Thursday, October 29, 2020

Elm St. Binge: A Nightmare on Elm Street V: The Dream Child (1989)

In many ways, the Elm Street movies are a lot like the James Bond films. Consider: there is one larger-than-life figure at the center of each film (Freddy or 007), and much of the action and plotting seems to be determined by the need to feature spectacular set-pieces. 

But also like James Bond, the Freddy films seem to need occasional re-grounding in reality.  

This re-grounding has happened on a few occasions in Bond history. The out-of-balance nuttiness of Moonraker (1979) was deliberately redressed by the back-to-reality For Your Eyes Only (1981). Recently, Casino Royale (2006) re-imagined the 007 series after the surfing-tsunami, ice castles, and invisible car excesses of Die Another Day (2002). 

The Dream Child (1989) is, in many ways, a similar kind of effort.  

Dream Master is a pop-music laden, slick Freddy film (that I like a great deal…), but which takes the series quite far from its original horror roots. Freddy the Ringmaster has replaced Freddy the sicko.  

Stephen Hopkins’ film, the fifth entry, adopts a new approach. It continues the rules and formula of Dream Warriors and The Dream Master, but attempts to inject more horror -- specifically body horror -- into the proceedings.  

Freddy is also on screen less frequently, and his make-up has changed some to make him look more malevolent.  

The movie doesn’t even begin with a light pop song. Instead, The Dream Child commences with a creepy musical composition that accompanies disturbing views of Dan and Alice having sex. We don’t actually see them in their entirety, only shots of their bodies -- their flesh -- moving up and down in unsettling blue light.  This is the beginning of the movie's thesis about body horror, but our the unsettling nature of evil that can grow inside.

This disturbing first scene is an indicator that the Freddy movies are attempting here to move into adulthood alongside their original audience, instead of staying permanently arrested in teenage concerns. 

In keeping with that approach, the film meaningfully discusses hot-button issues in the culture, including abortion and eating disorders.  The focus is still on young people, but The Dream Child isn't afraid to explore deep problems in that milieu. Like Nancy Thompson, this film isn't afraid to dig beneath the surface.

The Dream Child is not as light, not as slick, as The Dream Master, but I appreciate its dedicated attempts to move the franchise forward, while simultaneously returning some element of fear or terror to the Freddy character.  

On the down-side, the film definitely showcases some artistic exhaustion in terms of the retread supporting characters -- who come across as replacement friends, and bad copies -- and there are some continuity issues that the film must contend with as well.

But as a Freddy Krueger body horror show, The Dream Child impresses, and distinguishes itself from the Elm Street pack.

“This is one of God’s creations.”

High school graduation nears for Alice (Lisa Wilcox) and Dan (Danny Hassel), but Alice feels increasing anxiety about Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund); about the possibility that he might manage to return from the grave.

Her intuitions prove correct.  Freddy is alive, though weak, living in the dreams of her unborn baby. As Alice soon learns, she is pregnant.  And babies dream most of the day, which means that Freddy has access to a universe of nightmares, even when she is wide awake.

Freddy uses his new power base -- Alice's womb -- to reach out and grab others, including Dan, whom he murders.  

While Alice grapples with what to do about a baby that could be born evil, she must also protect her friends, including Greta (Erika Anderson), who has an eating disorder.

“Your birth was a curse on the whole of humanity.”

The Dream Child -- the fifth entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street film series -- suffers a bit from its placement in the series.  It has not been long since the events of the fourth film, for instance, and yet Alice is fully ensconced at Springwood High with a new set of friends: Yvonne, Greta and Mark.  

Nobody talks about the friends who died last year, and certainly these friends would have gone to high school with them, right?  It's like Alice just opened a six pack of new friends, and there they are!

The film features some baffling continuity errors with the rest of the series too. 

Westin Hills -- which audiences saw up and running in Dream Warriors, and which could not have occurred more than two or three years earlier -- is described in the film's dialogue as as having been abandoned for years.  

Also, it is now located across from a park and is a huge, Gothic construction (represented by inadequate matte painting).  This is a dramatic rewrite of series history, since Kristen, Kincaid and Joey -- all classmates of Alice’s -- were warehoused there for a time.

And now we also learn that Sister Krueger’s body was never found, and has been hidden in the walls of the hospital for forty-something years? 

That’s new information too, and information that doesn’t really line up perfectly with the events of Dream Warriors either.  In fact, we saw the Sister’s grave in that film.

Also, when we witness Freddy’s birth (or is it rebirth?) in the film, why is he physically-deformed, a physical terror from birth?  

The real Freddy was a normal person, in terms of appearance, before his burning in the boiler room, right?  

So is Freddy re-born as a monster in this case, because we  are witnessing his rebirth, not a flashback of his original birth, in the movie?  It would be nice to have a bit more clarity about this, but the movie provides none.

These changes are vexing -- and continuity is not at all a strong-point of the Elm Street franchise -- but I admire Dream Child for attempting to be more psychologically adroit and thematically interesting than some of its predecessors.

In particular, I admire the film’s courage in dealing with two important issues involving young adults.  

The first involves Greta.  She feels tremendous pressure from her mother to be “Polly Perfect,” in her own words. This means that she is constantly being monitored in terms of what she eats and what she wars. 

Greta is not seen for who she is, but what kind of fame -- vicarious or direct -- she can bring her to her mother. Greta’s mom is thus an Elm Street Parent in keeping with others we see in the films: one who is corrupt and sinful, and unable to legitimately love her child for who she is. The message, voiced in the film, goes beyond even “pushy parents can drive you nuts.” Rather, parents can create pathology in their children.  And Greta, obsessed with her weight, and eating the right foods (“you are what you eat”) is sick.  She may be bulimic, or even anorexic.

Freddy, of course, attacks this pathology, and force feeds Greta until she dies. 

