Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Halloween 2019: October 15th

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

When Platinum Dunes and New Line Cinema partnered to remake “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” in 2003, launching the horror remake trend that would dominate the genre for most of the decade, it was pretty much inevitable what would happen next. Michael Bay's obnoxiously slick remake factory would get its grubby mitts on the other eighties horror icons included under the New Line House of Horror banner. After Jason was retrofitted into a slick scare delivery machine in 2009, Freddy Krueger would unsurprisingly follow the next year. While Platinum Dune's Leatherface movies had defenders at the time, even though they were garbage, and their Jason movie could've been a lot worst, 2010's “A Nightmare on Elm Street” has attracted few fans in the nine – yes really – years since its release.

Instead of remixing the original story, 2010's “A Nightmare on Elm Street” is a direct remake of Wes Craven's words. Nancy's last name is different and Tina is now called Kris but the character's roles are the same. The biggest difference this “Nightmare” enacts is adding a degree of doubt to Freddy's past. Now, the film presents the idea that Freddy maybe wasn't such a bad guy in life. Maybe he was framed for a crime – changed from murder to molestation, because I guess killing kids wasn't edgy enough for Platinum Dunes – he didn't commit. Never mind that this makes the nature of his revenge way less interesting. If Freddy was an innocent in life, why does he become such a depraved murderer in death? It's all a ruse anyway, as Freddy is revealed to be responsible by the end. Why add this difference then? There's no reason, other than a desire to make the new film different from the old one. It adds nothing to the story.

What makes the remake's changes seem even more superficial is how willing it is to listlessly re-enact scenes from the original. Anybody watching this film knows the blonde we follow for the first act is a decoy protagonist, destined to die and be replaced by Nancy. Yet our ersatz Tina is still sent through the motions. When she levitates above her bed, she's knocked around the room in a goofy looking fashion. Finally, as she dies, as CGI slash marks streak down her chest, she dies with a sigh, not a scream. Or look at Freddy phasing through the wall above Nancy's head, which now becomes an elaborate act of deeply unconvincing CGI. Instead of Freddy getting pulled into the real world to face off with a house full of traps, he has his throat slashed with one swipe. So much of 2010's “Nightmare” is about recreating the original's thrills in an utterly joyless, bored fashion.

What new elements the remake add are equally uninspired. As you'd expect, 2010's “Nightmare” maintains the Platinum Dunes' house style. Everything is caked with grit and dirt while simultaneously looking as sleek and intentionally placed as possible. It's the car commercial version of real horror. The remake's nightmare sequences and death scenes are absolutely forgettable. All the dreams are Freddy lurking through the shadows. All the deaths are stabbings and slashings. Freddy's boiler room is piss-yellow lights seeping through indistinct machinery. The film loads down on jittery jump scares, Freddy's scarred face or claw leaping into the camera on more than one occasion. A good example of the lack of subtly here is the huge plume of sparks his claws produce every single time he drags them against any metal surface. And because the film has no respect for its audience's intelligence, there's an extended flashback explaining every factor of the killer's origin.

About the only element of the remake people seemed to actually like was our new Freddy Krueger. Jackie Earl Haley, hot off playing Rorschach, was selected as Freddy early on. Haley, though physically a shrimp, is certainly menacing in the part. He's adapt at playing a creepy pervert and a threatening psychopath. His gruff, husky laugh is good. Yet this Freddy is generally not an interesting villain. The film gives him too much dialogue, wordy explanations that could conceivably be construed as one-liners. The more realistic make-up design is also deeply boring looking. He looks like a gray alien with acne. Worst yet, the remake shoves the make-up into direct light early on and never stops.

As deeply boring as this version of Freddy is, Haley is still easily the most interesting actor in the film. The rest of the cast are the blank underwear model types Platinum Dunes always shoved into their remakes. The teens are blindingly pretty young people that have zero personality behind their eyes, all of them acting in as bored a manner as possible. Even Rooney Mara, obviously a talented performer, gives a truly somnambulist performance. And, of course, 2010's “A Nightmare on Elm Street” is utterly ignorant of any of the original's themes or ideas. Springwood is just a town, not a suburban ideal. The adult's lies are not in service of a larger idea about parental abuse. They are just assholes for no reason. No deeper thought was put into any of this.

By the way, Samuel Bayer directs. Bayer is responsible for the most iconic rock videos of the nineties. It took several tries to convince him to direct and he hasn't made a feature since, suggesting he wasn't especially interested in doing this. The film made 115 million dollars against a 35 million dollar budget. That certainly should've justified a sequel. Yet Platinum Dunes had this obnoxious habit of relaunching classic series and then squatting on the rights after making one film. Even after Platinum Dunes' option expired, New Line Cinema seemed utterly ambivalent about their trademark franchise. Hopefully, now that the Wes Craven estate has regained control of the I.P., they'll team with a production company actually eager to make more Freddy Krueger adventures. I'm certainly willing to trust them more than anyone involved in the making of this utterly lifeless, soulless, empty product. [4/10]

Under Wraps (1997)

Determined to be the mega-conglomerate to top all other mega-conglomerates, Disney will be launching their own streaming service next month. Disney's growing domination of the pop culture sphere has been widely damned but you have to give the evil corporation some credit for the sheer width of selection their streaming service will have. Many obscure offerings from the early days of the Disney Channel's basic cable days will be included on the service. (Including “So Weird,” available on home media for the first time ever, which is a pretty big deal for a select group of people.) Oddly absent from the list is the film officially considered the very first Disney Channel Original Movie. That is 1997's “Under Wraps,” a Halloween-set kid-friendly monster comedy that I watched probably a hundred times back in the day.

Twelve year old Marshall is obsessed with monster movies and horror, much to the chagrin of his much nerdier friend Gilbert. After learning creepy neighbor Mr. Kubat has been stiffing Gilbert on his paper route money, Marshall insist they confront the guy. This goes badly but, it's okay, because Mr. Kubat seemingly dies the next day. The boys, accompanying by snarky girl-next-door Amy, sneak into his house the next night. They discover an Egyptian sarcophagus in the basement. They also discover the re-animated mummy inside the sarcophagus. The undead goofball begins to pal around with the kids, Marshall quickly growing attached to him. The boy soon learns the wrapped-up corpse, quickly nicknamed Harold, has to fulfill special conditions of a curse or face destruction.

Mummies have never been the scariest of the classic horror icons. Ultimately, a guy stiff from thousands of years of rigor mortis, stumbling around in bandages, does not make a very imposing threat. However, they are kind of funny. This is something “Under Wraps” understands. It gets a lot of comedic mileage out of the surreal sight of a mummy stumbling around through a modern, small town. He encounters a fast-food restaurant, stumbles into a hospital and is confused for a burn victim, rides into a skateboard, and gets into a nerf gun fight with the kids. Harold, named due to a minor resemblance to Marhsall's uncle, is played by Bill Faggerbakke. (With decent make-up provided by KNB, of all groups.) Faggerbakke proves to be a decent physical comedian and makes the mummy and endearingly silly presence.

Being a television movie made for children, “Under Wraps” does have to appeal to the young ones. Its kiddie protagonists, designed to be as hip as possible for pre-teens in 1997, range back and forth between sort of likable and sort-of annoying. Marshall makes for a decent hero. His love of gory slasher movies – he's introduced watching something called “Wart-Head IV” and has a room full of rubber mask and props – immediately endears him to me. Gilbert, played by minor child star Adam Wylie, veers more towards the annoying. He's an exaggerated nerd, constantly threating about everything and stumbling into trouble. Clara Bryant's Amy is probably more caustic and bitchy than a main character in a kid's movie need be. Her snipping at the other kids gets a little too personal at times.

