Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Z Is For Z Grade

The Blogging From A to Z Challenge has finally drawn to a close! I gotta say I never expected to survive this month. And I only cheated once or twice! It brings a tear to a weary eye. It's been a really interesting experience and I'm glad to have renewed motivation for blogging. It's something that I really enjoy.

There's something really rewarding about producing an easily visible body of work and watching it grow before your eyes that makes it worth it, even if I'm not being paid for it.


Year: 2003
Director: Don Coscarelli
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The final film of the final Theatrical Film Symposium class, an illustrious Monday night screening series that has been in session at Cal State Long Beach for 36 years, the professor of which finally announced his retirement this semester was the 2002 Bruce Campbell stinker Bubba Ho-Tep. I don't know whether to laugh or cry. All I know is that when I'm 105 and sickly, stubbornly clinging to the mortal coil, forget pulling the plug. Just pop in this Z-grade horror comedy and I'll swiftly lose my will to live.

Bubba Ho-Tep is one of those crafty predatory low budget films that lures you in with the sweet scent of an incredible premise before it swiftly dispatches you with a one-two punch of tedium and mediocrity. Somehow, even after the devastating Gingerdead Man incident of 2013, I still haven't learned my lesson.

You see, Bubba Ho-Tep is about Elvis (Bruce Campbell) and JFK (Ossie Davis) in a Texas retirement community fighting a mummy. How could I pass up an opportunity to watch a film like that?

In retrospect, easily.

It's a great idea, but it would have taken half of the film's crackerjack budget to license even a single Elvis song. Needless to say, that didn't happen. So what we're left with in the soundscape is the sweeping romantic score that makes every scene feel like the climax of Gone With the Wind and Elvis' endless and grating monologues as he lies in bed which, surprisingly, is not an inherently cinematic action.

I can forgive the low-budget puppet feel of the scarab beetle attack because that scene has enough goofy charm to outlive its effects, much like some of my favorite 80's horror scenes, but the film overall is so leaden and tedious that even the strongest and most overtly comic bits only elicit a late-night Tumblr laugh (ie. a brief expulsion of air through the nose).

Where I was expecting plenty of elderly hip thrusting and mummy punching, what I got instead was a series of "thematically important" old man boner jokes, a ceaseless cycle of repeating information we already know, and jokes even deader on the ground than the mummy who inexplicably wears a cowboy hat (including one about JFK's Marilyn Monroe that was set up to be hilarious but was deflated by a monumentally mundane punchline).

Even JFK being black was only funny for about .34 seconds.

And one of the most important potential thematic through lines (Are these men who they claim to be? Both of these historical figures have died and one is a different race - he claims to have been dyed by members of the conspiracy. Are they just deluded old men or the actual people?) is flat out ignored in favor of more penis, erection, old man penis, and penis cancer jokes.

I'm not even going to be upset by the misappropriation of Egyptian culture because I'd just be wasting my time. At least they got some of the symbols right although they clearly don't understand their significance.

Two ankhs in the same sentence? Give me a break.

The characters are intermittently mobile and JFK spends the entire finale in a wheelchair despite having been perfectly capable of walking around for the entire first hour of the movie. The plot is boring when it isn't inconsistent and the endless scenes of Elvis sleeping and waking up are only broken up by some admittedly well shot split-second flashes of horror imagery and exposition.

I suppose it's also not worth it to get mad that he gets flashes of exposition for no reason just by looking at certain objects that have been touched by the horror, an affliction all too common in low budget horror films that I'm going to call...  Spontaneous Unconscious Collection of Key-informationitis, or SUCK for short.

Bubba Ho-Tep wants to be a Sam Raimi movie but without Sam Raimi's pulse-pounding creativity at the helm, it is a limp waste of time with only a few scattered mildly amusing scenes.

TL;DR: Bubba Ho-Tep isn't the absolute worst film I've seen, but it's one of the most painful to watch despite a few successful comic scenes.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 810

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Census Bloodbath: Y Is For Yay! Almost Done!

This Blogging From A to Z Challenge post returns us to our regularly programmed Census Bloodbath, as I attempt to remember the fact that I originally intended to do this chronologically but was thwarted by my Nightmare marathon.

Year: 1980
Director: Danny Steinmann
Cast: Barbara Bach, Sydney Lassick, Karen Lamm
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Let us begin by saying that old slasher films had the absolute best marketing people in the business. That poster up there is dagummit fantastic and it's equally as good as the alternate poster. So much so that I almost just included both of them at the top of this page.

If posters and videocassette box designs were an adequate judge of a film's quality, this entire series of slasher reviews would unearth masterpiece after masterpiece. Needless to say, the publicity is misleading. Although The Unseen is certainly a unique entry in the slasher genre, it would take an Olympian stretch of the imagination to be able to call it "good."

The Unseen is one of those slasher films that was released in the twilight period during the few months after Friday the 13th came out, unable to rip off that film because they were already shot before it became popular. These films largely ripped off Halloween or Psycho and had a tendency to break the rules largely because they hadn't been invented yet.

The Unseen with its low body count, utter lack of gore, and sympathetic killer is one of them. Now, remember this does not make it good. Slashers tend to be graded on a curve and part of that curve is assessing what new or interesting things the film does within the confines of the genre. If it can't even follow the paradigm (through no fault of its own, considering that the paradigm didn't exist yet), it becomes something else entirely and that something else is usually just no darn good.