This is one of my favorite kills in the Elm Street series because it expresses something vital about the teen-centric “body image” crisis that is on-going, wherein teens are encouraged by media, parents and society to be of a certain weight, of a certain appearance. It’s a pressure that people still feel, and if anything it has gotten worse, since now men and women both are urged to conform to social norms in terms of their bodies.

Similarly, The Dream Child doesn’t shy away from examining unwed mothers and their problems. 

For a time, Alice contemplates abortion, because she simply doesn’t feel equipped to be a mother at this point.  Ultimately, she chooses to keep the child, Jacob, yet then faces scrutiny from Dan’s parents, who want to raise the child themselves.  

The upshot?  Alice lives under judgment, no matter what she does.  

She is judged for being pregnant, judged for contemplating her choices regarding having the baby, and judged for her fitness in being a parent.  

It’s not an easy situation she’s in, and it’s rewarding that The Dream Child goes to these places, and doesn’t give any of the issues it raises short-shrift.  The on-going subtext of the Elm Street films is that the sins of the parents are delivered upon the children.  Alcoholic, demanding, corrupt and pathological parents of the Reagan Era don’t pay attention to their children, and allow a monster to slip into a place that should be safe: the family hearth.

The Dream Child goes further than any other film, excepting perhaps the original, in diagramming this equation.  Alice and Greta deal with some major problems in the film; problems that arise not just from Freddy’s presence, but the behavior of the adults in their lives.

Some folks won’t like the presence of the abortion debate in the film, I know. Yet The Dream Child is very even-handed in discussing abortion, and doesn’t adopt either a hard pro-life or a hard pro-choice stance.  Instead, Alice just contends with the situation in front of her, trying to make the best decision he can. 

There’s something very realistic about the debate in the film.  In real life, choices about abortion are not an abstract, binary, either-or decision. For those involved, the choice is not a political hot potato, nor an opportunity to grand stand.  There are shades of grays, there are personal considerations, and there are repercussions, no matter what path is selected. 

In terms of set-pieces, I’ll be the first to admit that The Dream Child doesn’t rate positively beside some of the other films in the saga.  The Phantom Prowler comic-book scene is a travesty, with Freddy comically aping a graphic novel superhero with bulging muscles.  The Dream Child's purpose is clearly to re-establish Krueger as a serious threat, lurking in the shadows before striking his enemies.  This set-piece is so silly it undercuts, largely, the film’s attempts at re-grounding.

Much more fascinating and on-point is Dan’s death scene. Freddy becomes a motorcycle, and sort of “grows” into Dan, shearing off his flesh and perforating him with tubes, coils, and other mechanical devices.  

It’s incredibly grotesque, and almost David Cronenberg-like in both conception and execution (think: Crash).  When you couple this scene with those  shots of Jacob in the womb, and Greta’s over-stuffing, there is a fleshy, tactile nature to the death scenes in this film.  They feel more organic, and less fantastic, and, frankly, I prefer this approach.  

But the organic nature of these scenes also make the comic scene stand out like a sore thumb.

Many critics and Freddy fans don’t like The Dream Child very much, and I suspect this is because the film is the only one of the sequels that really succeeds in making folks feel...uncomfortable.  The organic nature of the deaths, and the questions raised about body image issues and reproduction are not easily digested as mere entertainment. There’s a queasy, discomforting aspect of the film. It’s painfully aware of the fragile nature of our bodies, from birth onward.  The movie begins in a dank, squalid insane asylum, where a group rape occurs, follows on to the birth of a monstrosity, and then features many scenes that showcase how vulnerable and pliable our flesh really is.  There's nothing light about The Dream Child.

In other words, The Dream Child is a legitimate horror movie, not just another roller-coaster Freddy sequel, not just a lark with Freddy as circus ringleader. 

I rather like it, and appreciate what it was trying to achieve, though I readily admit it has flaws.  I remain disappointed that Freddy’s Dead (1991) dropped Alice’s story, and went in a less satisfying, less human direction.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Elm St. Binge: A Nightmare on Elm Street IV: The Dream Master (1988)

A Nightmare on Elm Street IV: The Dream Master (1988) perfects the Freddy movie formula devised for Dream Warriors (1987). 

In The Dream Master, the special effects are better, the thematic through-line about teenage self-actualization is more developed, and the film features remarkable ambition, going so far as to feature one character dragged into a black-and-white movie version of reality, and the same character, Lisa Wilcox’s Alice, caught in a repeating time-loop dream.  

Yes, we’re absolutely lunging further from old school horror movie material  here -- and deeper into fantasy tropes -- but the entire film is frequently spectacular in its imaginings.

Freddy meanwhile, continues to be a droll ring-master, rather than the original film’s figure of terror, and the film’s climax might be considered a let-down Freddy sees his reflection, and dies almost instantly.  This quasi-mythic idea doesn’t really track with what we know of the character thus far, and seems a facile, over-simplified conclusion to his latest reign of terror. Still, the concept of Freddy seeing his own evil and dying works splendidly for its contrast with Alice’s story, and the fact that her power increases as she sees her reflection.  

Renny Harlin directs The Dream Master, and he is a strong presence in terms of developing memorable visuals. The lighting -- alternatively green and red -- always lets us know when Freddy is near.  

And Lisa Wilcox makes a strong impression as Alice, a character who can step into the void left by the absence of Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy Thompson.

The result is a thoroughly entertaining, thoroughly effective roller-coaster ride of a movie. Although I don't think it compares favorably to the 1984 original, others were highly impressed. Kevin Thomas at the Los Angeles Times called The Dream Master "By far the best of the series, a superior horror picture that balances wit and gore with imagination and intelligence. It very effectively mirrors the anxiety of the teenage audience for which it was primarily intended." (August 19, 1988, page 17.)

I agree wit his description of the movie as having imagination and intelligence, as well as a valuable social context.  I just think it comes up a lot short in the "scary" department.

 “Remember, you’re the one in control.”

