BRWC Is 3: A Walk Down Elm Street

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In honor of Battle Royale With Cheese’s Third Anniversary, my third (and last, unless someone just BEGS me to do the Amityvilles, Children Of The Corns, or Hellraisers) Horror movie franchise dissection!

I talked about the history and evolution of “modern” horror and the slasher film genre, in specific, in my review of the Halloween AND Friday the 13th Series, so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much here.

Horror as we know it today and it’s various aspects/off shoots were formed in the mid to late 70’s. Europe’s emphasis on sex, viciousness and stylish, but implausible murders over characterization, coherency and plot slowly infected us over here in the states. And then, we unleashed a spate of profitable “Giallo-Inspired” films (Halloween, Black Christmas, Friday the 13th, etc.) and the Horror, or more specifically Slasher, genre was made quite bankable and more than acceptable by the masses at large.



By 1984, for the most part, true horror, terror and suspense had been totally replaced with the esoteric trappings of the “slasher film.” Friday the 13th and it’s various knock-offs (Terror Train, Prom Night, My Blood Valentine, The Prowler, The Burning, et. Al) had pretty much drained the well and left horror (and the Slasher) on it’s last legs (YES this early in the 80’s.)

Sensing that Horror needed it’s ass kicked, along came Wes Craven (you MAY have heard of him), an inventive writer/director, more than capable of handling a low budget AND Horror, who already had a few big genre hits under his belt (Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes and to a lesser extent Swamp Thing) to put a new face to the genre… A horribly burned, raspy voiced, razor clawed face…

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Directed By Wes Craven

Starring Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon and Robert Englund

A group of High School friends (led by Nancy Thompson, played by Heather Langenkamp) are suffering from a shared, horrific nightmare, involving a badly burned man in a green and red Christmas sweater, stalking them through an expansive, hellish boiler room. This nightmare is starting to do more than leave dark circles under their eyes though… it’s starting to kill them.

You see, the man in their dreams is Fred Krueger (Robert Englund), a vicious child murderer, whom the Elm Street kid’s parents torched, vigilante style, years before.

Now Freddy is back and getting his revenge through the dreams of his killer’s offspring. And, if they don’t get smart, tough and tenacious they will all succumb to the Nightmare on Elm Street…

The wave of modern horror that began in the 60’s, but was perfected in the 70’s, made a conscious effort to remove the unreal and the supernatural from its terror. The horror became grounded in reality. Any Joe on the street could slit your throat for no reason. No more castle-bound Dracula’s or unbelievable men in rubber suits. True scariness is in your backyard… And, while this is a great sentiment and fairly accurate for the most part, by the mid 80’s, as I mentioned up above, the “realistic horror film” had kind of been killed. So, what is one to do when faced with this dilemma? Craft a seamless mashing together of the more realistic Slasher Film, with the dreamlike unreality of horror’s past.

In other words a “real” flesh and blood killer that can get you anywhere, at anytime, asleep, awake or in between.

This is what Wes Craven achieved with A Nightmare on Elm Street (the first one at least), a new, truly terrifying unstoppable force of horror. Craven took the conventions of the sagging Slasher Genre (indestructible killer, virginal final girl, excessive gore, large body count) and turned it on its head, while simultaneously injecting it with some much needed intelligence, style and wit; and, not only all that, he did it all very well. A Nightmare on Elm Street is a masterpiece of low budget cinema. The visual style alone would be enough to propel any movie to “classic” status, but then you throw in the mind boggling dream-to-reality effects, the complicated gore and make up effects, the beyond great (for the genre) acting, the originality of its premise and its execution and it’s wholly unique villain and you begin to understand why it is such a revered film (even though its own sequels have severely diminished its impact.)

And, like Friday the 13th did 4 years before, Elm Street simultaneously changed horror again (for better or worse) and created a boom of Slasher films that incorporated or all out fell into the realm of dreams and the supernatural. This reinvigoration once again “saved” horror, albeit for a much briefer time frame and, then again, much like Friday the 13th Elm Streets own sequels (still to a lesser extent than the other series) slowly began to kill the genre it gave the facelift to in the first place…

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

Directed By Jack Sholder

Starring Robert Englund, Mark Patton and Kim Meyers

5 Years have passed since the events of the first film. A new family has moved into the vacant Thompson household. The eldest child of the family, Jesse, has in fact moved into Nancy’s bedroom. Almost immediately, like Nancy before him, Jesse begins having nightmares about a horribly burned man in a red and green sweater. Only this time, unlike the previous film’s heroine, Jesse is alone in his bad dream having… And also, unlike Nancy, this terrifying man, this Fred Krueger doesn’t want to kill Jesse, he wants Jesse to do the killing for him…

As friends and family members around him die and more and more strange events begin to occur, Jesse must piece together what’s going on inside him… or die trying.

