House of the Devil (2009)

In a market that is genuinely oversaturated with the same thing wrapped in a different package, it does get difficult for horror fans to find a low-budget masterpiece that forces their jaws to drop to the floor. In the past, there were plenty of “straight-to-video” gems that still have a special place in horror-film history, but these days, it seems that there are constantly 30 or 40 new “horror films” a week, made by some guy you’ve never heard of, and released by a brand new indie production company that you’ve also never heard of. By looking at most of his catalog, Ti West, a man whose filmography includes gems like Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, seems like he should fit right into this category along with that kid down the street who made a zombie movie a couple weeks ago. Much to everyone’s surprise though, West’s 2009 opus, The House of the Devil, gives true fans of suspense something that they have deserved for many years, and while it may not have been entirely inventive 30 years ago, to see a film like this come out in the past five years is really something that deserves notoriety.

Existing on a relatively simple plot, you are introduced to Samantha Hughes, played by Jocelin Donahue, a young college student looking for work in order to pay for a new place. After a slow opening sequence, plot exposition suddenly slaps you in the face, and Donahue comes across a flyer with a request horror fans know all too well, “In Need Of Babysitter.” After a bit of frustrating phone tag, our heroine sets out with her best friend to an isolated house far out in the woods. Upon their arrival, the audience is introduced to the owner of the house, Mr. Ullman, played by veteran actor Tom Noonan, whose filmography includes Wolfen, Manhunter, and The Monster Squad. Samantha then finds out that as opposed to housesitting for children, Mr. Ullman is requesting that she look after his mother, whom he swears will not even make herself known, while he and his wife attend a party for the lunar eclipse later that evening. After agreeing to take the job for what most of us would consider an exorbitant amount of money (even more so back in 1980, when the film is set), the Ullmans take their leave. Samantha then informs her friend that drove her all the way out to the house that the owners were uncomfortable with having both of them there, and that she could pick her up later that night. Despite her best friend’s apprehensive assessment of the situation, our protagonist decides to press on. By this point in the film most of the audience is already yelling at Donahue for being gullible enough not to realize a horror movie setup for a satanic cult when it’s waiving a severed goat’s head in her face, but God bless her anyway. Suffice it to say, after a while in the house, things begin to take a very serious turn south for Donahue, and the audience is left sitting face-to-face with every horror movie stereotype of a cult they can imagine. The climax of the film results in a bloody nightmare that, while some will feel it cannot make up for the slow pacing of the rest of the movie, most will agree that the payoff was well worth the wait.

Even with the age old horror setup of “babysitter alone in creepy old house,” House of the Devil does not fail to impress the veterans—or the newcomers—of the genre. Director West brings an almost overwhelming sense of impending doom with every shot after the homeowners leave the house. Menial time wasters like Donahue playing billiards or watching TV only seem to bring you closer and closer to the edge of your seat with no explanation as to why. Tension like this has not had serious play in horror movies since Hitchcock, and it feels wonderful to have it back. Instead of a constant barrage of blood and worn out jump scares, this film gets back to the idea that the actual event is often not half as scary as the buildup. An inventive sequence, in which the main character is doing nothing more than dancing around the almost empty house listening to her portable cassette player, puts the viewer ill at ease because they just “know” that something is going to happen, but the protagonist won’t be able to hear it. A moment in which the babysitter’s friend is doing nothing more than attempting to bum a light off of a random passerby on the road, resulting in her shocking death, succeeds in bringing the audience out of their mellow approach caused by the first half of the film into the uneasy second act. The audience spends the majority of the movie watching an unwitting co-ed inch closer and closer to her doom, knowing that there is nothing anyone can do to save her from this plight.

Everything in the film reeks of the 1980s, and it works so well that it’s hard to believe the film came out three years ago. It seems that the filmmakers thought of everything, from the clothes and the cars, to the hairstyles, to the strong soundtrack, which features the pop/rock hit “One Thing Leads to Another” by London rockers The Fixx. The film also prays on the “satanic panic” shockwave of the 1980s, and while it may be something that is lost on the younger viewers, those who understand the reference will definitely feel a resurgence in the dread of that era. In order to expound upon the myth that the film was in fact made in the early ’80s, the production company decided to run a limited promotion of the film, which appeared on VHS, and in the classic clamshell boxes we all remember from years of pilfering through video rental shelves. The acting also feels very much like that of the early low-budget ’80s horror films we all know and love. Instead of the feeling that these are second rate B-actors, the cast gives off the vibe that they are incredibly savvy with the type of film they’re doing. The characters show some complexity, and during the final payoff all of their motives are explained well. The dialogue and pacing are well done in accordance with the films that West is paying homage.