Think of this man as an early slasher: Dressed up real nice but untrustworthy.

The Unseen follows a trio of female reporters as they cover a Danish festival in the California town of Solvang (it's great to see a slasher set in a real life location that I've actually been to - it feels like they knew I was coming). The lead anchor, Jennifer Fast (Barbara Bach, the Bond girl from The Spy Who Loved Me), has just gotten out of an unfulfilling long term relationship with a pro footballer (Doug Barr, who would appear in Wes Craven's Deadly Blessing just one year later) who was benched permanently due to a knee injury. 

Her sister Karen (Karen Lamm) and their coworker Vicki (Lois Young) are interchangeable blondes so you know they're not going to live to see the closing credits. In fact, Vicki doesn't even get a name until after she dies, in the grand tradition of oh so many expendable Friday the 13th teens (several hundred of which were slaughtered in director Danny Steinmann's universally despised Friday the 13th: A New Beginning).

When their hotel reservations in Solvang fall through, the trio makes their way out of town until they stop at a secluded hotel. This hotel turns out to be out of service as it has been converted into a museum, which makes it the perfect location for a slasher film. Unfortunately the proprietor, Ernest Keller (Sydney Lassick) does not understand the opportunity that is being wasted and instead invites them to stay at the stately home he shares with his wife Virginia (Lelia Goldoni). 

Luckily for us, this home is well furnished with polished oak furniture, a full service restroom, and mysterious grates in the floor that lead to a cellar from which mysterious clanking noises emanate. When the sick Vicki is left alone to relax and take a bath, she learns all too well what those grates lead to as an unseen (geddit?) assailant drags her underneath, leaving behind her head. Because this is an 80's horror film after all, we get a glimpse of some full frontal before everything goes down.

And we're not the only ones.

As the girls begin to recognize the danger in the house and succumb to it, it is slowly revealed that the Kellers aren't all that they seem to be. I mean, obviously. They have a crazed killer in their basement. It turns out that Virginia is Ernest's sister, whom he has been abusing sexually and physically for years. The creature in the basement is their illegitimate child, a large mutated man who is essentially a giant baby who doesn't understand that his strength is hurting people.

In an interesting twist, it becomes clear that Ernest is the true villain despite never murdering a single person as has been tormenting Virginia and their son for decades. This storyline as well as several side plots about attempted castration, abortion, and shattered career dreams make The Unseen an unusually dark member of the proto-slasher family. Although the film that holds their story is tremendously boring at times, it's hard not to connect with the victimized Kellers and their plight.

Although watching the cycle of abuse being carried out is harrowing, much of the movie is spent on Jennifer and her dull exploits as she traipses around being the single least effective horror movie heroine of all time. In fact, her entire Final Girl sequence could have been wrapped up in a solid minute if she was smart enough to realize that the kindhearted but scaryfaced Junior didn't want to hurt her.

Honestly, the best performance of the film. He's surprisingly adorable.

Or if she thought to grab the axe that's just sitting there in the chicken coop she hides out in. Or if she understood the fact that a couple bags of chicken feed aren't going to kill a man. Or if she could crawl at more than .01 miles per hour. Jennifer is the worst. But luckily her lack of prowess allows Virginia to empower herself in an attempt to save herself, her baby, and his potential victims.

It's satisfying in an unusually resonant way for a film of this pedigree, although it's still not enough to lift the film up from being a muted slog. The best I can say is that it's halfway decent. For every good element like the slinky jazz score that actually sounds like its own entity and not just a John Carpenter riff like all other 1980 horror, there's an equal and opposite negative element like the roar of white noise that fills in the space between every line of dialogue, making it sound like the house has an unusually persistent janitor using a Dyson.

It's endlessly frustrating and the film stops and starts too many times to get any real momentum going, all of which is killed during the final twenty minutes where the entire plot gets stuck in the mud for all but two or three shimmering moments. All in all, I don't regret having watched The Unseen because the story it told was interesting, even if it was mega depressing. But I would never ever ever watch it again.

Killer: Junior Keller (Stephen Furst)
Final Girl: Jennifer Fast (Barbara Bach)
Best Kill: Karen is killed when her scarf dangles above the grate and is pulled through, slamming her face against the metal.
Sign of the Times: The very first scene opens with this guy.

Scariest Moment: The way Ernest treats Virginia when they're alone together is a disarmingly blunt look at incest and domestic abuse.
Weirdest Moment: Ernest has an angry conversation with Virginia while he attaches an increasingly absurd number of clothespins to his face.
Champion Dialogue: "Blow your nose, my sweet little honey bunch."
Body Count: 4; including the killer but not including the decapitated chicken.
  1. Vicki is pulled into the grate and is crushed in the process.
  2. Karen's scarf is yanked into the grate and her face is smashed into the metal.
  3. Junior is hit in the head with a nail stuck through a board.
  4. Ernest is shot through the chest by his sister/wife. 
TL;DR: The Unseen is an interesting and dark early entry in the slasher genre, but it's not good enough to merit a rewatch.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1376

Monday, April 28, 2014

X Is For Xtraterrestrials

I know that the title is cheating a little bit and I know that this post is so brief but the Blogging From A to Z Challenge is kicking my butt. I'm just happy to have made it this far with more or less consistent posting, this month leading up to semester finals has been fraught with danger and busywork.