New Line Cinema had been a tiny, struggling distribution company, best known for churning out no budget exploitation and horror fares when Elm Street 1 was released. I’m sure the execs thought Elm Street would in fact be just another little flick, it of course was not. The film was such a massive success that it almost instantly propelled New Line to the upper echelon of the film world. To this day New Line is referred to as “the house that Freddy built.” To put that in perspective, this is coming from the same company that made and released The Lord of the Rings films.

So, naturally as this was the prime era of the horror sequel, New Line wished to whore out their cash cow for all it was worth, as quickly as possible. Wes Craven was out as he had never wished for Elm Street to have a sequel (his original ending for the first film was a “happy one.” New Line made him add a “norm for the time” Kicker) so the production company plodded forward without him. They brought in Jack Sholder (of Alone in the Dark, the good one, also for New Line) to direct, star Robert Englund to return as Fred Krueger, ponied up a SLIGHT budget increase and made the film really, really, REALLY Gay.

Yes, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge is the greatest “coming to terms with one’s sexuality” films EVER made (as I mentioned in my “Favorite Gay Films” article.) Does that make it a good horror film and worthy sequel? Not necessarily. Is the film far better than most people give it credit for? Yes, definitely.

The main factor in Freddy’s Revenge lack of awesomeness is that it was made and unleashed in LESS than a year after Elm Street 1’s release. And, while the budget may have been bigger, it wasn’t much bigger. The lack of time, planning and care going into Freddy’s Revenge gives it an undeniable cheapness and flatness, when compared to the stunning original. I’ve found (that much like myself) most people who deride the film don’t have anything against the overwhelming “Gayness”, but just the rushed, mixed bag nature of the film.

The score by Christopher Young is damned fine, rivaling, if not bettering Charles Bernstein’s original for creepiness. A lot of the gore and make-up effects are astounding. And Freddy, in both look and demeanor is never scarier than he is in Elm Street 2. What makes the movie a bit “sucky” is just that it seemed like New Line really just wanted to put something on a the screen and out plopped this half-realized film.

Despite being a step down, Freddy’s Revenge was still a hit, making back 10 times its budget. Realizing (thankfully) that they needed to be more respectful of and careful with their nest egg, New Line decided the next trip to Elm Street should have a bit more gravitas…

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

Directed By Chuck Russell

Starring Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp and John Saxon

Set one year after the second film and six after the first, we enter this Elm Street in the nightmare of a gifted young girl named Kristen. Kristen you see has been dreaming of a certain house, a certain boiler room and a certain murderous burn victim, and this (as one would expect) has begun to drive her batty.

So loco in fact her mother has her committed to Westin Hills Sanitarium after an attempted (Freddy induced) suicide. Once in the psychiatric ward Kristen becomes fast friends with a group of kids (all, also from Elm Street, gifted, and all also suffering from the same nightmares) and the new staff doctor…

Nancy Thompson (once again, Heather Langenkamp.) Kristen and Nancy must then work together to stop the nightmares before each of the psychologically damaged kids, are destroyed one by one by Freddy!

Dream Warrior’s is my favorite Elm Street film. It may not be better than the first film, but it certainly equals it and it is widely regarded as the best sequel.

Wes Craven came back on board this time, with scripting duties (and the hopes to kill the franchise before it went further and slipped into horrendous crap [woopsie]) in an effort to return the series to its roots and expand the mythos of the Elm Street universe. Craven, along with future “director/writer of much acclaim” Frank Darabont teamed with the always inventive, but little respected, director Chuck Russell to craft a film that would blow the first sequel out of the water and do justice to the original. And, do that they did, admirably so.

Dream Warrior’s greatest strength is in its characters. Much like the band of teenagers in the first film, the “Dream Warriors” are all flawed but likable kids, who have some intelligence and depth to them (couple that with the fact that there are some talented actors and actresses in the new cast [namely Patricia Arquette and Laurence Fishburne.]) Its next greatest strength is in returning to the stylish visual realm of the first film, if not outright surpassing it. The reality to dream transitions, nightmare sequences, camera work and visual effects of Elm Street 3 are all outstanding and really a high point in fantastic cinema.

