Summer Series 1: Mad Max
Welcome, all, to the first installment of the Summer Series here at Reel to Reel Movies! A few months ago, I was lying around with a lot of time to think, and I started to ponder what kind of project I could bring to the blog this summer. After all, summertime really is the best time for me, as a teacher, to watch and comment on a lot of movies. This led me to thinking about my personal (expansive) DVD collection, which includes a lot of boxed sets and a lot of movies I’ve never seen. As I pondered, the idea finally came to me: I could use this as an excuse to watch and rewatch entire series of films, then discuss the way the movies developed over time. There will not be a regular schedule for this – I’ll post a new installment whenever I finish watching a series, but I’m hoping I can pull off a goodly number of these before the siren song of school lures me back in August.
With that said, let’s leap right into the first series of films for this experiment, a series whose newest installment is still in theaters: George Miller’s Mad Max. Although I was, of course, aware of the Mad Max movies, until a week ago neither I nor my wife, Erin, had ever seen any of them. With the latest installment getting rave reviews, though, Erin suggested that we try to track down the first three and then see the new one. We watched the original about a week ago, then the next two and the new one in a 24-hour period this weekend. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on each one. As always, Reel to Reel is a full spoiler zone, so if you haven’t seen these movies, particularly Fury Road, you may want to step back before you read all the way through.
Mad Max (1979)
Director: George Miller
Writers: George Miller & James McCausland
Cast: Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Steve Bisley
Thoughts: As I said, this is my first time actually watching any of the Mad Max films, so this is a good time to mention just how much public perception of a franchise can be shaped by its legacy. What I knew going in was that Max was a leather-wearing, cool car-driving, desert-dwelling warrior in a post-apocalyptic landscape. What I didn’t know was that in this movie, the first one, the apocalypse hadn’t actually happened yet. Oh, it’s definitely impending. From the early moments of the film we get a sense of a society on the verge of collapse – but that collapse is still in the future. When we meet Max Rockatansky, played by Mel Gibson, he’s still a police officer, still trying to maintain law and order. The streets of the Australian community he’s trying to protect are under siege, however, by a vicious gang that rides around in the aforementioned cool cars. Their leader, Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is something of a cartoon villain, not really wanting anything but chaos for the sake of chaos… that’s pretty much par for the course for the villains in this film, in fact.
Honestly, this is one of the rare occasions where (after having watched them all) the first movie is my least favorite in a series. It’s not bad, not at all, but it’s nothing compared to what the franchise would become as early as the next movie. The plot is fairly thin, showing a lead-up to one of those sci-fi dystopias that the movies promise can happen as early as this time next Thursday, depending on if it catches all the lights. The villains have no arc at all, and the hero’s arc is a fairly common, predictable one. Max is a cop who is driven to incredible acts of violence by crooks who assault, maim, or murder everyone who is close to him, including his partner, his wife, and his child. This obviously leads to one of those roaring rampages of revenge that Quentin Tarentino would grow up wanting to emulate. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as it’s done well, and Miller does do it well.
The film was made pretty cheap, but by late 70s standards it doesn’t look stark. There are good chase scenes and plenty of cars and stunts, more than enough for a viewer to believe every dime spent went on the screen. His script works well for what it is, showing pretty clearly that this movie takes place in a world where everything is going downhill. Maybe the best indicator of this is how casually Max’s son, “Sprog” (which is an Austrailian slang term for “baby” – the child’s name is never actually mentioned during the movie) picks up and plays with his father’s gun. I actually had glanced away from the screen at that moment, my attention immediately reclaimed when my wife yelped in terror.
Mad Max works, and it’s an okay movie, but I don’t think it’s anything special. If it weren’t for the fact that the sequels would turn out to be particularly spectacular, I don’t know if people would remember this one very much at all.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
Director: George Miller
Writers: George Miller, Terry Hayes & Brian Hannant
Cast: Mel Gibson, Kjell Nilsson, Emil Minty, Bruce Spence, Michael Preston, Vernon Wells, Virginia Hey, William Zappa
Thoughts: The first Mad Max was so forgettable in America that, when the sequel was released, it was only titled The Road Warrior over here, as the studio figured nobody saw the first one and they didn’t want people to get confused. This is actually a rare case of a studio marketing program doing something smart. Not only is The Road Warrior perfectly accessible whether you’ve seen the first movie or not, it would turn out to be part of a trend… none of the movies in this franchise are strictly beholden to one another. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad Erin and I watched all of them, but I’m here to tell ya that you can watch any Mad Max movie regardless of whether you’ve seen any of the others and still get a perfectly reasonable, understandable, and complete moviegoing experience.
