Friday, 7 May 2010

9...10...Never Sleep Again

So today sees the release of A Nightmare On Elm Street (Samuel Bayer), the remake of Wes Craven's 1984 slasher of the same name. Starring Robert Englund as the iconic Freddy Krueger, the film set new standards in its genre. The sub-genre (serial killer stalking high school kids) was pretty much invented by John Carpenter in 1978 (Halloween) but Craven gave it a much needed bloody polish. Transferring the killer from a real physical threat into a dream stalker made the horror more personal, if more fantastical. Michael Myers tapped into our fears of home invasion - he was a killer we would all look over our shoulders for when home alone for years to come. He's a real threat - but in the world of the film he was easy to escape from. Everyone could see him and as a human being, he could be stopped. Not so with Freddy. He's already dead and nobody but the kids of Elm Street can see him. He's a force to be reckoned with and it's to the characters credit that after being worn down for so many years the original is still as chilling (if flawed) as ever. This article will provide a short profile for Freddy's screen incarnations so far - through good and bad...

1.) A Nightmare On Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)
A small group of teenagers (including a young Johnny Depp and Heather Langenkamp, who would reappear in Parts 3 and 7) are hunted in their nightmares by serial slasher Freddy Krueger. That's pretty much the premise for this mid 80s horror, which showcases some pretty stilted dialogue but some terrifying sequences. The badly scarred Krueger slides his metal claws along steel pipes - the piercing sound an indication of the horror to come. A sound of death. The most bloody (and famous) dispatch comes when Glen (Johnny Depp) accidentally falls asleep. He's sucked into his bed and (offscreen) is shredded to pieces. A fountain of blood gushes from the sheets to the ceiling, covering the room in a gory crimson, tiny bits of flesh still in the mix. Naturally, his girlfriend Nancy (Langenkamp) is none too pleased with the redecorating job and she proceeds to kill Freddy by pulling him out of her dream into the real world. This first installment is a pretty routine affair in terms of structure but the supernatural aspect and Freudian undertones did a lot for audiences and meant that the murders could be a little more imaginative. As could the killers backstory. In a key scene Nancy's mother takes her to the basement to explain why nobody talks about Fred Krueger. He was a child murderer on Elm Street who was caught and due to legal technicalities, was let go. The parents of the street banded together seeking justice...and burnt Krueger alive. Seems evil never dies...

2.) A Nightmare On Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge (Jack Sholder, 1985)
Largely forgotten in the Freddy canon - mainly because the Freddy canon ignored it (Part 3 picked up a few years after the original, making no mention of this underrated installment). Teenager Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton) and his girlfriend Lisa Webber (Kim Myers, back then a Meryl Streep lookalike, now a dead ringer for Natasha McElhone) are the central couple this time, but the story has a twist. Instead of stalking the nightmares of all the kids, this time Freddy focuses on just Jesse. And in a Cronenberg-esque series of events, the film turns into a body horror - with Freddy possessing Jesse, making him murder his friends, and eventually taking over his body completely. It allows for some brilliant, bloody effects - the scene where Freddy tears through Jesse's body is horribly mesmerising. Flesh tears, blood pours and Jesse looks on in horror, unable to control what is happening to him (also tying in to the films strange but interesting homosexual subtext - see also murder by shower whipping). It's one of the best sequences in the entire legacy, one of several hugely inventive sequences here scored by the brilliant Christopher Young (recently employed on Drag Me To Hell, to great effect). So its silly and the ending sucks, but if one film deserves to be reevaluated from the series it's this one.

3.) A Nightmare On Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors (Chuck Russell, 1987)
By far the best of the series, this installment benefits greatly from confining the kids to a therapy unit and further exploring the psychology of dreams. Anyone expecting deep psychoanalysis is obviously in the wrong place, but it's by far the most intellectually satisfying of the films - and although it does signal Freddy's descent into more jokey territory, it has some hugely inventive sequences (one of the kids being used as a literal meat puppet for example). The opening is also hugely inventive. Kristen (Patricia Arquette) is attacked by her bathroom - before she is interrupted by her mother, which reveals the dream has caused an attempted suicide. With her wrists slit Kristen falls to the floor and soon finds herself in therapy where Nancy (a returning Langenkamp) is now a psychiatrist. The kids in the hospital attempt to enter a dream together, in order to conquer Freddy. The final action sequences are excellent, employing both special effects (a stop motion skeleton) and makeup - and they have an added element as we now feel more sympathetic to Freddy. His backstory is revealed this time around - his mother was raped by one hundred criminals, making him the "son of 100 maniacs". Doomed from the beginning we now see the slasher as a victim as well as a predator. It's a non-stop rollercoaster ride and defeats the rule that the third movie in a series will always be bad.