The actual filming style of The House of the Devil is really something to behold. The influences drawn from classic horror and suspense filmmakers of the time—such as Roman Polanski or John Carpenter—are very evident and are, in fact, welcomed with open arms. Modern horror is populated by directors who want to pay homage to their predecessors, but very few do a good enough job of bringing the spirit of these older films back to the silver screen. Instead of relying on modern conventional filming techniques, West gets back to the way it used to be done, and while this may annoy those who have grown used to crisp picture and stunning sound quality, most of us aren’t looking for the horror equivalent of a Michael Bay film. For example, West opted to make the entire film using a 16mm camera, as opposed to using the current standard of digital filming with additional effects added post-production. If one was to simultaneously play The House of the Devil alongside any one of the countless low-budget horror films of the early 1980s, almost no one would be able to tell the difference in when the two were made. The cinematography also fits seamlessly with its predecessors, with an abundance of lingering shots and extremely slow zoom-ins, as West casts away the current industry standards of fast-paced, “what the hell just happened?” shots that make it seem like the filmmakers drew inspiration from a strobe light. Instead, The House of the Devil relies on building the tension through plot devices and camera work that dwells on a shot so long that the audience feels like they may see too much.

Overall, The House of the Devil is well worth the time of any horror-movie buff interested in finding something new to rekindle the golden age of Hollywood scares. With few to no flaws in its design, few people will be disappointed in the current apex of Ti West’s career. No matter what subgenre of the horror industry you love, there is something that you can get from this movie, be it gore, suspense, or the disturbing nature of the film’s climax. Most any serious fan of the genre would agree that films like these far surpass the never-ending barrage of mind-numbing trite that audiences are inundated with these days. While it may not have all of the bells and whistles that audiences have grown accustomed to over the past decade, this film brings horror back to a time when scares were simply better than they are now.

-Matt

Matt Oakley is a journalist and investigator of the unexplained.  He has written articles for the Politomatic & Culture of Spirits Blogs, as well as Intrepid Magazine, and made appearances on several radio programs.  Oakley currently writes, and is a radio personality for www.gralienreport.com and its sister radio show and podcast The Gralien Report.

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Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)

As much as I can vividly remember watching movies at the theater when I was a young kid, I often can recall watching the movie’s trailer even more. I’ve always loved movie trailers. When shot, edited and scored correctly these mere pieces of advertising can become a work of art. Some trailers can evoke such a feeling of exhilaration that the experience stays with you long after the feature presentation is over. Many of today’s best writer/directors choose to edit their own trailers and it shows. I can remember watching the trailer for Punch-Drunk Love and found myself days later still singing Shelley Duvall’s rendition of “He Needs Me” that plays over the commercial. Or the night I screened 3:10 to Yuma which was preceded by the trailer debut of There Will Be Blood and I spent the rest of the feature damning life because I was watching Yuma and NOT Blood.

I bring up trailers for two reasons. One being that fellow editors, David and Adam and myself spent Saturday night watching a two hour plus trailer pack at our theater. Sort of our farewell to 35mm since in two weeks our place of business is going all digital and consequently making our collection of 80s and 90s trailers obsolete. And two because trailers were often my first exposure to movies I was underage to see at the time. It is the trailer for Under Siege 2: Dark Territory that led me to run home and pretend I was Steven Seagal taking down terrorists on a train. The trailer for Tombstone that led me to pretend I was Wyatt Earp (or most times Sam Elliott) strolling the Old West. Of the recent trailer pack I had chills rewatching the Independence Day trailer and being taken back to the excitement I felt of seeing it for the first time in 96.

