Saturday, October 31, 2020

Phantasm (1979)

In some fashion direct or indirect, all horror films grapple with the ultimate human fear, mortality.  But Don Coscarelli’s landmark 1979 horror Phantasm is a film veritably obsessed with the cessation of life, and also the terrible grief that accompanies death for those left behind on this mortal coil.  

In fact, it is not at all difficult to interpret the film’s events as one teenager’s powerful subconscious fantasy, his sublimation and re-direction of grief as he attempts to make sense of all the death happening around him, in life and in his immediate family.  The film’s almost childish tale of a Fairy Tale monster -- a witch-like “Tall Man” (Angus Scrimm) who enslaves the dead -- is actually but Michael’s (Michael Baldwin’s) self-constructed mythology regarding mortality. 

Simply put, it’s easier to deal with that orderly “horror” – a world of monsters and villains and happy endings – than one in which those Michael loves are lost and gone forever.

Surreal and haunting, Phantasm confidently moves and tracks like almost no other horror movie ever made.  It vacillates between scenes of outright terror and ridiculous comedy, and treads into terrains not exactly…realistic.  The universe as expressed in the film doesn’t seem to conform to order or rationality as we understand it, frankly.  But importantly, all of this disorder, chaos and pain feels as though it arises from a deep understanding and sympathy for childhood.  The film’s trademark soundtrack composition -- which repeats frequently and effectively -- adds to the overwhelming sense of a lullaby or trance, one we can’t quite awake from.

So many horror fans (rightly) love and cherish Phantasm because of the horror, because of the flying silver “ball” and the gore it creates in its monstrous wake.  Yet for me the film is actually a horror character-piece of the highest magnitude, and actually a tender, even whimsical reminder of how the world might appear to a sad and lonely adolescent.  

 “I just don't get off on funerals, man, they give me the creeps.” 

The shadow of death hovers behind Michael.

In Phantasm, a lonely kid, Michael, investigates the creepy-goings on at Morningside Funeral Home.  In particular, the Tall Man seems to be ensnaring young, able-bodied men with a sexy siren, and then leading them to their bloody doom.  But death is not the end of their journey, Michael learns.  Instead, he discovers that the Tall Man is crushing down the corpses to half-size and reviving them as slave labor for his arid, Hellish other world.

Michael attempts to convince his older brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury), of this bizarre truth, but Jody is burned out and skeptical.  Since their parents died, he’s been caring for Michael full time, and wants to leave town.  Michael knows this, and is deathly afraid of abandonment.  But soon, however, Jody is swayed by Michael’s evidence and together with a friend, Reggie (Reggie Bannister), the trio launches a frontal assault on the Tall Man…

After the Tall Man is defeated, Michael awakes from the long dream to face hard reality.  Not only are his parents dead, but Jody is gone too.  He died in a car crash.  Now Reggie promises to take care of him, but the specter of death is not yet gone from Michael’s life…

“First he took Mom and Dad, then he took Jody, now he's after me.” 

Surrounded by the trappings of death

In terms of psychology, we now understand that an adolescent’s understanding of death rivals that of an adult.  In other words, an adolescent is old enough to understand the idea of permanence, and also the idea that anyone, not just the very old, can die at any time.  Furthermore, we know that in many cases, adolescents react more intensely to death than adults do.  And lastly, that the two most difficult deaths for a teenager to cope with are those of his parents and that of a sibling.  

In some instances, however, teenagers do not react to such losses as expected, with tears and outright declarations of sadness or pain.  Instead, they may not confront their grief at all.  Rather they sublimate and deny it, even crafting complex stories and belief systems around the death of their loved ones, such as the fiction that they are somehow responsible or guilty for those deaths.

We are confronted in Phantasm, then, with a young protagonist, Michael, who has seen the death of both his parents, and also -- as we learn at film’s end -- the death of his brother, Jody.   Instead of coping outright with the grief, however, his mind has fashioned a phantasm, a dream which to attempts to “re-order” his disordered life.  In this story, Michael and Jody are still a team, defeating monsters and solving the mystery of Morningside.  In this dream, death has become embodied in a person, the Tall Man, and as something that Michael, importantly, can combat and defeat.

Michael (left, background) is left behind, while Jody heads...where?

But even in the dream, Michael can’t quite completely banish the specter of mortality, the fear of being left behind.   In one scene, we see him running in the background of a frame, attempting to keep up with Jody (on a bike). But Jody, oddly unaware, pulls further and further away.  In this evocative shot, the camera  leaves Michael in the dust.  Soon he stands alone in the frame, and it’s clear his fear is real.  He is being left behind.  Growing smaller and smaller in the frame.  “It’s Jody again,” he notes at one point, “I found out that he’s leaving.

