Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Evil Dead (1981)

Director: Sam Raimi

Before they were evil, they were merely dead. Scores of meandering living-impaired spent their days and nights wandering vacant streets and hollowed out shopping malls to little effect. This time around, they received a ‘roided-out upgrade with a slightly more “evil” demeanor, and a penchant for limb gnawing. Five friends enter a cabin, only one will exit. It’s the zombified cage-match of the century!! Before the sun rises, only one will be left standing… that is, if the sun rises.
Director/writer, Sam Raimi and his fledgling film crew ventured into the woods to film a story about five friends who spend one blood soaked evening in an isolated cabin in rural Tennessee. There they discover the Necronomicon, or “Book of the Dead”, which invokes evil spirits who inhabit the unsuspecting friends one by one. That is, of course, until it’s discovered that the only way to stop these “evil dead” is TOTAL BODY DISMEMBERMENT!! Although, I would argue that simply chopping off a zombie’s legs (or partial body dismemberment, if you will) would render them pretty innocuous, but I guess it’s better to be safe than sorry when dealing with flesh-eaters.
Is it possible to merely appreciate a work of art on its cultural significance and innovation alone, all the while ignoring its content? Of course it is. I’m not accusing Evil Dead of being nothing more than an exercise in shock values, I’m not even sure director Sam Raimi would take umbrage with that, but I do think people tend to tangle the film itself up with the raucous joy of discovering it on home video like a knotted ball of last year’s Christmas lights in their minds. It’s shockingly beyond gory, and ignominiously cheap. But more importantly, most of it works quite well. Bruce Campbell stars as Ashley (known as Ash). Ash is an ineffectual and nominal character until, by process of elimination he’s forced to fight back against his now-possessed chums. The initial discovery and exposition leads to the most eerie moments. As a car packed to the brim with evil spirit fodder approaches the cabin, a tinge of Texas Chain Saw Massacre can be felt when the soundtrack is muted, and the long tracking shot follows the slow-moving vehicle at a safe distance. In the basement of the cabin, the friends discover an old tape recorder, along with the Book of the Dead, which then fills us in on the back story and impetus for the plot. The recorded incantation sends out an RSVP to its demonic guest list, and chaos ensues… and ensues and ensues. During this process, Ash even beheads his own demonic girlfriend, whose neck then pulls an Old Faithful by dousing him with gallons of blood. Of course, a scantily clad female member of the clan heads out into the woods barefoot and alone. There she’s “violated” by the woods itself – let’s just say it gives a whole new meaning to the term “tree hugger.” The effects are top notch for a crew whose main tools were a jar of syrup and Balsa wood. The dead spew Technicolor fluids across the screen in an over-the-top exercise in pushing the limit. Now, the film itself is well-crafted. Raimi’s camera work goes where no camera has gone before, both in what it’s filming and its physical location. The camera is almost a living being here, whether it’s sinking through the floorboards, zooming through the woods, or dangling above the actors. The ambition at times overshoots the capabilities, though. You can see what they were aiming for, but it just doesn’t translate. The stop-motion animation and utter continuity mishaps are examples of this. Ash will get drenched in blood, and in the next scene be nearly dry as a bone. These are minor quibbles, given the big picture. It's gore galore, and never pretends to be anything more.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Halloween (2007)

Director: Rob Zombie

Just imagine goading the original, 1978 Halloween out of its serene pasture and into Rob Zombie’s family owned and operated slaughterhouse, allowing the film to slues through various conveyors and grinders before ultimately splattering onto the silver screen. Sounds catastrophic, right? Believe it or not, most of it sticks. Horror films and comedies are probably the two movie genres least capable of gathering a group consensus among the viewing public. And even further divided are the professional critics. You sort of have to agree to disagree most of the time. Given that, I at least hope people will check this film out before writing it off as “another unnecessary remake,” despite polarized reviews. I can’t defend it too much, but it at least contains some really interesting and effective ideas that show Zombie’s unique, if at times grating sensibilities.

Scout Taylor-Compton is heir to the “Scream Queen” throne and does a descent enough job given her allotted screen time. Scout plays Laurie in the role Jamie Lee Curtis cemented in horror history nearly 30 years ago. This time Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) exploits Michael with a “tell-all” book. Unfortunately, Loomis has even less to do in this film than he did in the original. But the real character here is the new and improved Michael Myers, both young (Daeg Faerch) and old (Tyler Mane). He’s sort of like the Incredible Hulk in this film. His motives also received an upgrade when we find out that he’s come back for the baby sister he spared in his killing spree as a child. The deluge of revamped exposition ultimately leaves you with more questions, though. Michael never really resolves his issues. This is a relief, sparing the audience from some sort of big reveal at the end. The backstory with Michael’s beyond dysfunctional family seems like it would undermine everything the original stood for by defying horror’s golden rule: Less history, more mystery. It fits into the mythos perfectly, but unfortunately, it throws the pacing way off. Still, there are some great moments amid the chaos. One effective scene involves the young Michael munching candy corn in utter silence in his kitchen. It’s sort of the calm before the storm. And my favorite moment features the young Michael sporting the classic mask. Something about seeing that oversized, stoic mask on the little kid’s body as he snuck up on his sister really disturbed me.

Zombie’s affinity for depravity can wear out its welcome at times. It does seem as though every other character is a greasy trucker with the mouth of a sailor who’s just been kneed in the groin. Zombie’s also a big fan of close-ups. This ends up doing a disservice in the absurdly murky and dark visuals in the climax. The geography becomes a little disorienting. At times, I was unclear as to where everybody was, since the houses all look similar, and the rooms within the houses look similar. The compaction of the original’s material leads to some melding of characters and loss of tension. All the actors are hyper-animated. They all hang off each other and launch into voices. It’s like they all just saw Robin Williams on “Inside the Actors Studio” and thought, “Now that’s acting!” Even the parents have a zany answering machine message. I wish they would have toned all that down a few notches. I also couldn’t even remember the names of any other characters, or where or how each one died. I know there was some stabbing and roughhousing, but that’s about all I remember. I didn’t really mind that as much, since Michael Myers is uber-intimidating here. He rams through walls, and shows up on doorsteps in what sound like cheap shock effects, but their simplicity ends up working quite well. Michael is truly a force to be reckoned with in the version. There are times when he bursts through walls, and relentlessly pummels his victims, i.e. the man Michael pounds in the men’s room – ok, that didn’t come out right. Also, keep an eye out for the Texas Chain Saw Massacre shot, which subtly pays homage to this film’s most obvious influence. And is it possible that Zombie actually came up with a more effective and chilling ending than the original? I’ll leave it up to the audience to ultimately decide, but I really loved the very last sequence, which involves a twist on the famous high-dive from the second floor of the Myers’ residence, and a memorable last shot.

Is it perfect? No. Is it a GREAT horror film? Probably not. But revamping a classic horror film is not an easy task, and the road to victory is fraught with pitfalls. If someone is able to retain the elements that work in a film and also able to add to it without bastardizing it, then I would say they have succeeded. Zombie knows how to create those disturbing moments when the soundtrack goes fuzzy, evoking a sense of ringing ears, and let the images speak for themselves. You may feel like squirming in you seat a little at these moments (that’s kind of the point), but unlike the popular “torture porn” films, we’re left to decide how we want to feel as opposed to parading the deaths in front of us to relish in. I still think Zombie’s best work is yet to come, but I think he pulled this film off in a way no one else could have. And I was prepared to hate a re-imagined, backstory-laden, modern day horror flick. Sorry, Rob. Can you blame me? I mean, did you see Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning??!!

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Halloween (1978)

Director: John Carpenter

Who would have guessed that a bloody knife and a worrisome babysitter would transform the multiplexes into amusement parks? John Carpenter for one. His low-budget, genre-defining, eardrum-shattering masterpiece gave futile hope to hack filmmakers who went to the theaters and slyly jotted down in their notepads things like “knife”, "blood", "teen", “girls”, “breasts”, “sex”, “unstoppable killer”, “screaming”, and “Donald Pleasence” without realizing a true mouthwatering horror treat depends more on its chef than on its ingredients.