Which brings me to tonight’s post: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

At the age of 8 I had already seen a handful of the latter Elm Street films and always found them intense, a little creepy but rarely ever scary. I imagine it was the benefit of watching them with older audiences, like my older sister or older cousins and their friends who would make second rate Mystery Science Theater puns throughout each viewing. Even at a young age I knew that no matter how horrific the event, it was still just a movie. That is until I saw the trailer for Wes Craven’s New Nightmare in which the director’s original creation has somehow manifested itself into a real life terror. This meant that at the age of 8 I would scream “Holy shit you mean Freddy’s real!!!”

Throughout the late 80s and early 90s Wes Craven witnessed the genre he created, “the slasher film”, plummet to the depths of straight to video knockoffs and endless sequels barely resembling the presence of its original roots. In the age of Critters 3: You Are What They Eat and Scanners III: The Takeover and Puppet Masters 5: The Final Chapter it was clear that something needed to be done to save the empire that Craven had built on disembodied teenagers. Horror filmmakers needed a new way to strip and murder the innocent. In 1994 Wes Craven began the notion that would reinvigorate both his career and the genre for another decade. The plan was simple: Let the victims know they are in a horror movie. Lay out all the classic horror movie cliches in plain sight and watch as the knowing teens still meet their demise. Horror movies were now in on the joke and audiences were laughing with the movies and not at them.

A year before Craven perfected this idea with the genre busting Scream franchise, he wrote and directed the final official sequel to the Elm Street series. The plot follows Heather Langenkamp as herself who begins to suffer from nightmares similar to that of the Elm Street franchise just as production on the latest sequel gears up. Heather’s husband Chase is a prop designer on the film and in the opening sequence of the film she dreams he is being maimed by a robotic Freddy glove. Its spider-like crawl across the table being one of the images that terrified me as a kid.

Heather is invited to the set of the film by real life New Line producer Bob Shaye where she is offered the chance to reprise her role as Nancy from the original film. She declines but still arranges a meeting with director Wes Craven for information on her dreams. Craven explains to Heather that the new film he is writing has been coming to him through a series of dreams. In his script pure evil can be defeated if its essence is captured in a work of art that is able to allow evil to express itself and that the evil has taken the familiar form of Freddy. Apparently Freddy has decided to stalk Heather since she was the actress who portrayed Nancy and thus gave Nancy her power. What!!

Following the death of her husband, Heather must protect her son from Freddy and takes sleeping pills to put the two of them into a final showdown. The ending culminates into a Hansel and Gretel-like display of inserting Freddy into a lit furnace. At the age of 8 the idea of placing Freddy into the real world was quite terrifying. Watch the film now and it is a hilarious parody of the Hollywood system. Robert Englund is a tour de force in his dual role playing himself and the wretched Freddy Krueger. The great John Saxon appears playing the dual part as well and Craven seems to be having a ball letting his inner Hitchcock roam free in a portrayal of Hollywood directors. The movie doesn’t quite have the self-mockery smarts as Kevin Williamson’s script for Scream but its a nice direction toward madcap parody. Freddy’s look was also updated to resemble more of Craven’s original conception of the clawed one, attempting to make him more menacing than comical.

Though not a box-office or critical juggernaut, New Nightmare still holds as one of my personal favorites of the series and will remain the launching pad for the late 90s resurgence of slasher films and more importantly the “horror-satire”.

-John

Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)

After the 5th Nightmare on Elm St. film, “Dream Child,” the series was beginning to feel especially long in the tooth. The plight of the Alice character played by Lisa Wilcox was beginning to feel stale, and the storyline needed a fresh plot. Despite this, for the 6th film, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (notice that whenever a film has the sub-title “final” it never is?) the original script would have called for a continuation of the 4th film and brought back characters from the 3rd, which would have made it the 4th film in that story arc. Director Rachel Talalay (1995’s Tank Girl), unhappy with the script, decided to use an entirely different one by Michael DeLuca, eschewing the cast and story of the previous sequels.

