The Thing (1982)

In the film nerd world, the best year in film history is a hotly debated topic that has no clear-cut answer. Some of us prefer 1939. Others prefer 1999. Myself? I prefer to stick with 1974, a year that championed the auteur theory as legendary directors (both foreign and domestic) released one film after another, all of them with their cinematic voice in peak form. It was also a wonderful year for movies that sought only to entertain via suspense and action and several boundary-pushing comedies made the audience laugh to beat the band. Since I happen to love lists, here is a quick sampling of 1974 films that have stood the test of time:

  • The Parallax View
  • Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
  • Blazing Saddles
  • Young Frankenstein
  • The Godfather Part 2
  • The Conversation
  • The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
  • A Woman Under the Influence
  • Chinatown
  • Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
  • Amarcord
  • The Phantom of Liberty
  • The Enigma of Kasper Hauser
  • Lenny
  • The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
  • The Towering Inferno

While 1974 is the entire year I tend to rep in this particular conversation, I back 1982—the popular opinion, I know, but sometimes the popular opinion is correct—as the best summer of all time. This is partially due to me being a child of the ’80s, but since the Alamo Drafthouse programmed an event to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the movies released that particular summer—continuing to show why they alone are the go-to theater chain in the States, consistently making me wish I lived in Austin—I will assume I’m correct. In fact Alamo takes movies so seriously that they actually enforce movie theater rules and regulations, like no talking or texting, which led to this little incident that, in a perfect world, should have increased their stock by 231.7%:

But back to 1982 and another list (yeah, lists!) to help illustrate why a plethora of fans are on record as backing this summer as the best ever:

  • Poltergeist
  • The Road Warrior
  • Rocky III
  • E.T.
  • Conan the Barbarian
  • Tron
  • The Wall
  • Class of 1984
  • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn
  • Fast Times at Ridgemont High
  • Blade Runner
  • The Secret of Nimh
  • The Thing

Between the trailer, poster, and title of this post, I’m sure you are able to deduce that I’m going to talk about John Carpenter’s The Thing, and since I’ve burnt through roughly 400 words and 2 lists without even mentioning the genius of the film, I suppose at this point we should get right to it.

When it was announced that Carpenter, a life-long fan of Howard Hawks and his production of The Thing from Another Planet, intended to remake the film that had become a staple for monster-movie enthusiasts of his generation, the reaction was akin to anger. How the director of Dark Star and Escape from New York could presume a remake was needed in the first place was sacrilege, ignoring the fact that Carpenter’s decision wasn’t exactly surprising. He habitually mentioned Hawks’s work as a template, one that would shape and inform the now prodigious director’s career: Assault of Precinct 13 was a loving riff on Rio Bravo, and for one segment in Halloween, Carpenter would use a scene from the original Thing on Laurie Strode’s television set. Initially, fans of the classic got the last laugh as Carpenter’s film bombed at the box office. It seemed that audiences weren’t quite prepared for a film as bleak as this, especially two weeks after the release of E.T., a film that was much more optimistic about visiting extraterrestrial life, featuring none of the gore effects, disturbing imagery, and paranoia and distrust that made The Thing such as powerful cinematic concoction, a true masterpiece of suspense and horror.

Wisely, Carpenter elected to go back to source material, John W. Campbell Jr.’s Who Goes There?, the novella the original was based upon, and by extension, made the smart decision of ditching the Frankenstein’s Monster from space special effects, turning the alien back into a shape-shifting body snatcher that can imitate and replace any living organism it encounters and consumes. When the being is unearthed at the ass end of the earth, it encounters a group of men—each one as mysterious to the audience as the alien—allowing the director to explore their relationships in an understated fashion that also serves to ratchet up the suspense to, at times, seemingly unbearable levels. In this manner, Bill Lancaster’s script (son of Burt, who also penned the original Bad News Bears) is a masterwork, giving the audience lots of thoughts and ideas to chew on if they choose to look closely enough. Lancaster makes the correct decision to not flush out the backstory of a single character, dispensing with the common need of having to describe their motivation at every turn, making the movie stronger. The only common thread of the men’s past lives is that they are distrustful of people. You don’t end up in an Antarctic research station unless you are at the bottom of the company totem pole or unless you severely pissed off enough people in your line of work that they decided to send you there, ridding themselves of your existence.

