Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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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]

Friday, October 11, 2019

Halloween 2019: October 10th

Dark Water (2002)

The J-Horror fad of the early 2000s seems like such a very long time ago now, considering the other popular permutations the genre has gone through since then. And I suppose seventeen years is pretty far in the past. In America, the subgenre was kicked off by “The Ring.” And in Japan, this particular thread of horror – usually involving twitchy ghost girls with stringy, long black hair – was largely popularized by that film's Japanese counterpart, Hideo Nakata's “Ringu.” Yet the cinematic adventures of Sadako wasn't Nakata's only significant contribution to this particular movement. “Dark Water” was largely considered the proper follow-up to “Ringu” and made a pretty big splash at the time, though it's not as frequently discussed today.

Yoshimi is currently going through a messy divorce. Her soon-to-be ex-husband is suing for sole custody of their six year old daughter, Ikuko. He's using Yoshimi's history of mental illness as a weapon against her. Mother and daughter move into a new apartment, which she can barely support with her job as a proofreader. She's working so hard to keep the lights on, that she often late picking Ikuko up from school. Soon, she has another disturbance. Mysterious water stains appear from the apartment above her's, a prelude to more torrential leaks. A red bag, belonging to a missing child, keeps reappearing. It soon becomes very clear that the apartment is haunted by the spirit of a dead little girl, who has sinister intentions of her own.

Early on in “Dark Water,” we see a memory from Yoshimi's own childhood. Of her sitting alone at school, waiting for a parent to come pick her up. This is an image reprised more than once with Ikuko, Yoshimi clearly terrified of repeating her own mother's mistakes. As we discover more of the ghost girl haunting the apartment, we never see her with a parent. She's always alone, carrying a little red bag with a white bunny on it – a childish image all the more evocative of the innocence lost – and is all alone when we learn of her death. Eventually, it becomes clear that the ghost girl longs for an attentive, loving mother to replace the one that was never there for her. The ghost haunting “Dark Water” is the spectre of parental neglect, intentional and otherwise, the psychic damage rippling forward through time like water.

Nakata proved more-than-capable of building suspense and a feeling of unease in “Ringu.” He pulls off the same trick here. The apartment setting is dreary, all the rooms seemingly painted in shades of gray and brown. The constantly leaking water from above certainly adds to the downbeat atmosphere. Using an endangered child as a source of tension, which he also did in “Ringu,” might seem like a cheap tactic. But it definitely works, as we see Ikuko drawn more and more into the ghost's clutches. The slow reveal of the details surrounding the girl's death pull you in, making you ready for a number of hugely effective jump scares. One, involving hands appearing from the inside of a water tank, works very well despite some misplaced CGI. The scariest scene in the movie, a corpse suddenly lunging forward, doesn't have that problem at all. It's a real shocker.

Perhaps another reason “Dark Water” works as well as it does is because of its deeply empathetic lead performance. Hitomi Kuroki plays Yoshimi as a woman barely holding on. She claims her time spent in a mental institute was because she was traumatized by the graphic content she had to read at work. But it's pretty clear a childhood of abuse and a loveless marriage took its toll. She is desperate to keep afloat, working hard at a job that gives her little respect. What frightens her even more is the prospect of loosing her child, which drives her totally into a nervous breakdown. Kuroki does a fantastic job of conveying this fractured state of mind, without ever overplaying it. Rio Kanno is also extremely good as the daughter, especially for a six year old kid.

Considering “Dark Water” also features a landlord totally ambivalent to the misery of his tenants, the story has certain other economical layers. The film is as sad as it is scary, a sense of melancholy deeply infecting its tale of daughters forgotten by their mothers. The film nails that home a little too hard with an extended prologue, though it's nice that Nakata was so committed to the emotional core of his story. Though I haven't seen it, I kind of doubt the American remake from 2005 is so open and honest. While not quite the succession of creepiness that was “Ringu,” “Dark Water” is a fantastically effective ghost story. [8/10]

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

After the box office success of “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4,” New Line Cinema obviously wasn't going to let Freddy Krueger rest for long. The very next year, the Bastard Son of a 1000 Maniacs would make his way back to theater screens in “A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child.” The premise for part five would go back to an earlier idea considered for a “Elm Street” sequel. It was executive producer Sara Risher, around the time of part two, that first suggested the idea of Freddy Krueger having a baby. The premise was revived, a script was quickly written, a director soon found – Stephen Hopkins, previously of Australian slasher flick “Dangerous Game” – and the film rolled into production.

“The Dream Child's” story – final girl Alice gets pregnant, Freddy using the unborn child to re-enter the dreams of Springwood's teens – brings with it some disturbing connotations. See, from the moment Alice's child is conceived, Freddy can exploit its energy. In her dreams, Alice meets the spirit of the child she hasn't had yet, the boy even picking out his own name. The fetus is outright described as having a soul. It's unavoidable: “A Nightmare on Elm Street 5” is explicitly pro-life. Alice is asked if she'll have an abortion and, even though it would cut off Freddy's connection to the dream world and save her friends' lives, she refuses. And the film is completely disinterested in exploring the option any further. At the very least, this is a controversial idea to insert into a slasher movie sequel. At worst, it's a premise a goofy horror movie like this is in no way prepared to handled.

But “The Dream Child” doesn't stop there.  It also presents the idea that a woman has absolutely no say in her own fate once she has a child. Throughout the film, Freddy is being pursued by the spirit of his dead mother. Being Freddy's mother is presented as a curse Amanda Krueger must struggle with, even after she's dead. Even though the circumstances of his birth and life are not her fault. (Which the opening flashback/dream, depicting the fateful day Amanda was locked in at the lunatic asylum, makes sure to clarify.) It is somehow her job to control her murderous son, which she gave up for adoption. Meanwhile, Alice's entire destiny is redirected around being Jacob's mother. I don't think the writers and filmmakers behind “The Dream Child” were making a puritanical, fairly sexist statement about women and the right for them to control their own bodies. I think the script was just rushed and not well thought out.