This go-round, “John Doe” (Shon Greenblatt) is a teenager with amnesia whose dreams are constantly tormented by Mr. Krueger. Curiously, Freddy seems less interested in killing John and more interested in pushing him to a specific destination. This destination is a home for “troubled teens” who have suffered from abuse and/or otherwise can’t seem to play nice with the rest of society. Counselors “Doc” (Yaphet Kotto) and Maggie (Lisa Zane) attempt to help them resolve their troubles, and “Doc” is especially found of dream therapy (no surprise there). Maggie herself has a recurring dream that she can’t quite figure out, but discovers that a newspaper clipping John has on his person has ties to parts of her dream. She decides to investigate the town mentioned in the clipping along with John, and is accompanied by stowaway teens Spencer (Breckin Meyer), Tracy (Lezlie Deane), and Carlos (Ricky Dean Logan).

They arrive in the town of Springwood and find the town bereft of children, apparently Freddy has cleaned the place out (look for Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold as childless parents “This time I swear it’ll be different. This time I’ll be careful and I’ll hide you better so that he’ll never find you!”). Here Maggie and John attempt to discover their pasts while Freddy goes to work on the stowaway teens.

Despite the change of scenery (and a cameo by original Nightmare star Johnny Depp, credited as “Oprah Noodlemantra”), Freddy’s Dead still doesn’t quite pull itself out of the deep rut that the series had dug itself into at this point. The film doesn’t bring anything new to table aside from a new story arc and characters, it’s a very “safe” film that relies on the established Freddy Krueger character and the series’ hallmark, the creative ways that Freddy eradicates his victims. The revelation towards the later half of the film that “Freddy had a kid!” isn’t a particularly believable plot point either, and that, combined with a lazy explanation for the source of Freddy’s powers (flying, evil, worm-shaped “dream demons”???), only further erodes Freddy Krueger’s viability as a scary, rather than solely humorous, character. As far as performances, Shon Greenblatt has some pretty awful dialogue, as does Lisa Zane, and it’s hard to tell if it’s a failing of the actors or just spots of terrible writing they’re given to work with. Honestly the scenes that work best are those that are less about story exposition and are more focused on the bizarreness that typically flavors a Nightmare film, which should tell you the caliber of the storyline.

In this editor’s opinion, however, this film is still relatively entertaining. It has its share of eye-rolling dialogue and wooden acting, but still has some of the charm that makes the third film enjoyable, and is less groan-inducing than the somewhat painful plotline of the 5th film, special effects nonwithstanding. The deaths, though fewer in number than most of its predecessors, are both funny and unique. Freddy’s Dead marks the last of the “traditional” Nightmare films, followed by the unconventional film-becoming-real-life New Nightmare (1994), the crossover Freddy vs Jason (2003), and the 2010 remake of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Given that Robert Englund is in his mid-sixties, and that the series has already received a gritty, “modern” remake (a critically panned one at that), it may be that we never see another “classic” Nightmare film ever again. Whether you think that’s a blessing or a curse is up to your personal taste, but with Freddy Krueger having more or less completely transitioned from legitimate slasher villain to commercial funny-guy, it may be for the best.

-Adam

A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)

Allow me to introduce you to one of the most underrated directors of all time. The Jamaican-born and Australia and England raised filmmaker Stephen Hopkins was one of the greatest rising talents of the early 90’s. He had a certain style, a color scheme and camerawork that were entirely his own. His films had such a signature look that you could instantly recognize his work as his own, much in the way you view a Walter Hill or Tony Scott film and automatically feel at home in the filmmakers hands. His first two major features were follow ups to million dollar blockbusters that each performed less than stellar when compared to their predecessors and ultimately took a critical backlash. His masterpiece is a totally forgotten 90’s film and his biggest success was a disaster of a film that flushed his feature film career down the toilet. Yet he deserved so much more.

After breaking through with his Australian feature Dangerous Game in 1987, Hopkins took to the high octane world of Hollywood blockbusters. His third effort was the Schwarzenegger-less sequel Predator 2, a completely badass movie that transports the Predator from the treacherous jungles of Central America into an equally terrifying jungle: a futuristic crime-ridden Los Angeles with an elite police task force that includes Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Bill Paxton and Ruben Blades. His 1993 film Judgement Night is his masterpiece. A criminally forgotten horror/action/suspense thriller with the perfect ensemble cast (including then “new comers” Cuba Gooding Jr., Jeremy Piven and Stephen Dorff). A film that certainly deserves a post from either David or myself, both avid fans.