After a dog pisses on his bones in a dream, Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) is back from the grave and ready to party.  His first order of business is killing off the surviving dream warriors.

Kristen (Tuesday Knight) is the last to go, but as she dies, she inadvertently pulls another teen from Springwood into her dreams, mousy Alice (Lisa Wilcox).  

Unusually, Alice possesses a powerful dream ability too: she can absorb the power of those who die. This means she -- like Kristen -- can now pull other team members into her dreams.  Freddy uses this power to access a new victim pool, since the original Elm Street children are all dead.

Alice and her friend, Dan (Danny Hassel) attempt to stop Freddy, a task eventually made easier because Alice is actually "The dream master:" a guardian of a dream gate.  And the abilities she absorbs from her dead friends ultimately make her Freddy's equal in terms of power.

“I am eternal.”

I wrote some in my review of Dream Warriors about the ways that the Elm Street movies actually serve as positive examples for teen audiences since they focus on youngsters surviving in a troubled world (existing under the threat of annihilation because of the Cold War, or the advent of the AIDS.)  

In the original film, Nancy learns not to deny or bury the truth, and faces the ugliness of the world made by her parents.  This makes her the horror movie equivalent of Hamlet, essentially.  

And in Dream Warriors, the writers make certain that the film’s teenagers have weapons with which to combat Freddy. 

No longer are they victims, torn apart in monstrous blood baths.  Instead, they are soldiers, capable of using their inherent gifts (in the form of their dream powers) to create a positive result for themselves and their world.  

Just as Nancy learns self-defense to fight Freddy, these teens learn to work together, harness their powers, and beat back the dark.

The Dream Master goes further down this pro-social road, and to really good effect. Here, Alice begins her journey as a teenager who is literally hiding herself from the world. She covers her bedroom mirror with photos of her friends, specifically.  There are so many photos placed there, in fact, that she can’t even see her own reflection.  She doesn’t want to see it, either.  Alice is mousy and invisible, and that’s just how she likes it.  Her father is a mean drunk, and if she can just be invisible, he won’t pick on her, won’t yell or abuse her.  She imagines standing-up to him, but doesn’t feel that she has the power to do so. Half the time, she lives in this day-dream world, striking back at the people who are bad to her.

So not unlike Freddy, Alice lives in a dream world of sorts. In her fantasies, she dreams of being strong, of fighting back. But they are just daydreams. And as Alice learns after day-dreaming of her dead brother, those fantasies don't get her anywhere. They don't help her cope with reality.

Yet Alice possesses a potent dream power too, which she finds during the film’s crisis. She can absorb the powers of others, taking on the characteristics of her friends after they battle (and lose…) to Freddy. 

Where Kristen was the ultimate team player, able to pull others into her dream so as to present a unified front against Freddy, Alice is the ultimate individual, perhaps, drawing increased confidence and strength from the examples of others.  

Kristen had to coordinate different personalities (Joey, Kincaid, etc.), which could be like herding cats. Alice absorbs their experiences effortlessly, adding one skill -- kung-fu, tech-wizardy, brute strength --  after another.  She is thus in a very real way,  Freddy’s equal.  He is the “master” of the negative or nightmare dream portal; she is the protector of the positive dream portal.  Each one absorbs something from those who die.  Either their strength (dream powers) or their souls themselves.

In terms of A Dream Master's visuals, Harlin cleverly charts Alice’s journey by returning to her bedroom mirror again and again.  As each friend dies, Alice tears down their photos from the mirror, and begins, in doing so, to detect the outlines of…herself.  

And, as Alice grows stronger, she likes what she sees.  She grows more beautiful, more put-together, less mousy, as her confidence increases.  Her outer beauty is a reflection of her inner beauty.   Alice self-actualizes in terms of skill, resourcefulness, appearance, and confidence, and it’s all because she has taken in the lessons of her friend; she has incorporated, essentially, their love.  

Where they fail, she succeeds.  She takes the best parts of them to do this, and it’s a great metaphor for the learning process we undertake in adolescence. We make friends who reflect who we are, but who also (we hope) make us stronger.  We incorporate them -- the good and the bad -- into our gestalt as we mature; as we grow up.

We learn not only our lessons in life, but we learn from their experiences too.  In the end, we emerge stronger and better because we’ve been that crucible -- adolescence -- together.

The film artfully balances Alice’s journey, in which she seeks out her constantly-improving reflection, with Freddy’s opposite journey.  He cannot look at himself and survive, because he is so hideous in spirit and action.  He is a monster who cannot bear to look at his own evil, his own reflection. He thus thrives on denial and avoidance, a negative example for the same teens who should be buoyed by Alice’s growth.

This comparison -- a monster hiding from his reflection and a hero rising because of hers – works very well for The Dream Master, but not  always overall for the Freddy saga.  Why doesn’t Alice just show Freddy a mirror in The Dream Child (1989) and kill him right off? 

She should bury his bones again, this time in a mirror-studded box.

Alas, one hard-and-fast rule of the Elm Street movies seems to be that any technique used to kill Freddy works one and only one time. After that, something new must be devised.

And on that note, I must point out one of the singularly most lame monster resurrections in movie history.  

Here, Freddy is resurrected, to start with, when Kincaid’s dog, Jason (wink, wink), pisses on his hallowed grave at the junkyard.  But importantly, Jason doesn’t do it in the real world, he does it in the dream world.

So a real life dog (apparently having a dream), pisses on Freddy in that dream, and this is enough to undo the burial we saw in Dream Warriors Even though that burial occurred in the real world, not the dream world.  

Another way to put this: If you went to Springwood and drove to the auto junkyard, you'd still find Freddy's bones buried nicely in hallowed ground. But in the dream world, fiery dog piss has desecrated Freddy's resting place.

Got that?