From the “puppet sequence” to the Freddy worm, to the boiler room from hell, each set piece seems to have had the utmost care put into their crafting AND more importantly they all feel organic to the story (as opposed to just being there cause they look cool.) Lastly, it’s of course nice to have the always enjoyable Heather Langenkamp back as Nancy, and John Saxon is ALWAYS a pleasure (no matter what garbage he’s in. I’m looking at you The Glove.)

This sequel’s one weakness, if one wishes to call it that, is that this is the one in which Freddy kinda stopped being the “bad guy.” He’s still scary and deadly and menacing in this one, but he does spout his first real one liner in this one, a line that would change the rest of the series… for better or worse… mostly worse…

“Welcome to prime time BITCH!”

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

Directed By Renny Harlin

Starring Robert Englund and Lisa Wilcox

Picking up a short time after Part 3, the three surviving Dream Warriors have been released from Westin Hills and are leading relatively normal lives. Unfortunately though, they are having nightmares again, and you know what happens when you have nightmares in, around or perhaps even… ON… Elm Street…

After being resurrected by flaming dog piss (yes, you read that right) Freddy is reborn into the dream world. He then offs the three characters (including final girl from the previous film Kristen, who transfers her Dream Warrior powers over to her BFF Alice [ Lisa Wilcox], as she bites it) we might mildly care about and begins chasing after the friends of said characters. The rest of the film is a bigger budgeted, more elaborate (but hollow) remake of Part 3.

On the plus side of things, Nightmare 4 does LOOK amazing. In fact it’s probably the most aesthetically gorgeous slasher film ever made. No expense was spared to make sure the special effects, cinematography, reality to dream and nightmare sequences weren’t all out awesome to look at in this movie. The acting and actors are still more the serviceable, especially for the genre. And, the plot/dialog IS better than average for this sort of film…

However, Dream Master adds nothing new to the series (other than death by roach trap) and is essentially a candy coated, style over substance, pretty much silly rehashing of its immediate predecessor. And, while yes, the film does look gorgeous and has some amazing set pieces, unlike the last film it seems like the “awesome bits” of this movie were written first, then the plot was constructed around it. Also, on the down side, it is with this film that Freddy full on became a comedian, instead of a violent child murderer. Yes, of course, he still brutally slaughters people (and raps with The Fat Boys), but this go round it’s funny!

Despite the drop back down in terms of overall goodness, Dream Master was a massive success at the box office (the 2nd most successful in the series, behind future entry Freddy vs. Jason in 2003) and of course this meant it would spawn another trip to Elm Street… That trip ended up being the worst film in the series…

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

Directed By Stephen Hopkins

Starring Robert Englund and Lisa Wilcox

A year after Part 4 Alice (final girl of the last film, still Lisa Wilcox) and her boyfriend are expecting a baby. There have been no Krueger intrusions and all seems to be going well, aside from a few bits of family related drama. This peace and relative tranquility naturally means that Freddy pops his head up… into Alice’s womb, effectively using the constant dream state of her unborn child to go after all of her friends, to thereby “eat” each of their souls and become reborn… through said, unborn child. Alice must team up with Freddy’s long dead (but perpetually still around) Mother (and Nun/Nurse/Massive Rape Victim/Owner of One Weird Ass Reproductive System) Amanda to stop the “son of 100 maniacs” before he is unleashed unto the world again!

Sound stupid and convoluted, right? It is.

The last film had been made and released a scant year after its predecessor, but didn’t feel and certainly didn’t look rushed, or cheap in any way (shallow as it was.) The Dream Child on the other hand definitely reeks of “scraping the bottom of the barrel,” especially in terms of the script and overall production quality.

Using the perpetual ‘sleep’ state of an unborn child to work Freddy’s magic is a great idea and could have been potentially terrifying, were this in the hands of say David Cronenberg, or had there been more intelligence put into the affair. But as is, it solely exists as a deus ex machine to allow Freddy access to everyone at all times (and tie into the mumbo jumbo about his mother, kinda sorta hit on in the last two entries), nothing interesting ever comes from the concept.

Stylistically, the film still looks better than the average slasher film (ie the similarly budgeted Friday the 13th Part VII: Jason Takes Manhattan [also the worst in its series] released the same year) but compared to the highs of 3 and 4… Meh. The set pieces are still fun and visually interesting, though, just noticeably lesser in imagination and execution than all the entries so far (aside from the semi-inspired MC Escheresque production design toward the end.)