Even the hero of the story, R. J. “Mac” MacReady (Kurt Russell in a signature performance) is fairly unlikable and, from the first time we meet him, it becomes readily apparent that he has no good will stored up toward the human race. The one thing that this helicopter pilot and loner seems to hate more than people is losing, establishing early on that he has no problem with ripping things down to their foundations in an effort to level the playing field when he pours a glass of liquor into the hard drive of a computer after it “cheats” to win in a chess match. Soon enough, he will be engaged in his own chess match with The Thing, and you can be damn sure he won’t let it win on its own terms, just like the unfortunate chess program finds out in the character’s introduction.

Stationed along with Mac, who becomes their de facto leader in the remote station, is a motley crew of individuals: Blair (Wilford Brimley), the first to detect the grave threat to the camp; Childs (Keith David, never better), one mean fucker who I would imagine pushed too many of the wrong buttons back in the real world, making this the only job he could procure, and as a result having to suffer around all these stupid-ass white folks; Palmer (David Clennon), the pot-head mechanic and chronic whiner; Clark (Richard Masur), a loner who feels more at home around animals than people; and Garry (Donald Moffat), the dependable but in-over-his-head security chief. Without the normal amount of exposition, Lancaster’s script opts for telling bits of action to let the audience in on who these people are, in turn allowing the actors to open it up a bit and bring their own sensibilities to the roles. When coupled with the lean script, the acting choices ensure that the audience has to pay attention to keep up—every mystery isn’t explained away, which some viewers seem to have a problem with. I happen to adore these traits, as they make repeat viewings a must, as there is always something new and interesting to discover, be it a turn of phrase or minor character beat. I’ve seen this movie upward of 20 times and I still have no idea “who gets to the blood” or when the monster gets to Blair or Norris, infecting them. For these reasons, The Thing becomes a film that one takes home with them, allowing the viewer to continue to play with the events of the movie in his or her head or leading to a group of friends sitting down with each other to discuss how they think events really went down.

This helps to ratchet up that aforementioned tension and paranoia, prominently displayed in the first of the film’s two signature scenes. MacReady comes up with an “identity test” designed to find out which of them has been infected. The test itself is simple enough, a blood sample is taken from each remaining member of the camp, and then a hot wire is pulled through it, burning the cells. Since it was deduced earlier that each cell of the organism is capable of acting dependently, if any of the samples truly contains the blood of “The Thing,” it will try and save itself and reveal who isn’t who they seem to be. It’s an incredibly effective scene, soaked in dread as each man waits his turn to be cleared.

If you’ve seen the film, you know the second signature scene is the last one, and it’s also the one that lifts the film into classic territory. Having dispatched the monster and set the compound on fire, MacReady sits down in the harsh storm that is currently pounding the Antarctic. Resigned to his fate, he suddenly notices Childs walking up out of the storm, seemingly the only other survivor. They sit together watching each other closely, full of mistrust and doubt, knowing that as the temperature drops, they will, without fail, freeze to death. The ending is one that has been dissected and speculated on ad nauseam, and due to the ambiguity in which it is shot, the main question on everyone’s mind will forever remain:

Is Childs a Thing?

Not in my opinion, no, he’s human. And instead of deciding to slowly freeze, MacReady and Childs could do something to save themselves or the people who will come to the research site, looking for answers as to what happened there. Only their mistrust and suspicion of one another hold them back, making a partnership impossible. It’s a nihilistic ending, one that fits the tone of the film perfectly as The Thing is chock full of characters whose Achilles heel is the fact that they can’t trust one another, which, fortunately for the alien, is exactly what it needs to not only survive but thrive in its new surroundings. In the end, the humans bring themselves down, stare destruction in the face, and lose. The real horror of Carpenter’s masterwork is not the monster, capable of mimicry so real it becomes nigh impossible to tell who’s real anymore, but in humanity’s failure to relate and trust in one another. The Thing’s screenwriter and director don’t seem to be too optimistic about our chances, but its message remains clear: as humans, we need each other to survive. A simple message we as a society still need to take to heart 30 years later, spun into a landmark creature feature by a master of the medium.

-David

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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.

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 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.