In terms of grappling with the idea of death, the film proper actually opens with it, as a friend of Jody’s named Tommy is killed.  Michael observes the funeral from a distance, with a set of binoculars.  This particular shot stresses the importance of how Michael sees, and later scenes in the film are similarly composed to reflect the same thing: effectively highlighting Michael’s eyes (as he sees through a crack in an open coffin, for instance) as he views the world.  This visual framing is our cue that the film itself is Michael’s “phantasm,” his way of perceiving and interpreting the things he experiences.  

How Michael sees #1

And what does Michael see?  Again and again, the film depicts not just a fear of death, but the various and sundry trappings of death.  We see mortuaries, caskets, funerals, hearses, graves and other elements of what could only be termed, politely, “the death industry.”  

As adults, these things are accepted, perhaps reluctantly, as part of the landscape, and don’t necessarily have the power to frighten or disturb us.  We know such things exist, and we deal with them. But because Michael is obsessed with death, the film reflects his fetish most vividly, creating a world where the trappings of death are visible and prominent in nearly every frame, and suffused with a dark malevolence.  The funeral director is a monstrous crone (The Tall Man), the graveyard is a place of darkness, danger and entrapment.  The hearse is a vehicle for the enslaved “dead” dwarves employed by the Tall Man, and so on.  The Tall Man hovers in the background of some shots like the Angel of Death himself.  He marshals all these familiar trappings of death and renders them frightening once more.  They serve him.

How Michael sees #2

The implication here is, perhaps, that as adults we accept the “death industry” and its trappings. But for Michael, they symbolize constant, nightmarish reminders of what he has lost.  They are monoliths constantly highlighting the unacceptability and permanence of death, yet hardly noticed by adult eyes.  Michael has not yet matured to the point where he accepts the presence of death in his life.

I’ve written above that some aspects of Phantasm seem childish or childlike.  This is not an insult or a put-down.  For instance, Michael and Jody easily destroy the Tall Man, essentially trapping him in a hole in the Earth (a mine shaft).  That this simple, almost cartoon-styled plan works against a Dedicated Agent of Evil reminds us that we are dealing with a child-like intelligence as the primary mover of the action.  We are seeing Michael’s dreams made manifest before our eyes.  We can destroy the devil by burying him up on that mountain!  

How Michael sees #3

It doesn’t make a lot of rational sense unless we consider the action a child’s phantasm.  Similarly, the whole vibe of the movie is something akin to what I described in Horror Films of the 1970s as a Hardy Boy’s mystery where “something sinister” is happening at the local cemetery.   To describe this almost innocent quality of the film another way, I would say that Phantasm understands the adolescent mind, and crafts successfully and movingly a world around that perspective.

I believe this interpretation is borne out, to some degree, by the depiction of the film’s deadly siren, the Lady in Lavender.  She is a mysterious figure promising sex but delivering death.  She is very much a product of a fearful teen’s imagination and fear.  That teen does not yet understand what sex is, or the power of sex as a desire and appetite.  Instead, the “unknowns” of sex become, in the film, disturbingly intermingled with death.  The moans of love-making transform, in short order, into the groaning of a monster lurking in the nearby bushes.  Both sex and death are things that seem to take Jody away from his brother, after all.

Although all the Phantasm sequels surely preclude the possibility that this film is but the dream of a sad, grief-ridden teenager, the interpretation tracks admirably if you take Coscarelli’s original as a standalone effort and not part of a “franchise.”  As I have also written before, I believe this quality of the film (as a teen’s dream) is also made clear by Michael’s unbelievably good survival rate.  He tangles with the Tall Man and his minions no less than four times in the film, and always emerges unscathed, only to prove, finally, victorious in his campaign.  I submit that this “luck” too is a reflection of a youthful mentality: the belief that you are somehow immune to death.  Furthermore, it reflects the idea that we all place ourselves at the center of our fantasies, as the heroes in our own adventures.  Here, Michael deals with death by becoming a superhero of sorts, one who conquers long-lived monsters and solves mysteries.

Our last, wistful view of Jody, from a distance and bound for parts unknown.