Year: 1998
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Cast: Jodana Brewster, Clea DuVall, Laura Harris
Run Time: 1 hour 44 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The Faculty is a charming coming-of-age monster movie that has been unfortunately buried in the detritus of the 90's despite its hurricane force cast of past, present, and future stars. Penned by Scream writer Kevin Williamson (but thankfully largely devoid of that franchise's self referential sense of humor, which could only survive for so long away from its source), composed by Marco Beltrami, another Scream alumnus, and directed by Robert Rodriguez, The Faculty couldn't help but be charming no matter how cheesy it is.

And oh boy is it cheesy. When parasitic body-snatching aliens begin to replace all the faculty and students of Herrington High School, a team of unruly outcasts must band together to defeat the menace.  These outcasts include the local nerd (a pre-Frodo Elijah Wood), a nonconformist science fiction geek (Clea DuVall), the head of the school newspaper (Jordana Brewster), the football team captain who recently quite in order to pursue his academics (Shawn Hatosy) the hyper intelligent but unmotivated drug dealer (Josh Hartnett, who appeared in that same year's Halloween: H20), and the new transfer student from the South (Laura Harris).

So many sweaty teenage dreams would be fueled by this then-unknown cast.

If that cast of soon to be A and B-listers of the early 2000's wasn't enough, the faculty is even more impressive. The principal? Bebe Neuwirth. The football coach? T2's Robert Patrick. The shy English teacher? Famke Janssen. The... I dunno, something important? Piper Laurie, Carrie's mom in the flesh. The school nurse? Salma Hayek. The science teacher? Jon Stewart.

Just to rub in how much cooler they are than us, the filmmakers also threw in Usher as a rival football player. From that sort of name brand cast alone, this movie is worth watching. But it's also a delightful B-movie amped up with 90's sensibilities and effects and a committed teen cast. It's not gonna change the world, but it tells the story of disenchanted youth growing together under a unified threat.

Deliciously sweet and astoundingly cool, it's everything horror fans of the day could have asked for. Plenty of action for the horror hounds, plenty of humor for the bored, plenty of high school themes for the youths and plenty of creative insults for those who are keeping track of the massive lexicon of 90's slang.

You're welcome.

TL;DR: The Faculty is a cheesy and witty monster movie that's perfect for the 90's horror fan.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 489

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Beat It, Essay: W Is For Wes

Today's Blogging From A to Z Challenge post is the one I've been leading up to all month, my essay on the illustrious Nightmare on Elm Street franchise!

The Prompt
A) Compare and contrast A Nightmare on Elm Street and Wes Craven's New Nightmare, the two films that Wes Craven wrote and directed, with the seven that he didn't direct or solely write. Which films work better and why?
B) Why is Freddy such an iconic figure? 

Wes Craven is a director who I hold in such high esteem, I immediately jumped on the chance to write this essay even though I wrote an analysis of his earlier works just one semester ago. Wes Craven is one of the most important living horror filmmakers and the Nightmare franchise is perhaps his greatest legacy.

It all started in 1984 with the release of the immediate classic A Nightmare on Elm Street, a film that took the moribund slasher genre and turned it on its ear, transforming an anemic and formulaic film style into something beautiful and ethereal. This film introduced the villainous Freddy Krueger, a notorious child killer given the power to haunt dreams who seeks revenge on the children of the lynch mob that burned him to death.

As reflected in its title, A Nightmare on Elm Street is about the dark side of suburbia and the family secrets that are hidden away behind closed doors. The children receive comeuppance for the sins of their fathers until one bright and intrepid young woman learns to face her fears head on and address them, taking away their power.

The film was a massive success both because of its elegantly conceived and cunning scare sequences that crossed the line between reality and fantasy and the storyline that resonated with disillusioned teens across the country. There comes a time in every young person's life where they begin to see through the lies that their parents tell them and realize that the world, even the safe, intimate world inside their own home, is not what it seems to be.

The suspicion that develops from this realization is similarly displayed in the film, which derives its horror from the idea that the secret your family is hiding could be potentially dangerous. The traumatic rupturing of that feeling of intimacy inside one's own home is likewise escalated in Nightmare because the teens aren't even protected in the most vulnerable and intimate location - their own heads.

The impact of the original film was enormous as was the box office revenue, so the natural next step was to rush a sequel into production, something New Line did with gusto. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge was a haphazard production, needlessly reshuffling the Freddy mythology with a confusing mixture of winking homoerotic licentiousness and unintentional humor.

Craven returned to course correct the franchise with Dream Warriors, the film that marked the beginning of Nightmare's descent into self parody, the only obvious route for avoiding the sequel pitfall of endlessly repeating the same basic plot line to diminishing returns. Although a different director and screenwriter watered down the material, Freddy attacks his victims using their biggest weakness, forcing them to find the internal strength to overcome them, something which again resonated with the teen audiences and sent the film's profits skyrocketing.

The Dream Master was more of the same, although Freddy had at that point fully converted from shadowy menace to a chuckling prankster. That film survived on the strength of an impressive visual vocabulary and another strong heroine in Lisa Wilcox's Alice Johnson, but its followup, The Dream Child, was an absurd mess that contented itself with sending a slate of paper-thin characters (one of whom is, at one point, literally made of paper) through a series of garish nightmare setpieces while Freddy spouts bland puns like a forlorn James Bond.

After the abject failure of the fifth film, New Line went all in on one final entry, Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, which was slightly improved but equally useless and meaningless. After realizing that they had sent their biggest cash cow six feet under, New Line begged Craven to return to the franchise he created. He agreed, but couldn't manage to find a through line to pick up a sequel from, so he was forced to get creative with Wes Craven's New Nightmare.

