.

Regardless, having gotten the movie into my head, I felt the need to watch it again. Although it was a perennial favorite of mind as a child, it had been several years since I actually sat down at watched it, and that’s just not right. So after getting home from work earlier this week, I pulled out the DVD and popped it in. If you’ve never seen the movie, I can only assume you’re in your 70s or older, blind, or have no soul. The short version is that it’s the story of a young boy named Bastian (Barret Oliver) who – having spent the day facing a distant widower father (Gerald McRaney), a mob of school bullies, and a math test – retreats to the school attic to read a book he swiped from a knowing old shopkeeper Thomas Hill). The book, The Neverending Story, focuses on a warrior named Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) who is tasked with finding a cure for a mysterious Nothing that is destroying the world of Fantasia and slowly killing its Childlike Empress (Tami Stronach).

As the story continues (and here the spoilers commence) Bastian finds himself getting pulled deeper and deeper into the book as the nature of the Nothing becomes clear. Fantasia is created from the hopes and fantasies of the human world. As people give up their enchantments, the Nothing is destroying the world of magic, and it will take the power of a human boy to save it. The biggest shock for Bastian is when he realizes the human boy the book is discussing… is him.

The movie came out in 1984, when I was seven years old, but it’s safe to say that virtually everybody who saw it at about my age had the same fantasies afterwards that I did: having that last grain of sand from Fantasia, infused with the power to grant wishes… that brilliant dream of riding Falkor the Luck-Dragon through the sky and exacting swift and just retribution on your enemies (if anyone tries to tell you a seven-year-old has no enemies ask them what it was like to be home schooled)… that sort of escapism is what has driven children’s literature for decades. Everything from Alice in Wonderland to The Wizard of Oz to the Harry Potter series is, in some way about taking a child from the ordinary world and exposing them to a place of wonder and magic. We keep going to that well again and again, because it’s as deep and rich a storytelling pool as exists anywhere.

Even as a kid I recognized that. But going back to watch the movie again today, for the first time in years, I’m realizing just how profoundly it influenced my philosophy as a storyteller as well. (I apologize for the preceding sentence, I tried for five minutes to think of a way to say “my philosophy as a storyteller” that didn’t sound pretentious as hell, but I failed utterly.) The basic concept behind the story is that all human imagination flows into and out of the same place. Sure, they give that place a name, but as I watched the film it struck me that this is exactly the concept that drove me to start this website in the first place. I definitely believe, in a very concrete way, that human imagination is based on this very same idea, that we all contribute to and draw from an ocean of inspiration, and that it’s the different ways we find to employ the ideas we all share that make for true innovation.

Looking back, as an adult, I can tell that the movie isn’t as perfect as I always gave it credit for. It feels somewhat incomplete, like there’s more story to tell. As it turns out, this wasn’t just a sort of meta-commentary on the “Neverending” part of the title. The film only adapts about the first half of the original novel by Michael Ende, and in fact, just about everything we actually see on screen, in the book, is just setup for the real story, about Bastian losing himself in Fantastica (the novel’s name for the magical world) and ultimately having to face the harsh reality of his mother’s death and his father’s emotional abandonment. Some of those ideas eventually made their way into The Neverending Story II: The Next Chapter, but most of them came forth in name only and didn’t have the same emotional impact as the book. On the plus side the movie did have the guy who played the Flash on the 90s TV show, which is something the 1979 German novel can never claim.

What’s great about The Neverending Story though, both the film and the book, is how it is so firmly rooted not in what the imagination can create, but in the idea of imagination itself. There’s something powerful in that, something eternal, and something I hold to rather dearly.

It’s The Odyssey… IN SPACE!

It was recently announced that Warner Brothers is working on taking the epic poem, The Odyssey, and turning it into a science fiction film. Because the internet exists, responses ranged from the cautiously optimistic to the blindly cynical to several hundred ancient Greeks complaining that Hollywood is raping their childhood like they did with that Jason and the Argonauts debacle. Amongst all the responses, though, only one took me by surprise. At /Film, Germain Lussier said, “Even in our wildest, 11th grade English class imaginations, few could have seen this one coming.”