But none of this is what “The Dream Child” is really about. From the moment Freddy Krueger slithers on-screen – as a wrinkly-faced monster baby that is presumably not meant to be canon – he is cracking the cheesiest puns imaginable. In the first proper nightmare sequence, where Alice's baby daddy is killed off, literally every line of dialogue out of Freddy's mouth is another broad, goofy one-liner. While there is a certain joy to be had here – watching Robert Englund ham it up will never not be fun – the sequel seriously pushes it too far. This cornball, comedic streak is extended into the film's murder sequence. The visceral gore of the original “Nightmare” has given way to Freddy dressing up as a chef or turning into a superhero, force-feeding a victim red slime or turning them into a slashed-up comic book.

Seeing so many outrageous, goofy nightmare sequences eventually has a tiring, numbing effect on the audience. Certainly not helping matters is the film revolving around another group of indistinct, uninteresting teenager. Much like Alice's first batch of friends in “The Dream Master,” each of her new buddies here are given an easily understood hobby. Yvonne is a swimmer and diver. Greta's parents are pushing her to become a model, creating a budding eating disorder in the teen girl. Mark is a comic book nerd who draws his own hyper-violent superhero adventures, despite his phobia of blood. If these seem like real personalities, don't be fool. These identifying traits are set up early, so that Freddy can later twist them into murderous nightmares. If you are an Alice fan, you probably won't care for these kids either, as none of them believe her at first, leading to their own demises.

As with “The Dream Master,” a punning Freddy, a shaky script, and uninteresting characters only leaves two things to interest viewers: The production design and special effects. Both of which are excellent. The various nightmare worlds Freddy creates this time look fantastic. Such as the blasted-out cathedral he's reborn in or the hallways of a mental hospital that look more like a haunted castle. My favorite is the monochrome comic book world that makes up Mark's world. The special effects create a number of unforgettable images. Such as Freddy with asymmetrical, long limbs. Or Alice and Freddy's bodies fusing together and then splitting apart. Or, my favorite scene in the entire movie, when Freddy fuses Dan – Alice's hunk-of-meat jocko boyfriend – with a motorcycle, creating a “Tetsuo”-esque man/machine monstrosity. Director Hopkins generally has a good eye, such as the M.C. Escher homage in the last act. (Amusingly, the same year's “Labyrinth” would feature a very similar gag.)

“The Dream Child” was still inarguable a box office success. Director Hopkins would ride that success to further genre credits, like “Predator 2,” “The Ghost and the Darkness,” and “Lost in Space.” It grossed over 22 million against a 6 million dollar budget. However, that was a considerable drop from the last two films. “A Nightmare on Elm Street 5” would become the lowest grossing entry in the series, up to that point. It would seem, after two years of overexposure, Freddy-Mania was officially over. Like all the “Nightmare” movies, “Dream Child” has its defenders but the film is not much of a favorite among fans either. It's among the least enjoyable Freddy Krueger films, half-baked and too self-satisfied with its own goofiness. [5/10]

Tales from the Cryptkeeper: So Very Attractive

Here's an episode of “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” that doesn't even bother to include a goofy pun in its title. Julia is an outcast at school, with only one friend. She's especially envious of the popular, beautiful but bitchy girls at school and compares herself to the women in beauty magazines. That's when she stops in at a make-up shop she thought was closed. Inside, the Cryptkeeper sells her a special facial cream. The goop makes Julia prettier. In fact, it makes her so attractive that everything around her – her classmates, adults, animals, insects, even planet life – are obsessively attracted towards her.

Most of the kids in season three of “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” have done something that deserves to be punished, as minor as the infractions tend to be. Julia, as far as I can tell, is just a lonely girl with body dysmorphia. She obsesses over impossible standards of beauty and thinks she's not good enough. (Despite the flat animation style making her look like everyone else and having a male friend that clearly has a crush on her.) Her only selfish or mean action is snubbing that old friend, in order to hang out with the popular kids. And even that is pretty relaxed. The episode's moral doesn't end up being “believe in yourself,” “society puts too much pressure on teen girls to measure up to ridiculous measurements,” or “treat your friends well.” It ends up being... Nice girls don't wear make-up? That's a pretty fucked-up message to send to young girls.

Beyond that, as a horror episode, “So Very Attractive” doesn't contribute much. Being a half-hour of children's television, the show in no way addresses the implications of everyone – including grown-ups – being uncontrollably attracted to a pre-teen girl. There's two mildly clever touches here. A swarm of flies, drawn to Julia, blots out the sun outside her window. Later, corpses are awoken from their graves due to the power of the magical face cream. A scene where she awakens to see her bedroom ceiling covered with spiders and maggots might've been a real squirmer if the animation style here wasn't so unexpressive and lame. [5/10]

Forever Knight: Beyond the Law

The “Forever Knight” writers must have watched “Lethal Weapon 2” about this point, because here's an episode about a villain with diplomatic immunity. Another serial killer is operating in Toronto. Women are being picked up from singles clubs, taken to hotels, and then strangled to death. One of the victims was wearing a pearl necklace, with a clasp made in Kazakhstan. This causes Nick and Schanke to suspect the Kazakhstanian ambassador, currently in the city. However, he has diplomatic immunity so the cops can't search any further into this lead. While Nick considers going outside the boundaries of the law, he recalls a time in the sixties when a politician he trusted was caught abusing his powers against a female aide.