Although two films would follow New Nightmare, Freddy vs. Jason in 2003 and the remake in 2010, both were too modernized and uniform, the sanitization of the time buffing out the inherent qualities of the franchise into a dull sheen and as such have no impact on the analysis and discussion of A Nightmare on Elm Street as a whole.

Wes Craven's New Nightmare is the only sequel to equal and perhaps even surpass the intelligence and artistry of the original film with its unique discussion of the nature of modern horror movies and the fact that it's set in reality, with the Freddy menace seeking to break from fiction into our dimension. Just like the first film, the parent and child relationship is at the forefront, although this time it is the antithesis as Heather Langenkamp (the actress who played Nancy Thompson, the heroine of A Nightmare on Elm Street) seeks to protect her son from succumbing to the dream demon as he exerts his will on our reality.

A Nightmare on Elm Street and Wes Craven's New Nightmare are the two best films in the entire franchise, and it is no coincidence that they were both written and directed by Mr. Craven. Both want to tell us more about the world and ourselves instead of merely wowing us with outré special effects, and both are bone-chilling, a quality lacking in every single film not under his influence. This is largely due to his writing talent and his understanding of important themes that resonate with viewers of all ages.

But it also stems from his awareness that well-fleshed out characters are what drives horror. Parts 3 through 6 had one-dimensional characters that only had one (or less) character trait apiece, but Craven's heroes and victims are all multi-faceted and utterly real. They may not be all likable, but they are all recognizable as human beings and thus the horrific circumstances they find themselves under have greater impact.

Dylan's attempt to reach God in New Nightmare by jumping off the top of a playground structure could easily have been shallow and silly if included in any of the other films in the franchise, but because Craven is behind the camera, the scene has a real impact because the audience cares deeply for the boy and understands his plight from both Dylan and his mother's perspective. Every character in both films has a recognizable relationship with every other character, making the universe of the films complete and settling the audience into the reality that will soon be rent apart.

These films ultimately work better than their brethren because of this fact as well as Craven's intimate understanding of the abject terror of nightmares. The anemic slate of sequels that bridges the gap between his two masterpieces don't all fare poorly in comparison, but none of them can reach the level of genius achieved by a master working his craft and pushing the boundaries of the genre.

The non-Craven films focus on Freddy as the central figure, whereas his films find their strength in an identifiable and capable female protagonist. The reason they fail to be as effective stems from this mistake. Freddy works best as a villain because his backstory is too simple to make him an adequate protagonist, even as an anti-hero. With no real story to draw from other than "he was evil in life as in death," this forced him into compromising positions, eliciting the clownish behavior which was meant to accentuate his evil but turned him into a pale parody of his old self.

The nominal protagonists and side characters of these films became increasingly insubstantial and bland (even Alice, the great heroine from The Dream Master, became just another cookie-cutter teen in its inept followup), straying far from the original intention of creating characters that held a mirror up to the youth of the day and then put them through the ringer, forcing them to see the dark reality of their protected suburban lives. The franchise became vaudeville, passing the time and managing to be entertaining without the depth and impact of Craven's work, all through one ineffable miscalculation stemming from the fact that the villain was the most obvious character to keep consistent through the endless parade of sequels.

So how did this increasingly cartoonish villain make his way into the pop culture pantheon, becoming a long-lasting icon even today? One key element to his success and that of the franchise was Robert Englund. Aside from being a talented and menacing man, Englund played Krueger consistently, all the way to the end. Englund appeared in every film until the 2010 remake and even starred in the short-lived television show Freddy's Nightmares.

Having Freddy played by the same actor throughout the sequels provided him a leg up when compared to the anonymous herd of stuntmen who would end up playing Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers in rival slasher franchises. Audiences in the 80's wanted familiarity because the world around them was already so uncertain. With the looming threat of nuclear disaster poking a hole in the lives of idyllic suburbanites everywhere and the contradictions of then-president Ronald Reagan posing larger and larger problems, audiences felt a pleasant wave of nostalgia when seeing Freddy again and again, like visiting an old friend.

Also, thanks to those same societal issues, Nightmare's themes about dark secrets and hidden dangers in even the most perfect-seeming households were something that the teens of the day could relate to with great acuity. Having a horror film that truly understood their woes from a man with his fair share of family skeletons in the closet gave them relief like no other and the lessening of terror elements as the franchise went along helped comfort viewers even more as the nation entered its next period of transition.

Another enormous benefit to the popularity of Mr. Fred Krueger was his status as an inhabitant of the dream world. The concept that makes him most terrifying is that escape is an impossibility. If Jason is chasing you, you can possibly run faster than his loping gait and escape to Australia. If the Blob is coming, you can freeze it with fire extinguishers. But if Freddy wants to kill you, he doesn't have to move a muscle.

Our nightmares might all be different, but we have one thing in common - sleep. Sleep is where we are most vulnerable and the dream world is a mysterious realm over which we have no control. We all must enter that stage of life with defenses lowered.

Sleep is Freddy's domain, a mysterious dimension that your body forces you to return to no matter how hard you might try to fight it. If you stay awake too long, you die. If you fall asleep, you're murdered. And the longer you're awake, the less mental and physical agility you will have when it finally comes time to face your attacker.

