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The Showcase Gang’s Nightmare on Elm Street Marathon

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

OCT. 30, 2007…

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

nightmare1A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neeeeeeeext…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 in 1 Showcase Episode 174: Greetings From Pittsburgh

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

Download the episode

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Superman Week Day 5: Henry Cavill in Man of Steel (2013)

Man of Steel

WARNING: Spoilers begin very soon in the plot recap in this article. If you haven’t seen Man of Steel yet and don’t want to be spoiled, READ NO FARTHER.

Director: Zack Snyder

Writers: David S. Goyer & Christopher Nolan

Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Antje Traue, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Ayelet Zurer, Michael Kelly, Rebecca Bueller

Plot: The planet Krypton is embroiled in a civil war. Jor-El (Russell Crowe), leader of their scientific community, believes the planet to be doomed, but the ruling caste refuses to believe him. One person who does believe him is General Zod (Michael Shannon). Zod stages a violent coup, during which Jor-El steals the Kryptonian Codex, an artifact that carries in it the pre-determined genetic code for all Kryptonians. He and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) have conceived a child in secret, Krypton’s first natural birth in centuries. Hiding the Codex with the baby Kal-El, Jor-El sends him into space to the planet Earth, a distant world where Krypton sent scouting parties eons ago. Zod kills Jor-El, but is captured. He and his followers are sentenced to an orbital phantom stasis, which allows them to escape soon afterwards, when Krypton is destroyed.

Flashing forward, we see an adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) working on an Alaskan fishing boat until an oil rig disaster forces him to reveal his incredible strength and resistance to injury. This is not the first time it’s happened – the wandering Clark has been roaming for some time ever since leaving his mother Martha (Diane Lane) back in Smallville, Kansas. Clark makes his way to an arctic research station, where he has heard rumors of an alien spaceship deep beneath the ice. There, he encounters Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Saving Lois from the Kryptonian spaceship’s built-in defenses, he leaves her safe and takes the ship elsewhere. Using a key he’s had with him since childhood, he activates the ship and a hologram of Jor-El, who tells him the history of the planet Krypton and begins teaching him to use his powers for a greater purpose, one that seems to echo the wishes of the man who raised him, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Coster). Through a series of flashbacks throughout the film, we see young Clark trying to deal with his enhanced senses and using his gifts to help people. Jonathan has always been afraid, though, knowing that Clark is an alien, that people would not accept him. He impresses on his son that he will – one way or the other – change the world when he is revealed, but the time for that reveal hasn’t come yet. Jonathan ultimately dies in a tornado rather than allow Clark to save him and show his powers.

Lois tracks down the activities of her savior, eventually finding the home of Martha Kent in Smallville. She meets with Clark again and the two strike up a friendship, with her deciding to bury her intended story about him as she returns to the Daily Planet. The point is quickly overshadowed when Zod’s ship appears in the skies above Earth. It announces, in a broadcast translated into every Earthly language, that they are harboring Kal-El of Krypton somewhere on the planet, and promises to bring down great suffering if they do not turn him over. After some soul-searching, Kal-El gives himself up to the military, who turn him over to Zods’ lieutenant, Faora (Antje Traue). Faora insists that Lois Lane come with them as well.

On Zod’s ship, Lois activates the recording of Jor-El, who guides her in an escape attempt while Kal-El finds the truth about Zod’s plan: he wants to find the Codex stolen by Jor-El and use it to transform Earth into a new Krypton, a process which would necessitate the extinction of the human race. Kal-El escapes and saves Lois, but not before the Kryptonians manage to read both of their memories, revealing that the Codex has been imprinted the very cells of Kal-El’s body. Faora leads a Kryptonian excursion to Kal-El’s home in Smallville. As Kal-El and his brethren go to war in Kansas, the American military initially targets them both, but Col. Nathan Hardy (Christopher Meloni) soon comes to realize that Kal-El is not an enemy.