Jamie Lee Curtis is known as the “Scream Queen” among fright fans, probably not for the amount of screams, but for the sheer volume of them. Curtis plays Laurie Strode. Laurie’s a naive, goodie-good teen who’s being stalked by a masked figure. That figure is, of course, Michael Myers. Michael is an escaped mental patient who heads home to continue his mass murdering tradition he began so many years ago. The appeal and fun of Halloween is its simplicity(even its title is simple and to the point). Even as a kid, when I would see it on TV, I knew exactly what point in the story it was at. If Laurie was happy, it was the beginning. If Laurie gave worrying glances, it was the middle. If the teens were having sex, the killing was imminent. And if that bald guy was talking, it’s time to go get a snack. Even if you haven’t seen the film, you could probably guess what it’s about. A killer stalks a babysitter. So then, if it sounds so average, why is it so damn good? First off, it was the first of its kind. So, on a historically significant level, it’s revolutionary. But I want to focus more on the film itself. I enjoy Halloween every time I see it, and not in a comically cheesy sort of way either (at least not ENTIRELY on that level). It’s just fun, plain and simple. Laurie’s so naive, you’ll expect her to walk up to Michael and politely ask him to please stop trying to murder her. The claustrophobic and atmospheric canvas adds a great deal. It’s Halloween time in the film and it evokes that season perfectly with its hollow and crisp starkness as well as evoking that classic "urban legend" feeling that taps into your subconscious just when you thought you were too old to have a subconscious. Every neighborhood had that house everyone was afraid to go near. The story of a very young boy walled up in an insane asylum after slaying his babysitting older sister is not entirely ridiculous, but just unsettling enough to be genuinely effective and familiar. You’re not really scared, but you desperately want to see what will happen next. Even though, as I pointed out earlier, the formula is so simple that it shouldn’t raise this much interest on its own.

Another thing that helps the film greatly is the killer himself. Michael Myers is a ridiculously simple but effective menace – a masked man who wants to stab anyone in his immediate vicinity. He’ll at times stand outside Laurie’s house in the middle of the day like he forgot his keys and got locked out. Michael never says a word in the film. He exists only to kill. His omnipresence stretches the bounds of relative believability, but never leads the film down a disappointing path. In the end, that’s what makes Michael so intimidating. You can’t reason with him. You can’t find his weakness. You can only try to get out of his way. Halloween needs no explanation. Take it for what it is and it’s a hell of a ride.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

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

Director: Renny Harlin

Following the standard “good, bad, good, bad” sequence of films in this series, we now find ourselves deep within the chasm of the “bad” section of this particular frequency. I should have known that this film wouldn’t work. Even putting aside that Renny(Deep Blue Sea) Harlin is at the helm, on paper it amounts to nothing more than a losing lotto ticket. The remaining “Elm Street Kids” return, one of whom is played by a different actress, and the rest of the kids have nothing to do in the story. Joey and Kincaid from the first film are quickly dispatched as though they were merely a nuisance to the screenwriter. They appear in the film so that there can be a quick handoff to another set of dopey teens. It would have been better to just start fresh. The success of the previous film, however, anchored this film with a set of unnecessary plot "requirements".

Kristen (Tuesday Knight, yes that’s her real name) and her friends notice that nightmares are quickly becoming the latest trend among teens at their high school. Here, Kristen is friends with a daydreaming chick named Alice (Lisa Wilcox). There’s a Karate Kid reject named Rick (Andras Jones), who also happens to be Alice’s brother. There’s also a chick named Debbie (Brooke Theiss) who’s straight out of the 80's with her huge, hair sprayed chrome-dome hairdo, and purple workout leotard. And let’s not forget the token-iest nerd this side of Urkel, named Sheila (Toy Newkirk). Let’s see, Sheila has huge glasses, overalls, a love for technology, an inhaler… I know I’m forgetting something. Let’s just say she would have a better life expectancy as a drummer for Spinal Tap. First, Freddy needs to be awaken from his slumber to get this ball rolling. In Kincaid's nightmare he finds himself in the junkyard from the previous film. Freddy returns from the dead when Kincaid's dog pees a stream of fire onto his grave. I can't believe I just typed that. Anyway, Kincaid is the first to die. Next, Joey meets his demise when his fantasy about a pin-up girl on his wall turns deadly. The girl appears swimming in his now translucent waterbed, and Freddy pops up out of the water in homage to the young Jason in the first Friday the 13th film. Two down, one to go... or so it seems.

Kristen is now the only Elm Street Kid left, and her boozed up mother drugs her secretly to help her get some sleep. In the resulting dream, Kristen calls out to her friend Alice in a last ditch effort. Alice had previously told Kristen about the "Dream Master." Apparently, you can control your dreams if you recite a certain rhyme. Pulling Alice into the dream is of course a dumb idea, and now Alice is added to the deadly mix -- guilt by association, I guess. Kristen is tossed into the boiler furnace and killed, but not before she magically, and literally passes her powers to Alice. The powers pass through Freddy, and he now has a new employer. Alice wakes up, and now she’s the new “last girl.” That was a long way to go in order to set this story up. It's like they would rather sail around South America, than use the Panama Canal. Alice mistakenly pulls HER friends into her dreams and they become Freddy’s newest buffet of victims. He wants to keep Alice alive, however, in hopes of using her to pull many more victims into her dreams for Freddy to devour. Of course, Alice wants no part of this. It at least makes the story a little more interesting, and solves the question of why Freddy never kills the main girl, despite numerous opportunities. Unfortunately, it also excludes Alice from the drama, and uses the “loved one in peril” device to create a less than thrilling climax. First, Debbie, the 80’s chick, gets squashed in a roach motel after turning into a bug herself. Rick goes a few rounds with Freddy in a dojo, before losing the bout… and his life. The dweeby Sheila sucks face with Freddy, and is literally deflated. Here’s an interesting twist: Alice is endowed with powers from her friends after they die. She gets techno-smarts from Sheila, karate abilities from Rick, and I guess she just got Debbie’s fashion sense. Alice also teams up with the dreamy jock, named Dan (Danny Hassel). Dan had been eyeing her through most of the movie, and was apparently just waiting his turn to step into the action. Now, Freddy cranks it to eleven and goes after Dan. Dan is injured in a car wreck and is taken to the hospital, where he insists on not being put under in fears of entering dreamland. While all this is going on, Alice gears up in one of the most ridiculous scenes in all of Freddydom. In her room, she suits up with a leather jacket, chains, and spikes, and whatnot, various weapons (including nunchucks) and gadgets, and gives a few sly looks into the mirror. I thought I was in a nightmare at that point. Freddy and Alice wage a lame and forgettable war in a church. The thing that ultimately subdues Freddy is when Alice recites the entire “Dream Master” rhyme that she tried to teach Kristen oh so many scenes ago. Freddy is ripped apart from the inside by all of his victims. Alice wakes up and Dan recovers. The two walk by a fountain and Alice tosses a coin in to make a wish. Freddy’s reflection can be seen briefly as the water ripples. The two then walk off, and the shrill 80's soundtrack pounds through the speakers.

Yeah, it’s THAT bad. The arbitrary ties to the previous film make the story seem like one of those kids in high school who thought he would be cool if he just hung in the vicinity of the cool kids. They should have just gone off and done their own thing. The deaths are imaginative, but opt more for the gross-out factor than using a psychological, nightmarish touch. Freddy’s personality is growing, as he tosses verbal barbs with much aplomb at his victims. The franchise seems to be out of steam, though. Is it a bad sign when the characters in the film get stuck in a time loop, and I didn’t even notice that the scenes were actually repeating themselves at first? I would say, “Yes.” At that point in the story I think I had just given up. The characters are brainless and would better be described as “fashion victims” than “Freddy’s victims.” Lisa Wilcox is hot in the role of Alice, however. She makes a better “last girl” than the replacement Kristen. The whole film is a half-hearted attempt, and ultimately drowns in its own tepidity. The atmosphere drove right past terror and went straight to over-the-top, goofy camp. Whereas the first film made people afraid to go to sleep, this film will make them afraid to go to the video store.