In 1994 and 1995 he executed two extremely entertaining action films Blown Away starring Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones and The Ghost and The Darkness with Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer. His career culminated with the 1998 adaptation of Lost in Space, a misguided sci-fi actioner that despite its box-office performance ended up one of the worst regarded films of that or any other year. His 2000 effort Under Suspicion is a seldom-seen thriller that officially lacks the style and pizzazz of his earlier efforts. Since then Hopkins has found success in television by executive producing and directing half the episodes of the first few seasons of 24. He’s also worked on Shameless and Californiacation and received worldwide acclaim with his 2004 HBO film The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. Oh yeah…in 2007 he did do that Hilary Swank horror movie called The Reaping but I’m gonna choose to ignore that.

What makes Stephen Hopkins a true talent is obvious in his first Hollywood feature, 1989’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. This is probably one of the best executed and stylized movies in the entire Elm Street series. Dream Child is a more Gothic and darker toned effort than the previous entries. In fact the films moderate box-office performance can be attributed to the darkness of the subject matter which perhaps alienated the avid slasher film fans. Certain subjects that the film approaches including abortion, teen motherhood, drinking and driving, bulimia and anorexia, can hit closer to home than a killer who stalks you in your dreams. With every extremity Hopkins hits the mark.

Picking up a year after the events of The Dream Master, we quickly find survivors Alice and Dan happily dating and free of the terrors of Freddy Kruger. All goes to hell when Alice begins having nightmares placing her in an insane asylum occupying the clothes and name tag of Amanda Krueger, Freddy’s mother. In one dream she finds herself strapped to a gurney and wheeled into a delivery room where she seems to give birth to an infant Freddy. In the real world, Alice discovers she is in fact pregnant with Dan’s child and Freddy returns to take down her lover and remaining high school friends including Greta the supermodel, Mark the comic book geek and Yvonne the nurse.

When hospitalized after a vicious attack by Freddy, Alice learns that Freddy is using her child to infiltrate her friends dreams and brutally murdering each of them. After a series of ultra cool death dream sequences including the Se7en-esque torture of Greta who is forced to eat herself to death and comic geek Mark who is turned into a paper character and cut apart, Alice begins her final quest to eliminate Freddy and save her unborn child. The climax features an M.C. Escher-like labyrinth and a powerful battle between Alice, her unborn son Jacob and two forms of Freddy, one internal and one infant.

Okay so the story for this one can be quite outlandish at times and not every plot twist or mythology expanding scenario gels together completely. However there is a master at work here that cannot be denied. Using a blue filter lighting technique, wide angle lenses and swift camera movements, Hopkins creates an incredibly surreal atmosphere. This is easily one of the most colorful and energetic of the Elm Street series. The use of blues and purples and the top-notch special effects recall Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II, Fred Dekker’s The Monster Squad or even Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop. This is also one of the few Elm Street films where the look and style of the real world is nearly as engaging as the dream world, blurring the line between fantasy and reality that much more. The nefarious Robert Englund has a joyous time chewing the scenery and delivering such playfully tongue-in-cheek, knife-in-spleen one-liners like “Faster than a bastard maniac, more powerful than a loco-madman, its…Super Freddy!” a classic play on the legendary Superman tagline.

When us editors decided on which Elm Street films to post on, I chose my personal favorite next to the original and Dream Warriors: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare from 1994. However I am extremely happy that I also had the opportunity to take on the lesser known of the series, simply because it has the best director attached to it. Stephen Hopkins is the man and his visual style and personal stamp on franchises is classic 80’s/90’s cinema. His work in horror in particular is quite edgy and way ahead of its time. For proof look no further than this truly underrated installment in the Elm Street franchise, as well as his incredible episodes of Tales from the Crypt.

-John

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)

I consider myself a fairly knowledgeable horror movie veteran, but if there is a chink in that armor it is the Elm Street series of films. I devour mainstream, foreign & indy horror alike, but I’ve never seen any of the first six Freddy movies. When it was suggested that we do a Nightmare week here I decided it was a good chance to watch them all in succession, a task which I am still in the middle of completing. Ignorant of any quality regarding the sequels, I went with A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Master. After watching the first three films, the third being my favorite of the lot up to this point, I was hopeful that the fourth installment would continue what the third film achieved in regards to imaginative deaths, makeup effects and set pieces. It didn’t take very long for me to realize that I was in deep shit without a shovel in sight.