“Beyond the Law” opens with a surprisingly explicit scene of a woman in a negligee being brutally strangled. Despite this dark opening, the episode then heads in a largely comedic direction. The female forensic scientist has a thing for married men and is currently pursuing Schanke. The married and devoted Schanke, of course, feels guilty about even looking at another woman. His discomfort is amusing. There's also a comedic scene where Nick interviews an odd witness who doesn't seem to differentiate between her husband and her dog. Weirdly, the rest of the episode is relatively serious, ending with yet another shoot-out in a night club and a foot chase. The flashbacks aren't much to write about, aside from a line LaCroix has about a “benevolent monarchy, with occasional assassinations” being the best form of government. [6/10]

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Halloween 2019: October 9th

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

“A Nightmare on Elm Street 3” ended on a fairly definitive note, Freddy Krueger seemingly being killed off for good. However, the film was a huge hit for New Line Cinema. Moreover, the rising success of the first three films had created a public frenzy for Freddy Krueger content. The character was showing up on MTV, both as a host and in music videos. Robert Englund appeared, both in and out of make-up, on sketch comedy shows and “The Tonight Show.” Toys and other merchandise was starting to pop up. America was officially in the bladed grips of Freddy-Mania. And New Line Cinema would be stupid not to capitalize on that. Thus, “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master” would slash its way into theaters in 1988.

Because “Dream Warriors” seemingly concluded a lot of plot points, “Nightmare 4” had to be clever to keep the story going... Or, at least, it should have been. Instead, the fourth sequel cleans the slate as quickly and sloppily as possible. Freddy is brought back to life in an utterly ridiculous sequence, involving a dog urinating flaming piss onto his skeleton. I think this was meant to imply his sanctified grave was desecrated somehow, freeing his evil spirit once more, but the movie never explains any further. Following that laugher of a scene, Freddy goes about murdering the surviving Dream Warriors as quickly as possible. Two of the deaths aren't even that memorable, Kincaid merely being stabbed and the recast Kristen simply tossed into the furnace. The sequel is too eager to restore the status quo, to get Freddy back in action and slashing through a new group of teens, and doesn't care how cheaply it achieves that.

“Dream Warriors” birthed clown-shoes Freddy but at least kept him as an intimidating figure. “Dream Master” cements the character's transformation from vile child murderer to wisecracking anti-hero. When Freddy is on screen, it's rare that he isn't spouting a joke or one-liner. He dresses up as a doctor, hangs out in a dinner, and writes taunting messages on a black board. Most of the death scenes are extended visual puns, wet dreams and sucking face being literalized. Goofball Freddy hits his nadir during two sequences. The first of which has the burned-face dream demon donning sunglasses by the ocean, a moment I've dubbed “Beach Party Freddy.” The second is an utterly ridiculous dream where Alice's brother is beset by an invisible Krueger, maybe the lamest nightmare sequence in the entire series. (It is unsurprising to read this was a cheaper replacement for a sequence deemed too expensive to film.)

“Nightmare on Elm Street 3” succeeded largely because you actually liked the characters. The fourth film fails largely because you don't care about the characters. This is most apparent with our final girl, Alice, who does not stand up to the standard set by Nancy and Kristen. In fact, Alice is shockingly passive. The plot machinations have her absorbing the abilities of her friends after Freddy kills them... Meaning Alice can't grow as a character until after everyone around her dies. Thus, the hero of the film, on more than one occasion, sits back and watches as the people she supposedly cares about are slaughtered. She doesn't actually advance the plot any until the final act, when she finally takes the fight to Krueger... A confrontation the character in no way earns, since she's been so inactive up to that point. And then she saves the day with some bullshit nursery rhyme out of nowhere, which is just barely set up beforehand.

In “Dream Warriors,” the teens were assigned gimmicks without being reduced down to those gimmicks, still having identifiable personalities and quirks. The teens of “The Dream Master,” on the other hand, are nothing but gimmicks. The sequel sets up these defining elements as heavy-handily as possible. So Alice's brother is into karate. Nerdy friend Sheila is a brainy inventor and asthmatic. Auxiliary friend Debbie is into fitness and has a cockroach phobia. All of these characteristics are established quickly not because they actually tell us anything about these people or reflect a greater personality. They exist simply to set-up the elaborate death scenes later in the movie. This even extends to the returning characters. Joey is now defined solely by his horniness, Kincaid by his tough guy anger, Kirsten by her dream-merging superpowers.

“A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master” is truly a film that values style over substance. Director Renny Harlin, coming off indie horror hit “Prison” and before he became an action movie specialist, affects an energetic MTV-style approach. (MTV is referenced directly a few times.) The film's production design is excellent, reflected in the spiral checkers of a classroom, a brooding old movie theater, or the blasted-out remains of a gothic cathedral. A few stinkers aside, the death scenes are likably gooey too. Sheila having her eyeballs sucked out by a deadly kiss or Joey's wet dreams are classics for a reason. Debbie having her arms torn open before being transformed into a giant cockroach is such a squirm-inducing moment that it got its own action figure. Freddy himself gets a corker of a death scene himself, his body torn apart from the inside out.

Whatever qualms I have with “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4,” the public clearly did not share them. It became the highest grossing entry in the entire series, at least until an epic crossover fifteen years later dethroned it. A sequel that favors special effects over character and story didn't dissuade ticket-buyers any. Fans generally like this one too, Alice being something of a favorite, so I guess I'm really the odd man out here. Nevertheless, without part four's success, we never would've gotten the Fat Boys video, the storytime hotline, the talking doll, the sing-a-long record, and all the other weird Freddy Krueger shit I love so much. So I guess “The Dream Master” has its place. [5/10]

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)

Sometimes, a title is all you need to be intrigued. I first read about “The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane” in a long ago message board thread, trying to identify an old movie poster. The person described an eerie image of a little blonde girl holding a teddy bear before an ominous mansion, uncertain of the title. Someone responded by saying this was definitely “The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane,” though O.P. assured him that wasn't it. (He was wrong.) I had no idea what the film was but that title, when paired with the promise of a spooky motion picture of some sort, caught my attention. The movie wouldn't come out on DVD for a while longer, adding to the mysteriousness. Now, of course, the film can be enjoyed on an extra-packed Blu-Ray.

