Wes Craven: Thanks For the Nightmares
As I mentioned here a long time ago, I was not a fan of horror movies growing up. My parents didn’t watch them and didn’t let me watch them either, which was probably for the best, as I was a child with a terribly overactive imagination and a recurring nightmare involving Sweetums from the Muppets. When a friend of mine finally got me to start watching horror movies with him in college, he didn’t start me off with a classic Universal monster, or the demons of The Exorcist, or even the slashers of our 80s childhood. He started me with what was, at the time, the hottest horror movie going. The first horror movie I ever watched all the way through was Wes Craven’s Scream
One of the reasons I’d resisted horror, even after I was old enough to make my own movie choices, was because of the well-known, well-trod tropes of the genre. The idea of the girl running up the stairs when she should have been running for the back door, of the jump scares, the fact that committing certain sins was pretty much a death sentence, the fact that there was always a damned root for them to trip over when they finally did start to run… it was just so… stupid. And Scream, from what I could tell in the trailers, was just more of the same.
Then I saw it.
Yes, it was full of the same tropes as the movies I’d berated, but unlike those other movies, Scream actually recognized it. It used those tropes to its advantage, it reveled in them. Now this was 1996, people didn’t throw around the word “meta” like they do nowadays, but the Scream movies are, in large part, responsible for the popularity of self-aware fiction today. Much of the credit, of course, must go to screenwriter Kevin Williamson. But a lot of it must also be given over to the late Wes Craven, who died this weekend.
Even in my embryonic movie awareness, I knew who Wes Craven was – the Nightmare on Elm Street guy, right? But that meant that, in Scream, he was making fun of many of the same movie tropes he helped to create.
Could he do that?
So I went back and started watching the classic slashers – Jason, Michael, and of course, Freddy, and I saw how much fun they could actually be. A Nightmare on Elm Street in particular was a great experience, because Freddy Krueger was not simply another horror slasher. You could, in theory, escape the likes of Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers – just don’t go to Crystal Lake, or turn around and run the hell out of Haddonfield. Those guys were slooooooow. But despite the title of his movie, Freddy’s realm wasn’t as locked in as those of his contemporaries. Freddy’s stomping ground was your dreams. The one place where you should be the most safe, the most secure… and where you are the most vulnerable… your own bed was where Freddy Krueger attacked you. How do you run from sleep?
I also started to notice how the tropes in the early slashers started to evolve and change – how those things I considered silly had once been terrifying, and only were less so due to years of use, overuse, deconstruction, and inversion. I started to understand how different stories could react and respond to one another, not just in horror, but in all genres. I saw Shakespeare in science fiction, Sherlock Holmes in superheroes, Oz and Wonderland in Ender’s Battle School, and I realized everything was connected to everything else, and I loved that. In a very real way, Wes Craven is responsible for everything I’ve written since that realization, whether it’s my own fiction or my analysis of somebody else’s.
Whether he should be thanked or condemned for that, I leave up to history to decide, but it meant a hell of a lot to me.
This is not to say he was a perfect filmmaker. The Last House on the Left, his debut, is a film whose intensity is hard to take, and made even harder when he tries to break it up with a goofy scene straight out of the Keystone Cops. And I know this is sacrilege in some circles, but I’ve always found The Serpent and the Rainbow to be kind of…well… dull. Still, it’s no coincidence that when I did my very first movie study, I counted not one, but three of his films among the most significant horror movies ever made, more than any other director.
He’s also responsible for what I consider one of the most underrated horror movies of all time, one that breathed new life into a franchise thought dead. So to cap off my little tribute, let me tell you what was so damn good about Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.
A Nightmare on Elm Street was effectively dead. The first movie – written and directed by Craven – was great. The second one – which he had no involvement with – was terrible. They brought him back to write the third film and it was really good again. From there, the law of diminishing returns set in, and each installment was a little weaker than the last, until 1991’s mediocre Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare seemed to put a pin in the iconic boogeyman once and for all.
Then, in 1994, Craven hit us with New Nightmare, and he turned the entire legend of Freddy Kruger on its ear. Set in the “real world,” the world in which A Nightmare on Elm Street is a film franchise and Freddy Kruger its blade-wielding star – the movie reveals an ancient evil given its power and form through human dreams and imagination. The Nightmare movies trapped it in the form of Freddy Kruger and kept it from preying on the real world. But with the movies over, the demon was getting free, and a far nastier version of Freddy was being unleashed onto reality.
