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ekm’s 31 NIGHTS OF HORROR: EVENING 5 – EVERY TOWN HAS AN ELM STREET

 

As children, we were all afraid of the Boogeyman: a formless threat who lived under our collective beds, lying in wait until the house was quiet so that he might creep out and kill us in our sleep.  If there is one indisputable strength in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, it’s the writer/director’s ability to synthesize the invisible iconography of childhood fear and give the Boogeyman both a definitive and universally recognizable identity.  With his loose slouch, burnt face, crumpled Pervert Fedora, and optically-challenging red and green sweater, Freddy Krueger is Stranger Danger personified and the loping threat of innocence betrayed.  Hell, he also lived under your bed, in a manner of speaking; the owner of a silhouette every kid dreads to see standing in the doorway long after Mommy and Daddy have fallen asleep.  Even his calling card – the hair-raising sound of terrifyingly-long fingernails on a chalkboard – awakens a primal fear embedded deep in the subconscious of children and adults alike. 

What amplifies this terror is Craven’s reversal of childhood expectation; Mommy and Daddy can’t ward off the Boogeyman because Mommy and Daddy created the Boogeyman.  A Nightmare on Elm Street is a story that can only exist in the faraway days before the advent of the internet, as its heartbeat pumps blood through a narrative system built upon the secrets and lies our parents and community leaders hide in the closet while putting on a show of normality through elaborate Thanksgiving dinners and weekly trips to Sunday School.  The horror behind picket fences in Anytown, USA, is the bad dream of both Liberal and Conservative America, as children inherit the mistakes of their well-meaning but ultimately doomed predecessors.  While it isn’t difficult to sympathize with the Springwood parents who burnt Krueger alive for murdering their offspring, the perversion of the American dream into a literal and figurative nightmare of broken homes and familial dysfunction brilliantly underlined the sweeping social changes that were coming to a head in 1984 — changes that would inevitably inform the generations to follow.  Truly, we are all Freddy Krueger’s children now.

The sequels built upon these ideas, but introduced further terror by way of Gay Panic.  Thanks to the internet, the subtext found in Freddy’s Revenge has unfairly become that which, for better or worse, will forever define the film.  Term paper discussions on the narrative’s suspected metaphor for latent and emerging homosexuality in the homophobic upper-middle class suburbia of the mid-1980s are no longer the late-night speculation of horror fans; latter-day bloggers and would-be critics lacking historical reference betray their vantage point by simply referring to it as “the gay one.”  Yet Freddy’s Revenge is indeed oozing with homoeroticism, whether through the pseudo-sexual courtship of its male-on-male-on-male love triangle (because let’s face it: we all know Lisa is both a fourth and a fifth wheel in the Jesse/Grady/Krueger threesome), or our protagonist’s fear that his physical compulsions are manifesting in the form of a hideous, destructive, and unlovable Other who hides inside his body, both alienating and annihilating his friends and family.  In the Reagan years of extreme political conservatism and the burgeoning AIDS epidemic, FREDDY’S REVENGEfunctions as much as a social mirror as its predecessor, offering an alternative reflection of a society struggling to maintain its footing on shaky ground. 

While there is much in FREDDY’S REVENGE that remains incongruous with Craven’s premise, it cannot be overstated that it is, in fact, the only sequel in the eventual franchise (until NEW NIGHTMARE) to take risks and carve its own path, while simultaneously offering far more to ponder and dissect than any of the films to follow.  It is also the last time that Krueger would display true menace in a hallucinogenic world of waking dreams and blurred reality, much to the detriment of the series in light of its eventual descent into camp.  While it’s both unfair and troubling to see a male-dominated fan base dismiss FREDDY’S REVENGE as A RAINBOW ON ELM STREET, it’s the peril of that pesky social mirror I was talking about; response to the film says more about those watching it than the concepts contained within.  But make no mistake:FREDDY’S REVENGE is the second-best film in the series, as it challenges genre conventions and social norms, and confronts its audience with material that seems designed to provoke a response.  In that sense, FREDDY’S REVENGE is a home run.  “You’ve got the body, I’ve got the brain,” indeed. 