Rynn Jacobs is a thirteen year old girl who has recently moved from England to a small town in Maine. She claims to live with her father, a well-known poet, in their scenic but isolated home. Yet Rynn is always alone. Despite her age, the girl takes care of herself, living off the considerable fortune accrued by her father. Rynn's independence soon puts her in conflict with the people around town. Her landlady is nosy and keeps asking to see what's in the cellar. Her son, a known sexual predator, continues to show a deeply unwanted interest in Rynn. The independent girl has many secrets of her own, further threatened when she starts to form a romantic relationship with a boy from the village.

“The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane” is usually categorized as a horror movie, simply because it is not easily classified as anything else. It's a character-based story, with humor and drama, largely confined to one location. (Unsurprisingly, the book's author originally adapted it as a stage play.) However, macabre elements do emerge from time to time. An accidental death early on largely motivates the story. The exact details of what Rynn is keeping in her cellar are left off-screen but the grisly reality is more than hinted at. Primarily, an unease frequently emerges whenever Frank Hallet forces his way into Rynn's house. Even before the audience learns what his deal is, sexual menace hangs heavily in the air. After he tortures Rynn's pet hamster to death, it's clear how dangerous he is, causing the tension to go up every time he's on-screen. That peaks with the deeply uneasy climax, the final confrontation between the two.

As tense a thriller as “The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane” can be, the film also contains a touching teenage romance inside. It is by chance that Rynn meets up with Mario Miglioriti, the boy riding by on a bike just when she needs a helping hand. The two immediately bound over their mutual statuses as outsiders, as Mario is is a socially ostracized cripple. Unlike everyone else she encounters, Mario respects Rynn's independence and her private space. Soon, the develop serious feelings for each other. In a controversial scene, the two slip into bed together. In that moment, Mario subsequently sums things up by saying the two of them have been through more in their thirteen years than most have been through in their whole lives. To see Rynn, a character so tough and independent, show a vulnerable side around this truly worthy man is very touching.

This is the kind of film that wouldn't have worked without the right star. I don't think “The Little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane” would have been made at all without Jodie Foster. Foster is unparalleled as Rynn, with her buckteeth and long blonde hair. Foster absolutely inhabits the role of a deeply independent teen, a girl whose force of personality is so strong that she intimidates most adults. Yet Foster doesn't let Rynn be defined by her outward coldness, hinting frequently at the hurt that causes her to build these walls of isolation. She leads an accomplished cast. Martin Sheen's greasiness is perfectly utilized as the deeply unnerving Frank Hallet and Scott Jacoby has such an easy-going chemistry with Foster.

“The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane” is obviously a fable of some sort. The film can't help but remind me of “Pippi Longstocking” a little, with its story of an extraordinary young girl who lives alone without any adult supervision and, in fact, has no need for it. The film seems to be arguing for child independence, as Rynn is more than capable of taking care of herself. Most of the adults only seek to exploit her for one reason or another, meaning she's more than justified in wanting to be left alone. Or maybe this is an oddball coming-of-age story, as the love Rynn grows for Mario causes her to come out of her childish isolation, making this an odd story of maturation. Whatever the motivation, it's clear something deeper is going on in the mind of the film.

Upon release, the actual quality “The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane” was largely overshadowed by a controversy surrounding its sexual content. The studio supposedly insisted a nude scene be inserted and Foster, about the same age as her character, refused to participate. (Her older sister was her body double during the brief sequence.) This certainly speaks towards an uncomfortable willingness for filmmakers to sexualize Foster right at the start of her career. Read into that however you want, though the scene plays as fairly innocent in context. Luckily, in time, the controversy faded and people have been able to appreciate “The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane” for the odd, entrancing, effective thriller it is. [8/10]

Tales from the Cryptkeeper: All Booked Up

There was a big push towards literacy among kids in the nineties and, unsurprisingly, “Tales from the Cryptkeeper's” preachy third season had to touch on this as well. The episode follows a rowdy skateboarding kid who wants nothing to do with reading, despite his nerdier friend's insistence that books are cool. Eventually, the kid is forced by a teacher to actually read a book and write an accompanying essay. He naturally resents this but ends up in a spooky library anyway. The Cryptkeeper provides him with books that literally suck Greg inside the narratives. He lives through parts of “Frankenstein,” “The Man in the Iron Mask,” and “Tom Sawyer.”

“All Booked Up” barely classifies as an episode of a horror series. Yes, there is a cobweb strewn old building. Yeah, the first book Greg lives through is “Frankenstein.” It's nice to see a kid's show presenting the intelligent, speechifying creature from Shelley's novel. But focusing the other two segments on non-horror classic novels really pushes outside what should be the scope of this episode. Greg's transformation from book-hating layabout to bibliophile happens far too quickly. Of course, that the moral is so thuddingly obvious – reading is cool, kids! – drains the episode of any actual energy or entertainment factor. The Cryptkeeper is really suffering, his macabre puns being largely put aside in favor of just directly telling the audience to read a fucking book. I'm all for encouraging a love of reading in children but this shit is not how you do it. When am I going to be done with this show? [4/10]

Forever Knight: Curiousier and Curiousier

It seems every genre TV show has to touch upon the dream episode at least once, so here's “Forever Knight” putting its spin on the concept. Nick and Schanke visit Janette's goth club, only for the night to be interrupted by two masked gunmen. Nick intervenes and stops the gunmen but only after they shoot an innocent bystander dead. The trauma affects Nick to such a degree that he has a momentary break from reality. He imagines a world where he's not a vampire, where Janette is his wife and they have a baby, where Natalie is his captain and his captain runs the goth club. Where the radio DJ known as the Nightcrawler has just been stabbed to death through the heart.