Even more problematic are the adults in the film, the people who unwittingly released this monster into the nightmares of their offspring. Their skewed perceptions of the entire affair have them believe that sleep is the one thing their children need to take them out of the stress-filled and harrowing state they are in, and sometimes the measures they take in order to protect their children are exactly what lead them to their inevitable demise.

Freddy is no mere slasher villain. He is an anthropomorphic representation of our primal fears. First and foremost is the fear of where we go when we're asleep. The world of our dreams is something we will perhaps never understand, a phantasmagoria of shadows and half-glimpsed images from deep within our subconscious that preys on our innermost thoughts and fears.

Freddy has access to this closed off part of ourselves, something we barely even register is there. It is mysterious and lurking and for him to have access is for him to invade our most intimate structures, more intimate than our bedrooms or even our bodies. Freddy can manipulate the worlds inside of us that we can never understand, and as such he is the ultimate boogeyman. He is not merely a creature of the darkness, but a creature of the darkness within ourselves.

Freddy exposes the evil hiding behind every curtain not only by being an example of that evil in his life, but also by exploiting the evil of those we trust most and using it to gain access to our innermost fears. His use of claws represents the primal nature of his existence. Back at the dawn of humankind, one of the most basic and primal fears was death at the hands of a wild creature, its sharp claws tearing our soft flesh apart. Freddy and his claws come from this place deep within, the very essential foundation of fear itself.

The wicked glee with which he wields his blades comes from a place of pure evil, no matter how clownish he becomes. That is what makes him such an effective horror villain, and that is why he is permanently glued to modern pop culture, an entity that - like it or not - is driven by what we fear, whether it is in an attempt to escape it, embrace it, or empower ourselves against it.

Even in its darkest, most disappointing depths, the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise exposes the fear and calamity that threatens to crumble our carefully structured and largely imaginary suburban society. Human history is full of darkness and our feeble attempts at hiding that fact to protect our children dooms them even further, something Freddy (and his creator, Wes Craven) knows all too well.
Word Count: 2339

Saturday, April 26, 2014

V Is For Valueless

Today's Blogging From A to Z Challenge post marks the final entry in our Nightmare marathon! After I write and publish my essay you'll never have to hear me talk about Freddy Krueger ever again! Not that I'm going to stop, but we'll definitely be taking a break from him, especially considering the sour taste this final film puts in my mouth.

Year: 2010
Director: Samuel Bayer
Cast: Jackie Earle Haley, Rooney Mara, Kyle Gallner
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Music video director Samuel Bayer turned down the offer to direct this film, but after receiving a long email from producer Michael Bay explaining how it could further his career, he reluctantly accepted the job. This isn't exactly the position you want the director to be in when he is tasked with recreating one of the most personal and iconic horror masterpieces of the 1980's.

Aside from making Google searches for Freddy Krueger needlessly frustrating, this film had little to no impact on society because, let's face it, Freddy Krueger is still alive. He didn't need to be reborn. The last film starring Robert Englund as the villainous dream demon came out in 2003, a mere seven years before this remake. And before that came a full two decades of playing that same character with gusto, making him an international icon.

We haven't forgotten Freddy Krueger. He's still a Halloween icon and will be that way until some new director, perhaps with the initials B. K., can come up with a new villain even half as inspired and clever. Despite Jackie Earle Haley's multiple talents, trying to impose this new icon on us so soon is just a slap in the face.

A slap in the face with sharp razor claws.

A Nightmare on Elm Street tells the story of a group of teens in Springwood who begin to have strange nightmares about being stalked by a man in a dirty red and green sweater with CGI burns on his face. Nancy Holbrook (Rooney Mara) is the protagonist because her name is Nancy, although we don't even get to see any of her dreams until near the finale of the film.

Her Meat friends are Dean (Kellan Lutz), a pretty blonde with no personality; Kris (Katie Cassidy), a pretty blonde with no personality who is smart enough to set her burglar alarm but dumb enough to leave the door unlocked and the window open; Jesse (Thomas Dekker) a pretty brunette douchebag; and Quentin (Kyle Gallner), who refuses to take off his stupid beanie and has a crush on Nancy.

Do I need to tell you the rest? You die in the dreams, you die in real life. Whatever you do, don't fall asleep. Freddy Krueger is getting revenge on the people who killed him. We've been through this. Many scenes are just shot for shot remakes of classic scenes in the original, only more boring and perfunctory.

Where Wes Craven is a master at building tension in a tactile world full of living, breathing human beings, Bayer & Co. quote his best visuals without an ounce of the craftsmanship in a world populated by characters that are essentially just pretty mannequins. The tense scene in the bathtub where Freddy's claw slowly reaches toward his unwary prey is replaced with a casual and brief flick of the wrist, like he just popped in to say hi.

It's harder for Michael Bay to not make a bathtub scene feel sleazy.

My favorite death in the original, where Tina is pulled to the ceiling against her will and rent apart in a staggeringly beautiful display of bloodletting gets a meager substitute when Kris is pinballed around her room and slashed without prelude. The elegant and simple scene where Freddy stretches through the plaster ceiling above a sleeping Nancy is replaced with this rough hewn CGI monstrosity.

Honey, I can hear orcs running around in the walls again.

All of this serves to take away the elegance and tactility and tension and everything I've ever cared about. And most (perhaps least) importantly, it's just no fun. Craven's film can be dark at times but there's always a sense of giddy horror pulsing beneath the surface. Here it's just grimy, loud, and angry.