It makes absolutely no sense in any way, shape or form, and yet, on a re-watch for this review, I found it less bothersome than I had in the past.  The rest of the film thrives on its mirror imagery, and its twin journeys of denial/confidence (Freddy/Alice), and I accept that Freddy had to be resurrected in some fashion. 

I would have preferred a reason less bizarre than a dog pissing on his bones in a dream, but I do like that dream’s visual punctuation.  There is a dramatic camera pull-back and we see that Kincaid is trapped in a junk-yard world, an entire planet devoted to Freddy’s resurrection, essentially. It’s a good shot, nicely-orchestrated, so I’ll give the fire-pissing dog a pass, I suppose.

I make that concession willingly because the other dream sequences in the film remain so imaginative.  Alice is pulled into the dream world while dreaming during a viewing of Reefer Madness (1936), and ends up in the Crave Inn (Craven, get it?) with Freddy.  There, he offers her a pizza topped with the souls of children.

And then there’s the repeating time-loop dream, wherein Alice and Dan keep repeating the same sequence of events, getting into his pick-up truck, and driving to the scene of an attack.  I loved this sequence because playing with time is a new gimmick for the franchise, and the scene requires absolutely no special effects.  Also, it happens to be true to dream logic. We’ve all had dreams where we are attempting to get to some destination, but can’t quite get there.

What ages The Dream Master most today, frankly, is the soundtrack.  It’s wall-to-wall late 1980s pop, from Tuesday Knight’s theme song (which proves, decisively that the Freddy films are aping the 007 films…) on.  Despite this, The Dream Master holds up better than Dream Warriors.

Previous to this screening of the Elm Street films, I had always actually preferred Dream Warriors to The Dream Master, but on this viewing, I felt that Renny Harlin’s film adopted the same template and essentially improved on it.  Alice is a better lead than Kristen, and one who better expresses the film’s theme about teens learning to be themselves, and finding the key to survival in the process.  

The Dream Master is slicker and better put together than Dream Warriors, despite the dumb resurrection.  This entry is the most financially successful of all the Elm Street movies, and it's not hard to see why.  It entertains relentlessly, and has a strong lead in Lisa Wilcox.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Elm St. Binge: A Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors (1987)

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) is the second-most important title in the entire Freddy franchise.  

Wes Craven’s 1984 original introduces audiences to Freddy Krueger and the “die in your dream, die in reality’ paradigm, of course.

But Dream Warriors cements the rules of the dream world that Freddy must abide by, and furthermore, reveals how teenagers can take back their dreams from Freddy's control.

By comparison, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) is a kind of quasi-intriguing one-off with many laudable qualities including the “homosexual panic” subplot I enumerated in my review yesterday. Yet it is clear that the movie suffers some because the rules of Freddy’s universe have not been established. 

Commendably, Dream Warrior provides the movie franchise the juice that it needs to continue through many movie entries, changing imperiled teenagers into full-fledged combatants rather than just victims.  

That’s a huge and valuable distinction: a transformation that affects the franchise dramatically.  At the same time that the film morphs victims into combatants, Dream Warriors also changes the field or terrain of battle. No longer are the dream sequences but (inventive) blood-baths, like in the Craven original, but full-fledged fantasy landscapes. 

I remember that the late critic Roger Ebert once asked why teenagers would like slasher movies in the eighties, since they depict a world in which teens die on a regular basis.  He even called these movies “dead teenager” films.

Yet Dream Warriors provides the answer for those who seek it.  Freddy, and the adults of Elm Street are corrupt individuals. They have created a world of danger and death for the next generation.  The teenagers fighting Freddy, however, learn to self-actualize; how to channel their psychologies, strengths and personalities towards -- if not constructive -- at least defensive ends.  

Contra Ebert, the Elm Street movies posit hope, not despair. Fight hard against Freddy -- become a dream warrior, or dream master -- and you literally remake the world according to your dreams.  Of course, you have to go through Krueger Therapy to succeed.  He pinpoints your vulnerabilities, like addiction, physical handicap, or a history of domestic abuse, and comes at you based on that knowledge. If you're weak, and can't beat your "demons," you lose.  If you're strong enough, like Nancy, Kristen, or Alice, you can succeed.

As quoted in Schoell and Spenser's The Nightmare Never Ends: The Official History of Freddy Kreuger and the Nightmare on Elm Street Films (Citadel Press, 1991, page 187) Robert Englund described the Freddy vs. Teens dynamic trenchantly. He observed the following: 

“This is the first time in the 20th century that kids will probably not live as well as their parents. You can imagine what it is like to be 17...and enter a world with a drug culture and hardly any jobs on the horizon and AIDS and racial unrest...Freddy represents all of these things that are out of kilter in the world, all the sins of the parents that are being passed on.”

I believe Englund is on to something important here, as was critic Judith Williamson, who wrote in the New Statesman that the Elm Street films speaks about “both sex and class – about what has been buried by a suburban American community.”

In other words, Freddy toughens these teenagers up, in a sense, and arms them for a world in which he is hardly the only demon they must vanquish. These teenagers often lose, but many of them develop their dream skills and give Mr. Krueger a run for his money.

There are problems with this new approach to the franchise, of course.  

In Dream Warriors, a set of rules are still being established, as is a whole new continuity, and there are some baffling oversights and unexplained events.  

Similarly, the tendency to make Freddy funny rather than terrifying effectively clips the boogeyman’s finger knives a bit.  No longer hiding in the shadows, he’s the ultimate showman, always ready with a joke, or a savage turnaround when presumed defeated. 

In Dream Warriors, Freddy is more a Loki-like specter of mischief and mayhem than a sick, dirty, monstrous creature.  This makes him a more mainstream monster, but also one finds it more and more difficult to legitimately terrify his audience.

I screened Dream Warriors again for this review and found, surprisingly, that a lot of the special effects have aged quite badly, perhaps more than in any other franchise entry. 