Despite airing on Disney Channel and being embraced as the first DCOM, “Under Wraps” wasn't actually produced by Disney. Which might explain why some of the jokes are a little edgier than expected. However, the movie does include the kind of emotional moral lesson you would expect from a TV movie made for the House of Mouse. You see, Marshall's mom and dad recently divorced and the boy is still recovering from this change. He resents his mom's new boyfriend not because he isn't a nice guy but because he misses his dad. Harold the Mummy's adventure involves him being reunited with his old mummy girlfriend, a princess he was kept apart from by tradition. Ultimately, Marshall realizes he can't direct his mom's love life and learns to let go. The same actor plays both Harold and mom's new boyfriend, which definitely seems like it should be significant.

When I was roughly the same age as the characters in “Under Wraps,” I was a regular Disney Channel watcher. Because the cable network re-broadcast their original movies constantly, I saw “Under Wraps” a lot. I remembered it being pretty good. Moments definitely stuck in my memory. Like the stop-motion opening credits, a joke involving howling wolves and crashing thunder, and the first thing the mummy does upon being awoken. Unlike fellow spooky DCOM “Halloweentown,” which holds up shockingly well, “Under Wraps” isn't as good now as it was then. The kid-movie adventure stuff feels pretty uninspired and the characters irritate slightly. Still, the mummy is pretty funny and that is worth something. [7/10]

Tales from the Cryptkeeper: It's for You

You'll have to excuse me. I didn't plan for this. The third season of “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” contains a Christmas episode. “It's for You” revolves around an idea modern children will find especially baffling. For Christmas, Gary receives just the gift he wanted: His very own landline in his bedroom! Even though his parents warn him not too, he immediately goes about using the phone to prank call and harass people in the local neighborhood. This is all great fun for Gary and his friend until he calls a mysterious old lady at random. The lady then calls him back. And keeps calling him back. Her incessant ringing soon isn't leaving him alone at all. He attempts to confront the woman in person and uncovers her terrible secret.

Here's an episode premise that couldn't be more antiquated. The idea of a landline is totally obsolete, much less the premise of a young kid being excited by having his own. We take cellphones utterly for granted now. Caller I.D. is also something we take for granted now, making both the set-up for this episode and its moral – don't go making phony calls, kids – seem baffling. (Caller I.D. already existed in 1999 too, meaning this episode was already out-of-date by the time it aired.)  Gary is another “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” protagonist who is presented as a juvenile prankster that actually acts like a psychopath. His prank calls include harassing a single mom and leaving a threatening phone call for a little child. That ends up being far more disturbing than the ghostly old woman who haunts him, though she is mildly creepy. Luckily, the Christmas element of this episode is pretty minor so it doesn't spoil my Halloween mood too much. [5/10]

Forever Knight: A More Permanent Hell

The penultimate episode of “Forever Knight's” second season certainly has a more interesting premise than your usual episode. An astrophysicist at a planetarium has seemingly killed herself. As Nick and Schanke investigate, they discover why. The scientist has discovered that a massive asteroid  is on a collision course with Earth. In three months, the human race will face extinction. Naturally, this information quickly leaks to the public and the world goes crazy. Natalie asks to become a vampire. Schanke worries about his family. Riots break out. Nick, however, notices some inconsistency in the initial suicide and continues to investigate. Meanwhile, LaCroix recalls his origins, bitten by his own vampire daughter during the final days of Pompei.

Obviously, we can presume that “Forever Knight” isn't going to end the world in the second-to-last episode of its second season. Nevertheless, “A More Permanent Hell” does have a fascinating premise. Seeing how this lot of characters react to the apocalyptic news, thrusting them into the heart of a doomsday scenario, sure allows for some interesting growth. The episode continues the increasing intimacy between Nick and Natalie, especially as she begs him to become a vampire only to become frightened by what that entails. Even LaCroix gets a moment of contriction, left to wonder what the point of it all truly his. (The flashbacks to his origins are fantastic to see, even if the period details leave a lot to be desired.) Honestly, the only issues I have with “A More Permanent Hell” is the idea that facets of society like police work, radio stations, or goth clubs would be able to function at all in the face of such cataclysmic news. [7/10]

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Halloween 2019: October 14th

Since at least the days of “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman,” horror fans have always been fascinated by the question of which monster would win in a fight with some other monster. And being the two most iconic horror villains of the decade, fans debated for years over such a title bout between Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. Hollywood producers realized the box office for that match-up could be enormous. In the early nineties, New Line Cinema gained the rights to Jason essentially for the expressed purpose of making “Freddy vs. Jason” a reality. Yet the crossover film would stagnate in Development Hell for over a decade, fans being tempted and frustrated by innumerable false starts. Finally, in 2003, the stars aligned and every eighties horror nerd's wet dream came true. The Sultan of Slash and the Dream Stalker faced off in a bloody battle to the death, a once-in-a-lifetime event for horror fanatics.

Part of why “Freddy vs. Jason's” pre-production process was so extended is because many of the scripts considered took bizarre deviations from established series lore. Say what you will about the final screenplay but it found a faithful, fairly logical way to blend these two characters. In the years since “Freddy's Dead” – which is only a few, since that film was technically set in the late nineties – Springwood has suppressed Freddy's memory by erasing his name from local history and doping any nightmare-prone kids up with dream-negating drugs. Freddy discovers Jason in Hel and manipulates him back to life, sending him to Ohio to reap terror and rewaken a fear of Krueger in the local populace. Naturally, Jason proves too hard to control and the slashers start fighting over the right to kill everyone. It's doubtlessly messy yet also works fairly smoothly without rewriting series history and does some neat new things with both characters.

Perhaps more important than anything else, “Freddy vs. Jason” respects both franchises. Jason is a great lumbering beast, who brutally and efficiently kills anyone that gets in his way. Yet there's also something kind of sad in his eyes, barely glimpsed behind that hockey mask. He loves his mama and was once just a scared little boy. The film earns a lot of points for exploring the psychology of the character. Freddy, meanwhile, is characterized here between the goofy prankster of the later films and his original, darker personality. He cracks some real groan-worthy one-liners and still enjoys goofing around in his nightmare realm. Yet the crossover repeatedly reminds viewers that Freddy killed (and probably molested) kids, by playing up his sexually menacing side. Robert Englund, naturally, excels as both a hilarious goof and a disturbingly sleazy pervert. 

The most fun part of any wacky crossover like this is finding cool ways for the characters to compliment each other. Which “Freddy Vs. Jason” does repeatedly. This is most evident when Freddy enters Jason's mind. The resulting nightmare sees Jason spun through the air like a pinball and has Freddy exploiting the slasher's primal fear of water. The dreamy Camp Crystal Lake sequence that follows is worthwhile in its own right. While Jason doubtlessly reaps more carnage, including massacring a whole rave of teens, more of the movie's actual plot is based in “Elm Street” lore. Which is a good compromise. Weston Hill Sanatorium and Hypnocil reappear. Once again, the adults of Springwood are lying to their children and manipulating them. Freddy's nature as someone who plays with people's fears for his own amusement is maintained. We even get an awesome boiler room stalking sequence. Care was taken to ensure “Freddy vs. Jason” would follow both series as closely as possible.

Which isn't to say mistakes aren't made. Watching “Freddy Vs. Jason” sixteen years after it came out, the movie now looks as hilariously dated as its eighties predecessors do. The visual style is immediately recognizable as the early 2000s. This is most evident in the gratuitous slow motion peppered throughout. There's a cornfield rave sequence, which naturally features some hilarious slow-mo too. The fashion and slang of the teens stinks of my high school years. There's a then-relevant pop star in the cast and the actors all look like they are from MTV central casting circa last decade. Not to mention the shriek-y, nu-metal soundtrack. 