Like many of these dream episodes, “Curiousier & Curiousier” shows its hand early on. It's pretty clear early on that Nick is just having an extended bad dream. The episode is peppered with Lewis Carroll references, from little caterpillar statues to repeated quotations from Carol's actual books. (Though hearing Nigel Bennett quote Caroll's various poems is a delightful sound.) What's fun about this episode is not figuring out where it's headed but seeing these characters in wildly different context. It's fun to see Natalie as a saucy seductress or Janette as an over-stressed housewife. As the episode grows more surreal, there's fun to had there as well. A fight scene between Nick and LaCroix is a definite high-light of the episode. Though the ending feels like a cliffhanger that, it appears, is never actually followed up on which just raises more questions. [7/10]

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Halloween 2019: October 8th

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

Even though “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2” was a considerable box office success, grossing ten times its three million dollar budget, New Line Cinema must've realized they had screwed up a little. (Or, at least, made a sequel that was ahead of its time.) New Line realized, if the Freddy Krueger saga was going to continue, they needed that special Wes Craven touch. While he was still disinterested in directing, Wes was lured back with the presumption that he would be writing the end of the series. Craven's dark and gory script would be rewritten by Frank Darabont and Chuck Russell, the latter making his directorial debut with the sequel. The result would be another hit for New Line, exceeding the previous two movie's grosses combined.

“Dream Warriors” takes the dark, psychologically-tinged slasher horror of the first two films and moves it into a more comic book-esque direction. The plot concerns a group of Springwood kids, incarcerated in a mental hospital for troubled teens, discovering their special “dream powers” to fight Freddy with. As opposed to the solitary protagonists of the last two films, the Dream Warriors can share their dreamspace with each other and have a guiding mentor, in the form of a returning Nancy Thomas. This move into a more light-hearted direction is certainly fun. Freddy fighting a group of super-powered teens, each with their own gimmicky abilities, is too entertaining a prospect to be denied. Yet it does rob the premise of its scariness a little, our heroes having more chances to fight back and more support from those around them.

Yet Wes Craven's touch made sure that “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3,” no matter how light-hearted it got, never lost the central point of the original. The film directly takes on the for-profit teen hospital industry of the eighties. Each of the kids are deeply troubled. Their conditions include smoking, drug addiction, self-harm, and violent outburst. Each one has attempted suicide before. Despite these young people clearly having serious problems, the adults in their lives still do not take them seriously. Their parents are clearly not sympathetic. The head of the institute ignores their fears about Freddy, doping them up and sticking them in solitary confinement when they resist. Not every adult treats them with disdain. Nancy, being a survivor herself, perfectly understands and she convinces Dr. Gordon. Yet it's clear that these Springwood kids have been discarded by uncaring adults and now Freddy Krueger, the ultimate predatory adult, is after them.

Granted a bigger budget than it predecessors, “Nightmare 3” fully embraces the practical make-up effects of the day. The film uses the advancements in foam, rubber, and latex to create even wilder and more surreal nightmare sequences. So now Freddy turns into a giant, green snake, attempting to swallow Kristen. He grows out of a TV with robot arms, flings entangling tongues at people, and reveals a chest of pulsating, screaming faces. The film's special effects extend even further, including digital effects like Freddy's face appearing from behind multiple mirrors. Or stop-motion effects, in the form of an evil Freddy marionette or a Harryhausen-esque skeleton. In its best moments, the sequel combines its effects with a grisly imagination. Such as in the sequence where Freddy puppeteers a victim to his death, yanking his veins from his body to use as his puppet strings.

“Dream Warriors” represents another important change for the still-growing “Elm Street” series. It deepens the series' lore, providing Freddy a mythic origin by making him the bastard son of a 1000 maniacs. It reveals that Freddy draws his power from the souls of his claimed victims. More prominently, it gives the killer a pronounced sense of humor. Previously, Freddy told jokes to amuse himself. Now, he seems to be doing it for the audience's benefits too. Granted, the gags here are good. “Welcome to prime time, bitch!” is an all-time classic and the proceeding talk show cameo from Dick Cavitt and Zsa Zsa Gabor is amusingly arbitrary. Robert Englund happily chews into this newfound hamminess. Yet Freddy's tendency to greet his victims with puns and sarcasm certainly distracts from his scariness factor.

Yet “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3” is ultimately an extremely enjoyable experience. A big reason for this is its cast of characters are genuinely lovable. Each of the Dream Warriors have an easily defined gimmick, for sure. Will is into “Dungeons and Dragons.” Phillip handcrafts puppets. Yet they are more than just their personality traits. Patricia Arquette's Kristen is willful and strong, refusing to give up the fight even when hope is nil. Jennifer Rubin's Taryn shows a spunky attitude, despite the obvious wounds her history of drug abuse has left her with. Ken Sagoes' Kincaid may be an angry black man but his willingness to always stand up to bullies is immediately endearing. Mute Joey isn't defined by his disability, showing a healthy teen libido towards a shapely nurse. The Dream Warriors are likable and we are genuinely sad to see most of them go. And bringing back Heather Langenkamp, whose acting skills have matured, and John Saxon was certainly a smart decision.

“A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors” stands out as the fan favorite of the series, ranked by many as the best of the entire franchise. It's easy to see why a film with a fantastically colorful villain, memorably crazy special effects, and a strong cast of lovable heroes would appeal to life-long horror fans. The movie also features some fantastic production design, atmospheric direction, and a moody Angelo Badalamenti score. (The hair metal soundtrack is undeniably campy but also rocks pretty fuckin' hard.) And, no doubt, I love the hell out of this movie too. For better or worst, it transformed the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series and Freddy Kruger specifically from a disturbing horror classic to a series of popcorn monster movies. [8/10]

The Angry Red Planet (1959)

As our closest cosmic neighbor, Mars has fascinated writers and artists for centuries. Not just its proximity to Earth but its status as a literal red world, making the planet a resonating symbol. The influence of “War of the Worlds,” both H.G. Wells' novel and the 1953 film adaptation, was such that the terms “aliens” and “Martian” were basically interchangeable for years. Most of the Mars-related movies of the fifties imagined angry Martians invading our world. 1959's “The Angry Red Planet,” another monster-filled sci-fi cheapie from American International Pictures, would imagine humans visiting Mars and encountering hostile locals.