Like Scream two years later, New Nightmare was meta before meta was cool. But it tackled the idea of metafiction in a much more direct way than Scream, giving us a darker tale that not only reflected the line between fiction and reality, but blurred it entirely. Robert Englund plays Movie Freddy, “Real” Freddy, and himself in this film. Heather Langencamp, star of the original, came back one more time to show us why she was the greatest Final Girl this side of Jamie Lee Curtis. And Craven himself wrote, directed, and acted in the movie, all to create this odd sense that the division between truth and fantasy was not so clear.
It’s easy to scare someone for a moment. A loud noise, a flash of a blade when you aren’t expecting it, a well-placed musical sting… they all provide a visceral jolt of terror that can be fun. But that sort of terror fades, and quickly. To create something that clings to a person and haunts their very dreams is far more difficult. That’s what New Nightmare was about. It wasn’t just another slasher film, it was a meditation on fear and how we give our fears life. It is, in my opinion, Craven’s greatest movie… and when you consider how many great movies he made, that’s saying a lot.
The amazing thing about Wes Craven, appropriately, is how good he was at keeping you awake at night. I don’t think anyone who loves horror would want it any other way.
Goodnight, Mr. Craven. Sweet dreams.
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.
Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 32: Scream (1996)
Writer: Kevin Williamson
Cast: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courney Cox, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Skeet Ulrich, Jamie Kennedy, Drew Barrymore, Liev Schreiber, Henry Winkler, Roger L. Jackson, W. Earl Brown
Plot: At home alone, a girl named Casey (Drew Barrymore) gets phone calls from a mysterious stranger (voiced by Roger L. Jackson). Although friendly and flirtatious at first, the caller starts to get angry and violent, finally revealing that he’s outside her house and he’s got her boyfriend taped to a chair. He forces her to play a sadistic horror movie trivia game for her boyfriend’s life, but she gets a question wrong (it’s a question that you, dear reader, should be able to answer correctly if you’ve been paying attention to this little experiment) and Steve is slashed. Casey tries to run, but is caught by a cloaked figure in a Ghost-faced mask who stabs her and leaves her dangling in the trees for her parents to find.
The next day we encounter Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), one of Casey’s classmates, who is having trouble dealing with the upcoming one-year anniversary of her mother’s death at the hands of a man named Cotton Weary (Live Schrieber). At school the next day, Sidney’s friend Tatum (Rose McGowan) tells her about the murders, and the media descends upon the campus. Sidney and Tatum’s boyfriends, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) and Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard) are overly enthused about the killings, while their film buff buddy Randy (Jamie Kennedy) mocks their cavalier attitude. That night, the killer calls Sidney, claiming to be outside her house. She is saved when Billy arrives, but when he drops a cell phone, she thinks he’s the killer (remember, kids, this was before every person on the planet had four phones in their pants). Tatum’s brother Dewey (David Arquette), a police deputy, arrives and arrests Billy. As Sidney leaves the police station, she is accosted by Gail Weathers (Courtney Cox), a TV reporter who built her career with a hurtful expose about the murder of Sidney’s mother. Sidney punches Gail and goes to Tatum’s house for the night, since her father is out of town. (What is it with horror movie parents who leave town when their kids are being stalked by murderers? Craven pulled this in Nightmare on Elm Street as well.) The next day, Gail and Sidney are confronted again, Gail espousing her theory that Cotton is innocent of Maureen Prescott’s murder, and further suggesting the new killer is related to her case. Billy, meanwhile, is released from jail when an examination of his phone records proves he didn’t call Sidney that night. As she broods, the killer attacks her at school. She escapes, but Principal Himbry (Henry Winkler) cancels all classes until further notice. Unfortunately, Ghostface doesn’t obey school hours – Himbry is his next victim.
Gleeful over the school cancellations, Stu throws a horror movie party at his house. Just about everybody is there, including Gail and Dewey, watching the place in the news van through a camera they hid in the living room. Tatum goes to the garage for more beer, and winds up encountering – and being killed by – Ghostface. Billy and Sid retreat to Stu’s parents room (again, where are the parents?) and she confesses she’s terrified of turning into a “bad seed” like her mother, who was having an affair with Cotton. As they “make up,” downstairs Randy schools the crowd (and the audience) on the rules of surviving a horror movie:
- Never have sex.