Best Death: Totally 80's chick gets turned into a bug and squashed in a Roach Motel.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)

Director: Chuck Russell

“Director” Jack Sholder had simultaneously been chatting on his cell phone, reading the newspaper, reprogramming the radio, and scarfing down a Big Mac moments before just falling asleep entirely while behind the wheel of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 when Wes Craven decided enough was enough, shoved Sholder out of the moving vehicle, and vowed he would from that moment on always keep the keys to his precious franchise in a safe and secure location. A dazed and disoriented Jack Sholder would later be quoted as mumbling, “Wuh hoppun?” when he eventually regained consciousness weeks later in a ditch on a lonely stretch of highway. Unlike Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street wasn’t ready to succumb to the temptations of the obvious 3rd film in 3-D gimmick. No, they had enough will power to hold out until the 7th film in the series. Hey, they tried. However, they did use the popular “let’s all pretend that the previous film never happened” vow of silence when penning this particular script. At any rate, a re-enlivened, back-to-basics approach to A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors makes this edition to the franchise almost tolerable. Umm... Hooray!?

Kristen (Patricia Arquette) will be Freddy’s new adversary. She’s a tossing and turning, gifted teen who encounters Freddy in her feverish nightmare. When she awakes she finds that she’s sporting a pair of slit wrists, which her boozy mother attributes to a suicidal cry for help. Kids today with their “iPods” and “hoodies”, and “suicide attempts”… don’t get me started. Once in the hospital/asylum, Kristen encounters a fellow band of sleep-wary teens. There’s a “rebel without a clue” chick named Taryn (Jennifer Rubin), a fat black kid named Kincaid (Ken Sagoes), a mute Dawson’s Creek reject named Joey (Rodney Eastman), and a standard-issued, bespectacled and be-wheelchaired, token D&D dweeb named Will (Ira Heiden).Tossed in for good measure are a young Lawrence Fishburne as a hip orderly, and a few other ancillary dopes that are merely fish in Freddy’s barrel. Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) returns as a grad student who’s familiar with the childrens' mysterious symptoms. God bless Heather for being a good sport, but in this role she looks more like a young girl wearing her mommy’s business suit as she “studies” the patients. The patients are the children of those who burned Freddy alive in what feels like 20 movies ago. Together, they are the last surviving “Elm Street Kids,” or, for purposes of this film, “The Dream Warriors.” With the help of Nancy and one of those “skeptical, but eventually enlightened” characters in the form of the psychiatrist/Nancy’s vague love interest, Neil (Craig Wasson), the team of kids uses group hypnosis to defeat Freddy as a team by using their “dream powers." Kristen’s powers include being a super-tough gymnast/fighter, and having the ability to enter and exit the nightmares at will. In dream land, Will is the magical “Wizard Master” (a deviously clever name used to prevent litigious corporations from finding similarities between it and the copyrighted “Dungeon Master”). He also looks a little like Harry Potter if you squint. The other dreamland alter-egos are as follows: Kincaid is super strong, and Taryn is a switch-blade swinging, punk-rocker chick with a “Savage Dragon” inspired Mohawk. Joey just has a super loud voice… I guess.

Meanwhile, Freddy has been dispatching the b-list characters. A girl who wanted to be “on T.V.” gets her head smashed into an actual TV that grew arms and a neat Freddy head. Joey wanders into Freddy’s path when he’s lured by a sexy nurse who felt that topless was the best clothing choice. Joey gets tied to the bed with the nurse’s tongue. Get it? He was “tongue tied.” Freddy now has a witty remark to go with every death. He’s growing into the classic killer that he eventually settles into. Joey actually survives this initial encounter and is held captive until the climactic rescue. Freddy turns a kid into a human marionette before snipping the strings and sending him plummeting off the asylum roof. After all that, we get the most inspired exposition these films have ever offered. Neil encounters a ghost-like nun wandering about the asylum. She gives the ghastly details of Freddy’s conception. Freddy’s mother was an employee who got accidentally locked in the asylum for several days. Within those few days she saw more action than Paris Hilton on a bender. She was tossed around from psycho to psycho; each one having his way with her. Freddy’s conception was the result of this perverse game of Russian Roulette. Here’s where the best line of all Nightmare on Elm Street films is uttered by the somber nun. She sums up Freddy thusly: “He was the bastard son of a hundred maniacs.” Beat that, Jason!

The last act has Nancy’s father re-entering the series to divulge the location of Freddy’s remains. The nun told Neil that Freddy needs a proper burial. Neil and Nancy’s father head off to the dump, where many years ago Nancy’s father and the other angered parents of Elm Street hid Freddy’s remains. Simultaneously, Kristen is sedated, and the team of dream warriors heads into dreamland to rescue her. Taryn and "wheelchair boy" are dispatched first. Will gets run over by his own wheelchair, and Taryn get two handfuls of hypodermic needles to the arms. In the dump, Nancy’s dad and Neil battle a Jason and the Argonauts-style Freddy skeleton that the parents had locked in the trunk of a Cadillac for some reason. Remarkably, after all these years, the Cadillac AND Freddy's skeleton are still there. And on top of all that, Nancy’s dad still remembers the exact location of the car in this supposedly gigantic junkyard. Eventually, Neil gets Freddy's lively skeleton into a grave that they dug, and douses it with holy water. Once that’s done, Freddy fades out of the dreamland, and Joey, Kincaid and Kristen all survive the ordeal. But not before Nancy takes the BIG sleep. Freddy offs Nancy, but by this point it doesn’t really make an impact. At Nancy’s funeral, the nun makes another appearance. Before Neil can catch up to her, she vanishes behind a headstone. And what name do you suppose is on that headstone? Yes, it was that of Freddy’s mother, Amanda Krueger.
This film was meant to be the cap on the Nightmare on Elm Street series. Wes Craven came back to write an unusually interesting backstory, and a refreshingly new take on battling Freddy to end it all. Needless to say, it wasn’t that last film of the series. Interestingly, this is the first film in the series to use the fictional nightmare suppressant "Hypnocil", which will pop up later in Freddy vs. Jason as a major plot element. Despite its problems, I still enjoyed this film. It has everything you need for an enjoyable horror flick. It’s not as good as the original, which comes as no surprise, but it’s also much better than the second film, Freddy’s Revenge, which also comes as no surprise. If you’ve heard tales of these films and want a good introductory course, make sure you see this film and the first one. Each one uses the seamless blending of nightmare and reality in different but equally effective ways. This film definitely gets proportionally goofier as its ambition constantly outweighs its capabilities, but at least it's a descent effort. Freddy now has something to say, and the death toll rises gradually. I’ve said before that Freddy’s killing technique involves quality not quantity. So, the pattern is set. The films will go: good, bad, good, bad. That is, until Wes Craven stops leaving this franchise unlocked on the street for homeless people to sleep in.

Best Death: Girl gets her head smashed through a TV/Freddy hybrid.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

Director: Dario Argento

Dario Argento bursts onto the filmmaking scene with this suspenseful crime thriller that ultimately delivers what it promises. Tony Musante plays Sam, an American writer trapped in Italy after witnessing a brutal and bloody attack on a young woman. The assailant turns out to be a serial killer whom the police are frantically trying to apprehend, and Sam attempts to recall events or details that will aid in the killer’s capture. Sam and his girlfriend are subsequently stalked by the killer for knowing too much. Sam also engages in some detective work of his own, and heads down several dead end paths. At least they appear as dead ends at first. The killer looks like a Spy vs. Spy character, garbed in a stereotypical black hat and black trench coat. The killer also has a spooky, whispery voice, and brandishes a large knife that leads to gallons of spilled blood, which Argento fans will lovingly embrace.