4.) A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (Renny Harlin, 1988)
The helmer of Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990) and Cliffhanger (1993) takes on this wonderful piece of cheesy 80s fluff, complete with a martial arts training montage, rubbish fashion and female pop music - but if Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986) can be celebrated for the exact same things, why not indulge this 4th Freddy installment? Well, because it has more plot holes than an actual cheese, awful acting, less scares and more comedy. Harlin employs some stylish direction however - a spinning aerial shot around Alice (Lisa Wilcox) is disorientating and effective and he pays loving attention to the effects. One sequence sees friend Debbie (Brooke Theiss) turned into a giant cockroach and then squashed by Freddy. It's bizarre, imaginative and incredibly freaky - the effects are jaw dropping. As Debbie's skin tears and the flesh rips apart giant insect legs emerge, bloody and gooey. Her mouth begins to extend, her eyes growing wider - until her head splits in two, revealing the cockroach. It sheds its human body not long before Freddy turns it into dust. The finale is also brilliant - Alice defats Freddy by showing him his own evil and the souls of his victims then proceed to tear him apart. It may be a little shallow but the cheese and gore factors make it hugely entertaining.

5.) A Nightmare On Elm Street: The Dream Child (Stephen Hopkins, 1989)
The most forgettable film in the Freddy series (I viewed it last week and can't remember a detail) sees Alice (Lisa Wilcox) returning, this time pregnant, and Freddy killing through the dreamlike state of her unborn child. It's a really desperate plot-line that smacks of money-grabbing. I wish I could write more about this installment but there's literally not a sequence that sticks in my mind - no deaths, no soundtrack cues, no inventive direction. I do remember, however, one of the most tedious evil kids in my movie history and a sequence in which a diving board turns into a giant claw. This is the real point in the series where Freddy was able to control his environments like a video-game, relieving any tension, as we know he's going to win. A boring, drab affair that's - shockingly! - not the worst in the series. Oh no. The worst is much more memorable for all the wrong reasons...

6.) Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (Rachel Talalay, 1991)
Godawful. I feel ashamed to be born in the same year that this mess of a 'film' was released. So many questions are raised - how could all the teenagers in Elm Street die and nobody else in the world not know about it? How was it not a worldwide phenomenon? Why and how does Freddy suddenly have a daughter? Why is he now a superhero who can inhabit anyone, anywhere and play people like video-games? Where is the tension if Freddy can totally manipulate these environments? Why doesn't he just implode all the kids? It's so redundant and so barrel scraping that it's almost an achievement. The whole film plays out with stupid people saying stupid things until they are killed in a series of bizarre and ungory ways (there's literally a videogame sequence where a young Breckin Meyer is forced into a bright, pixellated videogame world and played like a level from Super Mario). There's zero coherence and no solid makeup or effects to make up for it - only Looney Tunes style dispatches and performances so wooden the furniture acts them offscreen. Its nothing but a promotion for lame 3D and a cash-in to a now dead franchise. It's not even entertaining in the most lame, cheesy early 90s kinda way. Any redeeming qualities? Yeah. It ends.

7.) The New Nightmare (Wes Craven, 1994)
This largely successful sixth sequel revolves around a post-modern idea not unlike Craven's 1996 classic Scream. Indeed it does feel a little too much like a precursor to that superior film and isn't half as smart as it thinks it is, but it's still so, so much better than it ever deserved to be. It winks and nods to the original, placing Heather Langenkamp (Heather Langenkamp) in the middle of a real-life Freddy crisis, when Craven begins preparation on another movie in the series. It has some really nice gags and a few solid scares (you'd think the jumping-out-of-a-closet would have become tired by now wouldn't you?) but ultimately the satire can't work if the plot doesn't make sense. And much like the rest of the franchise, this one is all over the place. It's a nice idea which can be very fun - especially in the gory, original-referencing killing of Julie (Tracy Middendorf). But because the plot is about as coherent as any other when you put your mind to it, the sharpness and wit falls a bit flat. Its worth watching for the fiery finale however, which sees Freddy as the scariest he's been since Dream Warriors. It's a fitting climax which no doubt fans were begging for - and luckily Freddy stayed dead...until now.

It was always inevitable that a remake would appear, and I don't yet know what the film is like. But I do know that it can't touch the cheesy, practical-effects driven silliness of some of the installments, or the deep, chilling, psychological terror of Parts 1 and 3. Even a totally routine slasher will be better than Freddy's Dead, but then, so is being hit by a bus. No matter if you see the remake or not, be sure to check out the original franchise, when Freddy was a true horror icon (and, sadly, a stand up comedian). And whatever you do...don't...fall...asleep...

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