- Never drink or do drugs.
- Never, ever, ever, under any circumstances say, “I’ll be right back.”
Naturally, all the rules are being broken all over the place.
The party empties out as the kids discover Himbry’s death, and Randy is left alone. Upstairs, the killer strikes, stabbing Billy and coming after Sid. She tries to run, but he seems to be everywhere, and she winds up climbing onto the roof and falling to the ground. She flees to the news van, where she and Gail’s cameraman (W. Earl Brown) watch the killer creep up on Randy… then run when he hears Sid screaming 30 seconds earlier. The camera is on a delay – one that turns out deadly for the Kenny the Cameraman. Sidney returns to the house, where Dewey staggers out, a knife in his back. Randy and Stu appear, both accusing the other of being the killer, and Sid locks them out of the house, where Billy is staggering around, bloody but alive. He opens the door, lets Randy in, tosses out a Psycho quote and shoots the film geek. Stu comes in through the side entrance with a voice-changer, and Sid finally realizes the game: Billy and Stu have both been killing, taking turns slaughtering their friends. Billy admits it’s all been a revenge game – Sid’s mother had an affair with Billy’s father, which is why Billy murdered Maureen and framed Cotton, and why he’s targeting Sid now. Stu produces Sidney’s father, tied up, who they’re planning to frame for their crimes, leaving the two of them as the heroic survivors, but they’ve got to injure each other first to make it convincing. Billy stabs Stu too deep, though, and he begins dying of blood loss. Gail arrives with a gun, but she’s forgotten to turn the safety off, allowing Billy to disarm her and knock her out. While the killers are distracted, Sid vanishes. She leaps out wearing the mask, stabs Billy with an umbrella, and then battles Stu, finally smashing his head with a TV showing the finale of Halloween. Gail, Randy and Dewey turn out to be alive, but Billy pops up and attacks again. Gail takes him down, though. This time, she remembers to turn the safety off.
Thoughts: Believe it or not, this is the first film on this entire list that I saw when it was actually a new movie. Like I said waaaaaaaay back in the introduction, I never really watched scary movies when I was a kid. In college, my buddy Jason got me to give them a try, and this was one of the earliest. As such, I didn’t quite know all of the tropes and jokes this film is crammed with. But it shows you just how powerful these elements of storytelling have become that I still got enough of them to not only understand this movie, but really enjoy it.
Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven really did usher in a new era of movies here. After Scream, cinemas were deluged with a new wave of teen horror films and slasher flicks that tried to imitate the rapid fire dialogue and self-referential nature of the movie while completely missing the heart. What they didn’t seem to get is that the filmmakers were doing the greatest kind of parody: the kind made by people who genuinely love that which they lampoon and, at the same time, create a masterful example. The film is full of references to other horror movies (including Wes Craven’s own back catalogue), and contains a now-legendary discussion about the “rules of horror movies” that we’ve been discussing in this project all along. Whether it was Craven or Williamson who’s responsible, the movie is packed with comments about Nightmare on Elm Street, including a Wes Craven cameo wearing a Freddy Krueger mask. Then of course, there’s the greatest Nightmare reference of all: Skeet Ulrich really looks like a young Johnny Depp in this flick.
Craven doesn’t flinch from acknowledging the works of other horror masters, though – the key question in the first scene is a Friday the 13th reference, and The Exorcist’s Linda Blair makes an uncredited cameo as a reporter. We also see numerous Halloween references, including the kids watching that movie on the night of the party, Ghostface giving Sidney a “head tilt” oddly reminiscent of that Michael Myers gives one of his victims in the original film, naming Billy Loomis after Dr. Sam Loomis (who, in turn, was named after a character in Psycho – it’s the circle of life, people) and the highly metatextual exchange when Randy (played, remember, by Jamie Kennedy) yells at Jamie Lee Curtis that the killer is behind her… while the killer is behind him.
Randy, by the way, is a fantastic character. He’s smart, terribly funny, and full of self-referential humor before lesser filmmakers overused it to the point where it’s gotten tedious. Jamie Kennedy was great in this part – what the hell happened to him?