I admire the film because its distinctive visuals so beautifully mirror Phantasm's themes.  In some shots, the Tall Man seems to be the shadow of death himself.  And in one haunting composition, Michael sees Jody for the last time (before waking up into a world where he is dead).  Jody stands high in the frame, atop a mountain.  Jody stands on that pinnacle, a heavenly light (like angel wings?) behind him.  It's the distant, final view of a man going to the great beyond, and Coscarelli's imagery captures it with wonder and a degree of lyricism.

Charting the disturbed mental landscape of a grieving boy, Phantasm gets to a very simple and emotional truth about human existence.  It is often easier to live in a fantasy world (even one with monsters, dwarves, giant flies, and alien worlds…) than it is to face head-on the fact that, in the final analysis, we are all going to lose our loved ones.  Because it deals so sensitively and succinctly with that tough, hard-to-accept idea, Phantasm always gets to me on some deep level.  The film makes me ask myself an important question: Why do I like and enjoy horror movies so much?  Why do I love being scared and challenged by them?

With films like Phantasm, am I actually preparing myself, in some way, for the inevitable? 

Perhaps so.  

I know only this: I deeply fear death, and sometimes obsess on it, both in relation to the end of my own life, and deaths of those I love.  In Phantasm Michael reveals one way to grieve, or perhaps to escape grieving.  Phantasm makes me wonder about my own solution to the Phantasm equation.  Am I going to be that boy, left behind on the bike while others leave me behind? Or will the Tall Man show up for me first?

At some point, the Tall Man is going to look all of us straight in the eye, commend us for a good game -- now finished -- and remind us it is time to die.  You don’t have to be a teenager to fear that day, and in some way Phantasm helps us to explore meaningfully the ideas of grief, loss, and the inevitability of death.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Elm St. Binge: Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)

Of all the original Nightmare on Elm Street films, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) is the worst.

The film’s setting -- a decimated Springwood ten years in the future -- is actually quite inventive, and, in a way, quite logical in nature, but Freddy’s Dead nonetheless plays more like a cartoon than a movie featuring human beings.  

There’s a campy tone to the whole enterprise that is heightened to ridiculous and unpalatable levels by the (unnecessary) presence of movie star cameos.  

And the Freddy background story -- which reveals he has a daughter -- plays as two-dimensional at best.

Even the film’s conclusion -- which sees Freddy brought into the real world and executed there -- plays as a weak-kneed imitation of Nancy Thompson’s final strategy in the 1984 original.  

The film’s genuinely lousy special effects -- which look even worse in 3-D -- don’t do anything to enhance the script’s better qualities.  

In this case, Freddy’s Dead best quality is the script’s focus on the tragedy of child abuse. Virtually every important character in the proceedings can be considered in regards to this (troubling) paradigm, even Freddy himself.

Somewhere, buried underneath all the campy jokes, there is a good movie waiting to get out. It’s just too bad that Freddy’s Dead is executed so poorly, and without any sense of or grounding in reality.

The tag-line promised that the filmmakers saved the best for last.  

But the opposite true. Freddy’s Dead kills Freddy all right, but not because he had to go; but because the filmmakers did such a lousy job dramatizing this story.

“One of these days, you’re going to have to face your father.”

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Springwood is down to its last surviving teenager, John Doe (Shon Greenblat), thanks to Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund).  Freddy sends the amnesiac Doe to a nearby town on a fishing expedition of sorts, hoping he will bring back more victims for Freddy, including his long lost daughter.

John ends up at a half-way house with other teens including Tracy (Lezlie Deane), Carlos (Ricky Dean Logan) and Spencer (Brecking Meyer).  Their counselor is Maggie (Lisa Zane), a woman who is also struggling with gaps in her memory.

Maggie takes John on a field trip back to Springwood, to learn about his past, unaware that the other teens have stowed away in the van for the trip.  She is also unaware that she is leading them all into a trap set by Freddy.

“He’s fucking with the lines between dreams and reality.”

There are three big problems with Freddy’s Dead, I guess one might conclude.  

The first is that space has been made -- too much space, actually -- for celebrity cameos.  Thus the movie shoehorns in appearances by Roseanne Barr, Tom Arnold, Johnny Depp and Alice Cooper.  

Barr and Arnold are the absolute pits in their roles as psychotic Springwood parents, and they don’t take their performances seriously.  Instead, this duo grants the film a camp quality that makes it all seem like a big joke.

Secondly, the film’s climax proves a grievous disappointment. To start off, we learn that Freddy is inhabited by three Ancient Greek Gods called “dream demons.”  

One wonders: does this mean he’s not the protector of the Dream Gate, as established by “The Dream Master?” 