More importantly, though, The Road Warrior is where Miller upped his game. He took a character from what had been little more than a mild exploitation movie and turned him into the hero that has largely defined the post-apocalyptic sci-fi subgenre ever since. In this movie, some years have passed since Max took his revenge on Toecutter, and in that time society’s collapse has become complete. With the world in a shambles following what is heavily implied to be a nuclear war (remember, this was 1981, nuclear war was Cinematic Boogeyman Number One), there is no government, no military, no civilization save that what is pieced together by small cliques of survivors. In this movie, Max gets caught up in a struggle between one such group – generally decent people desperately trying to survive by keeping an old gasoline refinery operational – and a \warlord intent on taking their resources for his own.
This would turn out to be part of a pattern for subsequent Max films. Although he’s the title character, he’s no longer strictly the protagonist. Rather, he’s the drifter, the wanderer, the Man With No Name archetype (almost literally – he has very little dialogue in this movie, and I honestly can’t remember if his name was ever actually said out loud) who wanders into a conflict between good villagers and the bullying overlord who threatens them, helps facilitate the real protagonist’s victory, and then wanders away. The only real continuity from one film to the next is Max himself, and Miller is incredibly good with this. The injuries Max suffered in the first film (a kneecap that gets shot, an arm severely wounded) leave their traces in this and subsequent movies, but not in such a way that a first-time viewer will feel like they’re missing part of the story.
The real protagonist in this movie is a little difficult to define, actually, but the role seems to be shared by the “Gyro Captain” (Bruce Spence) and the “Feral Kid” (Emil Minty). These are the two who interact the most with Max, grow the most from having come into contact with him, and in a small degree help him come back a bit from the cold, remorseless man he was at the end of the first movie. This is also where Miller’s storytelling skills first become apparent. Although it isn’t made explicit to people who are being exposed to the franchise for the first time, if you’ve seen the first movie it’s clear that Max views the Feral Kid as a sort-of substitute for his own long-dead child. In that way, Max’s arc in the movie becomes one of redemption, trying to make up for his failure to protect his own family by saving this new one, even if he can never truly join it.
This is also the film where the antagonists evolve from simple thugs to straight-up supervillains. Lord Humungus, so named because in the post-apocalyptic outback there’s no room for subtlety, is a mask-wearing barbarian, heavily burned and scarred. Although he, like Toecutter, is a brutal creature, it’s somehow more believable in this landscape. Once the apocalypse has happened, it’s easy to accept a warlord of his caliber willrise to power… although since I was four years old when this movie came out, I’m not sure if the entire reason that trope is so acceptable is because of the impact this movie had. At one point, I understand, the plan was for Humungus — played by Kjell Nilsson — to turn out to be Max’s tortured and burned former partner from the first film, but this was dropped for some reason. Honestly, I think that’s probably for the best, as that link would have made it far more difficult for this movie to stand on its own.
Of the three original movies, this is the one I think is the best. While the third installment clearly has a bigger budget and a flashier villain, this one has the strongest story. Miller and Gibson communicate volumes with very few words, but still craft a powerful and entertaining study of the characters and the world they now inhabit, while leaving you with a modicum of hope… even if that hope doesn’t specifically apply to Max Rockatansky.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
Directors: George Miller & George Ogilvie
Writers: George Miller & Terry Hayes
Cast: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Tina Turner, Frank Thring, Angelo Rossitto, Paul Larsson, Helen Buday
Thoughts: The third movie, which by far had the most impressive scenery and design of the original three, begins with Max being robbed by a pilot named Jedediah. The pilot is played by Bruce Spence. This has apparently caused a bit of controversy – many people believe that Spence, who also played the Gyro pilot in The Road Warrior, is playing the same character again. Others say that the voiceover narration at the end of that movie clearly spells out a future for the Gyro pilot that does not include ever encountering Max again. George Miller himself says that Jedediah and the Gyro pilot are not intended to be the same character, so I’ll take his word for it, but damned if he doesn’t make it confusing by having the only two people in this entire franchise who operating flying vehicles played by the same guy.