To which my response is… “Really? Is it that big a surprise?” If anything, I can’t believe it hasn’t been done before.

The great thing about science fiction, friends, is its infinite adaptability. There is virtually no story you can’t tell in the proper sci-fi setting… in fact, many of the greatest works of sci-fi are largely metaphorical in nature. Both the Star Trek and X-Men franchises, at least early in their early incarnations in the 1960s, were often used to discuss the civil rights movement. Battlestar Galactica was known to deal with modern-day politics. Superman is often spoken of as an extraterrestrial Christ figure, despite being created by a couple of Jewish kids from Cleveland. Everything from 1984 to 2012 has taken then-current fears and put them on display through a sci-fi prism.

Then there are the stories that pick up on specific plots and tropes. Alien, as I’ve argued many times, is essentially a haunted house movie with the house replaced by a spaceship and the ghost replaced by a drippy, hard-shelled monstrosity with acid blood. Forbidden Planet shares much of its DNA with William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Throw the Swiss Family Robinson off their island — off the planet — and you have Lost in Space. That one didn’t even change the family’s last name.

Much has been written about George Lucas homaged big ol’ chunks of Akira Kurasowa’s Hidden Fortress when he wrote Star Wars. That’s probably the reason people were so willing to believe the recent rumor — since debunked — that Disney had Zach Snyder working on a Star Wars universe adaptation of another Kurasowa film, Seven Samurai. (You may know it better by the title of the American remake: the classic western The Magnificent Seven.) That story could easily work in outer space. Hell, why stop there? Take the death of Qui-Gon Jinn and retell it Rashomon style.

The Odyssey in space? Why not? Look at the basic DNA of the story: it’s about a general who has been gone from home for years who gets lost and goes through many dangers and adventures on his way home, where everybody but his wife and son believe he’s dead. Gerry Dugan and Phil Noto put that story in a contemporary military setting and called the graphic novel The Infinite Horizon. The Cohen brothers dropped it into the American south and gave us O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Civil War drama Cold Mountain picks up on parts of Homer’s epic. James Joyce loosely adapted it in Ireland at the turn of the 20th century and called it Ulysses, which the Modern Library declared the best novel in 100 years.

Hell, why stop at The Odyssey? Give us space opera versions of The Iliad and The Aeneid while you’re at it. Hollywood loves a trilogy.

Good science fiction can handle almost anything you throw at it.

Lunatics and Laughter Day 7: The Toxic Avenger (1984)

toxic-avengerDirectors: Michael Herz & Lloyd Kaufman

Writers: Lloyd Kaufman & Joe Ritter

Cast: Mitch Cohen, Andree Maranda, Jennifer Babtist, Cindy Manion, Robert Prichard, Gary Schneider Dick Martinsen, Pat Ryan Jr., Kenneth Kessler, Patrick Kilpatrick

Plot: Welcome to Tromaville, a small suburb of New York City, and the number one dumping ground for toxic chemicals in America. Melvin Ferd (Mark Torgl) the janitor at a local health club, is constantly tormented by a group of club members, including Bozo (Gary Schneider), Slug (Robert Prichard), Wanda (Jennifer Babtist), and Julie (Cindy Manion). They decide to teach him a lesson, with Julie luring him into a locker room just as a truck full of exposed barrels of toxic waste parks outside. She tricks him into putting on a pink tutu and poka-dotted leotard, and he is humiliated in front of the club’s customers, fleeing through a window and landing in the toxic barrels. People continue to mock him as the chemicals burn through his skin and Melvin, now burning alive, stumbles home and sits in a cold bath, where he transforms into a hulking brute of incredible size and strength.

A group of drug dealers, meanwhile, try to buy off a cop (O’Clancy, played by Dick Martinsen) who refuses to cooperate. Before they can castrate him with his own gun, a huge man (Mitch Cohen, voiced by Kenneth Kessler) appears and savagely kills two of the criminals (well… kind of savagely, the fight itself is actually played mostly for laughs), leaving a mop across their faces. Mayor Peter Belgoody (Pat Ryan Jr.) is horrified by the murders… mostly because the dead criminals were some of the best dealers in his employ.

