Oct 19, 2009

The Long Halloween: The Complete NOES Part 1

I was going to write 8 full length reviews for this post, but as I watched the films it occurred to me that most of them simply didn’t warrant 1000 words or more consideration, that, and when the remake opens next year I’ll want to do a Versions post comparing Wes Craven’s film to Samuel Bayer’s. So here are some thoughts, in mini-review form, on this venerable series. However, I'm still going to post this in two parts, because apparently I think 500 words constitutes a mini-review.

I’m assuming that most people have seen these movies, and so there may be mild spoilers.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Dir: Wes Craven

The early 80’s was boom time for slasher films. People were hungry for horror and it was being delivered both at the cinema and on a new fangled technology called video. Hundreds of slashers were made, most now justly forgotten. There were a few gems though, and A Nightmare on Elm Street still stands out as one of the very best slasher films ever made. Wes Craven is a master of the genre, and in Freddy - or, as he’s known here, Fred - Krueger (played in all eight films reviewed here by Robert Englund) Craven created one of the screen’s great original monsters. Krueger is a child murderer, himself burnt to death by the parents of the children he murdered on Elm Street, and now stalking the remaining Elm Street children in their dreams, wielding a razor fingered glove as weapon.

Craven said that his intent with Krueger’s backstory was to create the most corrupt monster he could imagine, and with Englund’s help he succeeds. In this first outing Freddy is a true monster; there’s no sympathy, little humour, and absolutely no pity in the way he acts. Put together with the character’s look - a fantastic, horrific, burn make up by David Miller - Englund’s performance creates a genuinely unnerving villain. Craven and DP Jacques Haitkin use a very small budget ($1.8 million) to create some truly memorable and haunting, if low tech, visuals. Some of the simplest effects in the film would now be realised with CGI, but Freddy’s extending arms (which were on fishing poles) and his face coming through the wall (which was made of spandex) still impress because they are obviously real.

In addition to Englund the cast, composed mainly of young newcomers, generally does well. Heather Langenkamp has worked mainly in TV since Nightmare, but she’s a strong lead, and gives Nancy resourcefulness and toughness of a kind rare in ‘final girls’ of the 80’s. She also has to carry some of the weightier dramatic scenes in the film, and does so with aplomb. Amanda Wyss is engaging as Tina, and that makes the reversal that Craven pulls on you when he kills her off early (in perhaps the film’s most startlingly visceral and truly nightmarish scene) genuinely shocking. Johnny Depp, who makes his debut as Nancy’s boyfriend, seems ill at ease, and overacts at times, certainly there’s nothing here to suggest the sort of masterful subtlety we’d see in Edward Scissorhands just six years later. The adults are a bit of a mixed bunch, John Saxon is good as Nancy’s cop father, while as her mother Ronee Blakley fumbles her big dramatic scene, when she has to tell Nancy about what the parents did to Krueger.

The rough edges are certainly there, but they don’t really matter, because Craven’s concept is so strong, and the film gains such momentum, that it is carried over the rough patches. The only real problem is the ending, which is extremely anticlimactic after such a strong build up. Still, A Nightmare on Elm Street entirely deserves a place in the pantheon of horror classics.

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

The Nightmare franchise opened with a massive mis-step in the shape of this very strange sequel. It’s set five years after the original, but takes place in an extremely obvious 1985 - witness the costumes, the music and the Kate Bush poster in the main character’s room. It completely changes the main idea behind Freddy Krueger who, instead of attacking kids in their dreams possesses Jesse (Mark Patton) so that he can attempt to cross over into the real world. This isn’t a bad idea in and of itself, but the execution is incredibly sloppy.

First off the script, assuming such a document existed, is flat out terrible. Wes Craven had a cast of well-rounded characters to kill off; these kids (most of whom look about 30) couldn’t muster a rounded personality between them. Most of them may as well not have names as you learn so little and care so little about them that they could just be grouped together in the credits as ‘corpses in waiting’. Sholder’s shooting is unhelpful; he shrouds the film in darkness, but lends it little atmosphere. This means that we never get to admire Kevin Yagher’s first go at the Freddy make up, and also that when the viscera should begin to fly we can’t really see it, it’s the worst of all worlds really.

These problems, however, are small beer compared to that of the casting. I’m willing to accept that Kim Myers - a cute Meryl Streep lookalike who plays Lisa, Jesse’s would be girlfriend - may be able to act and is defeated by the screenplay. Mark Patton is another thing entirely. First he doesn’t have the look of a horror lead; he’s too soft, girlish almost. This is borne out in his voice, or more specifically in his scream, which we hear a great deal of and which never ceases to be funny. Patton gives an outrageously camp performance, but also manages to set his face in a single expression, which is something akin to ‘huh?’ and never alter it for the film’s entire running time.