Anyway, Max makes his way to a place called Bartertown, where he hopes to find Jedediah and get his stuff back. Instead, he winds up in the company of Bartertown’s leader, a wild woman called Aunty Entity (Tina Turner, who Tina Turners the hell out of this movie). She’s been having a bit of a problem with “Master Blaster,” a duo who my wife Erin has found endlessly entertaining since we watched this movie Saturday morning. Master (Angelo Rossitto) is the one responsible for converting the city’s pig crap into methane, which their civilization needs to keep running, and he’s threatening to use his brutal buddy Blaster (Paul Larsson) to take over. Aunty offers to get Max’s stuff back for him if he takes care of Blaster in combat… in Thunderdome. When Max discovers that Blaster is mentally disabled, though, he’s unable to bring himself to kill the man, and winds up in exile. In the desert, he encounters a tribe of wild children, the survivors of a plane crash who believe Max is their long-lost pilot, who went to get help and never returned. Disheartened when he tells them that the world has collapsed, their leader Savannah (Helen Buday) takes a group to set out and find other people. Max knows they’re heading straight into Bartertown, and sets out to save them once again.
Of all the Mad Max films, this one probably has the most convoluted plot. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does require a bit more effort to follow than the pretty straightforward stories of the first two (or even the fourth, but we’ll get to that). It also takes a long time for Max to get to the true heroine of the film, Savannah, and her little civilization that she’s trying to keep intact.
That said, the stuff we see before we get to the kids is pretty great. Thunderdome (which I really thought would play a larger role in the movie than the one scene in which it is featured) makes for an awesome battle sequence. Max and Blaster, inside the metal dome, are tied to elastic bands and told to kill one another by any means necessary, including leaping up and grabbing the weapons placed in various places in the dome. The fight is well-staged and well-acted, but perhaps most importantly, it feels real. Most filmmakers today would use the elastic as an excuse to have Max doing high-flying superhero kicks and kung-fu moves that would be very difficult to believe in this weatherbeaten warrior. Miller, however, has Gibson and Larsson make moves that are impressive and fun to watch, but at the same time, never cross the border into being cartoonish or outlandish.
Aunty Entity is probably the most memorable villain in the franchise, at least at the time this movie came out, but I think that’s largely due to the fact that Tina Turner plays the role. She does a perfectly good job, don’t get me wrong, but if it weren’t such an out-there casting choice, I don’t think she’d overshadow Humungus one bit. Still, her role and the role of Bartertown are both important – they demonstrate that enough time has passed since the apocalypse that people are trying to find alternative societies, different ways of reconstructing civilization. These are important things, things that demonstrate that the world is moving on, and in many ways they set up the landscape for the fourth film. Of course, I don’t think Miller expected that it would be 30 years before he and Max returned to the outback.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Director: George Miller
Writers: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy & Nico Lathouris
Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whitley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton
Thoughts: After many years of false starts, this year Miller finally brought Max back to screens, this time with Tom Hardy taking over the role. It’s not really clear if this is intended to be a sequel or a total reboot of the franchise, but honestly, it doesn’t matter much. Like I said before, each of the films stands alone very easily.
This time out, Max is captured by a wild group of “War Boys” who discover he has type O blood. As a universal donor, he’s quickly hooked up and used to replenish the blood of one of their own, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), as all of the War Boys suffer from radiation sickness. Their Citadel is run by a brutal man called Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter way back in Mad Max and is now returning to the franchise). Immortan Joe not only hoards water and supplies, giving his people just enough to keep them alive, but also maintains a brothel full of beautiful wives. One of his lieutenants, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) sets out on what appears to be a standard supply run, but it is soon discovered that she’s really trying to help the wives escape. Nux takes Max, his “blood bank,” with him as part of the party that’s set to recapture Furiosa, but Max frees himself, helps wreck Nux’s car, and the two of them wind up throwing in their lot with the women in their attempt to escape Joe and get to a “green place.”