Unlike the best of the “Nightmare” or “Friday the 13th” movies, you never care about any of the teens here. Monica Keena's performance as lead girl Lori is heavy on yelling and over-emoting but low on actual emotional investment. Most of her friends are a bland lot that are barely sketched out. The kids frequently get goofy, exposition-heavy dialogue that comes off as wholly unnatural. This causes many of the set-up scenes to drag quite a bit. The film murders a likable actress like Katherine Isabelle, grossly underserved anyway, but keeps the clearly uncomfortable Kelly Rowland around until nearly the end. The stereotypes sometimes emerge as more personable. Stoner Freeburg is kind of funny, especially in the bizarre “Freddy-pillar” sequence, while pathetic super nerd Linderman at least gets a noble death.

Not that the teens are horribly important anyway. We are here to watch Freddy and Jason rumble and the movie absolutely delivers on that. Ronny Yu, of “Bride of Chucky” and a number of clever Hong Kong action films, brings a frequently atmospheric and stylish approach to the visuals and a steady, furious hand to the action. The final showdown at Camp Crystal Lake is incredibly satisfying. Jason slams Freddy through windows, Freddy performs acrobatic stabs and flips. The environment is used in fun and clever ways. Compressed air canisters turn into missiles while a construction set adds even more variety to the fight. Most importantly, the gore level is impressively high. Freddy and Jason are slicing huge chunks out of each other by the end, tearing apart each other's bodies. It's pretty bitchin'. You can tell early on who will win and even the circumstance is easy to predict. But getting there sure is a thrill ride.

I was fifteen years old in 2003 and a huge fan of both franchises. In other words, I was right in the movie's demographic and, obviously, loved it. All the other dopey horror dorks that were my friends felt similarly. The gimmick was too great for audiences to ignore and the film became the biggest in the “Jason” series and the second highest-grossing in the “Freddy” series. New Line was eager to replicate “Freddy Vs. Jason's” success. (And a minor trend of other “versus” movies would follow.) The only sequel idea that seemed to gain much traction was “Freddy Vs. Jason Vs. Ash,” which proved too crazy a pipe dream to manifest on-screen. Ultimately, “Freddy Vs. Jason” would stand alone as a gloriously goofy but deeply entertaining one-off experience. I'm not sure it's an especially good movie but I can still have a very good time with this one. [7/10]

Anyone who knows their horror history knows that animals-run-amok films had their hay-day in the seventies. The decade featured rats, frogs, snakes, spiders, ants, cockroaches, bats, panthers, and dogs going on rampages against mankind. After the release of “Jaws,” suddenly every animal that swam in the sea was headlining its own horror picture. Director William Girdler previously ripped-off “The Exorcist,” with a blaxploitation version of that film called “Abby.” Seeing the blockbuster success of “Jaws,” Girdler clearly set his eyes on a new cinematic fad to take advantage of. “Grizzly” would follow the blueprint set out by Spielberg's masterpiece while starring one of the few animals that hadn't already starred in a seventies killer beast flick.

Filmed in Georgia, “Grizzly” is set in a national park presumably somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. The scenic location is an attraction for hikers, vacationers, and picnicking families. Chief park ranger Michael Kelly – whose team includes helicopter pilot Don and naturalist Arthur Scott – claim to have relocated all the bears in the forest. However, they pretty obviously missed one. A fifteen foot tall male grizzly bear has entered into the park and begins to brutally tear apart anyone it encounters. Soon, Kelly and his friends are being pressured to track down the bear and stop it before any more innocents die.

“Grizzly” isn't just attempting to ride the coattails of “Jaws” and other killer animal flicks. It is a nearly one-to-one rip-off of the shark movie. Like Sheriff Brody, Park Ranger Kelly is a regular joe authority figure determined to protect people, campaigning to close the park. The owner of the park, however, refuses to close it during the lucrative tourist season, even if it means people are going to get eaten by a bear. Sound familiar? The role of Quint is split between eccentric zoologist tough guy Scott and grizzled veteran Don. (Who has a Vietnam flashback that recalls Quint's Indianapolis speech.) After the attacks begin, the park is filled with hunters determined to bring down the bear, the same way Amity was flooded by shark-hunting fishermen. A helicopter stands in for the Orca and both get wrecked before the movies are over. Both films even feature a child being attacked by the menace, though the boy here just barely lives. The killer animal even blows up at the end of the both movies, the bear exploding hilariously thanks to a randomly applied bazooka.

Considering its rip-off status, “Grizzly” is most entertaining as a piece of camp. In another blatant emulation of Spielberg, Girdler fills his film with P.O.V. shots from the bear's perspective. However, Girdler's P.O.V. shots go on for so long, and are soundtracked to the bear's grunting noises, that they become funny. Many of the attack sequences are awkwardly framed. The fatal bear hugs involve actors being uncomfortably squeezed by a large fuzzy model. Another scene involves a woman being yanked up through a tent, which is badly framed. The bear is an unusually determined predator. He smashes his giant hairy paw through a wooden door and, in one hilarious sequence, slowly knocks over a park watchtower. The bear is also a rather polite wild killer, as he buries several of his victims after mauling them. The biggest laugh of the film comes when the bear suddenly, unexpectedly decapitates a horse. (Despite the copious gore, “Grizzly” was still rated PG.)

While the bear attack scenes in “Grizzly” are all hilarious, any non-bear attack sequence proves to be rather tedious. A subplot involves a potential romance forming between Park Ranger Kelly and a female photographer. However, this story line ends up going nowhere and is dropped half-way through the film. There are many long scenes devoted to our hero arguing about what he should do, the park operator always insisted that the Park Stays Open!!! Exploitation mainstay Christopher George stars and he is a compelling presence. However, even he can only do so much when forced to repeatedly march through such repetitive moments. Luckily, the movie is short and moves along quickly, so it's rare that too many scenes pass before the grizzly is ripping someone else a new asshole.

Despite – or perhaps because – it followed the “Jaws” formula so closely, “Grizzly” would become a considerable box office success. In fact, up until “Halloween,” it was the most successful independent film of the decade. “Grizzly” even spawned a rip-off of its own, in the form of 1977's “Claws.” In the early eighties, an attempt was made to make a sequel. “Grizzly II: The Concert” would've feature another giant grizzly bear attacking a new wave concert. Pre-fame Charlie Sheen and George Clooney had bit parts. Mid-way through production, the producer left with all the money and filming shut down. “Grizzly II” was never finished but bootlegs of the completed footage circulate around the usual corners. Quite a legacy for such a dumb, simple, but doubtlessly amusing little motion picture. [6/10]

Tales from the Cryptkeeper: Town Gathering

Here's a season three episode of “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” that sidelines the moral lesson a little bit and is stronger for it. In “Town Gathering,” Erin – who lives in a small town with her mom and grandfather – is constantly playing pranks on her family members. It's gotten to the point where nobody believes anything the girl says. Erin leaves her bike in the road, attracting the attention of Ben Arnold, an unscrupulous businessman who is being paid to locate a small town by a mysterious party. It's soon revealed that his employers are flesh-eating aliens looking for an obscure town to wipe off the map. And Erin just led him to the perfect candidate. Naturally, nobody believes her when she tries to tell them the truth.