Not that I would expect Michael Bay and his posse to understand subtlety, but the entire film operates under the philosophy that louder and faster means better, which is patently untrue. If it were, I'd be writing this essay on the Fast and Furious movies.

The film artlessly transitions from place to place, sometimes just slamming the lights off and on to transport a character into the dream world. Freddy is full of misplaced malice that jars the audience considering the extensive flashbacks that try to humanize him or at least make him mildly sympathetic. And when he drags his claws along the metal machinery of the boiler room, it lets out a Disneyland fireworks finale level of sparks.

With less Julie Andrews.

Even the little girls jump roping are fast! It's like they're training for the Playground Olympics.

Jackie Earle Haley tries his best, but his Freddy voice sounds like he spent the last week gargling with thumbtacks and he laughs like Roz the slug from Monsters Inc. Speaking of slugs, his makeup is a horrendous abomination that makes his mouth nearly impossible to dub. And his palpable anger is so far from the character as we know him, only serving to make this "gritty" remake more unnecessarily grim.

Although it's not like he's the worst performer on set. The teen actors put even Ronnee Blakley (the mother from the original) to shame with only Rooney Mara escaping with some semblance of dignity. She does a fairly good job of anchoring Nancy in a human register despite the fact that her character is just a meat puppet who is arbitrarily pulled to each new stage of the plot with no motivation whatsoever.

The remake does have a couple good ideas, like the introduction of micronaps where Nancy's tired brain shuts off for several seconds at a time, during which Freddy can appear. The film has some fun with these, and it also took the leap to make Freddy quite clearly a former child molester, something the original film only implied. Whether this is ballsy or tactless is your decision to make.

So no. It's not the worst movie ever made with a fairly strong female lead and one or two fresh ideas. But it's bogged down by its redundancy as a narrative, the embarrassingly uniconic performance of its villain, and the watering down of Craven's masterwork into a bland pop-processed piece of garbage. It's just too boring to have a leg to stand on.

The best I can say about this film is that is did make me afraid of the dark. As I walked across my ill-lit apartment floor, I felt a cold shiver of fear down my spine with the chilling dread that my TV might spontaneously turn back on and force me to watch this piece of crap again.

Killer: Freddy Krueger (Jackie Earle Haley)
Final Girl: Nancy Holbrook (Rooney Mara)
Best Kill: (SPOILERS - if you're into that sort of thing. I wouldn't be.) The one that closes out the film because it is so unexpectedly gory after a grim and dull hour and a half.

Sign of the Times: All the extras in the classroom scene sport Justin Bieber haircuts.
Weirdest Moment: Despite all the scenes that were remade shot for shot, nobody saw fit to include the classic "Fountain of Blood" sequence.
Scariest Moment: The characters drive by a gas station where a gallon cost $2.91
Champion Dialogue: "And then it says that after that, your brain will shut down, inducing a coma. Which is permanent sleep."
Body Count: 4
  1. Dean's throat is slit by a steak knife.
  2. Kristen is slashed and lifted into the air.
  3. Jesse is disembowled with the glove.
  4. [Gwen is stabbed through the eyes from the back of her head.]
TL;DR: A Nightmare on Elm Street is a pointless and rotten remake of an 80's classic.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1363
Reviews In This Series
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven, 1984)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Bayer, 2010)

Friday, April 25, 2014

U Is For Ultimate Showdown

Today's Blogging From A to Z Challenge post is the second to last entry in the Nightmare marathon! We're almost to the end, you guys! Just the crappy remake is left and although I'll have to suffer through it, goodness knows how much I love tearing into bad movies.

Year: 2003
Director: Ronny Yu
Cast: Robert Englund, Ken Kirzinger, Monica Keena
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I gotta say, I don't hate spending time with Freddy, but it's nice to have some of my boy Jason back in my life.

For a very long time, Freddy vs. Jason was a pipe dream stuck in the seventh circle of development hell. During their heyday in the 80's, New Line owned the rights to the Nightmare franchise but the Friday-owning Paramount didn't seem keen on teaming up and the contract fell through. However, after the devastating flop of Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, Paramount sold the rights to New Line after which they promptly put a stake in its heart with Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, sending it six feet under to join Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare.

With its two biggest cash cows out to pasture, New Line realized their mistake, but the film continued to fail to come together. In the interim, Wes Craven's New Nightmare and Jason X were released, effectively throwing a wrench into franchise continuity, but it's not like anybody ever cared about that before so whatever. After another decade of struggle, Freddy vs. Jason finally saw the light of day in 2003, making it the first Nightmare film in nine years and the first Friday film in two (although the gap between Jason X and the film before it was seven long gratuitous nudity-less years).

After all that work, it's a little surprising that the resulting product is pretty crappy, although it probably shouldn't be.

It REALLY shouldn't be.

The movie opens fairly reverently, with a sequence about Freddy (the eternal Robert Englund in his final performance as the character he made into an icon) lamenting being forgotten by the citizens of Springwood, thus sapping him of his powers. Already this flies in the face of Freddy's Dead, but the more people pretend that film doesn't exist, the better the world will be.

In order to strike fear into the hearts of Springwood teens he revives Jason (Ken Kirzinger, who is certainly not as memorable as the four-time Jason and fan favorite Kane Hodder he replaced, but whose intimidating height still makes for a good slasher villain) from the dead and sends him to 1428 Elm Street to work his magic.