This movie is getting all kinds of rave reviews, and I have to say, I think they’re well earned. The past three decades have seen Miller’s skill as a director increase by leaps and bounds, even as effects technology has caught up with his vision. Fury Road includes some of the most spectacular high-speed action sequences I’ve ever seen put to film – crashes, fights on the back of (or side of, or underneath) racing vehicles, and a crazy dude on the front of a car playing a flamethrowing guitar. The design aesthetic has increased as well, with the film still very recognizable as being part of the world of the previous two movies, but at the same time, done with a much higher budget that doesn’t feel wasted at all.
All that’s great, but it would be meaningless if it weren’t for the story and the performances. Tom Hardy’s Max isn’t quite the same as Mel Gibson’s. He’s not as hard-edged or crazy-eyed, but the different feel he brings to it works just as well. If there’s any word I would use to describe Hardy’s Max, it’s “tired.” He comes across very much as a man who has seen everything already, he’s sick of it, and he can’t believe he’s got to fight for his life and the lives of a bunch of strangers yet again. Hmm. When you look at it that way, it’s almost undeniably a sequel, isn’t it?
Charlize Theron’s status as a talented actress is already well-established, but she’s also a fearless one. She proved in Monster that she’s not afraid to get dirty for a movie, and here she does it again, shaving her head and making herself into a battle-hardened warrior woman, believable in every respect. Nicholas Hoult is an up-and-comer, doing good action work as the young Beast in the X-Men movies and a nice turn in the zombie romcom Warm Bodies, but here he’s got a totally different thing happening. He’s a crazy creature – all of the War Boys are – but he’s got sadness and a sense of loss as well. He’s like any person raised in a cult-like atmosphere who is shocked when he sees the larger world he’s been missing out on, and he gets that across remarkably well.
Speaking of the world, Miller has gone out of his way this time to prove that this is a world that has “moved on.” Despite the fact that a nuclear war occurred some time between the first two movies, this is the first time that any sort of radioactive fallout has had a significant presence in the movie. The War Boys are all ill – Nux has even named his tumors – and early on we see Max munch on a two-headed lizard. The death of this world isn’t over yet. What’s more, the backstory we get on Furiosa implies that this world was shattered while she was still a child, at least twenty years ago, maybe more. Even if we accept this as a reboot instead of a sequel, this makes Max — who explicitly says at the beginning of the movie that he was a cop pre-apocalypse — a lot older than he looks. (Hardy himself is two years younger than Theron, for what it’s worth.)
At any rate, the fact that this world has moved on is what allows the main theme of the story to come through. In the last two movies, the struggle for resources was at the core of the plot. Here we’ve got a world where enough time has passed that resources – while still scarce – are at least stable. This makes Immortan Joe’s brothel work as a storytelling element. After all, once food is secure, what is the second most imperative instinct of any animal life? Reproduction, of course. Immortan Joe chooses to pursue that instinct in the most brutal, horrific way imaginable, but this is exactly what makes the story compelling. We can understand what the villain wants, even though we’re repelled by how he’s going about getting it, and we immediately buy into Furiosa (this movie’s stealth protagonist) and her quest to save these women and get them someplace else.
This movie is simply spectacular, easily the best film in the franchise, and I can’t wait to see what Miller has planned for the next installment, which Warner Bros has already tentatively approved.
The Showcase Gang’s Nightmare on Elm Street Marathon
The 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.
A 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.
A 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.
A 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.
A 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).
A 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.
Freddy’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.
Wes 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Friday 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?
Friday 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.
Friday 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.
Friday 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.
Friday 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…
Jason 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.
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.
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.]
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.
The Christmas Special Day 15: The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)
Director: Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr.