The Monster – a mutated Melvin, of course – shocks his own mother into a dead faint. Despondent, he makes his way to the Tromaville garbage dump and constructs a crude home for himself there. Later, a group of criminals robs a Mexican restaurant, killing a bystander and a seeing-eye dog belonging to a blind woman named Sarah (Andree Maranda). The crooks’s leader, Leroy (Patrick Kilpatrick) is preparing to rape her, when the Monster Hero appears and fights them, ripping an arm off the would-be rapist and sending the customers fleeing in terror. The Monster beats the crooks and finishes them off in the restaurant’s kitchen. He goes to the sobbing Sarah and she begs him to help her home, where they begin to become friends. Given new confidence, Melvin begins a one-man war on crime, battling pimps, drug dealers, and other criminals, and saving lives along the way. The newspapers begin to run stories about the “Monster Hero” of Tromaville. Belgoody sends his men to hunt the monster down.

Melvin and Sarah fall in love, and he takes her back to his junkyard hideout to live. He returns to the health club, attacking Julie in the locker room. Minutes later he finds Bozo and Slug, fresh from beating an old woman to steal her car. He hurls Slug from the car and sends Bozo through a series of crashes, burning him alive but leaving Melvin unharmed.

Things go bad when Melvin kills a little old woman in a dry cleaner’s shop, turning people against the Monster Hero. Ashamed, he goes home and tells Sarah the truth about who he is and what he has done. They decide to leave town, and Belgoody rejoices… until he discovers the old woman was the leader of a slavery ring. Belgoody covers it up and sends the cops out to hunt the Monster. They find him and Sarah in the woods, and the town assembles outside their tent, torn between people who want to protect the monster and Belgoody and his men who want to kill him. The townspeople stand in front of Melvin to protect him, soon joined by O’Clancy and the rest of the cops. Belgoody opens fire, but the bullets bounce off Melvin. He stalks Belgoody to his limo and rips his guts out, literally. The townspeople applaud the vicious murder, Melvin kisses Sarah, and all in Tromaville is well once again.

Thoughts: It would be impossible to get through a month of horror/comedy without touching upon the films of Troma. Lloyd Kaufman’s legendary low-budget B-movie studio has become synonymous with campy sci-fi and monster flicks, and how better to represent them than with this, their flagship property?

Buoyed by the likes of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz built this film (and, for that matter, their entire film studio) on the premise of the “So Bad It’s Good” movie. Whereas older movies – the sci-fi and horror clunkers of the 50s and 60s – made an earnest attempt at making good movies and simply fell short, Kaufman has no such delusions. From the beginning of the movie the acting is terrible, the script laughable, and the special effects and graphics absurdly cheap, even by 1984 standards. Watch the quality of this film compared to Ghostbusters and you’d swear that Toxie’s debut is at least ten years older, instead of both films coming out in the same year.

The film’s absurdity doesn’t just come from the effects and acting, though. Kaufman sets out to be as deliberately offensive as possible. There’s an early scene where one of the punks and his girlfriend recite a litany of racial slurs and other negative stereotypes, ranking them on a point system for running them over with a car, before finally deciding to target a kid on a bicycle (children under 12 being worth maximum points). They hit the kid once, then back over him to crush his head, stop, and take pictures. The sympathies of the audience are swinging wildly at this point. You hate the gang for doing it, which is how you’re supposed to feel, but by the time the girls whip out the Polaroid camera, you’re pretty much ready to hate the filmmakers as well.

toxic-crusaders

Our hero, ladies and gentlemen…

(It is worth noting, at this point, that the Toxic Avenger films eventually spawned a children’s cartoon show. I doubt most of the moms who let their kids sit through it would have been thrilled if they saw this particular sequence.)

Kaufman actually triples the genres he plays with here. His heavy layer of goofy comedy is draped over a plot that draws upon nuclear-mutant themed monster movies and wraps it around the skeleton of a superhero origin story. No superhero has ever been so ridiculous, though – even the drivers of the truck that gives us the “toxic” part of the hero’s name comment on how ridiculous it is for them to drive around with open, sloshing barrels full of chemical sludge. Belgoody is also an extreme stereotype of a villain. It’s hard to believe even the most corrupt politician in a serious film would think he could get away with dumping toxic chemicals literally twenty feet away from the city’s drinking water. Even Belgoody’s gang is comical – it’s a patchwork of stereotypes, containing a street hood, a Capone-style gangster, and representatives of just about every crime stereotype there is. The notion is preposterous enough to remind us that this film takes place in, at best, an exaggerated reality, where all of the elements that make up monster movies and superhero films have been amplified to a ridiculous degree.