And then, just overall, everything about Part 5 seems tired and unloved. Particularly Englund as Krueger this go around. Normally Englund takes on every role (and every film, no matter how shitty) with great, hammy relish. But in Dream Child you can practically hear his eyes rolling under the make-up (no more so than during the much derided “Comic Book” sequence of the film.) Freddy’s one liners are insipid and flat, just like the rest of the film.

The stupidity would continue forth though, as Dream Child did in fact turn a tidy profit, but this time, sensing that their gravy train was running off the track, the execs at New Line decided to kill Freddy and give us one final Nightmare…

Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)

Directed By Rachel Talalay

Starring Robert Englund and Liza Zane

Set “Ten years in the future” (or from the last film ?) the town of Springwood (Freddy’s stomping grounds) has fallen into disarray and insanity. Every child and teenager is dead, save for one, a boy in his “late teens” who gets tossed out of town in the midst of a particularly retarded Nightmare (Freddy channeling the wicked witch of the west AND being a bus driver fit heavily into this) and ends up losing his memory (for the rest of the film he is called “John Doe.”) After this incident John manages to find his way to a large, unnamed city, and then get taken to a shelter for troubled youths.

Once at the shelter John’s nightmares continue, and the counselor there, Maggie (Liza Zane) ties John’s dream to a recurring nightmare of her own. Maggie and John then decide to back trace his origins (based on an odd newspaper article in his pocket) and explore his psychosis (with a few other troubled youths in tow.) People get sliced n’ diced, there is much silliness, some Freddy back story, we find out that Maggie is (SPOILERS) actually Fred Krueger’s long lost daughter (taken from him during his child murderer days) and in the end Freddy’s beloved offspring must don 3-D glasses and jump into a painting of 3 wise cracking demonic worms (no, really) that are in fact the reason Freddy has his dream powers anyways! Will Maggie be able to destroy Freddy once and for all and save herself and the remaining kids in the process? (And, more importantly, does anyone care?)

Despite my sarcasm in the plot description I actually LOVE Freddy’s Dead (even though it is pretty terrible.) It’s just SO cartoonish (literally at one point in the film Freddy becomes an 8 Bit Nintendo style game) and so over the top (one murder involves Freddy using an ever expanding chalkboard that he pulls out of nowhere to nail scrape a deaf kid’s head to exploding) that I can’t help but get off on its wackiness. The Dream Child may have been the first movie I saw in the theater (alongside Tim Burton’s Batman) but Freddy’s Dead holds a critic proof place in my heart from loving it as a child.

The Final Nightmare is a film that defies comprehension, it is completely as if the people at New Line said “fuck it, no one cares anymore, just do Looney Tunes but with more decapitations.” And, that is exactly what Freddy’s Dead is. The film COULD have been good though. The serious bits are deadly serious; there are themes of child molestation and abuse, Freddy’s back story is quite dark and the brief glimpses into Fred’s time just before becoming the dream based killer we know him as are chilling. The transitions from reality to dream are the best and most disorienting in the series. And, the production design and style are an improvement over the last film.

However, as a horror film, it doesn’t work in anyway.

And, it would seem (at least for a while, the longest gap between films in the series anyways) that New Line truly was going to let Freddy stay dead. But an interesting, long gestating premise from and a return to the director’s chair from the creator of the series prompted a new film… And a new beginning…

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)

Directed By Wes Craven

Starring Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon and Robert Englund

Wes Craven has brought back the original cast and crew of A Nightmare on Elm Street to film a new movie that will hit the reset button on the series and take Freddy back to his dark, malevolent roots. Unfortunately for everyone involved in the project (especially Heather Langenkamp… as Heather Langenkamp) they’re all having nightmares, eerily realistic nightmares about the film and Fred Krueger… or someone LIKE him…

Then, strange things start happening, people start dying and reality itself begins to rip apart at the seams… Is it all just another page in the New Nightmare script, or is this actually happening?

It is hard to detail too much of the plot of New Nightmare without giving away its secrets (and they are wonderful secrets.) New Nightmare is a meta-film of the highest order. It seamlessly interweaves a “Nightmare on Elm Street-like story” with the goings on of the making of a new Nightmare on Elm Street film. Wes Craven plays Wes Craven, Heather Langenkamp harrowingly portrays Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund is himself, etc. By having the actual people play themselves (and at times of course, their characters) the film is dealt a sense of realism, terror and urgency missing since the first Elm Street.