The first manned mission to Mars is returning to Earth due to an emergency. As the government surveys the vessel, they discover that two of the four crewmen are dead and one is covered by an aggressive fungus-like growth. That leaves Dr. Iris Ryan, who is traumatized and partially amnesic from what she saw on Mars. She is eventually goaded into relaying her story. She tells the tale of how the crew landed on Mars and was beset by one bizarre local life-form after another. Soon enough, Dr. Ryan and the Earth scientists discover the horrifying truth about life on Mars.

Though it was made at the very end of the decade, “The Angry Red Planet” could not be more of a hilarious artifact of a bygone age. For an interplanetary trip among the stars, the crew aboard the Mars rocket are surprisingly relaxed. Traveling via space ship doesn't seem stressful at all. The four-person team drink coffee, read pulp magazines, flirt, tell jokes, and stay safely grounded on the floor. More hilarious than the film's amusingly anachronistic approach to science is its utterly discredited depiction of male/female interaction. Colonel O'Bannion, ostensibly the film's hero, essentially sexually harasses Dr. Ryan continuously throughout the trip. He nicknames the redhead “Irish” and continues to call her that even after she asks him to stop. He laces every conversation they have with romantic overtures. This is meant to be charming but comes off as astonishingly sexist through modern eyes. (But is somehow less creepy than the comic relief character kissing his laser gun and calling it by a woman's name.)

This is not what most people remember about the movie, however. In order to overcome its minuscule budget, “The Angry Red Planet” took a novel approach to depicting the Martian surface. The actors were put on sparse sets with large, painted backdrops. A bizarre red filter was added over these scenes. This simple effect creates an unforgettable look for the film. Adding to the surreal atmosphere is the bizarre collection of monsters within “The Angry Red Planet.” A big, rubbery, flesh-eating plant tries to snack on Dr. Ryan the minute they arrive on Mars. The second half of the film is largely devoted to an enormous amoeba, with a single rotating eye, that crawls out of a lake. The star attraction is what the characters call the “rat-bat-spider nightmare.” A giant rat with goofy eyes, tiny hands, and massive spider-crab legs, the stiffly moving monstrosity is nevertheless charming in its own lo-fi way.

Yet, as obviously of its specific time and place as “The Angry Red Planet” is, it's also, in other strange ways, ahead of its time. The last third of the movie is surprisingly downbeat for a drive-in rubber monster movie. The rocket ship is encased in the amoeba and the men are slowly being consumed by its properties. The brave hero, Colonel O'Bannion, spends the last third of the film totally disabled. The sight of a slimy, green amoeba eating away at his arm is surprisingly graphic. The final moments of the film has the largely unseen Martians sending a warning to Earth: That humanity is too violent, too reckless a species to be allowed to hop from planet to planet. It's not cutting edge. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” obviously promoted a similar message. But it's certainly not the ending I imagined for this one.

I first saw “The Angry Red Planet” the way most people have, I imagine. As the back end of a double feature, late at night on television. This may, in fact, be the ideal way of seeing the movie. If you can stay awake through the slow-paced first half, you can easily slip into the dreamy and weird red planet sequence. Presentation such as mine have led the movie to a small cult following. If nothing else, there is a select group of classic film fans to whom the phrase “rat-bat-spider nightmare” isn't just a random collection of words. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say the film is good but it is certainly memorable. [7/10]

Tales from the Cryptkeeper: Trouble in Store

Here “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” goes again ripping off a classic “Twilight Zone” episode. A pair of young juvenile delinquents practice their favorite hobby of shoplifting in an upper-class clothing store. After one of the friends mysteriously disappears throughout the day, the other boy hides out in the store overnight. This is when he discovers the establishment's mannequins come to life in the after-hours, roaming the building. And they are very upset at him for utilizing his five-finger discount so gratuitously. The mannequins hound the boy through the night until he apologizes for his wrong-doing.

Once again, it's a bummer that the third season of “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” was so mandated to be “educational.” As is typical by now, this episode hammers its lesson – “Don't shoplift, kids!” – into the fucking ground right from its opening seconds. I never felt bad for John Kassir when he was cracking dreadful puns but I do feel bad for him here, as he's forced to directly explain the moral of the week to anyone too dense not to get it. If it wasn't for that, and the seriously cheap animation which approaches GoAnimate levels, this might've been a spooky episode of children's entertainment. The mannequins only speak in a soft, calm voice, which makes their dogged pursuit and threats sound much creepier. The same could be said of their unchanging smiles. The opening sequence, when the mannequins first abduct one of the little shoplifters, features a surprisingly frightened sounding scream. With better animation and a less heavy-handed script, this might have even been a scary episode. [6/10]

Forever Knight: The Fix

“Forever Knight” once again returns to the idea of Nick Knight looking for a cure to vampirism. Natalie studies Nick's blood and discovers the peculiarities that differentiates it from human blood. She looks up a growth hormones designed for the cattle industry that can eliminate this particular blood condition. She tries it on Nick and it seems to work. He can walk in the sunlight, has no craving for blood, and can eat actual food. However, Nick quickly develops a dependency on the drug. (Jeanette and LaCroix remind Nick of the last time he sought a scientific cure for his condition, and the tragic consequences.) Meanwhile, a senior police officer seems to kill himself. While internal affairs is quick to dismiss it as a suicide, Schanke and Nick suspect an infamous mob boss may have something to do with the death.