At times, the movie starts to outsmart itself. The toxic reservoir scare, for instance, is played up as though it will be a major plot point, perhaps even the Big Evil the hero will battle in the film’s climax. That isn’t what happens, though – it’s mentioned once and then abandoned as Belgoody’s resources are turned exclusively towards seeking out the monster. Most of the villains are portrayed as one-off as well – the theatrical mob Leroy leads is all killed right away, for example. Even the moments where Melvin confronts his tormentors seem like they’re worked in simply to tie off those dangling threads while we’re waiting to get back to the real plot, such as it is.

Kaufman picks up on a lot of sources, with Melvin’s transformation smacking of the Incredible Hulk and his relationship with Sarah echoing both the friendship Frankenstein’s monster shared with the blind (Gene Hackman in the Mel Brooks version) and the longtime romance in the Fantastic Four comics, in which the mutated Thing finds love with blind sculptor Alicia Masters.  He even picks up on a few slasher tropes – Melvin’s fatal confrontation with Julie comes complete with a silhouette shot of the monster approaching her with a pair of menacingly raised scissors. It sends images of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees across the brain, until you remember that this is your hero.

Sarah takes us to the extremes of broad comedy, knocking over an entire rack of canes and smacking Melvin accidentally, playing up on pretty much every joke you could think of making about the blind. Although not as bad as the scene with the racial slurs, this starts to tread close to the line of being offensive as well. And true to form, Kaufman doesn’t care at all. In a way, it’s almost a liberating thought. When you see so clearly that you’re dealing with somebody who doesn’t give a damn what you think of him, you manage to stop giving a damn and concentrate more on the actual content of what you’re watching.

Is it cheap? Yes. Is it exploitive? Oh yeah. Is it ludicrous? To be kind. But like the makers of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Lloyd Kaufman and his Troma team have never attempted to take themselves seriously. They know what they are, they know what their audience expects, and they deliver it as effectively (and as cheaply) as they possibly can. It will never make for great cinema, but nobody can deny that this is a film studio that consistently meets its goal, artistically. It’s easy when you set the bar so low.

Lunatics and Laughter Day 6: Ghostbusters (1984)

Ghostbusters movie posterDirector: Ivan Reitman

Writers: Dan Aykroyd & Harold Ramis

Cast: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, Annie Potts, William Atherton, David Margulies, Slavitza Jovan

Plot: A librarian in the New York is terrified by an apparition that levitates books and spits cards into the air. A team of university parapsychologists are called in to investigate the phenomenon: Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Dr. Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis). They find a fully-materialized ghost in the stacks, and when it attacks, they flee. Returning to the university, they find that they’ve being evicted for sloppy and inconsistent results, not to mention Venkman’s immature behavior. But Venkman has an idea: Ray and Egon are on the verge of developing a system to capture a ghost. Venkman convinces Ray to mortgage his family home to fund their new operation: the Ghostbusters.

The team buys an abandoned firehouse and sets up shop, but are initially low on clients. They finally get a break when contacted by a violinist named Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver). When Dana opens her refrigerator, she sees a bizarre temple with a hellhound that growls a name: “Zuul.” Although she is skeptical of the Ghostbusters’s credentials, she doesn’t know where else to turn, and she winds up bringing Venkman to investigate her apartment. Although he finds no evidence of ghosts, he makes a pass at Dana and vows to solve her problem.

They finally get a paying job when a swank hotel summons them to investigate a disturbance on the 12th floor. Using Egon’s new inventions – a proton pack to use as a weapon against the creatures and a trap to contain them – the three of them locate and capture their first ghost, a little green spudball that manages to slime Venkman before they take him down. Egon does give them one bit of safety advice while working: don’t cross the streams from your proton pack, as “it would be bad.”