“Town Gathering” acknowledges right from its early scenes that it's a variation on “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” By foregrounding its moral lesson, it allows its story a little more breathing room. This episode is actually more preoccupied with telling its wacky little story, than constantly hitting the young viewer over the head with an obvious lesson.  Ben Arnold is a compelling human villain. The aliens are nasty enough, with interesting designs that are both insect-like and reptilian. Erin is a likable protagonist. The end of the episode has a suitably ironic fate being delivered upon the bad guys, which is probably one of the more violent conclusions in this kid's cartoon. “Town Gathering” also features the sight of the Cryptkeeper dressed as a trucker. It is without a doubt one of the better season three episode, recalling the superior first season. [7/10]

Forever Knight: The Code

Here we go with another Schanke focused episode. (Which is unsurprising, considering John Kapelos wrote this one.) A chance meeting puts Schanke back in contact with his childhood best friend, Delehanty, who runs a hugely successful private security firm in Arizona. Fed up with the Canadian winters, Schank considers leaving the police force and joining his friend in a warmer climate. After the two seemingly crack a rash of poisonings, it seems to confirm Schanke's desire to leave. Nick, however, isn't so sure they've gotten to the bottom of this case. Meanwhile, he's also reminded of a time back in his wild west days when he trusted the wrong person.

The highlight of “The Code” is watching Kapelos bounce off of Joseph Ziegler, who plays Delehanty. The characters have a long history together and pepper their conversations with private in-jokes, which they do not feel the need to explain much. Which is amusing and accurately reflects what an old friendship is like. However, from the minute Delehanty appears on-screen, you know the guy is hiding something. Eventually, Schanke will be forced to make a hard decision regarding his friend. Another interesting element of the episode is that its case-of-the-week is obviously inspired by the infamous Tylenol tampering case. “Forever Knight” didn't do too many “ripped from the headline” episodes, so there's some novelty here. The flashback sequence are largely superfluous, though it is sort of fun to see Nick dressed up as a cowboy. [7/10]

Monday, October 14, 2019

Halloween 2019: October 13th

New Nightmare (1994)

New Line never intended Freddy to stay dead for very long. Even at the time, it was well-known that Mr. Krueger's “death” was leading up to an inevitable “Freddy vs. Jason” movie, which ended up spending another decade in development hell. Fans were eager for another Freddy Krueger adventure, especially after the disappointing “Final Nightmare.” Yet his return would still arrive perhaps sooner than expected. Wes Craven, revisiting an idea he had since the first time New Line asked him to create an “Elm Street” sequel, would present the studio with an interesting idea for a new type of “Nightmare.” A dark and meta take on Freddy Krueger, “New Nightmare” would debut to general public indifference in 1994 before quickly being reclaimed as one of the best films in the series.

With its metatextual take – in which Freddy Krueger escapes the fictions of the “Elm Street” movies to attack the actors and producers of the films in our world, most prominently Heather Langenkamp – “New Nightmare” is not like any other Freddy movie. Craven sought to make a more nuanced, literary take on the character. Accordingly, “New Nightmare” is full of all sorts of heady ideas. The idea of Freddy being the current manifestation of a much older, primal form of evil – a primordial entity that feeds on the destruction of innocence – directly links the slasher killer with classical archetypes. Most pointedly, the witch from “Hansel and Gretel,” which is directly pointed out. (So now Freddy's furnace recalls both Hell and the witch's oven. Also see the shot where his shadow is cast along the wall, linking Freddy with “Nosferatu” as well.) The bed sheets become cavern-like, while Freddy's glove resembles the grasping claw of a predator more than ever, further connecting the film with ancient themes. And then little Daniel, Langenkamp's son, protects himself with a plush toy of a dinosaur, as if completing the caveman allegory in an odd way.

The kid is an important matter here. One can't help but assume Wes became a father before writing “New Nightmare.” The sequel directly asks what effect the horror genre has on the children of those who create it. Throughout the film, Langenkamp's son is tormented by ghastly visions, taping steak knives to his fingers, spewing green slime, and being directly targeted by Freddy. When combined with the subplot of Heather being harassed by a stalker, a true event, it suggests the possibility that the actresses – and the man who wrote the film – were seriously concerned that their work had a corrupting, negative affect on the world around them.

Yet Wes eventually comes around to a much more potent idea, one that argues for the importance of the horror genre. The Entity that assumes Freddy's appearance is an old one, yes. Maybe as old as human imagination. The only way to control the spirit is to tell stories about it. In other words: We tell stories that are grisly, that horrify, shock, and terrify in order to exercise the real demons that exist. It's a very literary argument for the continued existence of the horror movie. And an especially big concept to insert into the seventh movie in a franchise.

The meta element of “New Nightmare” is fascinating. It allows Craven to revisits characters and performers from the first film. Letting Heather Langenkamp, who has truly grown as a performer, play a version of herself reeling from the death of a husband and desperate to protect a sick child was a truly great idea. So was letting John Saxon return, this time as a father figure that actually seems loving. When Heather accepts her absorption into the text of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” when she accepts the name of Nancy and Freddy marches forward, is one of my favorite moments in the movie. Robert Englund plays his avuncular true self while, as the revamped Freddy, he's especially chilling. While the thigh-high goth boots and trench coat look a little silly, overall I think Freddy's redesign for this film – and the biomechanical bone-claw especially – is pretty damn cool.

If there's any issue with “New Nightmare,” it's that the film is not nearly as scary as it is smart. Oh, it definitely has some A-grade shocks. The opening nightmare sequence, in which a mechanical Freddy glove springs to life and begins to slice faces and slashes necks, is effective. A later moment, where the small claw appears between a driver's legs in their front seat, similarly builds towards a nice shock. The film's scariness perhaps peaks early with an uneasy and unnerving nightmare at a funeral, where Freddy attempts to drag Daniel down into a grave. After that, “New Nightmare's” attempts at scares veer towards the histrionic. J. Peter Robinson's utterly bombastic score deserves some of the blame for that. Sequences where Freddy materializes in the sky and reaches down from the heavens, or a hundred Kruegers rush a fence, definitely come too close to feeling silly.

Ultimately, “New Nightmare” is too damn interesting to be entirely resisted. That it applies ideas that are so fascinating and thought-out to what had become, basically, a big goofy slasher series by this point is even more audacious. Maybe audiences couldn't get their heads around the meta twist in 1994, where the movie debuted to the lowest grosses of any “Elm Street” movie. (Though still certainly turned a profit on its 8 million dollar budget.) Or maybe Freddy was seen as thoroughly passe by that point, as the horror genre itself had largely burnt out its mass popularity by that point. Many see the movie as a predecessor to Craven's “Scream” tetraology, which would take the same meta-commentary on the horror genre to snarkier, more commercial heights. [8/10] 

I Bury the Living (1958)

A formative experience for my young horror fandom was reading Stephen King's “Danse Macabre.” My older sister is a huge King fan, ya see, and I inherited most of her old paperbacks when she moved out. I don't know what compelled me to pick up “Danse Macabre” but King's extended musing on the horror genre compelled me. I read almost the entire book over the course of a single night. Many of the titles recommended in the pages of that book were ones I had to seek out, as my flavor for the twisted and dark was only starting to develop. I've caught up with most of King's recommendations over the years. (Though the lack of availability of “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” means I still haven't seen it, though it doesn't sound like a true horror movie either.) For whatever reason, I hadn't caught “I Bury the Living” before. Considering I've been watching a lot of public domain movies this season, now seemed like as good a time as any.

Robert Kraft has recently been elected as the director of a local cemetery. Part of his new duties is overlooking the plot layouts for the graveyard. The locations of the graves and who they belong to, or will belong to more accurately, is determined with a chart in the office. White-headed pins are shoved into the to-be-filled plots, black-headed pins are shoved into the currently occupied plots. Without thinking about it much, one night Kraft switches the white pins out for black ones in two random spots. The next day, the people who own the plots die mysteriously. Kraft soon discovers that he seemingly has the power to manipulate who will live and who will die simply by changing one colored pins or another.