“The Fix” has a cool idea. What if Nick actually did find the cure he's so long sought and it turned out not to be everything he hoped for? Instead of running with the idea that he might need his vampire powers to fight crime, the episode goes in the much lamer direction of Nick immediately – literally immediately – acting like a junkie for this new drug. It's pretty hard to believe that someone as big on personal responsibility as Nick Knight would become so totally hooked on a drug in mere hours. (Though watching Geraint Wyn-Davies ham it up as a the energized Nick, joyously eating a plate of spaghetti, is a lot of fun.) The episode ends on a disappointingly blunt note too. Nick kicks his new addiction just as quickly as it forms and saves the day with his returned abilities. The episode ends pretty much after that. It's a disappointing episode. [5/10]

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Halloween 2019: October 7th

Don't Look Now (1973)

As a young horror nerd, just figuring out what the established classics of the genre I needed to see were, I read a lot of books and internet articles about the Best Horror Movies of All Time. A title that came up a lot was Nicholas Roeg's 1973 psychic thriller “Don't Look Now.” Due to the nature of film writing in the modern age, I had the movie's infamous twist ending spoiled for me. When I finally sat down to watch “Don't Look Now,” I figured I could still get some enjoyment out of it. After watching “Don't Look Now,” I was slightly baffled. In my opinion, it was a well-made movie but I didn't find it especially scary or unnerving. Speaking as someone with a broader-than-most definition of the genre, I didn't think it was a horror movie at all. Well, I'm a little wiser and a little older now. I figured it was, perhaps, time to revisit “Don't Look Now” and see if my opinion has evolved any.

John and Laura Baxter have experienced a loss no parent should ever suffer. Their little daughter Christine drowned to death outside their home the summer before. Both have trouble recovering from their grief, Laura sinking into depression and John burying himself in his work as an art restorer. The couple travels to Venice, where John is working on an ancient Catholic cathedral. A chance in encounter in a restaurant puts Laura in contact with a psychic woman, who claims her daughter is happy... And alive. Laura's rejuvenated by this information but John remains deeply skeptical. As she visits the psychic more, Laura starts to feel as if something bad is going to happen. John starts to see a diminutive figure in a red rain slicker, like the one his daughter wore on the day she died. Is this possibly connected to the murders plaguing Venice?

“Don't Look Now” is clearly a film awash in grief. After the opening death of their daughter, there's this unavoidable sense that tragic events are going to be repeated. The movie works best for me when focusing on that softly unsettling sense of foreboding. The supernatural elements always seem to foretell something evil: Laura collapses at the dinner table, after her first encounter with the psychic. Her second meeting – in which the woman re-enacts a sexual encounter between the married couple – is similarly disturbing. John is put in more direct danger, when an accident leaves him dangling off a platform in the cathedral. Yet most of “Don't Look Now's” horror is not that overt. The film draws an unnerving energy out of seemingly non-sinister sequences, like John trying to communicate with an Italian man in an apartment hallway.

Yes, there is a certain lyrical quality to “Don't Look Now.” This is best displayed in the film's most lauded sequence. After talking with the psychic, Laura and John revitalize their relationship with an intense sexual episode. The lovemaking – considered so graphic at the time that people thought it might be unsimulated – is intercut with the couple dressing afterwards. It's an interesting choice, which seems to emphasize how much closer the two are yet there's still something between them. That level of visual artistry is unavoidable when Nicholas Roeg, the artsy-fartsy director of “Walkabout” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” is behind the camera. “Don't Look Now” is certainly a gorgeous looking film, beautifully shot and expertly crafted.

Ad yet, despite seeing all the positive elements in “Don't Look Now,” I still feel like I just don't get it, you guys. For a movie so explicitly about grief, so little time is spent depicting the desolation of John and Laura's marriage. We're kind of just meant to assume their love was once great and now it's gone. There are long stretches in the movie, where Laura flies back to England and John mistakenly believes she's still in Venice, that adds little to the story and generates no actual tension. That famous ending, often referenced and studied, simply baffles me. What exactly does a murderous dwarf in a red rain slicker have to do with anything? It comes out of nowhere and, yes, I realize that's exactly the point but it doesn't make me feel much or think anything.

So is it me or the film? The acting is excellent. There's a lived-in sorrow to Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie's performances, his out-bursts being especially powerful. Pino Donaggio's score is lovely. I have to admire that Roeg is making such an ambitious film. It's certainly a good movie. Yet whatever other people see in “Don't Look Now,” whatever has made it a modern classic, just escapes me. It doesn't connect with me emotionally and its psychic ruminations are mysterious more for their own sake, in my opinion. Maybe I should re-watch this one again once I have kids? Until then, I shall remain respectful but ultimately detached from “Don't Look Now.” [6/10]

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

The internet has found a way to reclaim the black sheep in several long-running horror franchises. “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” has gone from one of the most widely loathed sequels of all time to a beloved cult classic in its own right. “Friday the 13th: A New Beginning” is considered so-bad-it's-good, where it once was just so-bad-it's-awful. Similarly, “A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge” was long considered a disappointing follow-up to the original. For a long time, many believed the sequel felt disconnected from the original's lore. That it was campy, where the first was scary. In the last few years, however, “Freddy's Revenge” has started to develop a fan base of its own thanks to its queer subtext.

Since the first “Elm Street” was a certified hit, and horror franchises were big business in the eighties, New Line Entertainment was happy to make a sequel. Even if Wes Craven was disinterested in returning and good ideas for a follow-up were sparse. They even wanted to re-cast Robert Englund for a while, before quickly realizing what a mistake that would be. Understandably, the sequel has few direct links to the original. What happened in the first movie has already passed into local legend, which is a nice touch. Other than that, this is a new story about Jesse Walsh, a confused young man, whose family has recently moved into 1428 Elm Street. Soon enough, Freddy starts to haunt his dreams. But the burned-up Springwood Slasher doesn't just want Jesse's soul. He wants his body too.