Anyway, back to other horror movies. The problem was, too many of the imitators took Randy’s “rules” as some sort of iron clad set of commandments, and any creativity they may have displayed evaporated. Scream, instead, used those rules as a framework, then layered a particularly clever and rich mystery on top of them. It was a really long time since a horror film succeeded by causing the audience to question whothe killer was or which characters they could trust. This film works as a horror movie that brings in a nice element of comedy as well, but I don’t think it gets the credit it deserves for bringing real mystery back to horror. The fear at the end of the film, during the four-way standoff with Sidney, Randy, Billy and Stu, comes from the fact that Sidney has no idea which of these three boys she can trust (and the totally innocent Randy almost pays for it with his life).
While the body count isn’t enormous in this movie, especially compared to other slashers and gorefests like the Saw films, the kills are really very memorable. Casey’s death was shocking, as the movie was heavily promoted as a Drew Barrymore film and nobody expected her to die in the opening scene, and Tatum’s murder via garage door opener is pretty darn clever. It really makes you want to be careful never to get Kevin Williamson or Wes Craven mad at you.
Ghostface, as a character, is a great addition to the pantheon of horror movie killers. Even though seven different characters have worn the mask in four different movies (as of this writing), it’s almost as if they’re wearing a single character’s entire persona. No matter who Ghostface is, his style of attack is the same, the way he can pop out of anywhere like a damn ninja, the way he takes legitimate damage when his victims fight back but he keeps coming anyway. And the way he never talks in person makes it all the creepier, because unlike Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, you know he can talk. Get him on a phone with a voice changer and he chatters away like a talk show host. But in person, he’s the strong, silent, stabby type.
This film really has one of the great horror movie finales. Lots of movies have a sort of battle of wits in the end between the murderer and the Survivor Girl, but Halloween and Friday the 13th eliminated the pool of potential victims far too early. The great thing about this finale is that once the killer shows up at the party, there are still plenty of people around, and any one of them could be a victim or a murderer. In fact, the only thing that exonerates some of them from being a suspect is getting killed themselves. This, of course, wasn’t the case for Billy Loomis. It’s also notable that the film has a lot more survivors than we’re used to in horror movies. Not only are there two killers, but Survivor Girl Sidney is joined by survivors Gail, Dewey, and Randy. In fact, except for Randy (killed off in memorable fashion in Scream 2, not in a cheap “get ‘em in the first reel” way like I’ve said so many times I hate so much) all of the survivors of this movie have made it four movies into the franchise. That’s got to be some kind of record.
As great a movie as it is, the fact that it was so cutting edge at the time leaves it looking a little dated now. The fact that Billy even had a cell phone was enough to make him a suspect at this point. And of course, the stacks of videotapes (and the fact that Randy works in a video store) both seem kind of quaint already. Plus, y’know… landlines. Phones with cords. Wow. How did we ever live?
Tomorrow we’re going to head overseas for one more trip this month. It was a Japanese film that not only launched an American remake, but a host of imitators and a host of American remakes of imitators. Let’s take a look at Ringu.
Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 29: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Writer: Wes Craven
Cast: Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, Nick Corri, Amanda Wyss, Ronee Blakley, John Saxon
Plot: Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss) is being plagued by a dream in which some maniac with knives on his fingers is stalking her through a boiler room. The next day, she discovers that her friend Nancy (Heather Langencamp) has been suffering from similar dreams. Nancy and her boyfriend Glenn (Johnny Depp) come over that night to make her feel better while she’s home alone, but Tina’s boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri) crashes the party and coaxes Tina into her mother’s bed. Tina falls asleep and is again attacked by the man with the knives in her dream. This time, as she fights him in the dream-world, in the real world her body is tossed about the room, cut and broken, and she dies. Rod, the only witness, flees in terror, but is arrested the next day and charged with her murder. Nancy falls asleep in school the next day, and has a vision of Tina’s blood-covered corpse being dragged around the school in a bodybag. Nancy finds herself in a boiler room, pursued by the man with the knives, who introduces himself as Freddy (Robert Englund). In terror, she puts her arm against a hot pipe, the pain jolting her awake. Freddy attacks her again when she falls asleep in the bathtub, but she again manages to wake up in time. After a third dream-encounter, Nancy and Glenn rush to the police station to visit Rob, but at that same moment he has fallen asleep. Freddy hangs him in his jail cell.