“I Bury the Living” is a movie with one of those undeniably catchy premises that get under your skin. The act of switching out one set of pins for another is so simple. It's easy to imagine doing the same. This causes you to imagine what you would do in the same situation, if you suddenly found you had the ability to control someone's fate. In the film, Robert Kraft quickly spirals from disbelief, to blaming himself (realizing it can't be the pins but him with this power), to despair. Amazingly, the film never goes with the easy, cop-out solution of Kraft developing a God complex and going mad with power. Instead, he continues to toy with the pins out of curiosity and then a growing fear that he truly has been gifted with this terrible power. When he's given seemingly irrefutable proof that he has this ability, he quickly deduces no mortal man should have this strength and nearly commits suicide.

Helping sell some the film's heavy handling of its subject is a strong cast and some atmospheric direction. Director Albert Band – none other than Charles Band's father – puts together some interesting images. The cemetery map has a spiral pattern on it that increasingly begins to look like two eyes starring at Kraft, as if judging him for his actions. More than once, Band's camera zooms in close to the pins, recalling a globe or other spherical objects. A slip into madness in the last act also features some likably abstract imagery, of tombstones circling around a floating head among other far out shots. Richard Boone, previously of “Have Gun, Will Travel,” also makes for a decent everyman protagonist.

While “I Bury the Living” is well-known for its moody direction and for its surprisingly sophisticated handling despite having a exploitation title, the movie is notorious for something else too. It has a total bullshit ending. Spoiler alert for a sixty-one year old horror movie: It turns out Kraft doesn't have power over life and death. Instead, the cemetery watchman – who is being forced into retirement after forty years – is murdering the people Kraft accidentally targets as some oddball sort of revenge. Not only is this is a disappointingly grounded answer to a mystery presumed to be supernatural up to that point, it also doesn't make a lot of sense. It means Andy has to move awfully fast for such an old man, considering he was murdering several people in a night, and also surprisingly stealthy for a bearded old Irishman. In short, it's a bullshit reveal that doesn't stand up to much scrutiny.

King bemoaned the film's disappointing ending too. He wasn't the only one. Dave Sindelar of the late, great SciFilm also complained that much of the movie's spooky momentum is sucked out by the goofy, disappointing ending. This makes “I Bury the Living” a good candidate for a remake and, considering the film's public domain status, I'm surprised nobody has tried. Up until that bullshit twist, it is an involving and spooky supernatural thriller. By the way, Andy hums "Heigh-Ho Nobody Home” throughout the film. This is an old hymn associated with souling, usually considered the traditional ancestor of trick-or-treating. Meaning this movie is explicitly a Halloween film via association, as far as I'm concerned. [7/10]

Tales from the Cryptkeeper: Imaginary Friend

While several of “Tales from the Cryptkeeper: Season Three's” episodes have featured bullying in some way, “Imaginary Friend” is its explicitly anti-bullying episode. It revolves around two boys who are bored in their neighborhood. With nothing else to do, they decide to go and harass the new nine year old girl who has moved in across the street. The little girl only has two friends in the whole world: A little white kitten named Boo and the spectre of a towering man in a fedora. When one of the boys kidnaps Boo, the ghostly man launches a campaign of terror against the boys to make them return the cat.

“Tales from the Cryptkeeper” approaches the topic of bullying with the exact level of sensitivity you would expect from this ham-fisted show. Which is to say, none at all. To describe these boys as bullies is a bit disingenuous. Their behavior is less teasing and more of the work of budding psychopaths. Pushing around a nine year old girl and stealing her cat and psychologically torturing it are pretty extreme crimes for boys that age. (And you know a real life boy prone to stealing a cat wouldn't stop at just teasing it.) The ghostly imaginary friend is a pretty odd sight. His revenge almost could have been a spooky sequence. The boy hides under a car at one point, as the spirit stalks him, which might've been able to build suspense if the characters weren't so unlikable. And the animation wasn't so cheap and inexpressive. The ending implies the girl will become friends with her former bullies, a lesson pop culture absolutely needs to stop teaching kids. [5/10]

Forever Knight: Be My Valentine

I know it's October but I guess I'm talking about a Valentine's Day themed episode tonight anyway. A serial killer is targeting single women by sending them Valentine cards first. Nick Knight is on the case. Meanwhile, he's also decided to take his flirtations with Natalie up to the next level, realizing he may love this woman. However, that's when an agreement he made with LaCroix hundreds of years ago re-surface. See, after Nick first became a vampire, LaCroix fell in in love with his still-human sister. When Nick refused to let him turn her into one of the undead, LaCroix promised he would turn any woman Nick loved in the future into a vampire.

The crime plot is truly superfluous this episode. It's resolved half-way through the episode and never mentioned again. The actual focus is on Nick and Natalie's growing attachment and what LaCroix plans to do about it. After nearly two seasons of flirting, it's nice to see Nick and Nat takes things to a more serious level. Meanwhile, seeing LaCroix show a vulnerable side, when he's usually so above-it-all, is certainly novel. Those flashback scenes are genuinely fascinating to watch. The climax of the episode, a dinner between Natalie and LaCroix, starts out with a certain tension. However, I'm disappointed that Natalie is reduced to a catatonic state for most of the sequence. Still, this is a fairly strong episode for focusing more on its character than on the case-of-the-week. [7/10]

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Halloween 2019: October 12th

The Innkeepers (2011)

What’s Ti West up to these days? Earlier this decade, Mr. West was the belle of the indie horror ball. 2009’s “House of the Devil” would receive a surprising amount of critical praise, drawing a lot of attention and eyeballs the director’s way. West would collaborate on multiple occasions with fellow “mumblegore” luminaries, Adam Wingard and Joe Swanberg. While Wingard is now doing big budget blockbusters and Swanberg continues to crank out flicks on a near yearly basis, West hasn’t directed a feature since 2016’s western “In a Valley of Violence” and doesn’t seem to have anything forthcoming. Maybe he’s just taking a break, which would be understandable considering he was working steadily for several years. His follow-up to his critical breakthrough, 2011’s “The Innkeepers,” also received it’s fair share of positive notices.

The historic Yankee Pedlar Inn in Connecticut is about to close down for the last time. The hotel, on its penultimate night, is manned by a skeleton crew of just two people: Grouchy and cynical Luke and the much younger, asthmatic Claire. There are only a few guests in the hotel — a mother and her kid, a former actress turned medium, a mysterious old man returning to his honeymoon suite — but the two have a lot of down time. So they have taken up the hobby of ghost-hunting. The Yankee Pedlar is said to be haunted by the ghost of Madeline O’Malley, a jilted bride who hanged herself in one of the rooms back in the 1800s. Claire and Luke are determined to uncover proof of O’Malley’s ghostly existence before the hotel closes for good.

Like “House of the Devil,” “The Innkeepers” is the very definition of a slow-burn. As some folks complained during its initial release, not a lot happens for the first hour or so of this 100 minute long film. Unlike “House of the Devil,” which was largely a solo show devoted to building atmosphere, “The Innkeepers” is as much about hanging out with its leads as generating tension. Sara Paxton is perfectly adorable as Claire, all nervous jitters and girl-next-door charm with fantastic comedic timing. The few moments where she gets so startled she shrieks actually come off as endearing comedy. She has fine chemistry with Pat Healy as Luke, a somewhat prickly hipster who is obviously smitten with the girl. The scenes of them goofing off together, getting drunk and playing-pretend ghosts or screwing around with the desk bell, is honestly one of the high-lights of the movie.

While “The Innkeepers” is as much hang-out movie as it is spook show, Ti West doesn't overlook creating an uneasy atmosphere either. Old hotels are inherently spooky places, with so many faces having passed through their rooms over the years. Moreover, our cast is isolated, frequently exploring the long and echoing halls of the Yankee Pedlar by themselves. The film largely functions on the suggestion of the supernatural. It lets this sense that something may go wrong hang in the air so long that something as simple as a piano key going off or a man disappearing from a hall can produce a shock. When the ghost antics really break loose in the last act, “The Innkeepers” nicely utilizes the scares present in our innocent heroine being trapped behind a closed door with a malevolent spectre. While not quite as bone-chilling terrifying as the film obviously wants to be, it is a decently tense climax and a nice pay-off to what has come before.