Suddenly, the New York area is awash with reports of spectral activity and the Ghostbusters are swamped with work, rushing from one bust to another and becoming media darlings in the progress. They get so busy they hire more help, Winston Zeddmore (Ernie Hudson). As they train him on the equipment, they get a visit from Environmental Protection Agency representative Walter Peck (William Atherton). Venkman refues to show him their storage facility, and Peck promises to come back with court order. Egon, meanwhile, is growing concerned that the amount of spectral activity in the city is growing to dangerous proportions.

Venkman goes back to Dana, telling her he’s found the name Zuul in his research: Zuul was a minion of a dark Sumerian apparition called Gozer. He convinces her to go to dinner with him so they can “discuss the case.” That night, a gargoyle on the roof of her building cracks open, revealing a living hellhound underneath. The beast attacks and pulls Dana into a glowing doorway. A second beast attacks and possesses Dana’s neighbor, the nebbishy Louis Tully (Rick Moranis). When Venkman arrives to pick Dana up, she is clearly possessed, asking him if he “the Keymaster.” She introduces herself as “Zuul, the Gatekeeper,” preparing for the coming of “Gozer the Destructor.” Louis, now calling himself Vinz Clortho, the Keymaster, bumbles through the city seeking the Gatekeeper. The police pick him up and bring him to the Ghostbusters’s firehouse, where Egon examines him.

The next morning Peck returns with the police, an electrical worker, and a court order giving him access to the basement. Although Egon and Venkman implore the electrical worker to leave their machines alone, Peck forces him to turn the containment facility off. The machines blow up, spilling all of the captured ghosts back out into the city, and Louis escapes in the chaos. Peck has the Ghostbusters arrested and brought to jail. While in their cell, Ray reveals that he’s been studying the blueprints of Dana and Louis’s apartment building and believes it was designed to act as an antenna of sorts, drawing ghosts to that spot. It was designed by a Gozer-worshipper who wanted to use it to cause the end of the world. The Keymaster returns to the apartment building, where he and the Gatekeeper ascend to the roof.

The Mayor (David Margulies) has the Ghostbusters brought to his office, where Peck accuses them of using hallucinogens and light shows to take advantage of people. Venkman convinces the mayor to let them out, giving them a police escort and national guard backup all the way to the apartment building, where the roof has transformed into Gozer’s temple. As the Ghostbusters reach the roof an enormous doorway opens, spilling light into the city and transforming Dana and Louis back into the Hellhounds. Gozer appears in the form of a woman (Slavitza Jovan). Ray tries to make contact, but when he makes the mistake of telling her they aren’t gods, she blasts them, nearly hurling them from the roof. (This results in one of the greatest lines, not only in movie history, but in western civilization. Don’t even pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.)

The Ghosbusters go on the offensive, but Gozer easily evades them and vanishes. Her disembodied voice tells them to choose the form of their destroyer. Although Venkman warns them to empty their minds, Ray is unable to draw a blank. Gozer plucks a form from his mind and the city is suddenly attacked by the enormous form of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Egon concludes the only way to reverse the portal through which Gozer came to New York is to cross the streams of the proton packs. The plan works, Gozer’s power is eliminated, and the boys, Dana, and Louis miraculously survive. The city proclaims them to be heroes. Which is great, even when you’ve got 22 stories worth of marshmallow to clean up.

Thoughts: The eighties, by my way of thinking, produced three truly great film franchises. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg gave us Indiana Jones. Robert Zemekeis and Bob Gale gave us Back to the Future. And Ivan Reitman and the boys gave us Ghostbusters. Here we are, nearly 30 years later, and the love of this franchise remains undiminished: a sequel and a beloved cartoon series spun off, we’re still seeing video games and comic books, and despite the fact that they haven’t seen the inside of a movie theater since 1989, it’s still one of the most popular Halloween costume choices a person can make. Dressing as a Ghostbuster brings the same cache and recognizability you get if you’re the Boris Karloff Frankenstein or Bela Lugosi Dracula. If you don’t love the Ghostbusters, you are objectively wrong.