Or, what passes for Elm Street, anyway. Due to budget concerns, Freddy vs. Jason was shot in Canada so the original house was unusable. The substitute house is something akin to replacing Daniel Radcliffe with Tommy Wiseau as Harry Potter and hoping nobody would notice. The film sheepishly hides its architecture behind shrubs and in the corners of shots.

The alarmingly Freddy-centric script reveals that even behind the scenes, people were picking favorites, but once Jason goes rogue and begins slicing and dicing before Freddy can even snag a daydream here and there, the two powerful forces turn against each other in an ultimate showdown, battling on each other's home turfs (the dream world and Camp Crystal Lake), swapping weapons at one point, and generally providing a lot of the fan service that was missing from the first half of the film.

And plenty of that red, red krovvy.

Director Ronny Yu hails from the world of Hong Kong action cinema, so it makes sense why the final battle would be so kinetic and dynamic but the rest of the film lackluster. Unfortunately, it is important to remember that these are both horror franchises and, no matter how anemic they may have gotten through the years, it's important to at least try to be scary, something this film fails to accomplish at any reasonable level.

The gore is great when it's around and I love myself some bucket-sized blood splashes, but the nightmare sequences and sets are far too slick and polished and (dare I say) early 2000's to really pack a whallop. The grubby and tactile worlds of the low budget 80's films were a huge part of the appeal of both these franchises and Freddy vs. Jason buffs it all out into a uniform sheen.

Speaking of uniform, it's time to talk about the cast. Bland, forgettable, and vaguely attractive, the characters all blend together to the point where I lost track of who was even an entity in the film, but as far as I can tell the main characters are Kia (Kelly Rowland), the fortunately not token Token Black Character; Gibb (Katharine Isabelle), who is female; Gibb's boyfriend Trey (Jesse Hutch), who is preparing an audition for the stage adaptation of my award-winning children's book The Douchiest Douche; Blake (David Kopp), who is male and has a dad; Linderman (Chris Marquette), a nerd who magically transforms into a main character once enough cast members have died; and Bill (Kyle Labine), a stoner who magically transforms into a main character once enough cast members have died.

Only because Jay and Silent Bob weren't available.

Our resident Final Girl is Lori Campbell (Monica Keena from Undeclared, one of my favorite short-lived sitcoms), a girl who is haunted by the death of her mother and the disappearance of her boyfriend Will (Jason Ritter), both mysteries that begin to be solved once she uncovers the Freddy Krueger secret, something the town has been trying to keep under wraps.

I'm sure genre savvy readers have noticed the Final Girl's similarity to one Laurie Strode, the survivor of Halloween. Good job, genre savvy readers!

Now look. I love characters named for slasher references as much as the next guy (in fact, considerably more than the next guy), but when it's this intrusive and her name is said so frequently, it just gets annoying, especially considering that Monica Keena is nowhere near Jamie Lee Curtis in terms of talent, charisma, or looks. In fact, she is so inconsequential an actress, there are no screenshots of her readily available despite the fact that she is nominally the star of the film. At least on the human side of things.

Although she's not the worst actress in the film, the entire cast could win the blue ribbon in a Leaden Line Delivery Competition. Even the evergreen Robert Englund finally seems to have gotten tired of saying the word "bitch" all the time. It doesn't help that his makeup has been needlessly milleniumified and is just too glossy to be threatening.

 It's like watching a Bratz doll make razor puns.

All in all the film is amusing, but it's not a particularly memorable entry in either franchise. With some work (and maybe a directing credit by one Mr. Brennan Klein), an absolutely perfect film could be made out of this premise, but as it stands, it is an only OK vehicle for two kingpins of pop culture. It's harmless, but it didn't do justice to their grand legacies.

Killer: Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) & Jason Voorhees (Ken Kirzinger)
Final Girl: Lori Campbell (Monica Keena)
Best Kill: Trey is ruthlessly machete punched as he lies face down on a bed which is then folded backwards. A fitting comeuppance for the single worst character in the film.

Sign of the Times: Kelly Rowland is in this film and inexplicably doesn't die.
Scariest Moment: Jason has a field day at a cornfield rave, slicing through the crowd with his beloved machete. Side note: This is perhaps the only Nightmare film to actually show corn in the Ohio town of Springwood.
Weirdest Moment: Freddy becomes a terribly rendered bong-smoking caterpillar.

Champion Dialogue: "Dude, that goalie was pissed about something."
Body Count: Jason - 18; 19 if you count Freddy, which I do   Freddy - 1; dude's gotta step up