“The Innkeepers” would advertise itself as “A ghost story for the minimum wage.” Indeed, I don't think it's any mistake that a failing hotel is our setting and its underpaid sole employees are its stars. A throwaway line at the end reveals, while Luke and Claire are toiling away at their job, the hotel's owner is away in the Bahamas. The ghosts of the Yankee Pedlar include two rejected individuals who killed themselves in heartbreak. It's almost as if the ghost haunting this place is the ghost of failure. Similarly, the film nails the minutia of such a shit job, in delightful moments like Claire attempting to dispose of an overstuffed bag of trash or guests complaining constantly about the lack of towels. I've never worked in a hotel but I bet Ti West has.

By the way, the Yankee Pedlar Inn is a real place. It closed for renovations in 2015 but, despite an attempt to start up again in 2017, has yet to reopened. You'll notice that was several years after “The Innkeepers” was completed, so either the writing was on the wall for a while or Ti West is a prophet. And, like any old hotel, the Yankee Pedlar was said to be haunted in real life. Perhaps the ghosts are stalling renovation attempts? Sounds like a good idea for a sequel to me, Ti! Anyway, “The Innkeepers” has a likable cast and a fitting spooky atmosphere. It's not the chill-fest “House of the Devil” was but is totally likable in its own way. [7/10]

Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)

The “Elm Street” movies have never been unprofitable. However, “A Nightmare on Elm Street 5” made considerably less than its predecessors. With the eighties ending and Freddy-Mania having obviously crested, a decision was made to end the “Nightmare” series. Freddy Krueger was going to die and it would be right there in the title. “Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare” – because what did teenagers in the early nineties love more than Curtis Mayfield references? – would be unleashed in 1991. Despite the marketing proclaiming that New Line had saved the best for last, reaction to “Freddy's Dead” was highly negative. Fans quickly started to proclaim it the worst in the series and the franchise seemed truly dead for a while.

So why was “Freddy's Dead” so hated? Longtime fans were pissed that the Alice plotline from parts four and five was dropped without explanation. But mostly, people were pissed that the grand finale didn't return to the series' scary roots and, instead, went even further into the wacky comedy the later sequels devolved towards. Rachel Taladay's film establishes an utterly cartoonish tone right from the beginning. Within its opening minutes, Freddy is dressing up like the Wicked Witch of the West, driving a bus, cackling like a loon, and cracking cheesy one-liners. Lots of stupid shit happens in this movie. Like a teenager bouncing around the house like a cartoon character, Freddy doing kung-fu, and Roseanne and Tom Arnold having cameos at the peak of their pop culture overexposure.

I have expressed a noted ambivalence, if not outright disdain, towards goofy Freddy up to this point. Yet, and this is a controversial opinion, I actually like “Freddy's Dead.”  So what's different this time? Mostly, the other sequels were still trying to be scary. Taladay's film is utterly devoted to silliness. (Taladay's only other credit of note is “Tank Girl,” suggesting this type of kinetic buffoonery is her specialty.) The film makes its “Loony Tunes” influence obviously, when Freddy pushes a giant bed of goofy cartoon nails into frame. As previously noted, Robert Englund being a ham is always entertaining to watch. And Freddy, his sweater colors brighter than ever and skin looking less burned, is pure ham here. When scratching up a chalkboard, Englund practically humps it in enthusiasm. The infamous Power Glove sequence is pure dumb-ass junkfood pop culture poetry to me. Look at how much fun Bob is having in these scenes. How can you not share in that pure glee?

Beyond its delightfully cheesy tone, there's something else I enjoy about “Freddy's Dead.” Unlike the generic set of bland teenage victims from the last two films, I actually care about the kids here. Each is given an actual background, a real personality. Lezlie Deane's Tracy is determined in her toughness, defending a wounded soul after suffering from sexual abuse at her father's hand. Ricky Bean Logan's Carlos is more guarded about his own abusive past, protecting himself with a sarcastic sense of humor. Breckin Meyer's Spencer, meanwhile, dulls the shame he feels over his disapproving dad with drugs and acts of petty crime. Each of the actors are well cast and their quirks and interests don't exist solely to set up a death scene later on. Instead, their fears reflect on their past and that's what Freddy utilizes to taunt and kill them.

Obviously, “The Final Nightmare” returns in a big way to the theme of parental abuse from the original. Abusive parents is what connects each of the teenage victims. That includes Maggie, our protagonist who we quickly learn is Fred Krueger's long-lost daughter. That makes Freddy's metaphorical status as the ultimate abusive father figure literal. Even more interesting than that is the looks we get into Freddy's own past. We see him torturing animals in school and dulling his own mental pain with masochistic self-cutting. Most pressingly, we see that Freddy was an abused kid himself. (Though casting Alice Cooper in that part, in a flashy cameo, is a bit distracting.) It turns out, Freddy was once not so different from the children he preys on now. Which is a sort of profound idea, pulling back the curtain to reveal this grand victimizer was once a victim too.

“Freddy's Dead” doesn't just explore Krueger's past as a human. It finally reveals the origins of his supernatural powers, which have never even been hinted at up to this point. We are introduced to the Dream Demons, ancient entities dating back to at least Greek mythology that imbued Freddy with their powers. That's a reveal I like too, as it links Freddy back to a grander, older mythology. The entire 3-D sequence is ridiculous, sure, but it is colorfully directed and full of fun images. Moreover, “Freddy's Dead” is the first sequel in the series to remember that you can actually bring Freddy out of the dream world simply by touching him and waking yourself up. You think that would've come up again before now.

The gimmickry of promoting this as the final “Elm Street” entry pulled in audiences, leading to a bountiful box office debut. Yet the reaction was negative enough that New Line was not eager to go back on their promise. Freddy Krueger would actually stay dead, at least for a while. The fandom has been largely against this movie in the years since, because it's so fucking goofy. I hated it once too, before age made me find its hammy silliness fun, instead of insulting. So I pleasantly surprised to see, if the largely positive reviews on its Letterboxd page are any indication, other fans have come around to this one too. Maybe it's nobody's idea of the ultimate “Nightmare” but it's certainly fun. So, in conclusion: “Freddy's Dead” is actually good – or at least “good” – and y'all have been wrong all these years. [7/10]

Tales from the Cryptkeeper: Drawn and Quartered

Despite the title, nobody is cut into little pieces in this episode. Instead, “Drawn and Quartered” focuses on a budding artist who is being torment by a pair of bullies. When the mean kids tear up his notebook, he's especially despondent. That's when the Cryptkeeper appears and gives him a special pen. A pen that can bring anything he draws to life. The kid immediately goes about drawing his favorite creation – a wacky cartoon character named Wa-Hoo – and other scenes of revenge against the bullies, that spring to life and come to past. This backfires quickly however, as Wa-Hoo proves difficult to control.

Here's how bad things have gotten for “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” in season three. This is one of the better episodes! The chaotic, cartoony energy of Wa-Hoo adds a little life blood to the proceedings. There's one moment here that could've been an effective bit of kid-friendly horror, with better animation and set-up. The bullies reveal that Wa-Hoo literally rearranged their faces. However, as is typical of season three, the overbearing moral message overwhelms any other positive attribute here. See, “Drawn and Quatered” is only anti-bullying in the sense that the bad kids stop harassing the protagonist in the end. The episode is actually attempting to convey to young kids the fruitlessness of revenge. First off, I'm of the opinion that most bullies deserve to be humiliated. Secondly, hearing the Cryptkeeper preach against the evils of revenge – when half of all the “Tales from the Crypt” episodes were about just that! – really creates a disconnect. And yet this still sucks marginally less than most of the rest of the season. [5/10]

Forever Knight: Close Call

Ah, the clip show. It's a television tradition with a long history. Usually, a sort-of new episode largely composed of reused footage is done to save money after a series has overrun its budget, to give its lead actors some time off, or because an extra episode needs to be tacked on to fulfill a season order. It's pretty easy to figure out which one of these “Close Call” is. During a shoot-out with an armed criminal, Nick uses his vampire super-speed to save Schanke's life. The criminal is killed in the fire fight. While Nick hypnotizes Schanke to forget, some questions still linger in his mind. He follows a trail of clues, recalling previous times he's seen his partner act strangely.