To me, this is the quintessential A-Type of horror/comedy. Every beat of the plot is straight out of a horror movie – the opening scenes where the monsters are first identified, the building tension as they grow stronger and stronger, the situation worsening due to the stupid actions of an interloper, and finally a grand climax with the fate of the world at stake. The comedy isn’t slapstick, is rarely broad, and is entirely character-based. Ghostbusters is funny because Bill Murray, Dan Aykroid and Harold Ramis are funny, funny guys.

From the Marx Brothers to the Stooges, these guys have picked up on the comedic power of three by developing a trio of unique, highly entertaining characters. Venkman is all libido, driven by lust and impulse with little regards to the future, the idof the group. Egon is the ego, driven by logic and reason to the detriment of those same baser urges (he barely realizes the way Annie Potts’s Janine throws herself at him throughout the movie). Even in Egon’s rare moments of humanity, such as when he embraces a frightened Janine, he breaks away quickly, clearly uncomfortable showing even that minor hint of feeling.

You’d think this would make Ray the superego, but he’s hardly a balance between the other two. Although his character isn’t as pronounced as it would be in the sequel or the cartoon series, Ray is a sort of wide-eyed innocent, technically very knowledgeable and every bit Egon’s equal, but with a naivety and a love of simple things (like sliding down the fireman’s pole) that serves him well. Of course, this comes back to bite them in the ass when Ray is unable to empty his mind and accidentally chooses the Stay-Puft Man as the form of the destroyer, sent to annihilate New York City. It’s a great moment, in fact, as Mr. Stay-Puft marches down the street, the huge smile on his fluffy face, as he steps on and crushes everything and everyone. Way to go, Ray.

Ray is a child’s id, Venkman an adult’s. If there is a superego in the group (and even this is stretching the metaphor) it would be the mid-film addition of Ernie Hudson’s Winston – the everyman, the audience’s viewpoint character. Winston is the blue-collar guy in the group. He’s the one you can throw back a beer with, the one who is there so Egon can explain the technical stuff, but also to cut through some of Ray and Venkman’s crap. He completes the group in a very unexpected way.

All four of the Ghostbusters serve vital functions, both in comedy and in terms of relatability. We all want to be Venkman, most of us are more like Ray or Winston, but for my money the real underrated comedy gem of the team is Harold Ramis’s Egon. He has a sort of clinical distance, a way of looking at the world as though he isn’t really a part of it, that makes the movie. I was in elementary school when this movie came out, and I remember all the kids talking about Slimer, about the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, about Gozer slithering around in her skintight suit that looked like it was made of bathtub bubbles. But if I’m ranking the great moments in this movie, I look at the bit in the hotel when Egon, waving his PKE meter, casually scans a hotel guest, then gives him a little poke in the arm and walks away, clearly disappointed that he’s just an ordinary man instead of a walking corpse. The classic Twinkie metaphor is a close second, but that’s more due to Bill Murray’s brilliant delivery: “What about the Twinkie?”

The film also passes the true test of a memorable comedy: quotability. Aside from the aforementioned Twinkie line, we get such classics as “There is no Dana, only Zuul,” and “Yes it’s true, this man has no dick.” And If not for the Ghostbusters, how would we ever know the correct response if someone asks you if you’re a god? (Hint: “Yes.”)

There were a lot of great movies made in this time period, a lot of great horror films and a lot of great comedies. But here we are, all these years later, and people are still hoping for a third film in the series. Is it the tone of the film? The cast? The way that kids and adults alike can lock on to these characters and this story and enjoy it on totally different levels? I think it’s a combination of all these things, frankly. Whatever the reason, Ghostbusters has permanently chiseled a place in my heart. It’s a fantastic comedy, it’s an awesome monster movie, and it is simply put, one of my favorite films of all time.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 29: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

nightmare1Director: Wes Craven

Writer: Wes Craven

Cast: Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, Nick Corri, Amanda Wyss, Ronee Blakley, John Saxon