Some of the optical processing work -- Joey dangling over the pit of Hell, for example -- doesn’t look so good. Similarly, the film's stop-motion sequence with a Freddy skeleton looks awful (and compares unfavorably with Ray Harryhausen's work going back to the 1950s.) 

That’s a shame, because Dream Warriors success is largely predicated on two factors: the transformation of the children from victims to combatants, and a showcase of their battles against Freddy (representing corrupt adulthood).  When the battles look bad or inept, the film no longer operates as successfully. The fantasy aspect of the film, which once upon a time seemed so dazzling, looks far more pedestrian today.

Still, Dream Warriors is undeniably a turning point for the franchise.  The next two movies -- Dream Master and The Dream Child -- practically write themselves because of the changes and ideas enacted for this second sequel, from director Chuck Russell.

"How much longer are you going to go on blaming your dreams for your own weaknesses?"

Elm Street teenager Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette) is remanded to Forest Hills Sanitarium after attempting to commit suicide. 

In reality, however, she is being haunted by Springwood’s resident boogeyman, Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund).  Capturing the souls of his victims, he is more powerful than ever.

Parker is tended to at the clinic by kindly but ineffective Dr. Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson), at least until a pioneer in dream research, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) arrives on the scene to help.  

For years, this former Elm Street denizen has been avoiding Freddy’s presence in her dreams by taking an experimental drug called Hypnocil. Now, Nancy wants to prescribe that drug not only to Kristen, but to all the teens on the ward whom Freddy is terrorizing.

This group includes a boy who has stopped talking, named Joey (Rodney Eastman), an artistic type, Phillip (Bradley Craig) who carves puppet, and Jennifer (Penelope Sudrow), a girl who dreams of making it big in Hollywood.  

Other residents include former drug addict Taryn (Jennifer Rubin), Will (Ira Heiden), a boy confined to a wheel-chair, and last-but-not-least - the strong but surly Kincaid (Ken Sagoes).

While Nancy attempts to teach these troubled teens how to harness their dream powers and fight Freddy on his own turf, she also works with Dr. Gordon, and her alcoholic father, Detective Thompson (John Saxon), to put Freddy’s corporeal body -- his bones -- to rest in hallowed ground.

"Why should we fight?  We're old friends, you and I."

I have to confess, some factors just really harsh my mellow about Dream Warriors. The film is brilliantly inventive in the way it demonstrates teens self-actualizing;  confronting their psychological traumas and hardships and “owning” them for a life-and-death struggle against Freddy Krueger. I love that quality of the film. I love how this film tells kids that they can survive even the worst (living) nightmares.

So it is frustrating as hell at the number of oversights and discontinuities that make it into the film. 

For example, take Phillip’s death. He’s the kid who makes puppets. Freddy kills him by yanking out his veins (in a dream), and transforming him into a human puppet.  But dreams equal reality in this world, so in real life, we see Phillip "sleepwalking" out of his room, towards the hospital’s high bell tower, where Freddy will cut the strings and send him plummeting to his death.  All this is great. The scene is visually brawny in its depiction of this grotesque death, with long licorice-like veins getting ripped and tugged out of Phillip’s body, for example.

But then, Phillip de-materializes as he goes through hospital doors. Twice.

How exactly does that work?  How does Freddy transform Phil from tangible matter to intangible matter?  This moment sticks out like a sore thumb and is a clear violation of Freddy’s rules. He shouldn’t be able to affect the waking world, or a victim in this fashion. It's fine that he uses Philip's character quirk (puppets) against him, but not fine that he beams Philip in and out of our world.

There are all kinds of creative alternatives, too. Phillip could have jumped out his own window. We could have seen him sneak to the bell tower before bed. Or we could have seen him pushing through the open doors, the puppet strings invisible (as they should be) in our reality. It's just lazy and dumb for the filmmakers to have him disappear through a door, like either the door isn't real, or he isn't real.  
Similarly, it’s clear that part of the Elm Street equation is the idea that adults can’t help the imperiled teens. Nancy's Mom and Dad are alcoholics.  Alice's dad is an alcholic too. The films feature generation warfare, in a sense, then. The parents are too busy drinking or shacking up to note the truth of things that Nancy digs for.  Yet this idea of distracted, unperceptive adults can be handled with a degree of nuance and subtlety as it is in the 1984 film.  

Not so here.

Consider Jennifer’s (admittedly) amusing death. Freddy crams her head into a TV set hanging high off a wall, after his own head sprouts from the boob-tube and grows antenna ears.  

Of course, I love the humor in this death scene.  I enjoy that it commences with Dick Cavett skewering Zsa Zsa Gabor. But the punctuation is ridiculous.  Why? Jennifer's death is ruled a suicide.  
No person in his or her right mind could enter the common room, see Jennifer hanging several feet in the air (her head lodged inside a TV set), and assume that she committed suicide.  To kill herself in this fashion, she would have had to run, jump, and launch herself into the TV set at quite a velocity. 

And even if she did that, it’s more than likely she’d just bruise her head, not break the TV screen with her skull.  It’s patently absurd that this weird demise could ever be considered suicide by people who possess even a little gray matter.  So yes, the adults are supposed to be disconnected from the struggles of the children. But they ain't supposed to be dumb as stumps.

Similarly, Freddy carves the words “Come in and get him bitch” in Joey’s chest, but nobody bothers to show the words to the doubting Dr. Simms (Priscilla Pointer).  I would have loved to hear her explanation about how a comatose patient managed to carve these letters on his own chest! 

Again, a horror movie -- even an amusing one, even one rooted in some fantasy elements -- must play fair.  There's no way someone could write off Joey's scars as being psychological in nature.  And similarly, there's no reason why Nancy and Dr. Gordon wouldn't use Joey's scars to prove to Simms their case.  

Instead, the scars are just for good creepy effect, but with no real follow-up or follow-through.

Dream Warriors is filled with little touches like the ones mentioned above; touches that don’t quite work.  

