Friday, October 20, 2006

Never Sleep Again

Recently I had opportunity to watch all seven Nightmare On Elm Street movies. Not in one big marathon, as I would have liked, but over the course of a couple of weeks during those scant evenings that both me and my girlfriend Amber were home together. Much in the same way we're working through the Friday the 13th series currently. We're doing this because Amber has somehow gone her entire life without seeing a single one of these movies. Halloween, either. That one's next. Don't ask me how someone can grow up in America and not see these films, and don't ask me how I managed to find that one person, but that's the way it worked out. Let me rephrase that a bit... she had seen Jason Goes to Hell and Freddy Versus Jason with me in the theatre, but neither of them REALLY count, despite how goofily enjoyable they might be.

I'd like to be one of those people who says he was a fan from the beginning, but that clearly wouldn't be true. For one thing I was only 6 when the first movie came out, not quite the targeted demographic. For another I didn't actually discover my love for horror movies until well into Jr. High. The first Nightmare film I saw was part 4 on cable TV. I was still at the age where I watched horror movies through clenched eyes, and truthfully I only watched it because my friend(at whose house I was spending the night) insisted that we watch it. To tell you the truth I was a bit surprised at how unscary it was. That's not to say I didn't enjoy it, because I did, but none of it scared me. It didn't even have the requisite 'boo' moment for me(that moment where you jump and spill your drink due only to a loud noise and quick movement). Still, the movie didn't really open the world of horror for me, and it was several years before I went back and watched the first movie.

That one, by the way, did scare me. Quite a bit, actually. I didn't fear going to sleep, because I've always been fairly good at disassociating myself from what scares me in a movie, but I had more than a few moments where my intestines seemed to drop a few degrees in temperature. The movie still has that effect on me, at a few key scenes(most notably Nancy's dream in which she sees her dead friend in the school hallway... something about that image puts me on edge). It's also a revelation, if you've only seen the later Nightmare movies, how disgusting Freddy is. In the last half of the series he became a twisted but somehow likable court jester, killing people in kinda jokey ways. In the first movie he jokes a lot, but the jokes aren't so much funny as really really gross. The only complaint I have with the movie is the tacked on ending, obviously forced into the film to leave it open for sequels, but making it completely unclear what was going on. Is the ending a dream? Has Freddy's power transferred into reality? If it's a dream, who's point of view is it? The mom? Nancy? Her friends? All of them? Aside from those complaints, it's also just really goofy. However, if the movie had stopped 5 minutes earlier it would have been damn near perfect.

Sidebar: when I say a movie is perfect, I don't always mean it's technically or artistically flawless. I'm able to forgive a LOT when it comes to films that I believe are genuinely trying, or are merely being kept back by the styles of the day.

Of course, the less said about part 2 the better. After watching the film Amber could only turn to me and say 'when you said this movie was gay, I thought you meant stupid'. Freddy's Revenge has an odd and disturbing homo-erotic bent to it, and before you read any homophobic meaning into that, just tell me you enjoyed watching the gym teacher stripped naked and tied to the wall getting whipped on his ass to death by wet towels. Of course, the movie is plenty stupid, too. Bringing Freddy into the real world is always a mistake, especially at a rockin' pool party. The movie was hideously campy. And not in a good way like the 1960's Batman movie.

Part 3 brought the series back on track, most likely due to the return of Wes Craven on script duties. It's actually an even race with part one in terms of how much I enjoy it. The deaths have of course become more elaborate without becoming quite as silly as they do in part 4 and beyond. My favorite would have to be the Freddy as puppeteer death, as he uses one of the kids like a marionette, using his tendons as strings. Gleefully disgusting. With the exception of some pretty cheesy 80's styles(specifically Taryn's dream self-image), and some spotty dialogue, the movie nicely expands on and advances the Nightmare mythology. Extra points for ignoring the events of part 2.

Parts 3, 4 and 5 comprise an attempt at a linked storyline, whereas the rest of the movie, even if making reference to past events, are more standalone. Part 4 is still pretty enjoyable, but this really marks the downward slide of the series, with Freddy becoming more of a punchline, and the deaths becoming sillier and sillier. Anyone remember the weightlifter turning into a cockroach? This movie, and to a greater extent number 6, is the reason why people seem to forget how absolutely horrible Freddy Krueger is. It's easy to forget, as you see Freddy hamming it up, eating 'soul pizza', is that he molested children and killed them in horribly torturous ways before he died, and then he started killing kids in their dreams. It's not exactly the basis for crass comedy. Or maybe it is and I'm just way off on this.