Nancy tells her parents (John Saxon and Ronee Blakley) about the dreams, and they bring her to a doctor who observes her while she sleeps. She has a violent reaction to the dreams, cuts appear on her arms, and a white streak appears in her hair. In her bed, she finds the battered hat Freddy wears in the dreams. She confronts her mother with the hat and the name written in it, Fred Kruger, and Marge breaks down and tells Nancy the truth: Krueger was a child murderer in the neighborhood that escaped justice on a technicality. Marge and the other parents of Elm Street tracked him to his hideout in a boiler room and lit the place on fire, letting him burn to death. Now he’s back, seeking revenge on the children of the parents who murdered him. Marge, heavily drunk, locks Nancy in her house, and she is trapped across the street as Glenn falls asleep and is killed, sucked into his bed by Freddy, and then expelled back into the room as a geyser of blood. Setting up traps around the house, she finally allows herself to fall asleep. She manages to bring Freddy into the real world, where she leads him through her gauntlet of traps and eventually trapping him in the basement – on fire. As her father arrives, Krueger escapes the basement and kills Marge, drawing her blackened, burned corpse into the bed. Her father leaves her alone, and Nancy confronts him one more time. This time, though, she refuses to give in to her fear, breaking his power, and he vanishes. In the morning, we see Nancy and Marge step out into the sunlight as Glenn, Rod, and Tina drive up. Nancy gets into the car, but the top (with Freddy’s distinctive red and green stripe pattern) closes and drives them away.
Thoughts: If you’ll recall, I was less than impressed with Wes Craven’s first entry in this experiment, Last House on the Left. Twelve years later, he more than redeemed himself with this horror classic. Freddy Krueger was a game changer for slasher movies. For the most part, previous films about some madman stalking people were grounded in reality. Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Leatherface and the sort were all human, if a bit hard to kill. It was Freddy that brought slashers into the supernatural, and a large number of the imitators that have come since then have embraced the supernatural elements wholeheartedly. Even some of those psycho killers that preceded Freddy made the switch to supernatural after a few movies, some successfully (Jason Voorhees became a Superzombie in Friday the 13th Part 6 and never looked back), and some not (there have been a few attempts to make Michael Meyers possessed by a demon or some other rot, all of which wound up simply undermining the character).
The modern slasher is often pictured as some maniac killer who dies and returns to a semblance of life in some hate-fueled quest for blood, and this is where that comes from. Even Tim Seeley’s excellent comic book series Hack/Slash uses this as its core – this series focuses on a “Survivor Girl” who gets pissed and decides to start hunting supernatural slashers, many of them creepy enough to stand right next to Freddy or Jason, and on one memorable occasion even encountering the maniacal Chucky from the Child’s Play series. Without this vision from Wes Craven, it wouldn’t have happened.
Also like many other films on this list, we get a great argument for the use of practical effects over CGI. The 2010 remake of this movie tried some of the same gags using computers, and they just weren’t as effective. When Freddy leans through the wall at Nancy, Wes Craven simply had Robert Englund pushing against a rubber membrane to terrifying effect. The remake went CGI, and it looked terrible. The fountain of blood in Johnny Depp’s death scene? Again, something that just wouldn’t look as good with computerized blood as good old-fashioned red corn syrup (or whatever they used).
It’s not just the quality of the effects, though, it’s how creative Craven is at conjuring up images that seem like something that would come straight out of a dream, like the centipede that comes from Tina’s mouth or the stairs melting away beneath Nancy’s feet. Even now, the image of Tina’s bodybag being dragged around the school by some unseen force is among the creepier images I’ve seen in a movie. It’s this kind of imagination that makes the movie work, that and the fact that Craven taps into one of the most primal fears a person could have. Regardless of age, sex, religion, or culture, everybody sleeps, and everybody dreams. That moment when you’re asleep, you’re the most vulnerable, but we survive by knowing that nothing that happens in a dream can actually hurt us. For Nancy and the others, Craven takes away that last bit of security, creating some genuine terror for the characters. Nancy is now living in a world where she has to sleep or go insane, but the moment she falls asleep she knows she can be attacked by a madman.