And that’s a shame, because the message that the movie has for teens is empowering, and indeed, inspiring. In life, there will also be vultures (like Freddy), and doubters (like Simms, or Det. Thompson), but it doesn’t matter...because the power to defeat them, or to prove them wrong, rests in you

Cultivate your inner power -- your strength -- and you can beat back the monsters. This message is transmitted even more plainly in Dream Master (1988), but it’s here in this film, and valuable. The things that take away from it, things like sloppy plotting (Jennifer committing "suicide" by TV, or Phillip becoming intangible), do the film a tremendous disservice.

The Dream Warriors not only harness their own powers, they learn to work as a team, and that too is an important element of the film’s thematic approach.  It’s not just “me” that counts, it’s the combined power of me and you.  And in the “Greed is Good” eighties, very few movies were putting forward ideas like that; that the bad guy can be defeated through self-actualization and team dynamics.

It can be debated, I suppose, how good Freddy’s origin story, as depicted here, really is. We learn that he is the “bastard son of a hundred maniacs,” and therefore a product of genetic evil.  He was born with bad genes. 

Personally, I think this idea is a little goofy.  For one thing, only one sperm can fertilize an egg, so Freddy is really just the bastard son of a single maniac, hyperbole by damned.  

For another, this genetic sourcing of Freddy’s evil takes away something significant from the character.  Now he is not the accumulation of his choices and decisions, but wired to be evil from the very beginning.  

I much prefer the idea that he is a cowardly, monstrous child-killer by predilection, but one given God-like powers only after death.  It’s never made sense to me to make him “evil” from conception, but there’s no doubt that’s how the series -- from this point forward – sees him.  There’s something very two-dimensional and cartoonish about this idea that Freddy is like a devil or demon on Earth before becoming a ghostly revenger.  If he's so overtly evil and anti-social, how does he ever get a job as a school custodian? Or any job for that matter?

The Freddy origin story also gives the series problems going forward, continuity-wise.  Sister Amanda Krueger appears here for the first time, but recurs in The Dream Child in 1989, and there we see her give birth to Freddy in the asylum, which we are told has been shut down for years…despite the fact that it houses a medical facility and patients in 1987’s Dream Warriors.

Working much better, at least for me, is the rematch between Freddy and Nancy Thompson. I get chills every time I watch Dream Warriors, and these former combatants lay eyes upon one another for the first time in years. 

You!” Freddy gurgles, as Nancy screams with recognition at the sight of her nemesis. She believed she had escaped him by pharmaceutical means -- Hypnocil -- and he believed that she was lost to him too.  It’s great to see these classic opponents meet up again, though I can’t stand that Freddy gets the better of Nancy in the finale. (Note. If I have to be honest about this, I will admit that I am a bit in love with Nancy Thompson, played by Langenkamp. Have been since 1984!)

Overall, Dream Warriors is an inventive Freddy film, and many insist it is the second best in the series.  

Personally, I would land New Nightmare (1994) in that slot.  

But I can’t deny the importance of the third Freddy film in the overall franchise. It goes a long way towards setting the parameters of the franchise going forward.  Even though there are some hiccups, it sets the terrain and the rules for the next several Elm Street sequels to come.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Elm St. Binge: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

As difficult as it is to believe, 2019 marked the 35th anniversary of Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the horror film that introduced the world to dream monster Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund).  

Historically-speaking, A Nightmare on Elm Street is significant not merely for commencing a franchise that came to include five direct theatrical sequels, but a two-season TV anthology, Freddy’s Nightmares (1988 – 1990), a nifty re-imagination in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), a cross-over, Freddy vs. Jason (2004) and a misguided re-boot in 2010.  

The Freddy series put New Line Studios -- “The House That Freddy Built” -- on the map too.

In a broader genre context, A Nightmare on Elm Street was the rubber-reality venture that ended the long reign of the naturalistic slasher films of the early 1980s; films with titles such as Happy Birthday to Me (1981) or My Bloody Valentine (1981). 

Those older films eschewed supernatural horrors, and focused on mad-dog killers (usually in masks) who killed teenagers with very sharp implements. The killers were largely silent killing machines, without much by way of personality.

The slashers’ episodic nature -- a series of murder set-pieces, essentially -- remained intact in A Nightmare on Elm Street’s modified “rubber reality” format.  But in general, rubber reality tales (like Hellraiser [1987], for instance) were buttressed by more imaginative special effects, and supernatural, loquacious monsters.

Eventually, even the ultra-naturalistic Friday the 13th film series moved towards more rubber-reality-type fare because of Freddy’s re-direction of the genre.

In just a few short years, then, Freddy Krueger as played by Robert Englund became the king of American horror films, and a pop culture sensation. The modern, 21st century horror film has moved back towards a more naturalistic setting and tone, in large part due to the success of the found-footage sub-genre, and so Freddy today seems like a character who perfectly captures his particular era: the eighties of President Ronald Reagan.

The relative quality of A Nightmare on Elm Street’s sequels has been debated up and down, again and again, even in the Wes Craven movie Scream (1996), but the original film remains a powerhouse of terror, even today.  The 1984 film has lost none of its atmosphere of mounting, pervasive dread, and Craven’s imaginative style and content continues to impress. 

The film’s artistic success is based on a few crucial factors.  

As Sharon Packer writes in Movies and the Modern Psyche (page 49), A Nightmare on Elm Street is “intriguing because of its ability to blend the supernatural with psychoanalytic subtexts.”  

In Visions of the Night: Dreams, Religion and Psychology, Kelly Bulkeley argues that Craven’s effort generates it “narrative power by tapping into people’s common dream experiences, in this case, the experience of recurring nightmares.”

These observations about A Nightmare on Elm Street seem right on target, and yet for this critic, the film always resonates because it globally applies its surface vs. reality conceit.  