The Kryptonian warship splits into two, using “world engine” technology to sandwich the planet and begin the terraforming process, beginning with Metropolis. Kal-El, now being called “Superman” by the soldiers, provides the military with the ship that brought him to Earth, explaining that it uses the same sort of technology that powers the engine, and that crashing it into the Kryptonian ship will rip open the portal and toss them back into the Phantom Zone, provided he can destroy the engine on the other side of the globe first. As he battles his way to the engine, in Metropolis, Hardy’s army pitches a desperate battle against the Kryptonians. Both Superman and Hardy succeed, but at the cost of Hardy’s life. Returning to Metropolis in time to save Lois from falling to her death, Superman realizes one Kryptonian remains: Zod. The two engage in a pitched battle, Zod blaming Superman for destroying Krypton a second time. Although Superman does his best to minimize the destruction and save the humans, when Zod discovers how to activate his heat vision, Superman is left with no choice but to kill the General. Realizing what he’s done, the Man of Steel screams in agony and collapses in Lois’s arms.

Some time later, Superman again shuts down military efforts to track him, promising he’s on their side, but won’t stand for being watched. Returning home to Martha, Clark tells his mother his decision: to use his powers for the betterment of mankind, and to do so, to take a job where he can monitor danger and where no one will question him for running off at a moment’s notice: that of a reporter. In Metropolis, he takes a tour of the newspaper where he’s been hired as a stringer, culminating with “meeting” Lois Lane. With a sly, knowing grin, she shakes his hand and says, “Welcome to the Planet.”

Thoughts: It’s been several days, as I write this, since I saw Man of Steel, and my brain is still processing a lot of it. The reaction, from comic book fans, comic book professionals, and the general public has been remarkably mixed, with some people loving the changes to the mythos and others who hated them. I’m not here to keep you in suspense, friends: I absolutely loved the movie.

Not every minute of it, mind you. There were some slow moments, particularly in the middle, and a few times when I thought things didn’t quite feel right, but most of those were overshadowed by the things I did like. Christopher Nolan, who directed the Dark Knight trilogy, took the reigns as a producer for this film, with the directing chores going to Watchmen and 300 director Zack Snyder. The story was by Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer, who also worked on the Batman movies. The resultant film has a tone and emotional impact that’s similar to Nolan’s Batman with a visual style that’s the best parts of what Snyder brought to his other movies, but without some of the over-the-top elements (such as his frequent use of slow motion) that can sometimes make those films a little hokey.

Unlike any other version of Superman we’ve discussed this week (or, for that matter, any other version I’ve ever seen on film) this film really plays up the alien “first contact” aspect of the character. Initially, this made me nervous, as I prefer my Superman to be Clark Kent in tights and not an alien who pretends to be human. Those fears melted away pretty quickly, though. Jor-El is a much bigger presence in this movie than he’s been in any of the other versions, and Krypton plays an enormous role in the story, but at the core we still have the son of Jonathan and Martha Kent trying to solve the mystery of his own life and, once that puzzle is cracked, trying to learn his place in the world. Like Batman Begins did for that franchise, Man of Steel ends its story much earlier in the character’s personal mythos than we’re used to, with the very beginning of Clark’s life in Metropolis and many of the familiar elements (working as a reporter, donning his trademark glasses) not clicking into place until the final moments. This wouldn’t work, except for the fact that the whole film is about building up to that, about Kal-El and Clark Kent learning how to be Superman. In my mind that’s why all of the movie – including (hell, especially) the drastically shocking ending worked.

I’ll address that particular elephant in the room later, though – it’s important enough to save it for last. Let’s get back to Snyder for a moment. His 300 was a fun movie, full of action and violence, but it was hardly a serious picture. Watchmen, if anything, suffered a bit from remaining too faithful to the source material, much of which comes across as rather ponderous when put on the screen. His first original project, Sucker Punch, was a garbled mess of a film that looked pretty but didn’t have a scrap of logic, development, or coherence to it. Worrying about him taking on the premiere superhero franchise was a fair reaction.

But by giving him a solid story to work with, Snyder did some fantastic work. These are the most intense, brutal, energizing and electrifying action sequences a Superman movie has ever had – the most almost any superhero movie has ever had. The only thing that comes close, to my mind, is the final alien invasion sequence from Joss Whedon’s Avengers (another great superhero movie with an entirely different tone, despite a mild structural similarity to the conclusion of this film). Snyder didn’t only land the action moments, though… the quiet bits in Smallville worked very well, and the scenes of Clark learning how to fly were a joy to watch. They did, however, inspire a small chuckle from me when I thought about how similar they were to bits from Andrew Stanton’s  John Carter, a 2012 sci-fi film that didn’t get nearly the credit it deserved. Carter is one of the characters Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, had in mind when they were pulling together the many pieces of the Man of Steel back in the 1930s.