Plot: Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss) is being plagued by a dream in which some maniac with knives on his fingers is stalking her through a boiler room. The next day, she discovers that her friend Nancy (Heather Langencamp) has been suffering from similar dreams. Nancy and her boyfriend Glenn (Johnny Depp) come over that night to make her feel better while she’s home alone, but Tina’s boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri) crashes the party and coaxes Tina into her mother’s bed. Tina falls asleep and is again attacked by the man with the knives in her dream. This time, as she fights him in the dream-world, in the real world her body is tossed about the room, cut and broken, and she dies. Rod, the only witness, flees in terror, but is arrested the next day and charged with her murder. Nancy falls asleep in school the next day, and has a vision of Tina’s blood-covered corpse being dragged around the school in a bodybag. Nancy finds herself in a boiler room, pursued by the man with the knives, who introduces himself as Freddy (Robert Englund). In terror, she puts her arm against a hot pipe, the pain jolting her awake. Freddy attacks her again when she falls asleep in the bathtub, but she again manages to wake up in time. After a third dream-encounter, Nancy and Glenn rush to the police station to visit Rob, but at that same moment he has fallen asleep. Freddy hangs him in his jail cell.

Nancy tells her parents (John Saxon and Ronee Blakley) about the dreams, and they bring her to a doctor who observes her while she sleeps. She has a violent reaction to the dreams, cuts appear on her arms, and a white streak appears in her hair. In her bed, she finds the battered hat Freddy wears in the dreams. She confronts her mother with the hat and the name written in it, Fred Kruger, and Marge breaks down and tells Nancy the truth: Krueger was a child murderer in the neighborhood that escaped justice on a technicality. Marge and the other parents of Elm Street tracked him to his hideout in a boiler room and lit the place on fire, letting him burn to death. Now he’s back, seeking revenge on the children of the parents who murdered him. Marge, heavily drunk, locks Nancy in her house, and she is trapped across the street as Glenn falls asleep and is killed, sucked into his bed by Freddy, and then expelled back into the room as a geyser of blood. Setting up traps around the house, she finally allows herself to fall asleep. She manages to bring Freddy into the real world, where she leads him through her gauntlet of traps and eventually trapping him in the basement – on fire. As her father arrives, Krueger escapes the basement and kills Marge, drawing her blackened, burned corpse into the bed. Her father leaves her alone, and Nancy confronts him one more time. This time, though, she refuses to give in to her fear, breaking his power, and he vanishes. In the morning, we see Nancy and Marge step out into the sunlight as Glenn, Rod, and Tina drive up. Nancy gets into the car, but the top (with Freddy’s distinctive red and green stripe pattern) closes and drives them away.

Thoughts: If you’ll recall, I was less than impressed with Wes Craven’s first entry in this experiment, Last House on the Left. Twelve years later, he more than redeemed himself with this horror classic. Freddy Krueger was a game changer for slasher movies. For the most part, previous films about some madman stalking people were grounded in reality. Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Leatherface and the sort were all human, if a bit hard to kill. It was Freddy that brought slashers into the supernatural, and a large number of the imitators that have come since then have embraced the supernatural elements wholeheartedly. Even some of those psycho killers that preceded Freddy made the switch to supernatural after a few movies, some successfully (Jason Voorhees became a Superzombie in Friday the 13th Part 6 and never looked back), and some not (there have been a few attempts to make Michael Meyers possessed by a demon or some other rot, all of which wound up simply undermining the character).

The modern slasher is often pictured as some maniac killer who dies and returns to a semblance of life in some hate-fueled quest for blood, and this is where that comes from. Even Tim Seeley’s excellent comic book series Hack/Slash uses this as its core – this series focuses on a “Survivor Girl” who gets pissed and decides to start hunting supernatural slashers, many of them creepy enough to stand right next to Freddy or Jason, and on one memorable occasion even encountering the maniacal Chucky from the Child’s Play series. Without this vision from Wes Craven, it wouldn’t have happened.

Also like many other films on this list, we get a great argument for the use of practical effects over CGI. The 2010 remake of this movie tried some of the same gags using computers, and they just weren’t as effective. When Freddy leans through the wall at Nancy, Wes Craven simply had Robert Englund pushing against a rubber membrane to terrifying effect. The remake went CGI, and it looked terrible. The fountain of blood in Johnny Depp’s death scene? Again, something that just wouldn’t look as good with computerized blood as good old-fashioned red corn syrup (or whatever they used).