In other words, A Nightmare on Elm Street concerns both the appearance of reality, and the true reality that dwells or roils underneath that (false) appearance.  

Virtually every aspect of the cinematic tale can be studied utilizing this particular bailiwick. Impressively, A Nightmare on Elm Street even finds a literary precedent for this conceit, and frequently references the works of Shakespeare, mostly Hamlet, but also Julius Caesar.

In addition to this thematic virtue, A Nightmare on Elm Street remains a turning-point in horror history, I submit, because the “final girl” archetype, -- here represented by Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy Thompson -- finally blossoms to full maturity.  

Although Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode survived her experience with boogeyman Michael Myers in Halloween (1978), Nancy’s battle with Freddy in Nightmare is determinedly different.

At some point in the crisis, Nancy takes control and responsibility for her life and her struggle, and defeats Krueger on her own terms. Nancy does so using her insight, resourcefulness, and planning…not just by a lucky turn of fate.  No man rushes in to shoot Freddy, and save her life.  

This fact is perfectly dramatized when one contrasts the “High School English Class” scenes featured in the Carpenter and Craven films.  The former is about fate, and the way that fate determines action and destiny.  

The latter is about a hero (Hamlet) digging for and excavating the truth against great odds and entrenched power. 

One scene is about surviving by circumstance dictated by destiny, the other is about actively participating and re-shaping your own future.  Nancy is a hero, then, who takes responsibility for her survival in an affirming, powerful fashion.

Too many people laud A Nightmare on Elm Street because it introduced a great villain, Mr. Krueger. They forget the other side of the equation, that the film also introduced a great nemesis for Freddy in Langenkamp's Nancy.

“Nancy, you dreamed about the same creep I did…”

A high school student, Tina (Amanda Wyss) becomes obsessed with a recurring dream.  At night -- every night -- she dreams of a stalker in a fedora and red-and-green-sweater.  He is armed with a razor-tipped glove.

Tina discovers that her best friend, Nancy (Langenkamp) is experiencing the same nightmare, about the same boogeyman, and holds a sleep-over at her home when her mother goes out of town.  

Also at the sleep-over are Nancy’s boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp), and Tina’s juvenile delinquent beau, Rod Lane (Nick Corri).  When all the teens are asleep, the nightmare man strikes Tina and kills her brutally in her dream.

Rod is arrested for the murder of Tina by Nancy’s father, Detective Thompson (John Saxon), but Nancy is convinced that he is innocent, and that the dream stalker is “real,” and responsible for the crime. 

Nancy presses her alcoholic mother, Marge (Ronee Blakeley) for details.  She learns that some years earlier, the parents of Elm Street hunted and down and killed a man, Fred Krueger (Englund), who was a child murderer but escaped justice on a legal technicality.  The Thompsons and the other parents burned him alive, but kept his hat and finger knives in Nancy’s house -- in the furnace -- as a kind of trophy.

The murders on Elm Street continue, and Nancy realizes she must take affirmative steps to defeat Krueger and stop his plans to kill her.  

But should Nancy proceed as her boyfriend, Glen, suggests -- and which goes against her nature of “digging” and confronting the truth -- and turn her back on Freddy…thus robbing him of the energy she gave him?

“I’m into survival.”

In blunt terms, A Nightmare on Elm Street concerns the surface, and the underneath or “truth” that co-exists with that surface.  

Many aspects of this Craven film visit and explore this duality, or double nature.  

We detect this duality in terms of location, both with the suburban high school that seems normal, and the sinister boiler room underneath it, where Freddy rules. 

Many of the film's most terrifying scenes are set in dark labyrinth, or maze-like basements, a connective tissue between the surface above and the truth below.

We see the same duality in the real world, where people are presumed safe and protected by the rules of consensus reality, and the dream world, where there is constant, mortal danger.  You die in your dream, you die in real life.

We see the duality as well, in the Elm Street parents, who profess propriety and adherence to law and order, but who are, in fact, murderers. 

We even see it in regards to morality.  

Again, the Elm Street parents have crafted a world of apparent moral absolutism (where Christ on the cross protects teenage girls’ in their bedrooms…), but they actually practice moral relativism.

For example, Lieutenant Thompson uses his own daughter, Nancy, as a pawn so as to achieve his goal of apprehending Rod Lane.  

Similarly, Marge Thompson sees the murder of Freddy as the parents' "right" because the legal system failed to arrive at the conclusion they preferred.

Throughout A Nightmare on Elm Street, then, there exist two lines or tracks to keep abreast of simultaneously: reality as it appears to be true, and reality as it actually is.  Craven's conceit here was extremely timely, and reflected something larger -- and disturbing -- happening in American 1980s culture.  

Specifically, America was experiencing, very much, the same duality on a national scale. The myth that was being peddled at the time by those in power (and which was preferable to hard reality…) was that it was possible to “have it all.”  

As the authors of Landslide: the Unmaking of the President (1984 – 1988) wrote of this time, the new administration said it was possible “to cut taxes, and increase defense spending and at the same time, fight terrorism, roll back Communism and the threat of nuclear war, all without risking American lives. Reagan seemed to be offering a miracle cure.”  (Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1988, page 11).

Again and again during this time, symbolism (or rhetoric) and reality clashed. The new Administration promised to reverse the growth of an out-of-control Federal government, but after two terms under its control, the Federal work force actually expanded by over 60,000 employees. The same administration promised tax cuts, but actually raised taxes three times: in 1983, 1984, and 1986.  

What is the price when actions don’t match words or symbolism? 

It’s fairly simple to calculate, actually.. From 1980 to 1988, America accrued a staggering 2.7 trillion dollars in debt, roughly 200 billion dollars a year. 

Who was going to pay that debt? 

Future generations of course, and that’s precisely where the direct comparison to Freddy and his behavior comes into play.  