Henry Cavill works very well as a young Clark Kent. The earliest scene with him, chronologically, is the death of Jonathan Kent. There, we see him as a frustrated young man (a late teen or early 20something) still fighting against a father who he feels has repressed him. The pain in his face when Jonathan dies lingers, and informs so much of what the character does later. Looking back on the previous scenes of him saving the men on the oil rig, you can now recognize in him someone who has something to atone for. That pain is amplified exponentially after Zod’s death, and it will be very interesting to see whether the promised sequel (which has already been pushed into production) will follow up on that sort of emotional beat.

Amy Adams as Lois Lane is another fine touch. She’s a great actress in her own right (I am, I admit, a fan), and she brings a strength and courage to the character. She’s not the spitfire that Margot Kidder was, but she’s not a wallflower either. This is a Lois that doesn’t go out of her way to be antagonistic, but she isn’t about to back down from a fight either. What’s more, she’s also the first Lois we’ve seen to actually solve the mystery – she figures out that her Guardian Angel is Clark Kent of Smallville before there’s even a “Superman” identity to look for. It’s a great moment for the character that deviates a bit from the usual pieces of the Superman mythology, but it does so in a way that strengthens Lois’s character without weakening Clark. What’s more, it will also easily allow the filmmakers to sidestep any future questions of how the person closest to both Clark and Superman is fooled by his rather simple disguise.

The entire cast, really, acquits itself well. Russell Crowe and Kevin Coster both feel like good, rational and admirable fathers for Superman. (Whether the fact that both of Superman’s fathers have played Robin Hood was considered during the casting process or not is a question for the ages, but I like to think it brings a little bit of metatextual gravitas to the casting.) Crowe’s Jor-El is a larger presence than the other versions have been, even Marlon Brando’s, but he also feels more like a loving father than those other versions. Even his holographic replica, at the end, sounds like he’s proud of his son.

Costner’s Jonathan Kent dies before he gets to see what Clark does with his power, but the way he dies is just brilliant. Almost every other version of the character has died of a heart attack – believable, sad, but not the character-defining moment we get here. In this version, Jonathan is saving people in traffic from a coming tornado, goes back for the dog, and realizes he’s not going to make it. His son could easily save him, even at this early stage of his development, but Jon refuses to allow it. At this point, Clark’s secret is more important than his own life. The one thing that’s always set Superman apart from the likes of Batman and Spider-Man is that he’s not usually driven by tragedy or survivor’s guilt… sure, he’s the last son of Krypton, but his home planet is one he never knew until he was an adult, it wasn’t formative for him. Jonathan’s death, in this manner, gives him something to atone for. His father – just minutes after Clark denied that he was his father – made a supreme sacrifice on his behalf. From that moment on, we’ve got a Clark Kent trying to be worthy of that sacrifice. It’s powerful as hell.

Michael Shannon was an interesting choice as General Zod. He doesn’t quite have the devilish look of Terrence Stamp, he could almost be a hero in the right circumstances, and he certainly believes himself to be the hero of the story. That’s what makes him compelling – from his way of thinking, he’s doing exactly the right thing. To use a rather overused metaphor, if you knew that the only way to save the human race was to destroy an anthill, would you hesitate to do it? Ants aren’t sentient, of course, so it’s a metaphor that falls apart, but using Zod’s logic, it’s perfectly sound. The best villains are always those that believe themselves to be in the right.

So having danced around it enough, let’s get to the most contentious part of this movie: Superman kills Zod. There’s no question about it here, no way to dress it up like an accident, no way to say that he didn’t know it would be fatal or that maybe Zod really survived. Superman wrapped his arms around Zod’s head, twisted with all his incredible strength, and killed him. And Superman is a character who should never kill.

And that is why it worked.