Writer: Jules Bass, based on the novel by L. Frank Baum
Cast: Earl Hammond, Earle Hyman, Larry Kenney, Lynne Lipton, Bob McFadden, Lesley Miller, Peter Newman, Joey Grasso, J.D. Roth, Alfred Drake
Plot: In the forest of Burzee, the Great Ak (Alfred Drake) summons a council of the immortals. As dozens of fairies, nooks, and other fantastic creatures come together, the Great Ak tells them the mortal named Santa Claus is about to be visited by the Spirit of Death. This mortal, Ak says, has earned possession of the world’s one and only Mantle of Immortality. To convince them, the Great Ak tells them his story, the tale of the life and adventures of Santa Claus.
Sixty years prior, the Great Ak found a mortal baby abandoned in the snow. He gives the child to a lioness to rear, but the fairy Necile (Lesley Miller) is curious about what a “child” is. She observes the lioness and decides she wants to care for the baby herself. She begs the Great Ak permission, which he grants, assigning the lioness to remain with the baby as its protector. Necile names the baby Claus, “little one” in her language. Claus doesn’t remain little for long, though. In the view of the immortals, he begins to grow up in the blink of an eye, and young Claus (voiced by J.D. Roth) begins his education in the ways of the forest. Ak decides Claus should see his own people, and takes him on a magical tour of the world of Man, where Claus sees terrible misery, violence, and suffering. He also begins to understand that he is mortal, unlike Necile and his friends, and one day he will die and become just a memory to his loved ones. Claus decides to live in the world of mortals, hoping to make it better, and he takes his lioness protector and teacher Tingler (Bob McFadden) with him. As he grows older, he begins to visit the nearby settlements of mankind, taking particular care in being a friend to the children. (His voice also changes, just like real life! Adult Claus is voiced by Earl Hammond.)
One winter night, as Claus carves a cat out of wood, he finds a child outside his home, nearly frozen. He brings the boy inside to warm up, and the child quickly takes a liking to Claus’s cat, Blinky. As the child sleeps, he finishes carving the cat, paints it, and gives it to the boy when he wakes up. When the other children in town learn of the wooden cat, they all want one of their own. He starts making cats, then other animals and dolls for the children… he has invented the toy. He brings his friends the Nooks to his home to help make toys in bulk, but soon receives a threat from a beast called King Awgwa (Earle Hyman), lord of the dark creatures who convince children to misbehave. King Awgwa abducts Claus, but the immortals easily rescue him. The Awgwa realize they cannot capture him easily, but they can prevent him from delivering his toys. They attack him the next day as he travels, stealing all the toys he’s made and taking them to their caves. The attacks continue, over and over. Finally, the Great Ak, Master Woodsman of the World, takes out his Silver Axe and leads the fairies and nooks into battle with the Awgwa and a mighty dragon. The Great Ak and his forces defeat the Awgwa, and Claus is free to deliver toys again. His sled is now so heavy with toys he can’t pull it, and his friend Peter Nook (Peter Newman) offers to allow Claus to use some of his reindeer to pull the sleigh, provided he can return them to their forest home by daybreak. The reindeer are impossibly fast, eventually finding the ability to fly through the air. Claus begins making regular trips to deliver toys, and is soon beloved by children everywhere, who call him “Santa Claus.” He returns home too late, though, and Peter is angry. Claus asks him to allow him to use the reindeer again, and Peter finally agrees, but only for one night a year… Christmas Eve. With just ten days, Claus won’t have enough toys to make the trip and will have to skip an entire year, unless he can find the toys stolen by the Awgwa. He goes to bed on Christmas Eve, convinced he’ll lose a year, but Peter Nook arrives with the reindeer and the sleigh full of recovered toys.
Years later, Santa Claus has won the love of all the world, and now stands on the brink of death. He decorates a tree with small toys as a symbol of his good work, and Tingler vows to decorate the tree every year. In the forest of Burzee, the Great Ak petitions the rest of the immortals to give Claus the Mantle of Immortality. In all the world there is only one, and can only be given to one mortal. Touched by his story, the immortals agree to present it to Claus. Just before he dies, Necile delivers the golden shroud to her son. Revitalized, he thanks Ak, pledging to prove himself worthy of the mantle for all time to come.