Popular theory holds that DREAM WARRIORSis the best sequel in the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET franchise, if not the best film overall.  While this is a tempting line of thought, it’s somewhat tempered by hindsight.   Indeed, it’s here that Freddy Krueger’s gangrenous Henny Youngman schtick first rears its ugly head, like the early stages of a terminal illness that will ultimately consume the character with its festering malignancy.  As with other literary and cinematic monsters well past their expiration date, Krueger — barely three films into his decade-long heyday — is defanged and repackaged as a Saturday morning cartoon, rendering him as threatening as a vampiric Muppet teaching toddlers how to count, or a pink Frankenberry encouraging masticating children from the back of a cereal box.  Here for the first time, Krueger is the star of the film, and the rounding off of his sharper edges becomes immediately apparent.  DREAM WARRIORSis hardly Stage Four cancer – that would come later – but the transformation of Freddy from shadowy Kiddie Toucher into punning MTV Guest VJ had a profound effect on the overnight mainstream popularity of the series, as well as its equally-sudden descent into cataclysmic pop culture irrelevancy.  Welcome to Prime Time, bitch.

Our antihero’s center stage antics aside, the film’s appeal with those who hold it in such high regard stems primarily from the shift from Horror to Dark Fantasy; whether one considers this a bold departure, next logical step, or jumping of the shark is largely dependent on personal preference.  It goes without saying that DREAM WARRIORS is wonderfully inventive in its creative REM dreamscapes (low budget notwithstanding), and the concept of Krueger’s victims harnessing their inner strength to use against him is equal parts ham-fisted and inspired.  Yet for every bold new idea, we step further away from Craven’s original premise.  The unfortunate infusion of Catholic booa-booga and faux-gothic backstory creates an over-familiarization and relatability to what should be a shadowy, archetypal monster.  It robs Krueger’s terrifying power over us once he’s seen prancing about in full light with his name, address, social security number, interests, and hobbies laid out like a Match.com profile.  Fear is birthed by both the unknown and unknowable; this guy murders Zsa Zsa Gabor on THE DICK CAVETT SHOW for a cheap laugh from kids who don’t have the first clue who these people even are.  While this doesn’t make DREAM WARRIORSa bad film by any stretch, it’s a cautionary reminder of what happens when a product is watered down for mass appeal – after a while, it doesn’t taste like anything anymore, despite the addition of new packaging, colors, or flavors.  The road to Hell is paved with commercial intentions, after all.

It was an expanding mythology.  Roughly half an hour into A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET PART 4, the concept of an altruistic dream guardian is introduced by way of the clumsy bastardization of an 18th century prayer; the execution is about as successful as cooking a Thanksgiving turkey in the microwave.  And now I lay me down to sleep / The Master of Dreams my soul will keep / In the reflection of my mind’s eye / Evil will see itself, and it shall die.  This complete and total misunderstanding of rhythm, rhyme and meter exemplifies the greater issues inherent within THE DREAM MASTER, a film that shambles along drunkenly from set piece to set piece without any coherent sense of pacing, purpose or direction.  If the storyline feels as though it’s based less upon a finished screenplay than a series of elaborate FX sequences written on index cards, it’s because it was:  the writer’s strike of 1988, coupled with New Line Cinema’s prioritization of release date over script, resulted in a narrative that was largely improvised during production.  As such, the themes of individual and group empowerment that felt so novel in DREAM WARRIORSare reduced to video game-style level-ups in this fourth installment, as we watch our heroine simply inherit the “dream powers” of her (largely improbable) group of dying friends.  The previous concept of social and familial misfits harnessing their unrealized (but singular) fantasies in order to take control of their lives – both waking and asleep – is tossed into the boiler in favor of turning our Final Girl into a ninja with an electronic bug zapper.  Never underestimate the importance of a screenwriter, friends.