I’m about to get super damn nerdy here, pointing back to specific comic book stories and everything, but please bear with me. I’ve got a point to make. Superman is the character who believes in life above all else. Superman is the character who will do anything to find another way. Superman is a character who believes that death is not the last resort, but it is never a resort at all. But this is a lesson that has to be learned, and how else do we learn than from our mistakes?

I’m about to blow some minds for people who don’t read comics, but Superman has killed before. At least twice, in fact. In Alan Moore’s epic Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (recently voted by fans as the greatest Superman story of all time), he kills the interdimensional menace Mr. Mxyzptlk, who has gone from being a pest to being a homicidal god. Then, to punish himself for killing – something he believes nobody, even Superman, has the right to do – he removes his own powers and walks away into the arctic waste. Fans accepted this pretty readily, most likely because it was presented as an “imaginary story,” something that was not technically in-continuity and was, in fact, the final story of the previous 50 years of Superman continuity before writer/artist John Byrne came in and relaunched the character with his Man of Steel miniseries. It’s a good story. But the second one I’m going to mention is even more applicable.

Superman V2 22A few years later, Byrne left the Superman comic books with a story called the “Supergirl Saga.” In this story, Superman discovers an alternate dimension where his counterpart is dead, there are no other superheroes in the world (no Batman, no Wonder Woman, no Justice League, etc.), and three Kryptonian criminals are laying waste to the entire planet. Superman is brought there to stop these alternate versions of Zod, Faora and Quex-Ul, but he’s too late, and the planet is left with just one survivor. Superman plans to strand the Kryptonians on this dead Earth, but Zod taunts him, promising to find his way to Superman’s own dimension and repeat his massacre there. Realizing Zod is right, that he can do it, Superman uses a piece of Kryptonite and executes them.

This being a part of the regular Superman line, it got a much bigger reaction than the Moore story. It was horrifying. It was shocking. Superman isn’t supposed to kill. And the writers who followed Byrne recognized it – Superman was so emotionally scarred by what he did that he wound up exiling himself from Earth for months, no longer believing himself worthy of being among humans. Both the “Supergirl Saga” and the subsequent “Exile” storylines also made that list of the best Superman stories, as voted on by fans, and I think it’s because they so brilliantly exemplify the point I’m trying to make here.

Superman doesn’t kill, that’s true, but that’s not the whole statement. The whole statement should read thusly: “Superman doesn’t kill, because the one time he did, it almost destroyed him.”

Zod’s death in Man of Steel isn’t a calculated, premeditated act. Superman never sets out to kill anybody. It’s not even the cold execution of the alternate Zod from the “Supergirl Saga.” It’s done in the heat of battle, by a young Superman who has only recently learned the full extent of his powers, and it’s done while Zod is actively threatening the lives of innocent people. And after it’s over, Superman is shattered. He screams in pain and agony, not at Zod for placing himself in that position, but at himself for failing to find another way. In circumstances where virtually anybody on the planet would consider his actions justified, Superman considers himself a failure, because he didn’t live up to the ideal that Jor-El has set for him.

And it’s that ideal, more than anything else, that drives the character. Clark Kent is not Superman because he can fly or see through walls or juggle tanks. He’s Superman because he reminds all of us that there’s a better way, and nobody will be harder on him for failing to reach that ideal than he will be himself. This may be the first Superman movie that actually demonstrates that influence on others as well. Repeatedly, throughout this movie, we see characters step up and be heroes because of the example he has set: Hardy’s death at the end, where he throws a one-liner back in Faora’s face, is priceless. Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and Steve Lombard (in every version of the mythos, the biggest douchebag who ever worked at the Daily Planet – here played nicely by Michael Kelly) risk their lives to save an intern named Jenny (Rebecca Bueller, who many believe is this universe’s gender-flipped stand-in for Jimmy Olsen, as her last name is never spoken) even while Metropolis is crumbling all around them. Even before there is a Superman, we see young Clark save a bus full of kids, including a bully named Pete Ross (Jack Foley as a kid, Joseph Cranford as an adult). After he saves him, the next time we see Pete he’s helping Clark to his feet after he stops himself from crushing another group of thugs who are picking on him. Adult Pete shows up too, around the time that Zod is demanding Kal-El be turned over, and warning the people that know who he is to step forward. It seems pretty clear that Pete knows who they’re talking about, but he doesn’t say a word.