Nightmare helps to reinforce a great number of horror tropes. The first victim, Tina, dies immediately after having sex: we have slasher-as-morality police. Nancy’s parents don’t believe her at first: the clueless authority figures. Then, it turns out Nancy’s mother knew the truth all along, while her father still resists the truth: the useless authority figures. And then there’s Nancy herself, one of my favorite horror movie Survivor Girls. Sure, Laurie Strode is the prototype, but for my money Nancy Thompson is the character all girls who want to survivor horror movies should aspire to be. Laurie shows guts, but she’s largely reactive. Nancy investigates, hunts the killer, even going so far as to lay traps for him, and when she returns to the series in A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors (the best of the film’s many sequels), she has evolved considerably. She uses her trauma to help other people, and makes the transformation from Hero to Mentor figure, something which very few horror movie characters ever get a chance to do. Even though Nancy dies in that film, she dies with a purpose, escaping that much-hated “survivor dies in the first five minutes of the sequel” plague that hit so many of her peers.
If I may tangent a moment here – the scene of Nancy booby-trapping the house evokes the similar scene Craven used in Last House on the Left. Exactly why Craven saw fit to use such a similar sequence in two different movies, I don’t know, but it works much better here. In Last House it felt silly, reminding me of nothing so much as Home Alone. Here, possibly because Nancy has already proven herself as a true survivor, it works.
Freddy himself breaks the mold of the monolithic, quiet slayers we saw in Leatherface, Michael Meyers, and Jason Voorhees (once he took over his franchise from Mommy). Freddy is a smaller figure, slender, and wiley. He isn’t quite the chatterbox he would become in the sequels, but he’s already taken to taunting his victims – both verbally and physically – as part of his game. And it is a game to him, make no mistake. Michael and Jason are driven to kill by their respective madness. In a way, Freddy is scarier. He kills because it’s fun. Robert Englund raised this character from a one-note killer to a horror legend, the kind of character that took over the franchise and that audiences actually started to root for after awhile. That’s a testament to his skill as an actor and the charm of the character, but whenever someone starts to cheer for Freddy, I feel somewhat compelled to point out that the guy wound up in this predicament in the first place because of that whole “molest and murder small children” thing he had going on there.
I am not, to be honest, a big fan of the ending of the movie. The ambiguity of Nancy’s final confrontation with Freddy doesn’t quite work. We’ve seen other films in this project with ambiguous endings that worked very well – Ash’s final scream in The Evil Dead, or Joan Crawford’s lingering mortality in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? But here we get the feeling that Wes Craven (who didn’t have sequels in mind when he wrote this script) wanted to make it more definitive, and give the film more of a down ending, while the studio (New Line Cinema, which until this point had only been a distribution company and was actually producing its first film) wanted things a bit more open-ended. As a result, we have something that leaves the movie feeling unfinished, and as the second film in the series (in my opinion the worst film in the series) doesn’t touch upon Nancy or her fate at all, except to find one of her old diaries, the audience was left wondering until Craven returned to help write the story for Part 3. And that, frankly, isn’t very satisfying.
Although he made many more horror movies, it’ll be another 12 years before we see Wes Craven turn up in this project again. As for now, the 80s seemed to be the era of things returning from the dead. Aside from Freddy and Jason, the zombie film really seemed to hit its stride in this era, and one of the more memorable of the entries in that group comes up next. Join us tomorrow for Return of the Living Dead.
Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 16: Last House on the Left (1972)
Writer: Wes Craven
Cast: Sandra Cassel, Lucy Grantham, David A. Hess, Fred Lincoln, Jeramie Rain, Marc Sheffler, Gaylord St. James, Cynthia Carr
Plot: Celebrating her 17th birthday, Mari (Sandra Cassel) and her friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) head out to attend a concert, despite the concern of her parents (Gaylord St. James and Cynthia Carr). On the radio, they hear about the prison escape of a rapist and serial killer named Krug (David A. Hess), who has joined up with his son Junior (Marc Sheffler), a psychopath named Sadie (Jeramie Rain) and a child molester and killer called “Weasel” (Fred Lincoln). After the concert, the girls meet Junior, who they attempt to buy marijuana from. Junior leads them into the clutches of the rest of the gang.
The next morning, the gang stuffs the girls into the trunk of a car to take them to their hideout in the woods. On the way, their car happens to break down in front of Mari’s house. As the police try to convince Mari’s parents that kids sometimes need to just “let off a little steam” and that she’ll come home soon, the gang marches the girls out into the woods. Phyllis makes a run for it, instructing Mari to run in the opposite direction, but she’s left with Junior. She tries to befriend him, even giving him the peace medallion her parents gave her before the concert. The gang finally recaptures Phyllis, killing her in a particularly grotesque fashion.
