22 July 2007

SUMMER OF BLOOD: WELL, THAT DIDN'T LAST LONG

Where was I...ah yes, I'd just watched A Nightmare on Elm Street, and declared that it was good. Specifically, I'd declared that it was the best slasher film in 6 years, a pretty damn great horror movie in general, and Wes Craven's best film after The Hills Have Eyes. It felt good to watch a good horror film, I don't mind telling you. The Strange Adventures of Mr. Jason Voorhees, the Psycho Killer had left a pretty bad taste in my mouth, and it was nothing shy of awe-inspiring to see, once again, a horror movie that actually deserved attention and respect.

Unfortunately, that horror film was released in the 1980s, a golden age for quickie sequels that rivals the modern day, and thus it should surprise nobody even a little bit that just slightly less than a year after that film was released to theaters, the still-nascent New Line Cinema released A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, written by David Chaskin of the marketing department, ending in a script sufficiently terrible that Craven elected to work on The Hills Have Eyes, Part II instead.

I have learned, or perhaps re-learned, something very important: bad sequels to good movies are much nastier to watch than worse sequels to bad movies. To be perfectly objective about it, Freddy's Revenge is a better film than at least eight and maybe all ten Friday the 13th films, and yet I had a much harder time with it than all but the most atrocious of that series. The agony of heightened expectations.

It's even worse given that for the first 29 minutes (almost to the second), the film is a pretty good continuation of the first Nightmare. Not quite as scary, nor as well-acted, and the effects are a bit shakier despite a much-increased budget (and that's only so obvious because the opening nightmare scene has the first of the film's three shriekingly awful matte paintings), most of which probably has to do with the undistinguished gun-for-hire Jack Sholder replacing the passionate Craven; the film is a quickie cash-in, after all, and you never really forget that. But it's got a solid opening that doesn't do anything to violate the spirit of the original, while never stooping to the level of mere retread (contrast the F13 films, in which 1-4 are essentially remakes of one another).

We begin in the head of Jessie Walsh (Mark Patton), seemingly a high school junior (the 21-year-old actor looks much older than his age, poor soul), newly arrived at 1428 Elm Street, in the now-named town of Springwood. For a reason that's never satisfactorily explained, his only good friend is Lisa Webber (Kim Myers, who does look like a teenager - given that she is 19, this makes sense - but looks even more like a clone of Meryl Streep, to a degree where I kept unconsciously thinking of her character as "Meryl"), a popular rich girl who lives nowhere near 1428 Elm Street, far enough at any rate that she knows nothing about the dreadful events that happened there five years ago.

Someone who does now, however, is Ron Grady (Robert Rusler), the troubled jock who befriends and antagonizes Jessie in gym class, and shares with him the story of Nancy, whose mother committed suicide after locking the girl in the house, the day after Nancy's boyfriend was butchered in the place across the street (thank God we now know how the first one ended, at least).

The interplay between Ron and Jessie is something both odd and interesting, and I'd like to jump around a little bit to talk about it. The first time we ever see Ron, it is when he tries to rip Jessie's pants off during some ill-defined sports game, and there are several seemingly out-of-place shots of Jessie's half-exposed ass for the next few minutes. There's a strong homoerotic subtext to this scene, which would be striking enough (I've never seen an '80s slasher with a homoerotic subtext), except that it doesn't go away. In fact, it gets stronger as the film progresses, culminating in the moment when Jessie tries to hide from Krueger by hiding in Ron's bedroom. Meanwhile, Jessie's strange flirtation with Lisa goes a whole lot of nowhere, including two separate scenes in which he can't bring himself to have sex with her. Then there are the seemingly random references to the tyrannical coach Schneider (Marshall Bell) and his weakness for the flesh of high school boys, ending in a scene that...well, I'm going to hold onto that, but the point being: there are frequent suggestion that Jessie might be gay. But suggestions are all we'll ever get, and I'm not sure if Sholder wasn't comfortable with that element of Chaskin's script, or if the studio wasn't or if Chaskin himself didn't realize what he was doing. What we're left with is a potentially intriguing plot about Krueger manipulating Jessie's sexual confusion to his own ends, coupled with the violence launched against the objects of the boy's homoerotic desire, turned into a barely-developed thread of nothing.

Anyway, Ron's revelation about Nancy ties in uncomfortably with Jessie's chronic nightmares that have been plaguing him ever since he moved in, with their abstract hellscapes; eventually, he has a very specific dream of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund again, given less chance to be menacing than before) standing before him and demanding his body. The following night, Krueger leads him in a dream to the furnace room and shows him the knife glove; Jessie pops awake to find that he is in the furnace room and he does have the knife glove in his hand.

All of this reaches a head when Lisa comes over to help him unpack, and finds Nancy's old diary in a closet. They read it, and Jessie recognizes the evil man in the ugly sweater and old fedora that she describes, and he starts to realize what the audience got pretty quickly: Krueger wants to possess Jessie's body and return to the real world to do his killing once more.

Wes Craven didn't care for that idea one little bit, thinking that it made Krueger just another slasher, and that's a fair observation; but given that, it's treated initially as a reasonable extension of the series mythos as it stands. Jessie is not as strong as Nancy (nor is he written and performed as strong, alas), and it seems right that he should be easily manipulated: between his tortured relationship with his parents, his hard time fitting in at school and the weirdness between him and Lisa, he is basically a more weak-willed version of every teenager ever, and as we know, Krueger likes to stalk teenagers, especially weak ones.