(I would, in fact, love to see this in the Man of Steel sequel – some circumstance where the entire town of Smallville turns a blind eye to the Clark/Superman connection, because there’s simply no way to believe they don’t know who Superman is, but it’s easy to believe that they’ve all silently decided to keep his secret.)

So yes, I loved Man of Steel, and if you didn’t, I hope I’ve at least articulated exactly why I think it worked so well. Warner Bros, as I’ve said, has already kicked off work on Man of Steel 2, with the promise of it leading to a Justice League movie down the line. After so many false starts over the years, if this is the template they use, they may finally have found a way to get it right.

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

The Christmas Special Day 20: Christmas at Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (1988)

christmas-at-pee-wees-playhouseDirectors: Wayne Orr, Paul Reubens

Writer: John Paragon, Paul Reubens

Cast: Paul Reubens, Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon, Grace Jones, k.d. lang, Dinah Shore, Little Richard, Cher, Magic Johnson, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Joan Rivers, Charo, Kevin Carlson, Laurence Fishburne, Aaron Fletcher, Darin Grimes, Rick Heitzman, Suzanne Kent, William Marsha, George McGrath, S. Epatha Merkerson, Alison Mork, John Paragon, Lynne Marie Stewart, Vic Trevino, Wayne White & the Del Rubio Triplets

Plot: As Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) makes out his list for Santa Claus, he gets a visit from his friend Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart), who has strategically placed mistletoe into her hairdo to get kisses from everyone. She’s brought Pee-Wee his Christmas present: her own homemade fruitcake. Less than enthused, Pee-Wee gives her a bottle of homemade perfume that smells just like him. As he continues his preparations, he gets a call from Whoopi Goldberg, asking to be on his Christmas special, but he’s booked solid for the next two years. When he’s reminded that he forgot to get decorations for the Christmas party, he wishes he hadn’t been so selfish, getting the attention of Jambi the Genie (John Paragon). Pee-Wee uses Christmas to con an extra wish out of Jambi (he usually only gets one a day) and has the Playhouse quickly decorated, planning to use his other wish for “something special” later. Mail Lady Reba (S. Epatha Merkerson) arrives and Pee-Wee gives her a set of press-on toenails and an enormous letter to Santa. She gives him another fruitcake, and a huge box containing singer Grace Jones, who was supposed to be shipped to the White House. She sings her own rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” before she’s reboxed and sent off to Washington (where I’m sure President Reagan was highly appreciative). Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello stop by to make Christmas Cards, and Cher drops in to get today’s Secret Word. (It’s “Year.” So whenever anyone says “Year,” you scream real loud. You know where this is going.)

The King of Cartoons (William Marshall) drops in with a gift for Pee-Wee (two fruitcakes), and Annette starts the cartoon, preceded by a Christmas message from Joan Rivers on the set of Hollywood Squares. The excitement is heightened when a snowfall sends Pee-Wee out to play (after telling Frankie and Annette they can’t join him until they finish making their cards). As he plays, his friend Cowboy Curtis (Laurence Fishburne) stops by, and the two of them listen while the Del Rubio Triplets perform “Winter Wonderland.” Little Richard joins the gang as they go ice skating, but he’s not that good on skates, and has to watch as Pee-Wee demonstrates his own prowess, courtesy of his stunt double, Hans. Everyone goes in for hot chocolate to warm up and listen to a song by special guest k.d. lang, backed up by the Puppet Band. As night falls, Pee-Wee hangs up his giant Christmas stocking(s) amidst those of his friends, then tosses Frankie and Annette bread and water to sustain them as they toil away on the cards. Pee-Wee gets more visitors, more well-wishers, and more fruitcake… even, courtesy of Charo, one in Spanish. Pee-Wee’s friend Mrs. Rene (Susanne Kent) stops in to teach him about Hanukkah and gives him eight days of fruitcakes. Finally, Frankie and Annette finish making the 1000 cards, and are allowed to join the party. Randy, Pee-Wee’s Marionette buddy, seems to have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas, so the Magic Screen shows him a video of a Nativity Play and tells him the story of the first Christmas. “Touched,” Randy gives Pee-Wee a fruitcake. Finally, Pee-Wee leads them to a new wing of the Playhouse where he has a couple of construction workers building walls using the fruitcakes for bricks. As the gang begins caroling, Pee-Wee hears sleigh bells – Santa Claus has arrived! Santa (Aaron Fletcher) pops in and tells Pee-Wee his list was so big that he didn’t have any presents for the other children. Pee-Wee’s friends, with the help of his flashback to Randy, convince him to sacrifice his presents so the other children can have Christmas, and Santa rewards him by inviting him to join him on his sleigh to deliver the presents. Before he goes, Jambi reminds Pee-Wee of his special wish, which he uses to wish for Peace on Earth, a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.