Commonly referred to as “The MTV Nightmare,” THE DREAM MASTERis indeed as slick and choreographed as an expensive music video, and about as empty.  Director Renny Harlin’s visual style and commercial sensibilities made this the most successful NIGHTMAREfrom a financial standpoint; it also sealed Freddy Krueger’s fate as a perennial game show host, doomed to award seemingly ironic (and heavily telegraphed) deaths to paper-thin BREAKFAST CLUB stereotypes.  There’s no one to care about, but that’s sort of the point here, because Freddy’s no longer the one we’re supposed to be rooting against – at least not until the third act, when everything turns into a bizarre martial arts flick set inside the ruins of a gothic church.  While the final moments of said climax are remarkably effective, and features Krueger’s most inspired demise, we have to wonder which fatal reflection of himself he saw in the Dream Master’s mirror: the soulless child killer, or the soulless lunchbox caricature.  The next film would answer this question quite effectively.

There’s a classic moment in Rob Reiner’s THIS IS SPINAL TAP in which the director, playing documentary filmmaker Marty DiBergi, reads the aging heavy metal band a sample of their past critiques.  When coming to their stupidly-named Shark Sandwich, DiBergi cites a review from an unnamed publication, who summarizes their opinion in two succinct words: “Shit sandwich.”  Using this analogy, A Nightmare on Elm Street PART 5can equally be defined as a massive, crap-stuffed hoagie, but with the generous addition of heavily congealed cheese.  Which topping is worse: the belabored (and then ultimately edited-to-the-brink-of-pointlessness) Pro-Life subplot, or the intrusion of a child actor who is intended to be adorable but looks less human than our child-killing antagonist?  Who cares?  Pass the ketchup packets; they’re literally the only thing resembling gore you’ll get out of this diarrhetic feast (thanks to a particularly vindictive series of cuts dictated by the MPAA).

The most remarkable thing about THE DREAM CHILD is its unintentional similarity to the dreamscape within which it’s set: the narrative movements are so vague, muddled and listless that the film remains only half-remembered the moment it’s over.  Repeat viewings bear this out, underlining the fact that there isn’t so much a “story” as a series of connected scenes (SEE: BATMAN AND ROBIN).  Thus, trying to explain the film becomes less like telling a story than constructing a list of THINGS THAT HAPPENED, and then trying to figure out the order in which they occurred.  Meanwhile, Freddy Krueger’s burn makeup has been redesigned to the point of bland politeness, and the presumed on-screen budget one would predict following the box office-shattering DREAM MASTERis literally nowhere to be seen.  Like a bad dream, it’s a hazy, ugly, confusing, and elusive memory once it mercifully ends; while it’s playing, though, one feels the ironic desire (given the film’s Pro-Life sentiments) to kill the franchise and put it out of its misery.

That’s exactly what happened, by way of a retro gimmick.  Remember the big 3-D craze of the early 1950s?  Probably not, seeing as we’re talking about the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series; that kind of fuddy-duddy crap was deader than Disco by the time Generation X reared its sullen head.  But maybe you remember the gimmicky resurgence that came along in the early 80s, when every “Part 3” had a added to the title?  See, for about a year or so, it suddenly became fashionable to resurrect the William Castle-inspired gags that were three decades old by that point: the paper glasses, one lens red, one lens blue, allowing you the opportunity to see actors awkwardly point objects at the screen for absolutely no reason other than to make the viewer duck (and failing miserably in the attempt).  For you Millennials lacking a frame of reference, we aren’t talking AVATAR here; this was primitive in the extreme.  The later 1980s resurgence came and went as quickly as a Pat Benatar video, and did little to build on the outdated techniques that were older than your parents at that point.  So when New Line Cinema finally decided to put Freddy Krueger to bed, likely due to the combined failures of A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 5: The Dream Child and the wonderfully stupid Freddy’s Nightmares television series, they were savvy enough to bolster the final installment with cutting-edge 3-D technology that was chasing a trend that had died out ten years earlier, and was itself based on a fad thirty years older still.  That alone should tell you everything you need to know about Freddys Dead: The Final Nightmare. 