The whole story is an effective thriller, which actually fills in areas of its plot that seem at first to be plot holes. The whole film looks beautiful (another Argento hallmark) and its story never drags. The red herrings aren't cheap attempts at yanking the audience around, and actually serve a purpose. The endings are always the hardest to do in a murder mystery, obviously because that's what the whole thing's about. Any reveal isn't nearly as fun as trying to figure it out on your own. This reveal actually makes sense (in that movie murder mystery type of way) and will please fans rather than frustrate them. And yes, there is a bird with crystal plumage that actually figures into the plot. Sam ultimately remembers a crucial detail about the killer when the plot calls for him to simply remember so that they can wind up the story. But it's acceptable, since Sam's recollection coincides enough with the actual reveal so as not to be a crucial or pivotal moment on its own. Flashbacks ensue and we see what Sam saw. And like Sam, we probably missed the detail that they did actually show in the earlier scene. All these elements sound simple, and yet they add up to a far more entertaining ride than the overblown rip-offs it would inspire. Each scene advances the plot and leads to the next twist. Several interesting characters, whose motives are never what they seem, help the film from growing old after about a half hour. This more straightforward murder mystery story proves that Argento not only was adept at utilizing supernatural elements, but could create genuine tension within a standard thriller premise that would make Hitchcock proud.

The Exorcist III (1990)

Director: William Peter Blatty

Audiences will recognize the director of this film, William Peter Blatty, as the author of the original Exorcist. Apparently he thought directing didn’t look so hard and hopped behind the wheel in an effort that shows promise, but is ultimately weighed down by a shameless need to inform clueless theater-goers. George C. Scott plays Lt. Kinderman, who’s investigating the reemergence of serial murderer known as "the Gemini Killer." The story is set in Georgetown and takes place 15 years after the original film's events. In a brilliant stratagem (which they stole from me), they pretend that the previous sequel (The Exorcist II: The Heretic) never existed, and carry on their merry storytelling way. The star, George C. Scott looks a little too weary to carry this film. He’s aging and tired throughout the picture, and that makes it hard to watch. Scott is an undeniably great actor, but here he looks like he's a few years past retirement and a little out of place. Sort of like his management team set the whole thing up as a "comeback role," and Scott wandered onto the set of this film on the first day of shooting and shrugged his shoulders in an "I give up" mannerism from the get-go. Father Karras returns as a near catatonic mental ward patient. I won’t get into the details of why he’s still alive (mostly because I can’t remember), but I guess the devil moved in just as Karras’s soul lost its lease. Could the new Gemini killer be the possessed Karras, or the original killer back from the dead? Is it a copycat killer, or is the devil subcontracting through various street urchins and mental patient lackeys?

The bodies of the killer’s victims turn up in several religiously-themed, funny (not “ha ha” funny) positions. The hospital is the main set piece and does offer some genuinely spooky moments. There’s also that same old mental ward we’ve seen a thousand times, wherein the psychopaths and mentally damaged share residence as they wander around free of structure or surveillance. Do these wards really exist? There’s a truly memorable scene where it’s done in a single shot that goes on for several minutes. The camera remains at the end of a long and vacant hospital hallway, where a nurse pokes around after strange noises. This extended scene’s climax features the killer lunging out of a doorway at the nurse with a pair of giant amputation scissors. The killer is draped head-to-toe in hospital sheets, and it’s all witnessed from the end of the hallway. It seems like a simple scene, but the mood and filming technique make it feel as though you’re witnessing an actual murder. Of course, there’s the contractually obligated exorcism scene at the end, and it looks like Satan’s plans are foiled once and for all. This film makes the mistake of using pages and pages of mind-numbing exposition as to what the devil’s plans are. They even go into the rules of body transference and what’s needed to operate a body, and so forth. The original Gemini killer got the electric chair several years ago, but not before the devil left HIS body and entered Karras’s, but not before Karras’s brain began to deteriorate, and now the devil needs yet another new body -- Bo-ring! The devil’s plans and powers will always come across as silly and innocuous when you get into the details of them. However, I will say that the film does offer some truly spooky visuals and effectively scary shock effects. The actors and the script both seem tired and played-out. The Gemini killer/devil/whatever gets way too much screen time, and so does the star/stand-in, George C. Scott. I would definitely recommend this film over The Exorcist II: The Heretic, but I would also recommend a root canal over The Exorcist II: The Heretic. Blatty shows potential as a director here, but sadly exorcised his knack for tension as a writer before filming. The power of Christ may compel you... this film will not.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Simpsons Movie (2007)

Director: David Silverman


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Ghost Rider (2007)

Director: Mark Steven Johnson

Watching Nicolas Cage in this role is like watching a child gleefully play with an empty box. At first, it’s cute. After about a half hour, you might get a little worried and start periodically checking on him out of the corner of your eye. But after two full hours, you’d want to snatch that box up and hide it in a locked closet forever. Cage was originally the frontrunner to play Superman in the character’s next big-screen incarnation a few years ago. After those negotiations fell through, he did the best he could with his consolation prize, Ghost Rider. I don’t want to be hard on Nicolas Cage, who appears on screen to be going through some sort of mid-life crisis. I DO, however, want to be hard on Ghost Rider as a hole. And no, I didn’t use the wrong “hole” there. Ghost Rider is an H-O-L-E hole; a bottomless pit; a tourist trap designed to attract slack-jawed yokels who inevitably use it as their own personal trashcan and/or outhouse.

Johnny Blaze (Cage) is a rich and famous Evel Knievil-style stunt motorcyclist. Even though Johnny’s rich and famous, he still lives a bad part of town, probably in an effort to stay in touch with “the people.” You know, the same people who will undoubtedly mug him at knife or gunpoint as soon as he ventures out to get some milk. Eva Mendes’ cleavage plays Johnny’s misguided love interest, Roxanne. As a boy, Johnny sold his soul to the devil, Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda), in exchange for his father being healed of cancer. Unfortunately, Johnny’s father dies the following day performing a motorcycle jump. Man, if you can't trust the Devil, who can you trust? Reeling and heartbroken, Johnny leaves his carnival stunt-riding career and childhood girlfriend, Roxanne, in the dust as he takes off for an uncertain future alone. With a devil on his shoulder, Johnny has, over the years, received fame and glory for his risk-taking stunts and unbelievable luck. That’s where the villains come in. A vampire-ish demon named Blackheart (Wes Bentley) has come to Earth with three super-powered cronies in tow. Defecting from the Devil (which arguably could be considered good), he sets out to find an ancient scroll, which turns out to be a contract. Maybe it’s Nicolas Cage’s contract. If so, burn it!! With possession of the contract, Blackheart hopes to create “hell on Earth.” Instead, he creates hell on screen. It sort of undercuts the villain’s supposedly immense power when he can’t even find a sheet of paper. The Devil now enlists Johnny to become his next "Ghost Rider" in order to stop Blackheart, since the Devil's powers are weakened on Earth -- just go with it. He does this even though Ghost Riders have a reputation for being less than model employees. The story is like something out of a lame action flick (minus the action) at this point. The contract has no significance other than to be a physical representation of the plot. There's the plot over there!! Let's go!! Now the villain has the plot! Let's go over there!! Now Ghost Rider has the plot!! Let's go back that way!!