It’s not just the quality of the effects, though, it’s how creative Craven is at conjuring up images that seem like something that would come straight out of a dream, like the centipede that comes from Tina’s mouth or the stairs melting away beneath Nancy’s feet. Even now, the image of Tina’s bodybag being dragged around the school by some unseen force is among the creepier images I’ve seen in a movie. It’s this kind of imagination that makes the movie work, that and the fact that Craven taps into one of the most primal fears a person could have. Regardless of age, sex, religion, or culture, everybody sleeps, and everybody dreams. That moment when you’re asleep, you’re the most vulnerable, but we survive by knowing that nothing that happens in a dream can actually hurt us. For Nancy and the others, Craven takes away that last bit of security, creating some genuine terror for the characters. Nancy is now living in a world where she has to sleep or go insane, but the moment she falls asleep she knows she can be attacked by a madman.

Nightmare helps to reinforce a great number of horror tropes. The first victim, Tina, dies immediately after having sex: we have slasher-as-morality police. Nancy’s parents don’t believe her at first: the clueless authority figures. Then, it turns out Nancy’s mother knew the truth all along, while her father still resists the truth: the useless authority figures. And then there’s Nancy herself, one of my favorite horror movie Survivor Girls. Sure, Laurie Strode is the prototype, but for my money Nancy Thompson is the character all girls who want to survivor horror movies should aspire to be. Laurie shows guts, but she’s largely reactive. Nancy investigates, hunts the killer, even going so far as to lay traps for him, and when she returns to the series in A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors (the best of the film’s many sequels), she has evolved considerably. She uses her trauma to help other people, and makes the transformation from Hero to Mentor figure, something which very few horror movie characters ever get a chance to do. Even though Nancy dies in that film, she dies with a purpose, escaping that much-hated “survivor dies in the first five minutes of the sequel” plague that hit so many of her peers.

If I may tangent a moment here – the scene of Nancy booby-trapping the house evokes the similar scene Craven used in Last House on the Left. Exactly why Craven saw fit to use such a similar sequence in two different movies, I don’t know, but it works much better here. In Last House it felt silly, reminding me of nothing so much as Home Alone. Here, possibly because Nancy has already proven herself as a true survivor, it works.

Freddy himself breaks the mold of the monolithic, quiet slayers we saw in Leatherface, Michael Meyers, and Jason Voorhees (once he took over his franchise from Mommy). Freddy is a smaller figure, slender, and wiley. He isn’t quite the chatterbox he would become in the sequels, but he’s already taken to taunting his victims – both verbally and physically – as part of his game. And it is a game to him, make no mistake. Michael and Jason are driven to kill by their respective madness. In a way, Freddy is scarier. He kills because it’s fun. Robert Englund raised this character from a one-note killer to a horror legend, the kind of character that took over the franchise and that audiences actually started to root for after awhile. That’s a testament to his skill as an actor and the charm of the character, but whenever someone starts to cheer for Freddy, I feel somewhat compelled to point out that the guy wound up in this predicament in the first place because of that whole “molest and murder small children” thing he had going on there.

I am not, to be honest, a big fan of the ending of the movie. The ambiguity of Nancy’s final confrontation with Freddy doesn’t quite work. We’ve seen other films in this project with ambiguous endings that worked very well – Ash’s final scream in The Evil Dead, or Joan Crawford’s lingering mortality in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? But here we get the feeling that Wes Craven (who didn’t have sequels in mind when he wrote this script) wanted to make it more definitive, and give the film more of a down ending, while the studio (New Line Cinema, which until this point had only been a distribution company and was actually producing its first film) wanted things a bit more open-ended. As a result, we have something that leaves the movie feeling unfinished, and as the second film in the series (in my opinion the worst film in the series) doesn’t touch upon Nancy or her fate at all, except to find one of her old diaries, the audience was left wondering until Craven returned to help write the story for Part 3. And that, frankly, isn’t very satisfying.

Although he made many more horror movies, it’ll be another 12 years before we see Wes Craven turn up in this project again. As for now, the 80s seemed to be the era of things returning from the dead. Aside from Freddy and Jason, the zombie film really seemed to hit its stride in this era, and one of the more memorable of the entries in that group comes up next. Join us tomorrow for Return of the Living Dead.