Stylistically the film is gorgeous, at once crafting its own visual presence apart from the series AND simultaneously (and intentionally) recreating, in an exacting manner, scenes from the original almost shot for shot. The special effects are top notch and the transitions from reality to dream are more subtle, but no less disorienting than they have been before. As with the first film, the acting is excellent (especially from Langenkamp) and it also doesn’t help that most of the cast members have aged exceptionally well (especially my main man John Saxon, he STILL to THIS day looks the same as he did in Enter the Dragon nearly 40 years ago.)

Everything is so great about New Nightmare that it would, in my opinion, be the best in the series, a cinematic masterpiece even, were it not for three things: 1. Freddy’s “darker” look. “Evil Freddy’s” make-up just doesn’t work for me, never has. It looks fake and rubbery and is too well lit at most times. 2. Freddy’s new “biomechanical” glove. It looks like trash and isn’t scary in any way. 3. The ending. The film ends with a fantastical descent into “Hell” (by way of Dante) that is just totally out of place, both for the series and especially this film. Something more grounded in reality would have far better suited New Nightmare and have been genuinely frightening I’m sure (not that a giant, cartoonishly extending Freddy head [don’t ask] isn’t scary in SOME way… Oh, wait.)

In any case though, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is a pretty damned good film on it’s own; It semi-erased the mistakes of the latter end of the series and sent Freddy to hell. Around the same time another long running horror film series (Friday the 13th) had found a new home at New Line Cinema alongside Freddy and the company decided (as they actually had since around 1987) to pit Jason Voorhees against Fred Krueger. This was in 1993 and script issues, directors coming and going and the general stagnation of the horror industry (among many other factors) led to both Jason and Freddy staying dead for a decade (aside from Jason X) even though their early 90’s entries were their most critically acclaimed and different in ages.

You can’t keep a good unstoppable killer dead for too long though. With the rebirth of the horror genre in the late 90’s and its flourish into the new millennium, the time had finally come for two of horror’s great screen icons to finally return the screen and go head to head against one another…

But, would their battle royale be worth the wait?

Freddy vs. Jason (2003)

Directed By Ronny Yu

Starring Robert Englund and Ken Kirzinger

Fred Krueger’s old home town of Springwood has been quiet and peaceful for nearly a decade. No mysterious bed related deaths or killings, fewer suicides, all seems quite well, save for the increased child and teenager population at Westin Hills Asylum (hold over from Elm Street 3.) And it is true, all has been well for Springwood since it banned even the very mention or thought of Freddy Krueger and put all of its youths on the experimental dream prevention drug, Hypnocil… It has not been well for the vicious, dream stalking child killer himself though.

Krueger has been languishing, alone and forgotten in the bowels of hell for ages now and he’s sick and tired of it. Freddy needs someone to help stir up his memory, bring back the old Freddy mythos. An exploitable puppet, someone childlike, to do his bidding… Thankfully for Freddy the person he finds happens to be an unstoppable killing machine himself, Jason Voorhees.

Freddy ends up getting an also dormant Jason to do some dirty work for him, thereby starting the rumors of Krueger up again. Thoughts of Freddy bring dreams of Freddy and dreams bring Freddy victims, thereby powering him up again. Unfortunately for Krueger, Jason turns out to be a bit too good at his job (and too nefarious himself) and people begin to fear Jason more…

This of course pisses Freddy off and sets him on a collision course with his hulking, would be adversary that can only end in a whole lot of bloodshed…

Freddy vs. Jason is a fine film and a great closing chapter for both the original Elm Street and Friday the 13th series, even though it is more of an Elm Street film than a Friday the 13th.

Ronnie Yu brings his typical visual energy and enthusiasm to the proceedings. The acting is for the most part good across the board. Some of the humor is hit or miss, but mostly hit. The death scenes are creative and refreshingly CGI less (or mostly so.) And the plot, what little there is, has enough depth (and in-references and ideas) to keep the event feeling fresh. Of course, the clash of the horror titans is a wonder to watch on film (especially for fans of both series.) And, really I don’t want to say much more on the subject (as it isn’t really a film worthy of a complete dissection per say) other than…

They should have left Freddy and Jason dead with dignity with this entry.

 


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