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.