Directed by Rachel Talalay, who had cut her teeth on the previous five installments before heading to Baltimore to serve under John Waters, FREDDY’S DEAD doesn’t simply jump the shark in its goal to land in campier waters; it grabs the shark, fucks its brains out, and then blows you kiss before hocking a giant loogie and spitting it square in your eye.  Gone are the days of Freddy Krueger dragging a teenage girl across the ceiling and slicing her into ribbons — now he uses a Nintendo Power Glove, rides a broomstick (“I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little soul, too!”), and provokes Roseanne Barr into making a cameo appearance: the only genuinely horrifying part of the entire, idiotic mess.  The previously-mentioned 3-D sequence manages somehow to crest the uttermost height of stupidity, as our heroine (SPOILER ALERT: she’s Freddy’s daughter, which Hellen Keller could figure out despite being neither capable or seeing or hearing the movie) puts on a pair off blue-and-red-lensed glasses in order to enter Krueger’s mind (and to simultaneously alert the audience to don theirs, as well, as if the suddenly-blurry screen, coupled with the possession of said glasses upon paying for their ticket, weren’t clue enough).

Cheap, stupid, and ugly, just like Krueger himself by this point.  The movie’s called Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmarea better subtitle would have been No Fucking Shit, AssholeAt least it was over, though.  Right?  Right?

Not quite.  Writer/Director Wes Craven stated numerous times before his untimely passing that his ELM STREETepilogue, New Nightmare, was either the best or worst idea in the world.  Acting as an attempt to deconstruct the very series he had created, the film functions as a meta-textual narrative in which the actors and creative forces responsible for the original film are now haunted by Freddy Krueger, who is attempting to escape the silver screen and cross over into reality.  Within this alternate-reality framework, actress Heather Langenkamp — the Final Girl who set the standards for others to follow — must confront her responsibility in helping to initiate a pop culture Slasher who became the idol of children worldwide; this plays out in the obsessive behavior of her child, giving her a front row view of the effects of horror movies on young audiences. 

NEW NIGHTMAREfunctions like a pendulum, swinging back and forth between brilliance and failure from scene to scene.  It’s a brilliant concept but somewhat dodgy in execution; Craven would find greater success three years later with SCREAM, in which Slasher tropes were similarly examined, minus the meta-reality framework.  As it stands, NEW NIGHTMARE works best as a series capper rather than a standalone movie, provided you squint and try to ignore the fact that Uber-Freddy is wearing leather pants — the only truly terrifying aspect of a film devoid of genuine scares (unless you count New Line Cinema executive Bob Shaye’s acting). 

Then came Platinum Dunes.  There are two general rules of thought when approaching the remaking of a classic film: the first is to attempt a bold departure, offering an alternative take on a concept that has been thoroughly explored up to that point.  The second is to simply Xerox what came before, throw in plenty of references to current pop culture trends, and all the while completely miss the point of what made the original so effective.  Samuel Bayer’sA Nightmare on Elm Street Redux is a little bit Column A and Column B, as it not only throws the elements of the entire series into a blender and then purees them into a thick, tasteless bowl of CGI-sparkle sludge, it also introduces the brand new idea of a Freddy Krueger who’s barely taller than a bee’s dick.  Terror ensues. 

After his performance in Zak Snyder’s criminally under-appreciated Watchmen, Jackie Earl Haley sounds like an inspired choice to inherit Englund’s glove and fedora; his Rorschach was equal parts frightening and sympathetic.  This latter attribute is important given the remake’s intriguing premise that perhaps Krueger wasn’t guilty; maybe he’s come back to slaughter these shitty little Millennials because the lynch mob who burned him alive had overreacted to their kids’ false accusations of molestation.  Considering Craven’s 1984 film drew from the then-headline-grabbing McMartin preschool scare, and the subsequent explosion of false accusations that would ultimately be known as the “Satanic Panic,” it seems both appropriate and exciting to revisit Freddy’s story from this decidedly fresh perspective.  However, it’s all a fake-out, because of course it is.  Abandoning this concept midstream to simply return to the rote mythology of the franchise is not only an artistic failure, but introduces new and unnecessary wrinkles, such as why Krueger — portrayed here as a Kiddie-Diddler only — would need finger-knives in the first place, or how the teens who had grown up together had all managed to completely forget knowing one another in preschool.  It all becomes convoluted Just Because.

In the end, we’re left with an antagonist who stands a foot shorter than his victims, who themselves are the most insanely unlikeable collection of humorless, personality-free cardboard standees you’ve ever wanted to see catch fire.   

Somewhere in Hell, the real Freddy Krueger would approve.

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Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)

Pretentious Filmmaker

@ekmyers 

https://www.facebook.com/ekmyers



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