For a clip show, “Close Call” at least has a decent premise. I've commented before that Schanke probably should have figured out by now that Nick is a vampire. That's a good basis for an episode, even if we know the truth has to remain hidden for the show's premise to continue. Schanke uncovering a number of weird coincidences – an old driver's license for one of Nick's previous identity, a picture of Nick and Janette disguised as their “grandparents – is mildly compelling. There's also some humor in watching the cop get repeatedly mesmerized by vampires, as he comes closer to uncovering the truth. The episode justifies its existence with the climax, where Schanke confronts LaCroix – who he only knows as Nick's favorite DJ – and the vampire delivers a surprisingly passionate defense of his offspring. Aw, he really does love his vampire son! But this is still a clip show, so there's only so much to recommend. Geraint Wyn-Davis is in less than half the episode so I'm guessing he had some vacation time coming up or something. [6/10]

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Halloween 2019: October 11th

Knife+Heart (2019)
Un couteau dans le coeur

Horror and porn are, in an odd way, linked. Both are considered disreputable genres. Both have a passionate fan following that memorizes every name associated with the genre. While popular genres like comedies and action certainly have fans, you don't see too many conventions devoted to them, now do you? More than anything else, both appeal to marginalized outsiders, weirdos in search of specific stimuli. Unsurprisingly, there have been many crossovers between the two genres: Monster mask nudie cuties, arty softcore creature features, even hardcore horror fuck-fests. This year, the French “Knife+Heart” touched down on American shores, showing us a feverish crossbreed of giallo and seventies gay porn chic, when Argento met the Rialto Report.

Paris, 1979. Anne is a director in France's gay porn industry. She has recently broken up with her girlfriend, Lois, who is also her editor. She channels that heartbreak into her latest cock-sucking epic, a gay killer thriller called “Homo-cidal.” At the same time, a mysterious man – wearing a concealing black rubber mask and attacking with a blade concealed in a dildo – begins to hunt down, seduce, and kill the cast members of Anne's previous films. Under scrutiny from the law, trying to complete another porno, and still reeling from Lois' dumping, Anne attempts to unravel the truth behind the murders and the identity of the slasher.

“Knife+Heart” tries to get at the deeper meaning of porn. This is a film defined by longing, desire, and passion always left unfulfilled. As the killer watches one of Anne's studs on the dance floor, the camera focuses on his hungry glances, the tension between them. This is made all the more obvious in the scenes between Anne and Lois, the woman essentially assaulting her ex in her desperate attempt to hold her, possess her, caress her again. Lois is never far from Anne's mind, such as in a stunning scene where the woman appears behind her just as she's getting a palm reading. Even the on-set fluffer, known as “Golden Mouth,” seems very emotionally connected to his “co-workers.” By the end, we learn that the killer's lusty murders are spurned by seeing his own fantasies reflected on-screen, murdering to enact the sexual actions he's no longer physically capable of. The film successfully captures the heavy emotions wrapped up in the reasons why people consume porn.

More than anything else, “Knife+Heart” is an example of virtuoso film-making. Director Yan Gonzalez is making his feature debut here, after directing a number of shorts. Gonzalez clearly has an eye for stylish, Italian-style sequence. There are many long, dialogue-free scenes that are instead driven by the incredible electronic score by band M83. Such as the killer catching the eye of his first victim. Or a long P.O.V. shot through one of the lurid porn sets. As one victim stands in a forest, the camera spins around wildly, the murderer seen slowly approaching in the background. Another sequence, in which the advancing slasher is hidden by a flickering light, is also stunning. The death scenes, highly sexualized to begin with, always climax in an emotional, orgasmic outpouring of passion.

Gonzalez fully embraces the artsy-fartsy tendencies of the giallo genre. He packs his movies with not-so-subtle symbols, like the foreboding black raven that always accompanies the madman. Birds are a reoccurring image in the film, as a glowing bird feather also appears. The film draws a direct line between the stigma of being gay, much less a performer in gay porn, with being a scarred and unhinged killer. There are flashback scenes in hallucinogenic inverted colors, in throbbing black and gray, as if the images were forever burned into the perpetrator's mind. There's a long, perhaps somewhat unnecessary visit to the countryside in the middle of the film which is even more dream-like – and fittingly giallo-esque – than the movie around it. The film-within-the-film scenes are typically campy and horny. (Including at least one explicit shout-out to Fulci's “The New York Ripper.”) Yet there's a sort of fictional ecstasy to these moments of graphic humping. The film concludes with a lengthy porn set sequence, an almost heavenly Grecian bacchanal.

“Knife+Heart” is a lead performance for French pop star Vanessa Paradis, perhaps better known in America for her former relationship with Johnny Depp. Paradis gives a shockingly unvarnished performance, playing Anna as a raw nerve, driven to extremes by a heartbreak she is unable to manage. Her frenzied confessions of undying love to Lois practically brought a tear to my eye. Kate Moran is also excellent as Lois, the object of Anna's unwilling affection. The supporting cast is largely solid too, with the exceedingly campy Nicolas Maury giving a memorable performance as the crossdressing porn star.

I was somewhat skeptical about “Knife+Heart” going in. It's fair to say that seventies gay porn is not something I'm especially interested in. Some of the more abrasively campy sequence, in particular a scene involving a wine bottle and a picnic, potentially push things too far for me. Yet “Knife+Heart” is, overall, a mesmerizing experience. It's beautifully directed and acted, full of sequences that are visually stunning and thrilling. Yann Gonzelez is a filmmaker I'll definitely be following from now on, as I'm curious to see what kinky and fascinating movie he'll gift us with next. [9/10]

Phantom of the Opera (1989)

In 1976, a musical version of Gaston Leroux's “The Phantom of the Opera” – not much more than a penny dreadful whose place in horror history was secured by Lon Chaney and Universal Pictures – premiered on the Lancaster stage. Andrew Lloyd Weber liked the show so much, he asked to collaborate on a big budget version. When negotiations fell apart, he turned around and created his own singing-and-dancing version of the public domain novel. Lloyd's “Phantom,” of course, became one of the biggest successes in stage history. So suddenly in the late eighties, this eighty year old melodrama was a hot property. In-between a low budget animated version from 1988 and a romantic TV mini-series adaptation the next year, came a “Phantom” that eighties horror fans could call their own.

And the reason we're discussing this particular “Phantom” tonight, is its one of the few non-Krueger staring roles Robert Englund grabbed during the heady heights of Freddy-Mania. This adaptation of the often-told tale begins in modern day Manhattan. Would-be opera singer Christine Day auditions for a new play with a piece of music called “Don Juan Triumphant,” written by forgotten composer Eric Drestler. She is struck by a dropped sanded bag. She awakens in 1885 London as Christine Daae, understudy-to-the-diva at the opera house. Daae is an object of obsession for Eric, a deranged composer who sold his soul to the devil (who took his face as payment) for fame and immortality. Wearing a mask made from the stitched-together skin of his victims, Eric will do any ghastly thing to ensure Christine is successful.