Then, twenty-eight minutes and fifty-odd seconds in, something very stupid happens. Jessie and his dad (Clu Gulager) have been having an argument, as Jessie's mom (Hope Lange) covers up the family bird cage; seconds later, the cage starts rattling and the birds start chirping, and when the cover is removed, they find that one of the lovebirds has killed the other. The surviving bird breaks open the cage and starts flying around and dive-bombing the family.

That's just the stupid part. The very stupid part is that after a few minutes, once Jessie starts to attack the bird back, it blows up. Just flying around and then BOOM and feathers flutter down upon them.

I'm not sure who decided that Freddy Krueger should be able to a) invade a lovebird's dreams, b) possess the lovebird, and more importantly c) make the lovebird blow up like a little fire cracker, but somebody did, and that person is now my nemesis, because he managed to take a pretty decent sequel to a pretty awesome movie, and turn it into something pretty fucking stupid. Because from here on out, the whole movie will be just a series of exploding lovebirds: after this point, Krueger is able to force Jessie to do whatever, and apparently to project dream-reality around Jessie, for there is no other reason to explain why so many things that are so self-evidently dreams should turn into reality.

The biggest offender I can name is a scene that opens with Jessie watching lightning strike his kitchen sink, which drives him to walk to a gay leather bar like something out of Lynch (admittedly, in 1985 nobody knew what made a "David Lynch film"), meet Schneider, and then they're suddenly both in the locker room at the gym (my guess is that sex was had), and Jessie goes off to shower, while Schneider is killed by sports equipment. All well and good as a dream, except that we find out a few minutes later that it actually happened. I remember praising the first film for muddying the transition from reality to dream, but in this film the difference between the two states is not "unclear" so much as it "confusing," and it doesn't change the fact that Freddy's ability to psychokinetically fuck up the real world is above and beyond anything that makes story sense.

It never quite justifies Craven's fears that it would be just another slasher film, although it comes close in a few places: the final showdown, which both is and isn't a Final Girl sequence (it's Lisa versus Freddy with Jessie trapped inside the killer in a way that makes no sense at all); a birthday party where Freddy tears through hapless teens. But mostly, it hews close to the template established by its predecessor: an individual tries to figure out Freddy's game and get around in front of him to stop it. Except, stupider.

The primary difference between the first and second films, after the obvious change that the new writer and director didn't have the intense personal attachment to the material that Craven had, is that there's no logic here. Until the end, everything in A Nightmare on Elm Street made a whole lot of sense in the context of everything else; it was a disciplined story in which all the rules were presented fairly and followed. In Freddy's Revenge, we just get a whole lot of crazy poltergeist setpieces. Hey, Freddy's making the pool boil! Hey, Freddy's setting the toaster on fire! Why Freddy does these things or how is not made clear. It makes the film much less menacing and much more confusing.

Even so, I must give credit where it's due: this is pretty unique in its stupidity. Frankly, it pushes the limits of the "slasher" genre so far that I'm not convinced it's entirely accurate to even call this a slasher. Which is, I hardly need to state, is an objectively good thing. Also, the film has a constant undercurrent of Carrie-esque "all this is happening because of the teenaged protagonist's sexual neuroses" that is, surprisingly, almost completely absent in the slasher film. Whether my tortured "Jessie is gay" reading fits the end film or not, most of the main character's arc is centered around his sexual development, and he is ultimately turned into a tool for killing and mayhem. So here we have something much removed from the tradition sex=death slasher formula: abstain=go crazy. That's progress, after a fashion.

A last note: I was watching this film while waiting for my parents to arrive for lunch. I hadn't quite finished, and so my mother sat and watched the last few minutes, and after it was over, she seemed very confused and asked, "so what happened? Are they dead now?"

"I don't know," I replied as I shook my head in dismay at yet another infinitely predictable and yet utterly incoherent twist ending. "Nor do I care."

Body count: Seven, with an eighth one strongly implied. All but two of them take place in a roughly five-minute span.

Then there's the matter of Freddy himself: he starts out the movie dead, and he ends the movie dead, but he comes to life and dies in between those points. Do we count him? I think not.

Reviews in this series
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven, 1984)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (Sholder, 1985)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Russell, 1987)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (Harlin, 1988)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (Hopkins, 1989)
Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (Talalay, 1991)
Wes Craven's New Nightmare (Craven, 1994)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Bayer, 2010)

3 comments:

Rebecca said...

Kim Myers is perhaps better known as Jarod's mother, recurring for 4 seasons plus 2 made-for-TV movies of The Pretender.

She was also in the deleted scenes of Serenity.

HOLLYWOOD LITO said...

Your comment on the original "Nightmare" following its own logic and rules throughout until the VERY end is spot on. Did you know, though, that the finale of the original film is a compromise between Craven and New Line head (at the time) Robert Shaye? Shaye insisted on a shocker ending that would leave the door open for a sequel, but Craven wanted merely to show Nancy and friends driving off into the mist...leaving it uncertain as to whether Nancy is dreaming, awake, alive, etc. So, they came up with the ending we all know.

The truly appalling thing about "Nightmare 2" is what director Jack Sholder had to say about his reason for taking such offensive leaps in logic in the film. In interviews he has stated, "I always thought the logic behind the first film was sort of tenuous at best. So, I didn't see a problem with what we did".

Is he kidding? What a hack.

M.Swann said...

You'll enjoy this clip from the 4-hour Nightmare on Elm Street documentary "Never Sleep Again." Said clip explores the gay subtext of "Freddy's Revenge" which, it turns out, was COMPLETELY INTENTIONAL on the writer's part and COMPLETELY UNNOTICED by just about everyone else on the set.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rl4bRRD-tQc&feature=player_embedded