Last year, you guys may remember that I spent the entire month of October watching and talking about assorted scary movies, chronologically tracing the evolution of horror films from the 1920s up until the present day. I really enjoyed that little project and I think a lot of you did too. And now, as Halloween approaches again, I’m ready to launch the next stage of that project, my new eBook Reel to Reel: Mutants, Monsters and Madmen.
This eBook collects the 35 essays I wrote last year, plus five brand-new ones written just for this collection. Over the course of this book, I look at how the things that scare us have grown and evolved over the last century, dishing on some of the greatest, most influential and most memorable scary movies ever made. This eBook, available now for a mere $2.99, is hopefully going to be the first in a series, in which I’ll tackle different cinematic topics the same way.
If you read the essays last year, check this one out and enjoy the new ones. If you haven’t read any of them, dive in now for the first time. And tell all of your horror movie-loving friends about it as well! After all, the reason I decided to write this book in the first place is because I wanted to read a book like this one, but I just couldn’t find one. The market is out there, friends. Help us find each other.
(And lest I forget, thanks to Heather Petit Keller for the cover design!)
You can get the book now in the following online stores:
And in case you’re wondering, the movies covered in this book include:
*The Golem (1920)
*The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
*The Mummy (1932)
*Cat People (1942)
*The Fly (1958)
*Peeping Tom (1960)
*Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Terror (1962-New in this edition!)
*Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
*The Haunting (1963)
*The Birds (1963-New in this edition!)
*Wait Until Dark (1967)
*Night of the Living Dead (1968)
*Last House on the Left (1972)
*The Exorcist (1973)
*The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
*The Shining (1980)
*Friday the 13th (1980)
*The Evil Dead (1981)
*The Thing (1982)
*A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
*Return of the Living Dead (1985)
*Hellraiser (1987-New to this edition!)
*Child’s Play (1988-New to this edition!)
*The Blair Witch Project (1999)
*The Cabin in the Woods (2012-New to this edition!)
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.
Plot: Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) was once the toast of vaudeville, a child star whose singing and dancing made her famous, while the sales of her lookalike doll made her father wealthy. As an adult, Jane’s star fell and her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) became one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed actresses. Now as old women, the sisters share a house where Jane drinks heavily amidst the memories of her youth and Blanche – confined to a wheelchair following an accident for which Jane is blamed – is experiencing a minor renaissance as her old films find a new audience on television. The relationship between the two sisters is strained to begin with, but grows worse as the mentally unstable Jane begins to torment her sister, taking the telephone from her bedroom and scaring her to the point that Blanche refuses to eat anything Jane brings her, and begins to starve. Jane attempts to restart her career, hiring a piano player (Victor Buono) to accompany her.
Their maid Elvira (Maidie Norman) discovers Blanche in captivity, and Jane murders her. When the piano player stumbles upon the captive Blanche, he manages to flee, and Jane takes her sister to one of the few places she was happy – the beach. There, Blanche reveals to Jane that she was never responsible for the car accident. It was Blanche, trying to run over her cruel, drunken sister, who caused the accident that trapped her in a wheelchair. Jane, stunned at the knowledge that they “could have been friends,” fetches her sister an ice cream cone. When the police stop her on the way back to her sister, a crowd forms, and Jane does what she always did for the crowds… she begins to dance.
Thoughts: This is another entry into that whole “psychological terror” subgenre, the type of film that relies far more on the madness of your villain and the suspense developed by the director to scare you, instead of throwing blood at the screen. In fact, of the two or three genuinely violent acts in this film, I don’t think any of them include so much as a drop of blood. But the film is no less effective for that.
In many ways, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is almost prophetic. How many times have we heard tales of former child stars who were unable to cope with the real world when their fame vanished? How many of them have turned to lives of crime or drugs? How many died so much earlier than they should have as the result of an insane lifestyle they couldn’t maintain into adulthood? I have no idea if such a thing was prevalent in 1960, when the novel was written, but looking at this film today makes it feel almost as though it could be ripped from the headlines. As a rule, I’m against remaking movies that were this good in the first place (although ABC television attempted to do so in the early 90s), but if someone were to transplant this story into the modern day, I think it would hold up just as well.
Much of Jane’s cruelty is verbal. She shouts at her sister, mistreats her, and generally tries to impress upon her that Blanche couldn’t possibly live without her, which the audience knows isn’t true. Blanche has already made plans to sell their house, put Jane into an institution, and hire Elvira to care for her full time. The story carefully upgrades Jane’s madness, beginning with her angry words, then moving up to the memorable scene where she puts Blanche’s own pet parakeet on her dinner plate, then later moving on to a dead rat. That’s when the real violence begins, with Jane serving up a savage beating to her sister when she catches Blanche on the phone to her doctor, trying to summon help, and even further to Elvira’s death. There’s a steady escalation for Jane’s madness that makes it feel very authentic.
For a moment, I was a bit irritated at the end of the movie, which leaves the audience wondering whether or not Blanche survives. As I thought about it more, though, I realize the brilliance in it. Jane is already dangerously unhinged. The question is, what will be worse for her – if Blanche lives, or if Blanche dies? I’m honestly not really sure, and therefore, leaving the question hanging is a clever way to cap the tale.
Like usual, with psychological thrillers, it’s the performances of the actors that make or break the film. Bette Davis received an Oscar for her portrayal of Baby Jane Hudson, and it was well deserved. The way she ricochets from anger to insanity, from a bitter old woman to a scared little girl, is a really masterful work. Crawford, famously, was very bitter over the fact that Davis was nominated and she wasn’t. And in truth, I think she was robbed. Blanche’s character doesn’t allow for the wild array of emotion and terror that Jane does, but Crawford was just as effective at portraying a kind woman who is living a life of eternal penance for her one moment of cruelty. Victor Buono, as the piano player, is a sort of charming cad. His British accent is terrible, frankly, but he really sells the part, as he cringes through Davis’s performance of her childhood signature number “Writing a Letter to Daddy,” then turns right around and pretends he thought it was wonderful.
Some of the influence of this film has been lost – there was a brief glut of films where the villain was an old woman, but that’s mostly dried up over time. (Let’s face it, in Hollywood of the21st century the villains have to be just as sexy – if not more – than the heroes.) This movie isn’t watched or talked about as much as the likes of Psycho these days, but I think it’s right up there as one of the greats in this particular subset of terror.
Tomorrow we’re getting back to the supernatural with perhaps the greatest haunted house movie ever made, the appropriately-named The Haunting.