For many years, this particular “Phantom” was derided by phans for taking wild divergences from Leroux's novel. Indeed, adding a time travel framing device and making Eric a gory slasher with demonic roots is a pretty large leap. Yet 1989's “Phantom” is more faithful than it frequently gets credit for. Leroux's Eric was such an exaggerated villain already – a master musician, assassin, architect, illusionist, and ventriloquist – that making him straight-up supernatural isn't that big a deal. The Faustian bargain is a natural inclusion, since that's always been a thread in the story's DNA. The film includes nods towards many of the book's characters and events. Versions of minor characters  – Little Meg, Joseph Buquet, and Carlotta – appear. Frequently excised elements, like the Masque of the Red Death, the violin serenade in the cemetery, the ratcatcher, and the detective pursuing the phantom (now from Scotland Yard, instead of Persia), are re-inserted. The film includes the love triangle, Raoul recast as a English solider, but it's reduced to such a minor part of the story, you hardly notice it. As radical a reinvention as this “Phantom” is, it was also pretty clearly written by fans of the material.

The film was obviously pitched at the Fangoria crowd, with the poster using the most Krueger-esque image of Englund from the film and heavily promoting the “Nightmare on Elm Street” connection. In order to appease this crowd – which ended up alienating the romantic fans – the film packs in some awfully heavy gore. Erik's victims are split from groin to gullet, decapitated (with one head dropped in some soup), skewered, burned, and all skinned afterwards. The gore is pretty bitching, though it was also badly mishandled by the MPAA. Replacing the Phantom's traditional mask with a false-face, stitched together from remnants of stolen flesh, is certainly a novel idea. Further selling this butchery is stylish direction from Dwight H. Little, previously of “Halloween 4.” Little obviously enjoys the lavish period details and enjoys casting Englund's deformed villain in all sorts of shadowy angles.

Even more so than the gnarly gore, I think the main reason fans will want to see this “Phantom of the Opera” is a chance to watch Robert Englund stretch his acting muscles. Freed from Freddy's quibbing malevolence, Englund is allowed to affect a more erudite persona. His Eric is vicious and sadistic yet also an undeniably tragic figure whose obsession with Christine is tinged in frustrated desire. There's a touching episode where he meets with a prostitute, asking her to be his Christine for him. (The film happily points out the weird Freudian element of the Phantom/Christine relationship, as he's both a father figure and a lover to her.) Scream queen Jill Schloen is badly dubbed as Christine during the opera bits but nail the naivety central to the character. Bill Nighy is delightfully bitchy as the opera manager and it's funny to see a young Molly Shannon as the modern day Meg.

“Phantom of the Opera” was produced by Menahem Golan, for his post-Cannon company 21st Century Film Corporation. Golan sunk so much money into this one that, when it bombed, the entire company nearly went belly-up. He was obviously banking hard on the book's newfound name recognition, even if the horror version ends with a disclaimer saying it's unconnected to any past or present stage version. A sequel was planned right from the beginning with the script, supposedly, mutating into a different theater-set Englund-starring slasher called “Dance Macabre.” Dwight Little's “Phantom” is such a strange hybrid of classy gothic horror and grisly slasher, that I can't help but love it. The time travel element and other mystical touches add a mythic element to the story and Englund gives a fine performance. It's not the best cinematic Phantom – that'll be Mr. Chaney, now and forever – but it's certainly a valid one. [7/10]

Freddy's Nightmares: No More Mr. Nice Guy

By 1988, New Line Cinema saw the grip Freddy Krueger had on the public's imagination. They not unreasonably assumed the dream-stalking slasher could take over other mediums. What about a TV show? The series would largely follow an anthology format, with Freddy slipping into the role of a pun-spewing horror host. Known officially and inelegantly as “Freddy's Nightmares – A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Series,” the series aired for two full seasons in first-run syndication at the end of the decade. As if to show the fans what “Freddy's Nightmares” could accomplish, the first episode was directed by known horror auteur Tobe Hooper and would depict Krueger's origins.

Or, at least, a version of Freddy's origins. The episode shows Freddy's trial going off the rails. The cop who is responsible for not reading Krueger his Miranda's rights feels guilty but he feels even worst when a lynch mob forms to track Freddy down. (Largely because Freddy immediately goes back to terrorizing Springwood's citizens the minute he's free.) Freddy actively eggs the vigilantes on, seemingly aware that death will make him more powerful than ever. Instead of targeting the cops' kids, as he does in the film, he goes after the grown-ups. And that's really only the most obvious ways “No More Mr. Nice Guy” contradicts established “Elm Street” lore.

“No More Mr. Nice Guy” is an underwhelming pilot. The acting from the leads, especially the twins playing the cop's daughters, is alternating stiff and overdone. The story is dragged out, as the audience is forced to wait around for various dull procedural scenes until Freddy can get his revenge. When that vengeance comes, it's during a very odd visit to the dental office. That's a death scene that was clearly conceived first, the writers backtracking to justify the idea. (Not to mention it's a prime example of clown-shoes Freddy, appearing at what should be the nasty, vicious start of his dream murder career.) In general, “Freddy's Nightmares” just had a really unpleasantly out-of-balance approach, as the bizarre opening scene of a news anchor makes clear.

However, there are a few elements to like here. Even on a TV budget, Hooper pulls off some memorable visuals. He keeps Freddy's unburned face in the shadows, focusing on Englund's twisted smile or that famous sweater, a nice touch. We go inside Freddy's head a few times, getting a direct look at his twisted imagination. A stalking scene outside a home, where Krueger slashes a doughnut munching cop, is well done. Some red-and-green lights are utilized well in the one nightmare. And, of course, Robert Englund is at his hammiest during the host segments. Freddy was cracking so many jokes in the films by this point that his move into a pun-filled Crpykeeper-like role seems totally natural.

For numerous reasons, “Freddy's Nightmares” never really caught on. This is one of the rare episodes where Freddy interacts with the story, as he was usually just in a hosting position. The gory effects and sexy actresses often bumped up against network standards. The entire series was shot on cheap-looking video, instead of film, making it look like a soap opera. That the show managed run for two seasons, under these constraints, is impressive on its own. Fans mostly regard the series as a curio now, which might be why it's never been given an official home video release. (Bootlegs are prolific, of course, and a few episodes have been slipped into DVD box sets as bonuses.) Nevertheless, I'm too damn curious about “Freddy's Nightmares” not to watch it all eventually. As for “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” it has its moments but is largely undone by some stiff writing and a melodramatic presentation. [5/10]

Forever Knight: Queen of Harps

Here's an episode of “Forever Knight” that really utilizes the flashback structure in an interesting way. As a Christian soldier in Pagan Ireland, a young Nicholas fell in love with a harp-playing young woman, the priestess of the local religious order. In order to insure his participation in the Crusades, Nick's commanding officer killed the girl and framed Nick for the crime. Since then, the man's family has supposedly been cursed to die young. In the modern day, Nick attempts to buy the still existing harp at auction. He ends up embroiled in a scandal to possess the ancient relic, caught in-between the modern descendant of the harp-player, an archaeologist, and the similar descendant of the knight who killed her, minor royalty.

Flashing back to the days before Nick was even a vampire is an interesting idea, that really gives us a sense of how much history this guy has. Directly connecting the past events with the present crime is a smart idea. I like how Nick is around at both the origins of a curse and its final hour. There's some genuinely lovely photography of Canadian countryside, standing in for the Celtic moors, and some solid direction in that opening scene. Watching rough hewed commoner Schanke rub shoulders with a distinguished lord is certainly amusing. As is the final chase, where Nick's vampire powers come in handy with rescuing the woman-of-the-week. (At least Nick doesn't fall in love with her modern descendant.) The layered writing is likely to make this one of my favorite episodes of the entire series. [7/10]