The cops in this movie are always after Ghost Rider… and with just cause. The guy’s an asshole. He destroys property left and right, like a flaming bulldozer careening through the streets. He attacks the police officers before they even get a chance to do anything. Shouldn’t the “hero” be falsely accused or something like that, so that we can empathize with him and be thrilled when he’s ultimately vindicated? I was rooting for the police in this movie. Get that psycho-moron off the streets! Can you imagine waking up the next morning and seeing your smoldering wreck of a car overturned outside your house, and the cause of it was Ghost Rider. Well, if it was damaged in an epic battle between good and evil, wherein Ghost Rider was in the midst of saving the planet, I guess it’s acceptable; collateral damage, right? Unfortunately, Ghost Rider inadvertently destroyed your vehicle while he was simply screwing around on his motorcycle. Turns out Ghost Rider is no different than a drunken uncle. Ghost Rider’s main superpower is his “Penitence Stare,” wherein he gazes into the eyes of criminals and makes them see and feel the pain their victims experienced. Although that may sound good on paper, on screen it’s hard to make a staring contest into an exciting action sequence. The action is non-existent in an almost criminal way. They introduce the baddies, who have superpowers relating to the elements (i.e. a water guy, and an air guy), but can't figure out how to use them. These characters could engage in some really interesting and thrilling battles now that special effects have become nearly immaculate in today’s films. Even in today’s box office bombs, you can still marvel at their flawlessly integrated visuals. Ghost Rider is geared towards those with Attention Deficit Disorder, though. During the action scenes, they forget a crucial element: we need to know where everything and everyone is in relation to everything and everyone else. Zoom out, for the love of God! Ghost Rider looks cool, but is he fighting a villain off screen or sorting papers? I can’t tell… I see his shoulder moving.

The big, all-encompassing problem Ghost Rider has is that it’s ridiculously one-dimensional. Johnny and Roxanne’s relationship starts and stops without any prompting. They’re together. Johnny leaves for several YEARS. They meet up again and arrange dinner. Johnny stands her up. She falls in love with him. As kids, they carved their initials into a giant tree in a field (you heard me), and that even figures into the final scene. I really thought I’d seen the last of that tree. Johnny’s got a chubby, comic-relief sidekick (Donal Logue), an elderly and wise mentor (Sam Elliot), and lame villains who wander through the movie like lost children in a shopping mall. Ghost Rider's catch-phrases are interchangeable with those of any other generic superhero. Johnny finds out that he can control his powers and other general plot crap by reading some of the most coherent Biblical texts that have ever existed. Also, the humor is so flat that it’s translucent. I’d like to present to the court exhibit A: When Johnny stands Roxanne up at a restaurant, Roxanne consults a “Magic Eight-Ball” that she pulls from beneath the table (who is she, Carrot Top?), gulps down gallons of wine, and asks the waiter if he thinks she’s pretty. Are these jokes? I couldn’t tell. The humor on display in this film is so bizarre, wherein the jokes raise multiple questions instead of eliciting laughter. I don’t think these could even be considered jokes. They’re more like dramatic reenactments of jokes. This is a bad movie, and I didn’t even get into Peter Fonda playing the Devil. This movie works better as a poster. I wish I could use that nifty little "Penitence Stare" trick on writer/director Mark Steven Johnson. Then maybe he would experience the torment and agony he caused those who actually sat through this film. Guilty!!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

I Bury the Living (1958)

Director: Albert Band

Although it may end up feeling like an episode of Scooby Doo, this film does a descent enough job of following through on a standard, paint-by-numbers horror story to create an interesting experience. Robert Kraft (Richard Boone) recently took over management duties of the local cemetery. Eventually, Robert learns the chilling secret that he can control who will be the next to die by sticking pushpins into the giant cemetery plot map. The rest of the story plays out like a wannabe Hitchcock film or a better than average Twilight Zone episode, and although it probably won't surprise you, it may at least hold your interest.

Richard Boone (as Kraft) isn’t exactly the tortured soul he's needed to be for this role and ends up bottling up his acting for a few choice scenes towards the end, where in which he runs frantically around the cemetery while flailing his arms like Jerry Lewis. The art direction peeks out from behind the corner every now and then so as not to get in the way, but to punctuate the more suspenseful scenes to descent effect. Right off the bat, Kraft realizes that if he replaces the white pins (indicating a reserved burial plot) to black pins (indicating an occupied plot) on the giant cemetery map, the people he picks at random begin to turn up dead the next day, fulfilling the prophecy so to speak. This leads to a series of experiments performed by Kraft in hopes of proving this horrific concept to all those around him. In turn, they all keep reassuring him he's nuts. You'd think it would be easy to prove, and it sort of was for Kraft. The deaths are always chocked up to coincidence, however, and by taking place in a relative short amount of time, it becomes a sort of believably isolated story. The almost literal interpretation of the title is almost sure to lead to disappointment in the end. The ending itself turns out to feel tacked on, and doesn't fully fill in all the plot holes. Honestly, a lot of it is dull. I mean, there are only so many times I can watch the camera zoom in on a pushpin stuck on a map as the dramatic musical cue pounds through the speakers -- Bum Bum Buuuuuum!!!!!! The second half of the film is about 10 times better than the first half, as is the case with a lot of old-school thriller flicks. The set-ups take way too long because they're shamelessly crammed with totally uninteresting dialogue and exposition. That's where you'd find lines like, "I can't believe I just inherited this cemetery." Though, once that's all out of the way, I Bury the Living does hold its own. Of course there's the whole "ending" problem. Basically, there's a segment in this movie that starts about halfway through, and ends before the "big reveal" that works. I guess that's not exactly a shining endorsement.

Once the rest of the cast is brought in to trade opinions on Kraft’s alleged “death curse,” the movie gets considerably better. A rational approach is taken towards dissecting what's really going on when the cops are brought in, and the characters realistically discuss what's happening out in the open. All together, they try to sort out the seemingly coincidental deaths, which turn out to be more than just mere coincidences. Kraft's skeptical friends and co-workers are willing to test fate, and mockingly persuade Kraft to try his nifty little trick on them. Eerily, they begin to drop like flies in probably the best section of the film, and Kraft spends an inordinate amount of time sitting in his little office at the cemetery, sweating it out on the phone as he gets the bad news of each friend's demise. It’s hard to recommend this movie, since it’s obviously not the thriller it aspires to be. There are about two locations and several sleepwalking actors. The finale, where the big "secret" is revealed, is strangely similar (art direction and staging-wise) to the ending of Hitchcock’s Psycho, which came out two years later (note the swinging light fixture casting moving shadows on the spooky setting and characters). Without strong acting or a rewarding ending, this film is easily forgettable and will probably find itself buried in film history forever. Besides, if you've ever taken a writing course of any sort, you've probably scribbled a similar (if not better) story outline in your spiral notebook before eventually scratching it out or doodling over it once you came to your senses. I Bury the Living probably deserves to be doodled over.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Body Snatcher (1945)

Director: Robert Wise

Boris Karloff is a great actor. That may not come as a surprise to a lot of people, but I was used to seeing him as the lumbering Frankenstein’s monster or the Mummy. He was a great Frankenstein’s monster. In fact, he IS Frankenstein’s monster. But when he’s actually given lines to work with and not buried beneath pounds of make-up, he’s able to freak you out even when he doesn’t have bolts glued to his neck or isn't wrapped head to toe in bandages. This film proves he had range. The Body Snatcher is a suspenseful, dark tragedy (based loosely on real life events) that was handed over to Karloff as a perfectly wrapped present, which he was eager to feverishly unwrap. When Val Lewton opted to expand Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story of the same name about grave robbers into a feature film, he must have had a lot of confidence in his rag-tag production team. Directing duties were handed off to Robert Wise (Wise had previously co-directed The Curse of the Cat People, but this film is remembered as his first solo effort), who proudly leans back and puts his feet up enough for the performances to create an eerie and dark mood all by themselves.