Thoughts: It had to happen sooner or later, my friends. This, I’m sorry to say, is the last Rankin and Bass special in our Reel to Reel countdown. It’s not one of the best-known specials either, but it’s one of my favorites. Based on the novel by The Wizard of Oz creator L. Frank Baum, this is a version of Santa Claus’s origin that doesn’t quite jive with any of the others we’ve seen, doesn’t fit in with the rest of the Rankin and Bass “universe,” but stands on its own as a lovely fairy tale version of this holiday icon’s story.
The Baum touch is one of my favorite things about this special, I admit. I am an unabashed fan of all things Oz and I love to see different takes on the Oz mythos. While Baum never directly linked this book to his Oz novels, there are enough of his magical creatures common to the different books for me to accept this as a part of the Oz Universe. Which I know is something only a nerd of my particular stripe cares about, but as I can say that for roughly 87 percent of the observations I’ve made this month, I feel perfectly justified in doing so again.
Children may find parts of this special a bit odd. Although it was made in 1985, it’s a faithful adaptation of a novel written in 1902, before many of the elements now considered part of Santa Claus lore became standard. He’s still a plump, jolly man who enters through the chimney, who rides in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. But kids will ask why his toy shop is in the Laughing Valley instead of the North Pole, why his toys are made by nooks instead of elves. My nerd response will be to tell them this is the Santa Claus of Earth-2. Of course, then you’ll have to explain that, so maybe you’d better just find a way to explain it that suits your own children.
Most of the Rankin and Bass specials are more or less timeless. If there’s anything that links them to their era it is a tendency to model their narrators after the stars who voice them (Fred Astaire in Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town and Andy Griffith in Frosty’s Winter Wonderland being prime examples). This one is a little different, with the nook (or fairy or gnome – I’m not sure) named Tingler being clearly inspired by Chico Marx, of call people. Which would have made a lot more sense in an early Rankin and Bass special – this was made in 1985. It’s an odd choice, one that most kids watching this won’t even notice, but older viewers will see it quickly.
This special doesn’t have as much music as most Rankin and Bass specials either. The “Big Surprise” number the children sing to Claus is the centerpiece, coming almost exactly halfway through the film and helping Claus realize exactly what his mission will be. It works pretty well as far as providing the character with motivation, but it isn’t as great a musical number as we’d like from Rankin and Bass. The special also isn’t as funny as we’ve come to expect from Rankin and Bass. Except for the Biblical specials, most of their cartoons at least had an element of comedy to them. This has almost nothing. Claus is motivated by seeing true darkness in the world, and although the battle sequences aren’t gory or bloody, they’re fairly intense for a film of this nature. The violence is real, not played in a cartoonish nature.
These elements are all perfectly good, though. This isn’t another cookie-cutter Santa movie like so many of them are. (To fully understand what I’m talking about, just turn it on the Hallmark Channel or Lifetime whenever you’re reading this. If it’s still December, there’s a 90 percent chance they’re showing a Christmas movie starring washed-up stars that is virtually indistinguishable from all of the other Christmas movies starring washed-up stars they show this time of year.) If you’re looking for something a little different – something that still has the charm and joy that comes with the names of Rankin and Bass but that is totally unique from every other version of the Santa Claus myth you’ve seen this year, this is the special for you.
NOTE: This story was remade as a traditionally animated direct-to-video movie in 2000 starring Robby Benson of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Don’t get the two confused. While the Benson version is… okay… the Rankin and Bass version is great.
Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 30: Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Writers: John Russo, Rudy Ricci, Russell Streiner, Dan O’Bannon
Cast: Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Matthews, Beverly Randolph, Linnea Quigley, Miguel Nunez, Allan Trautman
Plot: At the Uneeda Medical Supply company, manager Frank (James Karen) shows around trainee Freddy (Thom Matthews), and asks him if he’s ever seen Night of the Living Dead. Showing off, Frank tells Freddy the film was based on reality. A strange chemical called Trioxin animated corpses in Pittsburgh, but the truth was suppressed… and the bodies are being stored right there in barrels of the chemical. Frank shows the barrels to Freddy, but accidentally causes a leak of the gas, dousing both men and reanimating the dead bodies – even the parts of dead bodies – kept in storage at Uneeda. Freddy’s friends – a group of punk teenagers who look like the 80s threw up leather and piercings all over them – decide to kill time in a nearby cemetery while waiting to pick him up from work. As they proceed to party in the graveyard, Frank and Freddy wake up from their encounter with the Trioxin gas feeling sick. One of the barrels has broken open and is empty, and Frank assumes the body melted. They soon find the rest of the corpses (human and otherwise) throughout the warehouse animated and hungry.