With Phyllis dead, Krug brutally takes his aggression out on Mari. The gang washes up and changes out of their bloody clothes, while Mari’s corpse drifts away. Pretending to be salesmen whose car broke down, they return to Mari’s parents’ home and ask to spend the night. Estelle, Mari’s mother, realizes they’re lying when she sees Junior wearing Mari’s peace medallion. She listens in as the gang talks, then finds their bloody clothes. She and her husband rush into the woods where they find Mari’s body, then come back for bloody revenge.
Thoughts: Wes Craven and producer Sean S. Cunningham – both of whom would go on to father far more memorable American boogeymen – kick things off by immediately embracing the more permissive 70s in this film. Nudity, language, gore – this film absolutely catapults over just about everything we’ve looked at before. In fact, the uncut version of the film was denied an 18 certificate in the United Kingdom until 2002. The exploitation films of the 70s had arrived.
This is where that image of Splatter-Film-as-Morality-Tale really starts to kick in. Why are the girls in town in the first place? They wanted to see a concert by a band that includes the mutilation of animals in their act. Why did they get caught by the criminals? They wanted to buy drugs. It’s debatable whether or not the filmmakers were actually attempting to make a point of some sort, but no doubt it was at least a little easier to convince the censors to accept such a harsh film by convincing them that there was a moral to the story.
Craven worked hard to juxtapose the horror of the story with sweeter scenes and jovial tones. The scenes of Mari’s parents setting up the party could have come from any sitcom of the era, while the music played as the gang transports the girls to their hideout sounds like it belongs in a slapstick comedy, followed by scenes of a babbling brook that belongs in a nature film. All of this just makes what’s really going on all the more horrible by comparison. Then the singing starts… the jolly, cheerful music launches into verses about the gang rambling around, having fun, trying to leave the state, and planning to leave the girls for dead. At this point in the film, the music is the most horrible part. The cops, for the most part, are played for laughs – incompetent, ineffective, and an object of shame. They neglect to investigate a broken down and abandoned car outside of Mari’s home, then hear a description of Krug’s car. When they come back, their own car breaks down, they’re humiliated by a mob in a truck, and even get made fools by a woman carting a truckload of chickens. Trouble is, their scenes are far more pathetic than funny… which may have been the intent, true, but that doesn’t make it any better.
Even some of the harsher scenes aren’t as effective as they could be, and that comes down to production issues – when Mari’s parents discover her body, she’s clearly moving of her own accord, even though she’s supposed to be dead. As Mari’s father begins to set booby traps for the killers, it doesn’t scare so much as remind me of Home Alone. Her mother’s seduction of Weasel smacks of a sex farce, right up until she strikes. The revenge part of the film, the last 15 minutes or so, delivers a little satisfaction, but it’s come at a hard price, and it’s undermined entirely by the return of the goofy musical number in the end credits. It’s hard to look at this movie and believe this was made by the same director who would so effectively blend horror and comedy in Scream over 20 years later. Clearly, in the interim, he learned the error of his ways.
It’s a graphic film in terms of sexual content, but there’s nothing titillating about those scenes – it’s all presented as terror. The girls are scared for their lives, forced into horrible situations while the gang watches and the audience cringes. Phyllis’s murder scene is particularly horrible, as she’s stabbed over and over until the lunatic Sadie actually gets to start pulling her organs out of her body. The zombies in Night of the Living Dead weren’t this gore-hungry, and for the first time, the color makes the blood more shocking than it would have been in black and white.
The film also uses the time-honored technique of pretending it’s based on a true story to shock the audiences. I don’t know how effective this was in 1972 – today I think most sophisticated filmgoers have become inured against such techniques. Even taking horror as a morality play, even playing into the collective fears of parents and teenagers of the early 70s, the movie is trying terribly hard to shock and horrify. The movie helped to make Wes Craven’s name, but it would be later films that made him a name worth remembering. We’ll see him again before this project is over. But this is the first one of his films – and the first film in this project – that I really didn’t enjoy watching at all.
Tomorrow we’ll more on to something I’m more familiar with and have a bit more respect for – The Exorcist.