The setting is 1831 Edinburgh, Scotland. The town is a series of claustrophobic sets that look less than impressive, and are scarcely populated. The story begins when a young paralyzed girl arrives with her mother to seek medical attention for her ailment. The two arrive at the estate of Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) and his new assistant, Donald Fettes (Russell Wade), but are turned down for an operation due to Dr. MacFarlane’s understaffed facility. If he treated her, he would have to treat everybody who came in, leaving no time to teach his students in the hopes of furthering medical research. This slightly contradictory notion is one of many that permeate throughout the story. This film’s script would resonate today due to its remarkable similarities to the controversial Stem Cell debate -- destroying a life to save lives. The simple premise leads to an open discussion throughout the film that doesn’t grow dull, mostly due to the actors’ performances. It turns out Dr. MacFarlane has been doing some dealings with a less than credible creep named John Gray (Boris Karloff). Gray has been supplying the doctor with bodies for his students to dissect. Soon, Fettes discovers that, with a low supply of graves to rob, Gray has found an alternate way of coming up with dead bodies. Karloff is the reason I would recommend this picture. He’s totally believable as a grave robber turned murderer. He stands head and shoulders above the rest of the cast, which includes a role played by Bela Lugosi. Lugosi is essentially a janitor at Dr. MacFarlane’s facility, who eventually attempts to blackmail Gray in a spooky scene between two iconic actors. McFarlane and Gray have a history together that Gray is all too happy to use in various attempts at manipulating MacFarlane. Fettes is the moral hero, who maintains sanity and holds the reigns on this outlandish story so as not to get too far off the trail.

The social relevance makes up for the lack of interesting directing techniques, and ultimately is the backbone of the whole movie. The plot points are systematically ratcheted up a notch, almost unnoticeably, so that you won’t even realize you’re totally buying every one. The acting scenes between Karloff and Daniell, as Dr. MacFarlane, are superb and quite unexpected for a low budget horror/thriller flick. Karloff’s performance skates that thin line between being cartoonishly over the top and believably psychotic. Whichever it is, it’s fun to watch. Once the little paralyzed girl finally walks, as we all knew she would, it comes close to being an unintentional spoof of heartwarming dramas of that era. It’s a shame they weren’t brave enough to just go all out and tell their story without having to endear the widest demographic possible. Val Lewton’s films he produced for RKO are not the greatest horror movies I’ve ever seen, but what they all share in common is an attention to detail despite being restrained by a low budget. They take a story, whether it seems goofy or, for lack of a better word, stupid, and put their hearts into it to try and make it work somehow. Typical Hollywood hacks of that era (and even this era) didn’t respect their actors or their scripts enough to let them speak for themselves, and assumed low budgets could only breed low quality. Lewton, however, wrote the book on handling with care.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Directors: Robert Wise/Gunther von Fritsch

Yet another misleading horror movie title. In fact, this if not even a horror film. Not surprisingly, it's not nearly as good as its predecessor, Cat People, but it’s definitely better than what its inaccurate title suggests. By almost existing in a different universe entirely, The Curse of the Cat People uses the characters from the first film and re-imagines them in a fairy tale follow-up to the original that's told through the eyes of a young girl. On the surface, this film seems like it would be an utter disaster that should be avoided like the plague, which may be why my expectations were low enough to be pleasantly surprised by its better than average attempt. I mean, let’s just be honest and look at the objective facts here: First, it’s a sequel to a groundbreaking horror film -- that’s a bad sign already. Second, the original film's outstanding director, Jacques Tourneur, is absent here. In his place are not one, but two "second choice" directors. Last but not least, it's barely even a horror film. Not only that, but it's closer to the complete other end of the spectrum and approaches "kids movie" territory. Oh, and one more thing: There are no "cat people" per se in the entire film, which comes as a big surprise given its heavily marketing-influenced label.

The original characters of Oliver (Kent Smith) and Alice (Jane Randolph) return as a married couple with a young daughter, Amy (Ann Carter). Amy is the main character and the whole story is told from her perspective. Amy’s an anti-social, imaginative young girl, who trades real friends for imaginary ones. Her, at times, dysfunctional parents are disturbed by this and try to socialize her in any way they can. The story takes a supernatural turn when Irena (Simone Simon) returns in the guise of Amy’s new imaginary friend. Irena is now a ghostly incarnation, complete with billowing white gown and calming speech pattern, that only Amy can see. Amy summons Irena when she makes a wish on a “wishing ring” that she receives from a Boo Radley-ish shut-in, who turns out to look more like the Queen Mum. Her name is Mrs. Farren, and she lives in an old haunted house with her supposed daughter, Barbara. I use the word “supposed” because Mrs. Farren doesn’t acknowledge her as such, and claims that her actual daughter died a long time ago. This is never resolved, but doesn’t really spark a lot of interest anyway. Mrs. Farren befriends Amy as though she were her own daughter. This enrages Barbara, and her resentment towards Amy builds until the both heartwarming and suspenseful climax. The whole story is very straightforward, and has no surprising twists. This makes it nearly a children’s movie, but not necessarily a bad one. Even though the entire film is essentially a "bait and switch", it’s not necessarily worse for being as such. It's merely on a different plain altogether, and should be evaluated with a completely different set of criteria. I can't dock it points for being straightforward, since it's geared towards kids. It's just a shame that its target demographic would never take the bait, and instead, producer Val Lewton will reel in some very disappointed and confused fans.

I’ll admit that I’m not the target audience for this movie, but I sort of liked it. I have a feeling that if I saw this movie as a kid, I would remember it along with the likes of E.T. or A Christmas Story. It’s ultimately hindered by its childish elements to really stray much from its simple premise. Irena is an imaginary friend, and once Amy no longer needs her, she’s gone. It’s a well told message that delves into Freudian psyche analyses and parent-child relationships that seems daring for its time, but is by no means heavy handed. It’s simple enough for kids to follow, and it’s engaging enough for adults to not grow restless. The young lead actress, Ann Carter, does a good job here in the role of Amy. Her performance is, at times, a little wooden, but she’s just interesting enough to make up for it. Simone Simon as Irena (a character who really has no business sharing even the name of Simone's character in Cat People) is unfortunately wasted here. Although, she does look better as a fairy godmother-ish spectre than as a sexually repressed "cat woman." There are many large orchestral music swells and frolicky musical cues that may wear on your nerves a bit, and there isn’t enough focus on the fanciful, larger-than-life storybook aspects that would've kept the script from growing tedious. Also, the set pieces are boring, redressed hand-me-downs, and the magical effects look really cheap (two things that they definitely should NOT have skimped on in a film of this sort). The story is more interesting and better written than that of Cat People, but it unfortunately fell into less than capable (or, more likely, less than interested) hands. The direction ironically lacks direction, and doesn’t attempt to throw in original sequences or an appropriate atmosphere that would've insured the film's placement in movie history and/or in the minds of the viewing public. Robert Wise (director number one) would go on to win multiple academy awards and nominations and direct many hit films, including The Sound of Music and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Gunther von Fritsch (director number two -- a fitting description in more ways than one) would just go on. Ultimately, the only “curse” in this film to speak of is that of its unfortunate title.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Cat People (1942)

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Take a wildly silly premise, add a melodramatic love story, mix it together with a talented director, and you’ll get Cat People. Director Jacques Tourneur always impresses me, even when the material he’s dabbling in seems less than interesting. He still manages to come up with original and genuinely haunting visuals amidst a muddled script. That’s really a testament to the directing style. It’s like if Picasso was handed some cheap-ass, broken paintbrush and instructed to make a work of art with only what he was given. A lesser artist would blame the tool or not fully put their heart into it, seeing that the project wasn’t worth their time. Tourneur looks at these stories and says, “I can work with this.”