Dream Master starts very promising and disappointing at the same time. For the first time in the series, we get a straight forward continuation of the story from where Part 3 ended. Sadly, Patricia Arquette is nowhere to be seen, yet her character, Kristen Parker, is now portrayed by Tuesday Knight (I can hear her parents snickering to this day). Arquette was pregnant when the film was scheduled to shoot and from how things turned out, it looks like they should have waited for her. Knight is a huge step down in talent, but she gets by on her looks more than her acting here. Knight is joined by a couple of returning warriors from Part 3 Kincaid (Ken Sagoes) & Joey (Rodney Eastman). Kristen is convinced that Freddy is still out there waiting for her in her dreams and tries to convince Kincaid & Joey that he isn’t gone. Well this wouldn’t be much of a movie if Freddy wasn’t in it, so obviously he gonna show up sooner or later (scope the horror movie knowledge there). When he does, he’s back at it trying to collect the souls that he missed out on before. Eventually the torch is passed to Alice (Lisa Wilcox) to stop Freddy when Kristen imbues Alice with her gift of being able to draw people into her dream. Alice’s brother and self-taught karate expert (seriously), Rick (Andras Jones) does his best to help defeat Freddy with his sick martial arts skills in an epic Rick vs. nobody fight (because Freddy’s invisible). This looked retarded when I watched it, and it sounds even worse when I’m writing this.

The remainder of the film is quite possibly the most commercial heavy piece of horror schlock I’ve ever seen in my life. Wes Craven had almost nothing to do with this film, and it showed. Directing duties fell on up and coming filmmaker Renny Harlin. Harlin has made a few solid action films (Die Hard 2 & Cliffhanger), but most of his work seems to fall into the steaming cinematic turd category. In Dream Master we are subjected to a sellout to end all sellouts. Now don’t get me twisted, I love a good one-liner. Some of my favorite actors are known for them, but when your entire speaking performance in a film is one-liners they better be fucking great. Me personally, I don’t think that Freddy using AT&T’s slogan at the time “reach out and touch someone” was fucking great. I think it was fucking lazy. It felt like this entire production was streamlined by the film studio and corporations out to make a quick buck on the immensely popular horror franchise. Pepsi, I’m looking at you. By the end of the film I really thought Freddy was going to sit down, drink a Pepsi, look at the camera and say “AHHHHH, Pepsi! The choice of a new generation. Bitch!” All of this made Freddy Krueger, one of  Hollywood’s ultimate boogeymen, into a cornball. I know that it’s all about making money at the end of the day, but compromising this much creative integrity to increase your bottom line sickens me. Giving Freddy a twisted sense of humor is perfect given his grotesque nature, but infusing it with pop culture was a huge mistake. I’d like to think of Freddy Krueger as the monster who would slice off his own fingers just to freak you out, not featured in a rap song by The Fat Boys in the end credits. Shark, consider yourself jumped.

 

-Wes

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)

As far as the horror genre goes, you would be hard pressed to find a director who has had a larger impact on the medium than that of Wes Craven. It’s hard for any director to remain relevant over a 40-year career, especially one that has long been associated with horror, a type of film looked down on by a vast majority of the movie-going public and critics alike, who cite it as a grotesque carnival of horrors, exploitation of the worst possible kind that highlights the worst aspects humanity has to offer. Of course, this is a short-sighted and often ignorant claim, as the best in the horror cannon serve up great amounts of satire while rooting into our subconscious, tapping into our most primal of fears. Since he unleashed The Last House on the Left way back in 1972, Craven has proven himself not only to be a unique voice in film but also a talent capable of reinventing himself and the entire landscape of the macabre. His directorial debut ushered in an angry, assaultive, and realistic style of horror that would become commonplace in the ’70s, a decade reeling from Vietnam and its fallout, the implications of the Watergate scandal, a flagging economy, and the hangover of the demonstration culture of the ’60s. The seminal film would help pave the way for Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), each of which would have a mammoth impact on future directors of the medium as well.