Those quibbles aside, this is very much an action movie with some surrealistic, nightmarish touches, and it manages to be fairly enjoyable. That's actually saying a lot, since it's a Renny Harlin film, and I usually can't stand anything he does. He's up there on my list with Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer, only moderately less vomit inducing. So, as I say, a fun but not particularly scary movie. The effects are top notch, for the most part, culminating in the best death scene Freddy's had yet. The effects used to show all of the souls clawing their way out of his body are truly nightmarish, and probably deserved a fittingly scary movie.

Part 5 is probably my second least favorite film, and I don't have much to say about it. It's a pretty weak premise, with Freddy using Alice's unborn child to return to our world. It's not a very well defined back story, since that still doesn't explain how Freddy returns in the first place, and it muddies the mythology that we've already had established for us. Just because Alice's baby is dreaming, how does that mean that Freddy can kill OTHER people? It has some promisingly gothic touches in the beginning, and you may think your in for a classier level of film making than your used to for the series, but it isn't consistent, and it resorts to basic slasher film style for most of the movie. I guess my main complaint is that the movie is just so damned boring.

Part 6 is a bit of a sore topic for many fans, since it really doesn't deliver anything that fans would want from a Nightmare movie, and Freddy isn't just making a few quips as he kills people, he's hamming it up more than Porky Pig(sorry, I need to apologize for that line, I spent 5 minutes debating whether or not to use it). This movie is pure comedy, and quite a bit less gory than other films. I like the basic concept, with the last child in Springwood being let out into the rest of the world to find more children for Freddy to kill. It has some interestingly bizarre flourishes, admittedly stolen from Twin Peaks, and some funny cameos, most notably by Johnny Depp, but the movie really is shite. But, sue me, I like it. It's campy and funny, but if you don't let yourself get offended by how much they seem to want to tear down the Freddy mythology, it's an enjoyable and forgettable film.

And that brings us to part 7, Wes Craven's New Nightmare. I don't think this one did as well as New Line had hoped, and they must have had high hopes indeed. Their flagship franchise, returned to the man who had started it all and had a role in the 2 most profitable entries in the series. I know plenty of people who don't care for this one, but I call them idiots. The only thing keeping this one from being my favorite is that part 1 got to me earlier, and I'll always give the edge to whoever did it first.

Several years before Adaptation, and even his own Scream series, Wes Craven tried his hand at postmodernism in what was widely considered to be a sleazy slasher series. Many of the important figures from the previous Nightmare movies return, playing themselves this time, as the spirit of Freddy begins to haunt them in the real world. What I like about this one, aside from the inventive concept, is how reverent Wes Craven is of the series. You'd probably assume he would be, since he created it, but this is a man who saw some pretty crappy things done to a movie that he originally intended as a single movie, very serious story. Instead Mr. Craven calls upon our pop culture knowledge of EVERY Nightmare movie, and hits all the right beats to bring out the goosebumps in anyone who had seen at least one of them.
The main complaint is that Freddy isn't technically in this one too much, but that actually adds to the impact. Instead of the joking prancing madman, this Freddy is a cold and disgusting killer, doing nothing other than slashing the people he wants to kill in order to cross over completely to our world, and scaring the hell out of them while doing it, often with imagery from the previous films. But, by the time Heather Langenkamp and John Saxon find themselves acting out their characters from the first film, and Heather turns around to find her LA home has become the house on Elm Street while that iconic Freddy theme starts playing, I'd like to see you try and find one fan who didn't get goosebumps.
I suppose I should make quick mention of Freddy Vs. Jason here, even though I don't consider it at all a part of the mythology. What can I say, really. I liked it, because it was exactly what it advertised itself as. Two horror icons beating the crap out of each other and killing a bunch of frequently naked teenagers. It wasn't as good as most of the Freddy movies, but it was better than nearly every Jason movie. Of course, I could ony think how cool it would be if a director TRULY gifted at dreamlike imagery were given one of these movies. Imagine a Freddy film as seen by Terry Gilliam, or David Lynch!

So, in descending order, my favorite films in the series are:
Part 1, part 7, part 3, part 4, part 6, part 5, and I'd rather not mention part 2.

In the end, though, my favorites mean nothing, you can't watch one without watching the rest.

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