Cat People revolves around a young immigrant named Irena (Simone Simon).While at the zoo, Irena encounters a man who she will later marry. Kent Smith plays her husband, Oliver. Irena is deeply disturbed by the ancient legend of the people she believes she’s descended from. The Cat People are a group of witches who can transform into deadly felines whenever their passions are aroused. Irena fears this, and keeps her distance from her husband, leading him to console in his co-worker, Alice (Jane Randolph). Obviously this leads to a love triangle, which isn’t probably isn’t the ideal situation for someone who’s emotions can lead them to turn into a large panther that lashes out at the people in its immediate vicinity. Irena attempts to solve her seemingly mental problem by consulting with a therapist, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway), to little effect. Dr. Judd also has some ulterior motives and turns the situation into a sort of love quadrangle. The whole melodrama weighs the movie down, and makes it fairly uninteresting. When Oliver explains to Alice that he’s not sure why he fell so madly in love with Irena, it offers an interesting but unexplored explanation for those “love at first sight”, instant movie romances. Something more was drawing him to her. The main reason for this movie’s significance is its style. Tourneur shines when he takes a standard romantic atmosphere and drains nearly all the light and sound from select scenes. There’s a scene where Alice goes swimming in an indoor pool late at night. The lights go out, and a panther’s growl is heard reverberating throughout the darkened room, although we never see the animal in question. Shadows are seen on the wall, but they're never distinct enough to see what’s actually threatening her. There's a chilling moment when Alice stares at the empty, shadowy staircase and hears a faint growl ominously approaching. It turns out that it was Irena, who wanted to confront Alice about her interest in her husband. In Tourneur’s films, there is always at least one scene that stands head and shoulders above the rest.
It’s quite silly to think that a woman who turns into a panther is terrorizing a girl in a pool, but if you put yourself in the moment without analyzing it, the scene works wonderfully on its own, as does the scene where Irena pursues Alice down a desolate sidewalk, ending with a great shock effect. Once again, these scenes are figuratively cut off from the rest of the feature by having their lighting and soundtrack nearly completely ripped away. I liked Simone Simon in her repressed sex-pot role, and I liked the suspense scenes in contrast with the other scenes. The problem is the story, which seems like it would be better suited for a daytime soap opera. The twists and turns, if there are any, seem uninspired and seem to come from nowhere. The characters' actions and emotions seem unmotivated and are only there to help the story chug along, as opposed to letting the characters affect the story in their own individual ways. I was actually kind of impressed with the amount of interesting material they were able to salvage from an ostensibly goofy and uninteresting premise, though. This was producer Val Lewton's and director Jacques Tourneur’s first in their series of suggestive horror films, and it pretty much seems like that. I Walked with a Zombie is probably a better vehicle for Tourneur's talents, but a definite style can be seen on display here.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985)

Director: Jack Sholder

Ugh. Where do I begin? Maybe I should just start off by saying this is a bad movie. It’s not hard to be derisively verbose on this subject (see below), or to blindly drive off into the sunset in a rant powered vehicle (also, see below). But I’ll try to stay on topic for as long as possible. This is the second installment in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, but you’d never know that by watching it. It’s horribly dated. It was actually interesting to see this film though, since it hammers home the point that Wes Craven had at least a knack for something in the first film. First things first, the title: A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. It’s a standard device for the title of a movie sequel (especially a horror movie sequel) to brandish the word “revenge” in some way or another, but it comes across as unbelievably cheesy here. Freddy takes revenge in all of his movies. That’s just part of his mythos. My suggestion for a title to this film is A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Coming for You. But I guess a cheesy film deserves a cheesy title. My title's too good for this movie.

I don’t want to spoil anything here, but that’s like saying I don’t want to burn down smoldering ashes. The damage has been done. The plot (I can’t believe I’m using that word when referring to this film) involves a young, 17 year old boy named Jesse (Mark Patton). Young is a relative term here, so Jesse looks like he should be on his third marriage instead of cheerily hopping on the school bus with his Ninja Turtles backpack draped over his shoulder. Jesse’s the new kid in town, who just moved in to Nancy’s old house from the first film. Her house is now officially the house from The Amityville Horror. Jesse’s having nightmares and visions of good ole Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) wandering about the house. It appears Freddy wants Jesse to kill for him, or he wants Jesse to become him, or something. Jesse constantly wakes up sporting Freddy's trademark glove o’ knives. He thinks he’s the one responsible when his coach turns up dead. So what do they do with this concept? They whiz it down their legs. Jesse is frantically worried (and sweaty) as he agonizes and overacts over possibly being a murderer. Well, nobody ever even suspects him and nothing ever happens with it. Freddy wants to use Jesse as a vessel to inhabit his body, but is constantly setting him up to get caught in the act of cold blooded murder -- good plan, Fred. Strange events begin to occur in the house. The temperature rises, the toaster gets hit by lightning, and the pet bird explodes. The level of ineptitude in this film reaches new heights… or is it depths? At any rate, the characters are dumb, to put it bluntly. They’re not even “horror movie dumb.” They’re dumb for the sake of being dumb. It’s not funny, and it doesn’t help the story. Jesse’s dad (Clu Gulager) attributes the exploding pet bird to buying the wrong kind of bird seed. There’s a pointlessly odd homoerotic subtext in this film as well. Jesse meets his coach in a bar where the coach had been picking up men -- excuse me while I stitch up my sides, they’re splitting. For some reason Jesse is constantly sweaty, and garbed in unbuttoned shirts. The actor must have had a clause in his contract that said he must be dripping wet at all times. Why? I don’t know… and I don’t want to know. When he’s not waking up from a sweaty nightmare, he’s showering or pointlessly strolling through the rain.

Anyway, Jesse has a non-emotive girlfriend named Lisa (Kim Myers), who looks almost exactly like a young Meryl Streep. She’s sort of like Meryl Streep mixed with Gillian Anderson. She’ll be the “last girl” in this film (she’s also the “only girl”, so that was a wise choice). The chemistry between Jesse and Lisa is non existent. When they lean in for their dramatic kiss, it looks like a closing draw bridge, except not as romantic. She believes in Jesse's claims that he is being affected by Freddy when they find Nancy’s diary that details the events of the first film. This is later confirmed when Jesse actually turns into Freddy and kills one of his (many) shirtless friends. Lisa throws a pool party that’s so devoid of energy that it could have doubled for a wake. Incidentally, Freddy begins a murderous rampage-of-sorts amongst the seemingly restless partygoing extras in this colossally mismanaged sequence. He cuts a few folks, burns them, and manhandles the deck furniture -- dear God, he is a monster! When he attacked Lisa earlier, he knocked a plate off the living room shelf. When will his reign of terror end?!! Is Freddy a frustrated interior decorator at heart or something? It all concludes in the abandoned factory where Freddy used to work. This is a perfect example of finding and exploiting a set piece and building a scene around it, regardless of its integration into the rest of the story. Lisa runs to find Freddy/Jesse there. Here she encounters a few demonic animals. The dogs with the cupie doll faces were a nice touch, but are distractingly fake and filmed in long shot. Anyway, Lisa figures it’s time to finally emote, and she pleads with Jesse to fight Freddy’s control over him, after he chases her around the plant. In the end, he gets lit on fire and collapses. Jesse emerges from the ashes, and the nightmare is over… or is it? The final sequence is a nod to the first scene on the school bus (Can you make a nod towards something in your own film?). Freddy pops his claws through one of the students, and the terrified passengers are driven off into the sunset. Again, the film repeats itself.