And everybody screams real loud.

 Thoughts: If you were around in the late 80s, and were just at the right age, you might remember Pee-Wee’s Playhouse as something of a phenomenon. It was an odd sort of show. To kids, it was a bizarre, surreal blend of puppetry, animation and sketch comedy that tapped into a primal source of humor for us all, a sort of subversive answer to Sesame Street that seemed to want to use the same tricks, but instead of teaching us to spell and count, taught us to scream real loud. To adults, it was a weird production that was half parody and half celebration of the sort of kid-centered variety show that existed in the 50s and 60s, but was largely extinct by that point. To everybody, it was something that would prove impossible to forget even after Paul Reubens was forced to retire the character in disgrace. (We won’t go there, this is a family countdown.)

As an adult, it’s hard not to look at this and immediately understand that Pee-Wee creator (and performer) Paul Reubens was in this more to entertain himself and the older audience, and any kids who really got into it were just a little extra credit. If you doubt that, look at the guest list for this special. Find one seven-year-old circa 1988 who either knew or cared who Dinah Shore, Charo, or the Del Rubio Triplets were. Come on. I’ll wait. Most of the older guests seem to be wallowing in their own irony – particularly Frankie and Annette, who were riding an irony-fused wave of nostalgia popularity at the time. Only k.d. lang really seems to get into it, performing a wild and ridiculous rendition of “Jingle Bell Rock” that clearly demonstrates that she realizes how crazy what she’s doing is and has decided to just roll with it.

Pee-Wee himself, as a character, is hardly the role model of a Charlie Brown or a Rudolph… or even a Fat Albert. He’s kind of rude at times, openly disdainful of the gifts his friends give him, engages in a weirdly antagonistic back-and-forth with the viewers, and comes across as rather self-centered even at his best. It’s actually part of the reason kids liked him so much, I think – he was a more cynical character and, as a result, a slightly more honest one.

Even the bits that you usually get in a children’s show have a weird sort of twist. The scene where Frankie and Annette make Christmas Cards, for example, is the kind of quasi-education craft segment you’d get in any kids’ show… so why does Pee-Wee look at the former supercouple as if they’ve fallen from another planet? (Because that’s what most kids would do when some grown-up starts rambling about trying to make Christmas Cards with a potato, that’s why.) Perhaps the best “tip,” though, comes when Pee-Wee plays in the snow, and tells the kids at home that they can substitute 20 pounds of coconut shavings if they don’t have any snow at home. You’ve got to wonder how many kids tried to convince their parents to let them give that one a try.

Although this is billed as its own standalone special, even more than many of the others we’ve watched, it feels very much like a longer episode of the TV show. Reubens and his guests engage in most of the once-an-episode bits that we’re all used to from the weekly series, like his journey through the magic screen or his daily wish from Jambi the Genie. As was true for most episodes of the TV show, the plot is loose at best, with Reubens and company instead pinwheeling from one segment to another with no real logic or connectivity beyond the need to discuss Christmas and keep up the running gag about Pee-Wee getting fruitcake after fruitcake instead of real gifts.

It’s entertaining, at least, but perhaps not as much as a lot of the other Christmas specials we’ve watched this month. It has its charm, but Pee-Wee doesn’t really age as well as a lot of the other characters who’ve come together to make our Yuletide merry. Ah well. Perhaps the next cast of misfits will do better.