Back in the graveyard one of the teens, Trash (Linnea Quigley) begins to fantasize about the more horrific ways to die, leading to one of the most bizarre and gratuitous striptease sequences in horror movie history. Frank and Freddy summon their boss, Burt (Clu Gulagar), about the cadaver screaming and banging on the walls of cold storage. Remembering Night of the Living Dead, Burt tries to kill the cadaver by driving an axe into its brain, then cutting off its head, but it doesn’t kill the monster. They reach a horrible revelation: the movies lied to them. Burt decides to bring the cadavers to his pal Ernie (Don Calfa) at the crematorium, hoping to destroy them that way. It works, but the smoke that spills out of the oven seeds the clouds above, and it begins to rain on the graveyard. The water filters down through the soil, into the coffins, and the dead begin to claw their way to the surface.
Frank and Freddy are getting sicker and sicker, and Ernie calls an ambulance. Meanwhile Freddy’s girlfriend, Tina (Beverly Randolph), has made it to Uneeda, where she finds the place seemingly deserted. As she searches for Freddy, she encounters the zombie that escaped from the first barrel, a slender figure that has become known as Tarman (Allan Trautman). The rest of the teens arrive just in time to save her, but Tarman gets his first snack of brains in the process. The paramedics arrive to treat Freddy and Frank, but are unable to find a pulse or blood pressure in either one of them, and their bodies are room temperature. The teens are attacked in the cemetery, and three of them (Tina included) make it to the mortuary, while two more get back to Uneeda. As the paramedics return to their ambulance, they hear screams and try to call for back-up, only to be attacked and devoured by the swarming dead. The survivors in the mortuary board up the place to hold out the zombies, and Freddy begins experiencing pain as his body goes into rigor mortis. One of the zombies manages to make it into the mortuary and Ernie straps it down, questioning it. It tells the survivors they want to eat brains because it relieves the pain of being dead. Burt locks Freddy and Frank in the mortuary chapel with Tina, who insists on staying with Freddy. Burt, Ernie, and Spider (Miguel Nunez) begin to seek an escape, while in the chapel, Freddy attacks Tina, hungry for brains. Spider and Burt make a run for the police car, fighting the zombies on the way. They drive the car to the door to collect Tina and Ernie, can’t get through the mob and drive away for help, but a swarm of zombies traps them at the Uneeda warehouse. Not wanting to become like the rest of the zombies, Frank turns on the crematorium, says a prayer for forgiveness, and climbs into the oven. Burt calls the army hotline on the Trioxin barrel and reports what has happened, and the army activates its contingency plan. Ernie and Tina hide from Freddy while the survivors at Uneeda protect themselves from Tarman, and just as everyone makes a final stand, the army drops a bomb on the whole damn city of Louisville, Kentucky, wiping it – and the zombies – off the map. But as the zombies burn, the smoke rises… and the rain starts to fall.
Thoughts: This movie has perhaps the strangest pedigree of any film on this list. George Romero – writer and director of Night of the Living Dead – got into a disagreement with co-producer John Russo about the direction of the franchise. Russo walked away with the right to use the “Living Dead” name for his own franchise, and this was the result: a world where Night of the Living Dead was a movie, but was based on its own reality. It’s a weird premise, to be sure, and I was at first reluctant to include this movie in my little horror movie project, mainly because I think it may be more deserving of a place in the eventual horror/comedy project I intend to present in the future. But I decided use it for two reasons: first, like Night of the Living Dead, this movie helped influence the way zombies are portrayed in popular culture even today, and second, I’m not really convinced that all of the comedy in this movie was intentional.