After all, Freddy is all about visiting the sins of the father upon the children.  He explicitly doesn’t go after the surviving parents of Elm Street (save for Marge in the finale…), but instead punishes those parents by taking their children away.  

A national debt of the egregious size we racked up in the 1980s was, similarly, a visitation of the sins of the fathers upon the children. It was the kids who would be faced with paying the piper. We put it on our national credit card, but the bill wasn't due in the 1980s. 

Other epochs and other decades bring other bugaboos. A whole raft of horror films from the 1970s, including Dawn of the Dead (1979) seem born from Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” malaise, for example, and 1950s horror films, in general, arise from fears about the 1940s detonation of atom bombs in Japan. So partisanship has nothing to do with my analysis.. Reaganomics (or voodoo economics, to coin a phrase...) is simply, in a sub-textual way, the basis for the sub-surface fears expressed in A Nightmare on Elm Street.

As a protagonist, Nancy Thompson fits perfectly into this discussion of reality vs. symbolism, or surface vs. reality, if you prefer. Like the Prince of Denmark, she digs and digs, uncovering lies and murder, until she gets to the truth behind all the death and corruption.  

She discovers that her parents are murderers, and worse, that they are okay with the fact that they took the law into their own hands. Their protestations of righteousness are hollow-sounding lies.  And it is here, in reckoning with those lies, that Nancy realizes no one can help her.

The police are powerless to stop Freddy, because he operates in his own reality. 

Her parents are similarly helpless, because they are either alcoholic, are unwilling to listen to their child’s fears.  

And at a dream clinic, scientists also prove unable to help Nancy survive against the looming threat to her very survival.

So Nancy learns the hard-lesson in A Nightmare on Elm Street that the older folks aren’t going to help her.  

The Establishment, as it stands, is unwilling and unable to confront the truth, and solve the problem in an effective fashion.  In a sense, her parents have already sold her and her friends out.  Their illegal behavior -- their solution to the problem of Freddy -- has given Krueger license to hunt and murder their children.  The future, if she is to have one at all, rests with Nancy and her choices.

Nancy’s task is to see past the rhetoric and lies, and figure out a way in which she makes it forward. This task resonates not only with what was happening to the American economy in the eighties, but in terms of the Cold War as well. Nuclear War was never more than the push of a button away in this age, and the young generation wanted no part of it, and sought solace in what older generations called "death metal" and "dead teenager movies."

Again, the parents who brought the world to the brink of war might be viewed as culpable for creating that “demon,” while the younger generation, represented by Nancy, had to carry the burden of knowing that death -- apocalypse -- could come at any moment.  Freddy -- Craven's "bad father" -- is the avatar for all these generational fears; but particularly the fear that the world is fucked up, that it isn't your fault, and that, without doubt, the world is going to come and kill you.

What remains so fascinating about A Nightmare on Elm Street is Nancy’s predicament. Her mother notes: “You face things. That’s your nature…But sometimes you’ve got to turn away too.”  

What we are left with here, then, is a reckoning with the idea that society can’t continue -- that teenagers can’t grow up safely -- in the full light of reality, because it is too unpleasant. There are some things that are so horrifying that it is necessary to turn away from them.

But does turning away from them mean burying them? 

Does turning away mean medicating yourself to a state of numbness?  Some amount of denial may be desirable, healthy even, but first you must know what you are denying.  Nancy must learn when to dig for truth and when to turn away from the lies and corruption she finds.  

So, in some weird and very eighties way, A Nightmare on Elm Street is about growing up, and finding your own way to navigate a messed-up world.

Again, this crisis speaks of a duality, doesn’t it? Do we face our demons, or turn our backs on them?  Perhaps because the world is so complex, both realities must be given their due...

All the sub-textual currency in A Nightmare on Elm Street makes the film pulsate with ideas and cultural fears, but what is actually seen on screen is…visceral.  

The death of Tina is one of the most horrifying and remarkable death scenes ever put to film (with Glen’s a close second, perhaps). Tina’s death is violent, irrational, and based on the idea that a reality ignored is a reality that is dangerous, or deadly. 

An unseen assailant rips the beautiful teen apart, and razor cuts “happen” to her, because her parents have not been able to help her, or acknowledge the truth about the danger she faces. How can you save someone from a monster you refuse to acknowledge or believe in? 

Future Elm Street films boast far more elaborate death sequences, but for my money, Tina’s remains the most effective in the entire franchise.  Her murder galvanizes the senses. It terrifies. It goes so far beyond the pale -- and beyond rationality or Physics -- that viewers realize they have crossed over into a whole new world of terror.

A Nightmare on Elm Street succeeds as rubber-reality and as horror film because it brilliantly charts the overlap between real world and dream world in ways that are shocking, and yet simultaneously familiar to us. 

We've all had that terrible dream in which we are being chased, and our feet sink into the ground, delaying and jeopardizing our escape. Craven harnesses that universal image for a chase scene here, in which a staircase turns to goo under Nancy's feet, and Freddy looms nearer.

Another universal image of terror involves Freddy -- just an unformed shadow -- in a dark alley.  He is a menacing but vague boogeyman who suddenly grows even more menacing, as his arms stretch and stretch to inhuman proportion.  

There's something very basic or primeval about this vision, of arms growing longer and longer to entrap their prey.  And because Freddy is silhouetted, we can pour all of our various fears into him. He can be a bad father, a child murderer, a supernatural entity, or all of the above.

As a reflection of timely national fears and universal "nightmares," A Nightmare on Elm Street still succeeds wildly today...much more so than its unfortunate, misguided remake.  The film also represents a milestone in terms of the horror genre's portrayal of women, and is highly effective in generating its terror.  

Long story short: almost four decades later A Nightmare on Elm Street is still bloody good.

Elm St. Binge: A Nightmare on Elm Street V: The Dream Child (1989)

In many ways, the  Elm Street  movies are a lot like the James Bond films. Consider: there is one larger-than-life figure at the center of e...