By the time the ’80s rolled around, Craven was looking for a new way to scare audiences, to keep them up late at night, long after the projector stopped flickering; to invade their dreams, turning them into nightmares. Thus, Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) was born, a low-budget film from an independent named New Line looking to break into the big time. Gone was the brutal, dingy look of his freshman offering, replacing it with a surreal tone, the filmmaker even going so far as to draft a mission statement emphasizing the horror needed to not just be “about fighting the monster, but about the framework of reality itself.” Thus, he built the blurring of reality and dreams into the fabric of his story, much like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion did in 1965, or, more recently, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan in 2010. The device that made the original Nightmare so chilling is used less effectively in the third offering of the franchise, Dream Warriors, but due mainly to Craven’s return (missing entirely from the second) to screenwriting duties, the film lives up to its billing as the best and most popular of the Elm Street sequels.

Directed by Chuck Russell (Eraser), the sequel picks up 6 years after the events of the first film. As it opens, we are introduced to Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette, in her film debut), a caffeine-infused teen who seems to be tired of run-ins with Kruger, as he limits her capability for a good night’s sleep. Soon she finds herself committed to Westin Hills, a psychiatric hospital, after her mother finds her in the midst of an apparent suicide attempt, of which Freddy is responsible. There, she makes nice with the other teen patients, all victims of the same malady, recurring dreams of torment and despair, spiked with a heavy dose of Kruger attacks, all of which are misinterpreted as mental illness. The group is being treated by a skeptical Dr. Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson, professional actor and Bill Maher body double) and a new staff research scientist, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp*) who also happens to be the only teen survivor of the first installment in the series and who immediately recognizes the situation for what it is. Throughout the course of Kristen’s therapy, Nancy finds out she has the uncommon power of pulling others into her dreams, a trait they can use to combine their talents in an effort to take down Freddy once and for all.

While it isn’t a perfect sequel, Dream Warriors contains several clever scenes and the effects are cool, even though some are too obvious to be taken seriously. One of the best dreams has Kristen being tormented by a giant penis-like snake complete with Freddy head that tries its hardest to swallow her whole. It’s a scarier sequence than most as it uses the weirdness of one’s own subconscious more vividly than the other sequences of the movie (which often rely on exploiting the one key characteristic that the secondary characters are saddled with against them), as the encounter makes more sense on a deeper, psychological level, mining a teenage girl’s fears related to male anatomy and the act of sex. This isn’t to say that all the other killings aren’t always unimaginative. One of the patients, an artist and sculptor named Phil, gets eliminated when Freddy, using his tendons like a puppeteer uses marionette strings, guides him to the top of the hospital, then cuts him loose, causing Phil to fall several stories to his death. The sequence is creepy fun and fairly intense, keeping Freddy in the realm of an out-and-out scary villain.

The film falters a bit when it begins to lay the groundwork for where the series and Robert Englund’s performance would go over the remainder of the decade. From here on out the cheeky mix of elaborate set pieces, visual gags, and one liners would help to distance the audience from the onscreen carnage, and by extension, Freddy gets less and less interesting. Both of these issues would be rectified when Craven took back the reinsand director’s chair for New Nightmare, giving Freddy his second wind,,, by infusing the film with a statement on how he saw the state of horror in the early ’90s, creating a wonderfully entertaining meta-slasher. Another main reason for the decline of the character can be traced to Dream Warriors: when they decide to explain Freddy’s origin (he’s the son of 100 maniacs, a biological impossibility unless I missed something in middle school). Horror movie 101 clearly states that the monster or killer is a scarier entity when the audience knows less. Why? Because the more they know, the more they can relate and having his mother raped a ridiculous amount of times certainly brings about pity from the viewer. I mean, come on, that would obviously suck, all but eliminating the chance for a normal upbringing.

A shift in the focus of the character to make the crowd laugh instead of cower in fear also starts to occur in Russell’s film. The sometimes dopey wordplay and relentless catch-phrases that would come to dog the series start here, paving the way for the commercialization of horror by making the killer easy to like. By the time the rock album Freddy’s Greatest Hits was released in 1987, featuring the song “Do the Freddy,” complete with guest vocals from Englund, the character had officially jumped the shark in terms of making one’s blood run cold. In his defense, Craven never wished to have his movie turned into a long-running horror series and his ending in the third effort stresses this, but the film’s success made that impossible. His original vision of “the ultimate bad father”,, his named derived from Last House on the Left’s rapist Krug, had become commercialized, converting him into the Jay Leno of the boogey man, serial killer circuit, and, in my opinion, making Dream Warriors the last hoorah for the horror icon until Craven’s return to the director’s chair.