  1. Heather is impaled with a machete. (Jason)
  2. Trey is machete punched in the spine, then folded in half backwards. (Jason)
  3. Blake's Dad is decapitated by a machete. (Jason)
  4. Blake is slashed with a machete. (Jason) 
  5. Glow Stick Raver is impaled with a pipe. (Jason) 
  6. Gibb is impaled with a pipe. (Jason) 
  7. Shack's Friend has his head twisted around. (Jason) 
  8. Shack is impaled by a flaming machete. (Jason) 
  9. Raver #1 is sliced with a machete. (Jason) 
  10. Raver #2 is sliced with a machete. (Jason) 
  11. Raver #3 is slashed in the shoulder. (Jason) 
  12. Raver #4 is slashed in the stomach. (Jason) 
  13. Raver #5 is sliced with a machete. (Jason) 
  14. Mark has his face slashed with razors and is set on fire. (Freddy)
  15. Security Guard is crushed by a heavy door. (Jason) 
  16. Deputy Stubbs is electrocuted on a console. (Jason) 
  17. Freeburg is chopped in half with a machete. (Jason) 
  18. Linderman is impaled on a shelf bracket. (Jason) 
  19. Kia is slashed with a machete. (Jason) 
  20. Freddy Krueger gets his arm ripped off, stabbed with his own glove, and decapitated. (Jason & Lori)  
TL;DR: Freddy vs. Jason is nowhere near the nostalgic extravaganza it should have been, but it's still a delightful dumb movie.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1534
Reviews In This Series
Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980)
Friday the 13th Part 2 (Miner, 1981)
Friday the 13th Part 3: 3D (Miner, 1982)
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (Zito, 1984)
Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (Steinmann, 1985)
Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (McLoughlin, 1986)
Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (Buechler, 1988)
Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (Hedden, 1989)
Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (Marcus, 1993)
Jason X (Isaac, 2001)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
Friday the 13th (Nispel, 2009)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven, 1984)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (Sholder, 1985)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Russell, 1987)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (Harlin, 1988)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (Hopkins, 1989)
Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (Talalay, 1991)
Wes Craven's New Nightmare (Craven, 1994)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Bayer, 2010)

Thursday, April 24, 2014

T Is For Teen Angst

Today's Blogging From A to Z Challenge is a review of one of the last screenings in my Horror class before finals! We watched a classic film majory film that I was previously ashamed to admit I had never seen. Well now I have! So there! I'm waiting for my official film major acceptance package in the mail.

Year: 2001
Director: Richard Kelly
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell
Run Time: 1 hour 53 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Donnie Darko is one of those films that the audience renders untouchable. Love it or hate it (and many of my peers do love it), nothing will change your mind after the first time you watch it. For me, being so far behind in my cinematic development that I never watched Donnie Darko during my tender formative years, I am perhaps the one person who landed in the camp exactly between the two.

Set in 1988, Donnie Darko tells the tale of... whatever you want it to be, really. The plot at even its most basic level is so full of time warps, bizarre philosophical discussions, and hallucinations that it's nearly impossible to describe simply except for the fact that Jake Gyllenhaal (who is a freaking baby in 2001) plays Donnie Darko, a troubled teen who lives in conservative suburbia in 1988.

After nearly escaping death when a jet engine crashes through his roof and demolishes his bedroom, Donnie starts seeing Frank, a six foot tall bunny rabbit who tells him that the world is going to end and commands him to perform disruptive acts like arson or flooding his high school. I won't delve too far into things because director and writer Richard Kelly builds an exceedingly complex mythology around the whole thing that would take more than its fair share of paragraphs to accurately convey.

And I wouldn't want to ruin the WTF experience for any first-timers. Love it or hate it, it's a valuable part of anybody's development as a moviegoer.

An accurate depiction of me showing people horror movies. 
From left to right: Put-Upon Friend, Sleepy Boyfriend, Me.

Before I say more, let me make it clear that the only version of this film I have seen is the director's cut which evidently differs from the theatrical cut in that it makes even a cursory attempt at explaining what is happening. Although it's still an opaque mystery, the use of intertitles provides a framework for understanding the film's structure that the theatrical audiences never had. 

Given that the director's cut is still a massively inscrutable rummage sale of symbolism and metaphor and angry teenage ramblings, I can't imagine how many Ibuprofen the original audiences must have popped in order to survive the thing.

But it became a cult sensation presumably through its depiction of a high school student who feels like an outsider despite being light years smarter than everybody around him. His community is lead by people who are driven by consumerism, get their philosophy from self-help tapes, and never question the world around them. 

His ability to see through this and expose the darkness, hypocrisy and lies in the carefully structured environment his parents raised him in must have struck a chord with students across America when the film was released 13 years ago. Set in 1988 at the height of the yuppie conservative boom, Donnie Darko is a cry for help from a man who felt stuck between the truth of the world and the facade of American prosperity.

It probably didn't hurt that baby Gyllenhaal has a quite compelling face.

Donnie's experience with a shifty psychiatrist and useless brain pills also mirrored the dissatisfaction of the ADD generation, who were feeling dislocated from schools and the desires of their parents. Seeing as that era is largely behind us and I'm pretty much a mostly adult, it's understandable why Donnie Darko didn't blow me away with its story and themes, a large portion of which I felt were too enigmatic for their own good.

Although I do sincerely appreciate this movie for inviting the audience to think hard about its meaning and the meaning of the world around them, to truly understand this film to its fullest extent is nearly impossible because in order to do that you probably have to be Richard Kelly.

But although the storytelling is dubious, one can not ignore the skill behind the camera. This is a beautifully shot film and one sequence in particular, an establishing montage of the high school set to Tears For Fears' "Head Over Heels" is majestic in a way that leaves me with no doubts why so many people claim this to be their favorite movie.

And again, the face.

Jake Gyllenhaal is perfectly cast as an alien in his own world whose every sentence cuts his conservative elders to the bone. With enough snark to become a stellar antihero and enough fear and warmth to endear himself to the teenage audience and keep them relating with his struggles, this is perhaps one of the talented performer's best film roles.

It's perhaps not my cup of tea for its spaghetti plot and thoroughly dark message, but I did really enjoy watching this film and its status as a cult classic shall never be contested on the pages of this blog.

TL;DR: Donnie Darko's creative visuals and dense symbolic storytelling don't lend it to easy consumption but mark it as a powerful effort from a green director.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 917