So, I’m going to go back to my earlier remarks of this film being bad. It kind of makes this whole review seem unnecessary. But somehow, a review that just reads, “Bad” seems a bit unimaginative, if not perfectly accurate. Jesse’s perpetually damp and screams like a girl. Lisa is nearly comatose and distractingly Meryl Streep-esque. Jesse’s dad wouldn’t be out of place in a Three Stooges sketch, and Freddy seems to be lost in all this. He barely kills anyone. The dream sequences that made the first film tolerable were either erased or forgotten. I didn’t know what the hell was going on, and I was glad when the things that I didn't know were happening ceased to happen. This film elbowed its way into the box office smack dab in the middle of the 80’s, and that fact couldn’t have been more apparent. Every background female character is dressed like Madonna, and every male character looks like a gay porn star. This film hurts. It offended me as a horror film fan and as a member of the human race. It took the Friday the 13th series a while to find its footing and establish a working formula. Freddy had a formula, and they totally ignored it. How is it possible that this film looks more dated than the previous one? Did fashion go completely haywire in only one year's time? The actors are annoying, whiny and moist, and the story slowly dies out after the scenes begin to lap themselves. The entire movie is essentially three scenes (give or take, although giving would be all too generous) which were crudely stapled and duct taped together before being carelessly strung through the film projector. As a result, the movie repeats itself about every three minutes. It's sort of like a horror version of Groundhog Day, except less scary. Unfortunately for the audience, in the end, Freddy discovers that the best revenge is living well.

Best Death: Freddy plays a deadly game of S&M with the coach in the locker room showers.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Director: Wes Craven

Freddy Krueger makes his bloody debut in this flawed but undeniably fun horror staple. Pop culture had no idea what was in store for it when A Nightmare on Elm Street burst onto the scene with its wildly violent and visually arresting style. In this film we’re introduced to the creepiest character of them all… no, not Johnny Depp. Although, some of his outfits haunted me long after it was over. I’m talking about the one and only Freddy Krueger who, unlike Jason, made torturing and taunting his victims an art form and took sheer glee in nothing more than terrorizing children in their sleep. It’s no wonder this film is sought out by curious high school kids who want to see every film they aren't supposed to see. With an excellent premise firmly clutched in the capable hands of director Wes Craven, Freddy has the perfect vehicle to do what he does best. Right off the bat, it’s noticeable that A Nightmare on Elm Street perfectly utilizes its premise of traveling between dream and reality by focusing almost entirely on visually haunting sequences. The visuals will stick with you, even though when you look back at it, Freddy only kills four people in the entire film. It’s quality not quantity here. The entire film is literally drenched in blood. And I’m not talking about splatter-fest type stuff here. It’s more like tidal waves of it that coat the characters and sets, leaving horrified audiences in their wake. Freddy is noticeably scarce here, and short on words. Later, he would learn that the camera loves him. But here, he’s a wallflower who's almost afraid to surreptitiously ask a girl to dance before literally stabbing her in the back.

The story starts out right away in a dream with a young girl runs across a spooked lamb while wandering the labyrinths of a boiler room. Why a lamb? ‘Cuz it looks creepy, that’s why. What more of a reason do you need? This is a good omen that the crew has a distinct style and isn’t concerned with drawing you in, but rather freaking you out. Tina (Amanda Wyss) traverses the corridors, only to encounter everyone's favorite sweater-wearing psychopath (except for Mr. Rogers, of course). Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) pops up, but Tina awakes before he can do more damage than just a few slices to her nightgown, which Tina discovers actually exist. The next day at school, Tina discovers that her friends, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), Glen (Johnny Depp) and Rod (Nick Corri) have all had similar nightmares. So, what's the next logical response when a psychopathic killer who attacks people in their dreams is out to get you? Sleepover!!!! What could go wrong? Tina and Rod head up to the bedroom to bump uglies, while Nancy and her boyfriend, Glen, hang out downstairs. Freddy takes a second stab at the whole Tina-killing thing, and screams are heard coming from the upstairs bedroom... the bad kind of screams. In probably the most memorable scene (which holds up surprisingly well) is when an invisible Freddy begins to fling Tina around the bedroom. She’s dragged around the room, including the ceiling and walls, like a blood soaked paintbrush. Rod is no help, of course, and flees the scene before Nancy and Glen discover the horrific aftermath. Now, Rod is wanted for murder by the cops. Later, Freddy takes out Rod while he’s in his jail cell after he’s been captured by hanging him with a bed sheet.

Nancy is the main character (or "last girl"), whom the rest of the story revolves around. Nancy is continually terrorized in her dreams, leaving her no choice but to try to ward off sleep by using gallons of coffee and handfulls of “Stay Alert” pills. Her boozed up mother thinks she’s nuts, so she takes her to a Dream Therapy Clinic. It's there that Nancy discovers she can bring things out of the dream world and into the real world. In a doctor-induced nightmare she swipes Freddy’s trademark tattered fedora before waking up in her hospital bed with the hat firmly in her grasp. After little coaxing, the backstory arrives in one huge clump. Nancy’s mother reveals that Freddy Krueger was a child murderer who escaped a sentence, and the parents took matters into their own hands. They tracked him down and burned him alive. Apparently, Freddy didn’t cook all the way through and now he's up to his old tricks attacking children again... but this time, in their dreams. Death = superpowers. After a few failed attempts by Nancy and Glen at an attack on Freddy due to Glen's inability to stay awake, Glen gets sucked into his bed and belched out in the form of a blood geyser -- It's Old Faithful, Wes Craven style! Unfortunately for Freddy, there was a little side effect to Glen's untimely end: Now it's personal... more so. Nancy attempts to venture into dreamsville one last time to bring Freddy out and clobber him for good. Before the big sleep, she assembles an elaborate set of Home Alone -style booby traps around her house. She dozes off and manages to bring Freddy into the real world. Freddy bumbles around and falls down stairs, gets a mallet to the gut, and is lit on fire as he pursues Nancy. I expected Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern to walk in at some point. Freddy claims one more victim: Nancy’s mom. Freddy, still on fire, hops on top of Nancy’s mom while she's in bed. I’m assuming she wept up so quickly because her body was, at that point, probably about 85% alcohol. Nancy finally confronts Freddy in a courageous face off and claims to have discovered his weakness. She tells him she doesn’t believe in him and that she knows that it’s all just a dream. Freddy fades away thanks to cheesy 80's digital effects before he can deliver a final blow. Nancy walks through the bedroom door and finds herself now walking out her front door in a fantasy reality with all her friends and mother back among the living. Well, wouldn’t you know it, but that was just a dream too. The gang’s car takes on a life of its own and drives off with them all trapped inside like sardines. Nancy’s mom is yanked through the tiny window on the front door of their house by Freddy, while a group of young girls jumping rope recite Freddy’s signature tune.

It definitely looses steam and gets a little too goofy in the third act, but the script (which seemed more like just a concept) stays alive with its consistently chilling direction and slasher-honoring mood throughout. With Freddy lurking around virtually every corner, he isn’t the witty and charming psycho we all know and love yet. The film ultimately rests on its imagery and atmosphere, which I would guess were heavily influenced by The Shining and the works of Dario Argento. There are a bevy of memorable scenes, including a scene where Tina’s dead body is dragged down the hallways of the school in Nancy’s dream by an invisible Freddy. Also, the scene where Nancy attempts to climb the stairs, only to find that her feet sink into them, portrays the surrealistic nature of nightmares with an original and creepy effect. In a film about dreams and blurring the line between fantasy and reality this is the perfect canvas for a horror virtuoso to really make his mark. The visuals and mood were the most important elements for this film to really work, and luckily those are the exact (maybe the only) elements that do work. Characters and plot take a back seat so that we can be treated to a mosaic of blood and… well, more blood from start to finish. Although, the ending is less rewarding than it should've been and ends up feeling a bit out of place. They wanted to end it with the shocker of the dream not being over and Freddy still calling the shots, but they couldn't really figure out how to go about it. Which part was a dream? And who's dream was it? If you analyze it too much you'll probably find yourself liking the movie less and less. But that's not what we're here for. We're here for fun and terror and we get them in spades. And kudos to Heather Langenkamp as Nancy. She shines in a performance that requires her to be the voice of reason, and energetically carry this film while simultaneously running low on steam as she eschews sleep. She's one of my favorite "last girls" in horror history. So, now the stage is set. Freddy’s got his foot in the door, but is more than happy to batter it down anyway just for the sake of chaos.

Best Death: Tina's "Dancing on the Ceiling" routine turns ugly.