-David

*Langenkamp’s performance here is egregiously bad, making her consternation in her Entertainment Weekly profile piece from several years ago about how her career went nowhere outside of the Nightmare series laughable. Her acting is impossibly wooden, and at times, one can seemingly see her actively trying to remember lines. The rest of the cast is solid for the most part and features several actors and actresses that would become big names in the coming decade. In fact, this might be the best overall cast in the history of the series. Plus John Saxton comes back, which is bad-ass.

A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)

With the success of 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (a success that rescued New Line Cinema from the edge of bankruptcy, and was the company’s first commercial success), it was inevitable that a sequel was going to be produced, even though Wes Craven voiced his opposition to the idea. New Line handed direction to Jack Sholder, and writing duties to David Chaskin, due to Wes Craven’s unwillingness to work on the film. The resulting sequel, which narrowly avoided having someone else cast as the infamous Freddy Krueger*, grossed nearly twice as much as its predecessor, further cementing the Nightmare franchise as a bankable commodity.

But sequels, especially those taken from the hands of their original creators, have a tendency to be unable to live up to expectations; even more so if the preceding film was especially well-received. Does A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 break this trend?

This time around, Freddy Krueger is seeking to return to the realm of the living, by taking over the body of Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton), who has just moved into a familiar house in Springwood. Jesse has a hard time adjusting, between the heckling he receives from the school bully Grady (Robert Rusler), awkwardly attempting to foster a budding romance with his friend Lisa (Kim Meyers), and having his dreams tormented by Freddy, he begins to slowly lose his mind. After he has a “dream” in which he is taken from an S&M bar by his gym teacher to the school’s gymnasium and said teacher is killed by Freddy, he discovers that the murder actually has happened, and it is apparent that Freddy is gaining control of his body. With the help of Lisa and an old diary he finds in his house, he attempts to fight back against the ever-looming threat of losing himself.

Though A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 has several memorable scenes mostly owing to special effects that were impressive at the time (some examples include an exploding parakeet, Jesse’s tongue extending and gaining a life of it’s own, Freddy tearing his way out of Jesse’s body in one sequence, an eye in the back of Jesse’s throat, a pool party gone horribly wrong when Freddy arrives and begins causing havoc, and human-faced dogs guarding a gateway), it fails to deliver the same kind of impact that the original had. By making Freddy a run-of-the-mill slasher through taking over Jesse, the unique “dream-killing” aspect is taken away. All that is left is Freddy’s dark sense of humor, which, at this point in the franchise, is still underplayed, especially since Freddy is given a meager 13 minutes of screen time. And, although I didn’t notice it the first time I watched the film, writer David Chaskin says he deliberately wrote in homoerotic undertones throughout the film, which, as far as I can tell, serve no apparent purpose aside from being laughably bizarre and somewhat out of place with the tone of the rest of the film. Perhaps one of the worst parts of the film is that the ending is somewhat trite and unremarkable, and simply feels underwhelming given what precedes it.

As for the acting, Mark Patton handles the role of Jesse in a sort of shrill, hammy-in-a-bad-way manner that is more irritating than something to empathize with, and unfortunately the rest of the cast either doesn’t impress or simply gives a passable performance, save a humorous display by Clu Gulager as Jesse’s father and of course Robert Englund continuing in the role that he’s still the most famous for.

Despite its commercial success, A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 is really the point at which the franchise stumbles and is trying to find its legs. It hits its stride in the following film A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (1987) and its somewhat formulaic sequels that establish Freddy’s personality and his unique methods of teenager disposal as the series’ real draw. Simply put, this is a rather weak offering for a Nightmare on Elm Street film that suffers for its attempt to go in new directions, which, though admirable in spirit, ultimately misses the point.

-Adam

*Initially, New Line refused to give Robert Englund the pay raise he requested to return as Freddy Krueger, but after the extra cast to play the role failed to meet expectations, producer Robert Shaye agreed to Englund’s requests.