There is one thing about Nightmare 2 that is interesting - utterly misplaced, but interesting - and that’s the homoerotic undertone that runs through the film. One dream sequence begins in a leather bar, and ends with Jesse’s coach tied up, naked, in the school showers being whipped to death by a towel wielding ‘Freddy’. Then of course there’s the whole issue of Freddy trying to possess Jesse’s body “Fred Krueger!... He's inside me... and he wants to take me again!” You could even read the film as a fight between good (straight, personified by Lisa) and evil (gay, personified by Krueger and the Gym teacher) lifestyles, and Lisa’s final battle with Freddy as her attempt to rescue Jesse from homosexuality. I’ve spent too much time in film studies classes, clearly, but seeing Freddy's Revenge in this way does at least distract from how dreadful a film it is at every possible level.

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

It is to New Line Cinema’s credit that, even though Freddy’s Revenge made more at the box office than the original Nightmare on Elm Street, they realised that the abrupt change of direction that made that film the strange beast it is was a misstep. To put the franchise back on track they turned to its creator. They asked Wes Craven to write and direct Nightmare 3, but he was already contracted for another film. He did write a script though, and gets a co-writing credit here. His big contribution was twofold. First, his screenplay brought back original heroine Nancy Thompson (again played by Heather Langenkamp), now a grad student training as a therapist and specialising in sleep disorders. Second, the central concept of the Dream Warriors - kids in a sleep clinic who find that in their dreams they have powers that can be used to fight Freddy - was Craven’s, and would power the franchise for a loose trilogy of sequels beginning here.

Craven’s screenplay was heavily re-written, and it is pretty easy to see the joins. In Freddy’s Revenge the process of leavening Freddy’s initial menace with some humour had begun, but it is in Dream Warriors that we first begin to see the seeds of what Freddy was ultimately to become; a shitty stand up comic with knives. The one-liners are perhaps less forced and painful here than they would become, but they still sound odd, and negate the essential menace of the character. Between these and other moments of silliness (the kids powers really can be painful, especially when one character declares himself the wizard master) there are some fantastic shock scenes.

After some seriously uninspired death scenes in Nightmare 2 this film really ups the ante when it comes to invention. Dream Warriors contains some of the series’ strongest nightmare sequences, with standouts including Kristen’s (Patricia Arquette) dream involving a huge Freddy snake and perhaps the series single coolest and most painful looking death in which Freddy rips a characters arteries out of his arms and legs and uses him as a puppet. Here, and in several more sequences, director Chuck Russell really outdoes himself, showing a talent for both visceral moments and tension. Russell also manages to draw good performances from his cast. Arquette and Langenkamp make for good feisty heroines, while John Saxon also reprises his role to good effect. As Freddy Robert Englund is as good here as he ever was. He seems to have more pure fun with the part in this instalment than any other, but he’s also still scary and evil.

Dream Warriors isn’t a great film by any means, and there are a lot of moments that clunk horribly, but when it comes together this is fun and engaging horror cinema and easily the best of the true Nightmare films not directed by Wes Craven.

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

I find The Dream Master a disappointing sequel to Dream Warriors. Nightmare 3 was hit and miss, but it hit a good portion of the time, had some fine acting and several startling nightmare sequences, all wrapped in a story that, while not exactly great literature, held together. The Dream Master really marks the beginning of a precipitous fall in the quality of the Nightmare films. That’s especially disappointing because the idea behind The Dream Master, which runs with the themes of Dream Warriors, is a pretty good one.

The film introduces a new nemesis for Freddy. Alice (Lisa Wilcox) is a friend of dream warrior Kirsten (now played by the rather unfortunately named Tuesday Knight) who finds that she can acquire all her friends dream powers, and use them to become the dream master, making her a match for Freddy. Incidentally, one thing the Nightmare series has always done right is present a strong, smart and self reliant heroine who is match for a monster, and Alice certainly belongs to that tradition. The problem is less with the story than it is with the script, which lacks colour, character and coherence. More than ever there is a feeling that the script was built around ideas for Freddy gags. ‘Gags’ is a metaphorical term; what effects artists call their work, but here, sadly, it’s also a literal term. The Freddy sequences have now become little more than a setup for the character’s dreadful one-liners. He began as the most evil thing Wes Craven can think of, but just four years later Freddy has become a vaudeville act with fake blood. Take this for example: Dan: Krueger! Freddy: Well, it ain't Dr. Seuss. They’re all that bad.

Antoher problem with film is the acting. Robert Englund does still seem engaged, but the feel of Freddy has changed so much that Englund can’t make him threatening any more. Tuesday Knight is a decent facsimile of Patricia Arquette, but a poor substitute. She’s got the look but lacks the talent, and Kristen, too, feels like a different character. The rest of the kids have pretty minor roles, and are all pretty wooden while waiting to be killed off. Lisa Wilcox does have a big role though, and Alice is probably the best-written and most rounded character in the film, but Wilcox can’t quite pull it off. She’s fine in the earlier part of the film, but when she has to go and fight Freddy she lacks the necessary steel, and that means that despite fine effects work from Kevin Yagher and Screaming Mad George - which results in some of the series’ most striking make up designs - the finale doesn’t really come off.

Renny Harlin does what he can, but he's pretty much hobbled by his material. Visually Nightmare 4 doesn't lack for style, but narratively it is broken. On the whole, if the original Nightmare on Elm Street was a scary night of theatre, The Dream Master strays dangerously close to pantomime.

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