The zombies (with the exception of Tarman) are all kind of silly, particularly the first, fresh cadaver, where the actor seemed to just be stripped, shaved, and painted yellow. And a lot of the violence seems to be played for laughs. Trash’s legendary tombstone striptease isn’t really scary or sexy, just weird. On the other hand, the parts that probably were intentionally funny (such as the hungry zombie calling for “more paramedics” on the ambulance scanner) are legitimately funny. Even the 80s-style montage (in this one the characters are barricading themselves in the mortuary instead of training to win the big ski tournament) is funny enough, juxtaposed against a goofy rock ballad about the Living Dead.
The characters in this movie really are jokes, especially the teenagers. They’re all caricatures, and the way one of them (I don’t even remember the characters’ name, making it impossible to look up the actor, that’s how generic they are) gives a speech about how his leather and chains is a “way of life” and not a costume is groan-inducing, and the way they resist calling the cops (because they’ll “kick our ass”) even as one of their buddies is having his brain eaten takes them from the realm of stereotype to the land of the remarkably stupid. It’s really no loss when any of them gets turned into a zombie hors d’oeuvre. As for naming the two old chums “Burt” and “Ernie”… really, O’Bannon? Sesame Street was pushing 20 years old at the time you wrote this script, you can’t tell me that wasn’t intentional.
There seems to have been an ill-fated attempt at poignancy with “Trash,” who proclaims early in the film that she believes the worst way to die would be to be eaten to death by old men, but seeing as how she says that immediately before she begins taking off her clothes for no apparent reason, it’s doubtful most audience members remember that bit. Frank’s suicide is a little more satisfying from an audience standpoint – it’s the one point in the movie where someone shows anything like a little human regret – and the moment where he dies is a good capper to what little of a character arc there is.
The zombies in this movie are different from Romero zombies in many ways. First off, they’re more intelligent, with the ability to speak and reason (although later Romero films did start to show zombies exhibiting a few higher-order skills). Second, they can’t be killed by a simple bullet to the brain, and in fact, dismemberment does no good as each individual chunk of the zombie continues to move of its own accord. Finally, and most importantly to popular culture, this is the movie that gave us zombies obsessed with braaaaaaaains. A Romero zombie (and those of most of his imitators) is perfectly happy with any chunk of living flesh, and it’s these zombies that we still see in most movies and TV shows. If you’re a fan of The Walking Dead, you’re watching a Romero zombie. But whenever you see a zombie that wants specifically to chomp on a brain, you can thank John Russo and Dan O’Bannon.
From the perspective of a horror movie fan, there’s nothing in this movie as scary or visually cool as Tarman. The first zombie, one whose flesh has mostly melted into slime from years of Trioxin storage, is a grotesque, slimy creature that could give anybody nightmares. Allan Trautman, who played the character, is rather underappreciated in the strata of horror icons. His slim frame and marvelous physical performance created the best monster from this movie, and one of the most memorable single zombies of all time. While the other zombies aren’t nearly as recognizable or as entertaining, there are a couple of cool scenes. The moment where the rainwater filters down through the ground into the coffins and the dead claw their way out to the surface, for example, looks really great, and the zombie Ernie interrogates is a nice piece of puppeteering, even if the movement of its mouth doesn’t remotely match the words she’s saying.
The end of the movie is almost as literal a deus ex machina as one could hope for. There’s a short bit earlier where someone from the army shows a bit of concern about the barrels (which have been missing for sixteen years thanks to some sort of paperwork screw-up), but it seems tacked on to justify a conclusion that otherwise would come totally from out of the blue. While I give the filmmakers credit for going for the nuclear option (pun intended), it makes everything else in the movie feel somewhat hollow.
While Return of the Living Dead is by no means the only movie to use the “we swear it’s a true story” gag, it’s by far the least convincing. And although there’s fun to be had in watching the movie, it’s horror movie fun at its cheesiest. It’s hard to imagine this film being sincerely frightening to any adult, but there’s still room for enjoyment in watching it. Just don’t go into it looking for a scare.
Stephen King makes one more appearance tomorrow, with one of his most down-to-earth tales of horror… and, I admit, one of my personal favorites: Misery.