Why do we get another revisionist explanation for his dream abilities at all?  It's unnecessary, and worse than that, contradictory to information we have already received in previous franchise entries.

No matter, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

During the denouement, Maggie pulls Freddy into reality (just as Nancy did in A Nightmare on Elm Street), and then blows him up with dynamite, ending his reign of terror permanently. 

Writing for Sight and Sound Film Review (May 1991-April 1992, page 227), Nigel Floyd pointed out the problem with this straightforward solution: “Here we are asked to believe that a monster – who has survived myriad deaths and been resurrected countless times could be disposed of with sticks of dynamite.”

Yep. The problem is that this film was marketed on the premise of the studio finally killing off Freddy.  You would think, then, that the writers and director would come up with a pretty ingenious, or at least fresh way to kill off the brute.  Instead, they just pick the franchise's first and earliest way to kill him, from Craven’s original.  

It’s a huge disappointment, and not believable for even a second.   

The questions here that the audience might rightly ask, but the filmmakers don't consider are the following.

Why does this death promise to keep Freddy at bay permanently when Nancy turning her back on him failed?

When burying his bones in consecrated bones failed. 

When showing him his evil reflection failed.  

When being captured and absorbed by his mother, the nun, failed?

But this is going to do it?!

Well, Yaphet Kotto says so...

Third, but not least importantly, Freddy’s Dead represents the first time since before the arrival of Dream Warriors, that Freddy’s rules are inconsistent.  

Now, for example, Springwood seems to exist in its own bubble dimension, and Freddy is trying to reach out of it.  

How does he own his own dimension?  I’m not talking about dreams here, importantly,  We actually see the glass-like membrane between dimensions as it is shattered. 

Since when did Freddy get real estate in the waking world?

More dramatically, the movie makes a point of noting that Krueger reqquires John Doe to go fetch victims and bring them back to his dimension, because he can’t affect the world outside Springwood.  

Yet when Maggie and John return to the outside world, reality there has shifted dramatically.  No one any longer possesses memories of Carl or Spencer.  They’ve been erased from the time line.

Again, this is hardly the purview of a dream demon, and it makes no sense that Freddy should be able to re-shape reality from afar when he goes to all the trouble of bringing victims to him in Springwood.

I could go on and on with the internal inconsistencies, because there are many.

In terms of visuals, Freddy is over-lit throughout the movie so you can get a good look at every burn and pock-mark on his face. As I wrote in Horror Films of the 1990s, he’s about as terrifying-looking here as Lt Worf  was on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994).

Yet despite these flaws, I believe that Freddy’s Dead could have succeeded, with better execution, and a rewrite (or seven, perhaps).  For example, I like the idea of Springwood as a ghost town.  That’s a valid notion, given the rate at which Freddy is murdering teenagers in the other films. It only makes sense that, at some point, the town is decimated…and nobody’s moving in anymore, either.

Secondly, I can see that the filmmakers were attempting to make some (no doubt sincere) commentary about abused children and abused parents. 

Tracy is an abused child, as we see in her dream sequence, which features her brutish, hulking father.  
Carlos is deaf in one ear, we learn, because -- similarly -- his mother injured him.  

Maggie, the daughter of Freddy is certainly verbally and emotionally abused by Freddy in the film.

And Freddy himself, we learn from the film’s flashbacks, is also an abused child.  

But Freddy’s Dead doesn’t do much with this idea, or draw any important or original conclusions about what it means that such violence exists in American families.  Accordingly, the flashbacks featuring Freddy are absolutely horrible.  

Basically, young Freddy begs his dad (Cooper) to whip him some more, again utilizing the approach that Freddy is seemingly bad by nature, evil from birth.  I think this does the character an extreme disservice, as I’ve written before.

I believe, instead, that Freddy is a coward. Or at least he was in life. Why else pick a job where he could hurt children in secret?  Why keep in the shadows, or live in a boiler room?  

Clearly, he is a sick individual who operates on the fringes of society. 

But the Elm Street sequels turn Freddy into this two-dimensional, cackling “EVIL” thing who kills schoolroom animals, begs to be beaten by his dad, and roughs up his wife and (possibly his daughter too).  A guy like this draws a lot of attention --  he doesn’t hide -- and so it doesn’t seem to fit with Wes Craven’s conception of the character.  Can you imagine the Freddy seen in this film's flashbacks ever getting a job at an elementary school?  Ever being beloved by the students there?

I know I can't.

With such a dramatic rewrite of the original character, I would suggest that it is the filmmakers, not Maggie and John, who actually need a refresher course in “Freddy 101.”

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.

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