Above, I said “Freddy's Revenge” had a queer subtext. Which really undersells how blatant the movie's homoerotic element is. This is among the gayest horror movies ever made, thick with homosexual longing. Jesse awakening in only his tightly-whities, bathed in sweat, writhing from unwanted dreams, is a reoccurring image. He gets his pants pulled down, ass exposed, on the baseball field by friend/rival Grady, which is then followed by wrestling and sweaty push-ups. Grady further pranks Jesse by wrapping a snake around his head. Later, Grady flat-out says Jesse wants to sleep with him. When Freddy first meets the boy, he tells him he needs his body. Later, Jesse expresses fear that this strange man will “take him again.” Freddy's appearances in the real world and Jesse's budding gay desires seem intertwined. After running into a sadistic gym teacher at a leather bar, Jesse transforms into Freddy in the shower and kills. (Keep in mind, this is after the gym teacher has been stripped nude and whipped on the bare ass with a towel.) Grady's half-nude form similarly arouses Freddy's powers later on, prompting Jesse to penetrate his friend. The gay element is so strong that fairly innocuous lines about sticks up asses or kicks in the butt becoming significant.

Was turning Freddy Kruger into the avatar of a teen boy's simmering homosexuality the right decision? Well, think about it. When commanded to clean up his room, Jesse instead performs a needlessly suggestive dance. (While wearing Elton John glasses, no less.) Lisa then enters the room, the boy embarrassed to be seen acting this way. She helps him stick his stuff – all this gay stuff – into the closest. That's where the two discover Nancy's journal about Freddy. Throughout the film, only Lisa's clean straight love can beat Freddy back. Yet the final shock makes it clear that this doesn't work. Because you can't cure being gay. Freddy dwells in the subconscious, in the repressed. If we accept Freddy as a symbol of the horrible child abuse that happens behind closed suburban doors, we must also accept him as a symbol of the gay desires a teen boy is ashamed to admit he has. (Desires, pointedly, not understood by his abrasive father.)

All of this is absolutely fascinating but, yes, it is fair to admit that “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2” isn't as good as the original. The sequel's deviation from the first film's established rules are odd. Why would Freddy want to leave the dream world, where he's all-powerful, to enter reality, where he's just a jerk with a glove? This is made obvious during the pool party scene, where a crowd of brawny teens are cowering from 5”10 Robert Englund. (Not to mention Freddy's sway over the waking world, already inconsistently portrayed, grows even more wild here.) Most of the sequel's attempts to be scary fall flat. The opening bus ride to Hell is more goofy than scary. So is a laugher of a scene involving an exploding parakeet. The appearance of demon-faced dogs or a hissing monster cat come out of nowhere and are undone by unconvincing special effects.

Yet the sequel isn't without its effective moments. Director Jack Sholder, previously of “Alone in the Dark” and later of “The Hidden,” has a strong visual eye. A point-of-view shot gliding around the family house is fantastically assembled, easily among the movie's spookiest moments. There are legitimate attempts at building atmosphere here, such as in Jesse's nighttime walk through the foggy Springwood streets. The sequel packs in some fantastically gooey special effects. Freddy emerging from Jesse's body, growing from an eye in his throat, is a clever concept. As is an immediately iconic  shot of the burned serial killer posing in front of a plume of fire. This is probably my favorite make-up design for Freddy, the blades growing straight out of the fingers, his flesh as bubbling and greasy as mall food court pizza.

By the way, lead actor Mike Patton is out and proud and plays Jesse as fairly effeminate. (Patton recently completed a documentary about how his horror stardom and queerness intersect.) Director Sholder claims complete ignorance of the film's obvious homoerotic elements but screenwriter David Chaskin would eventually admit it was all totally deliberate. Like many other fans, it took me a while to get over the odd digressions from series lore “Freddy's Revenge” makes. However, also like a lot of other fans, I now appreciate the really interesting things about the sequel. Campy but fascinating, “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2” now sits among my favorite in the series exactly because it's such a defiantly different take on Freddy Krueger. [8/10]

Tales from the Cryptkeeper: Waste Not, Haunt Not

Despite the title, this episode of “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” has nothing to do with an especially fastidious ghost. Instead, it revolves around two stereotypically nerdy brothers, currently working on putting together a mind-blowing project to win the science fair. After creating a barrel full of dangerous chemicals, they decided to dump it in the local swamp, instead of disposing of them through the proper channels. This illegal dumping awakens a slimy swamp blob, that pursues them back to their house.

“Waste Not, Haunt Not” is definitely the worst episode of “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” I've seen thus far. It's largely because the two brothers are deeply annoying protagonists. I wasn't kidding when I described them as stereotypical nerds. They have thick glasses, pants hiked up too high, pocket protectors, nasally voices, asthma, etc. This is the sort of visual cliché that was already discredited by the late nineties. Their laughs and screams are repeated over and over again through the 22 minute run time, deeply annoying the viewer. The monster, meanwhile, makes fart noises all the time. I even take issue with the episode's moral lesson. I really don't think ten year old kids are the ones who are dumping illegal toxic waste in public places. The Cryptkeeper delivering pro-environment, anti-illegal dumping messages is extremely odd. [3/10]

Forever Knight: Amateur Night

“Amateur Night” begins with the unlikely sight of a drive-by shooting claiming a little girl... In Toronto. From there, we leap to a film set where movie star Alix Logan is starring in a cop flick. Schanke has gotten himself hired as technical adviser and criticized the production as especially unrealistic. Hoping to be taken seriously by critics, Alix decides to ride along with Nick and Schanke as they investigate the gang activity that lead to the young girl's death. Before too long, the movie star is being pursued by the real life killer. Meanwhile, Nick thinks back to the time in the forties, when he was first trying to become a cop in Chicago and his inexperience almost got his partner killed.

“Amateur Night” features some bizarre tonal shifts. It opens with the very grim sight of a child being killed in a senseless, random act of violence. From there, it segues to the comedic sight of an intentionally cheesy film shoot. Large swathes of the episode are comedic, devoted to Schanke being star-struck and Logan's brash reactions to actual police work. And then there's the depiction of startlingly white gangs, which is an element of unintentional comedy. In the episode's final minutes, it swings back to grim, returning to the idea of a dead kid. Weird! The flashback scenes are most interesting for the insight into Nick's backstory and the sight of LaCroix in a beatnik-esque Nehru jacket and pendent. [5/10]