18 August 2007

SUMMER OF BLOOD: HUMAN VOICES WAKE US


Do you know the terror of he who falls asleep?
To the very toes he is terrified,
Because the ground gives way under him,
And the dream begins...

-Friedrich Nietzche,
The first epigraph to Freddy's Dead

Welcome to Prime Time, bitch.
-Freddy Krueger,
The second epigraph to Freddy's Dead

Aw, fuck.
-Me
1989: A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child puked its way in and out of theaters and made practically no money. Realizing that they had a dead shark on their hands, Robert Shaye and the good folks at New Line decided to drive a final stake in the franchise's heart (much as the same studio would shortly do with their newly acquired Friday the 13th rights), going so far as to title the sixth film Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare.

By this point, we know better than to think that "final" means a goddamn thing, and I'll bet they knew it in 1991, but that didn't keep the film from turning a tidy profit, if nothing to build a massive film series around. No question why that should be the case: after all, as the advertising screamed: "They saved the best for last!"

I suppose that might be true for some definition of "best," that is completely unconnected to issues of quality.

We open: a map of the United States, showing us that the much-storied town of Springwood is located in Ohio. At long last, something that's been bothering me for the whole series is explained. See, I've heard that Wes Craven based the town in the first film on Wheaton, Illinois, where he earned his undergraduate degree. But in A Nightmare on Elm Street, we see beautiful palm trees in Springwood, and I happen to know for a fact that there aren't any palm trees in Wheaton. But it's been in Ohio, all along! That makes a lot more sense!

We also learn that it's the year 2001, and every child in Springwood has died: except for one...

That one is a young man whose name we never learn, but he is credited as John Doe (Shon Greenblatt). As the film opens on the dark streets of the town, Freddy (still Robert Englund, his self-loathing a bit less palpable than in The Dream Child) is taunting John, first with a deeply needless Wizard of Oz parody, and then with all sorts of crazy dream wackiness that feels kind of like a Tex Avery cartoon, particularly the moment when he drives a bus into the teen, who sticks there comically against the windshield. You have no idea how much I wish I was making this up. Some business ensues that I can only honestly describe as "zany," with all the soul-rotting awfulness that implies, and eventually John is thrown bodily out of the dream world onto a sunny street, leaving a human-shaped hole in the nightmare Springwood. I'm still not making things up. Freddy shouts, "Good doggy. Now fetch!" as John smacks his head against a rock, earning himself a good case of amnesia.

If I were hosting a Freddy's Dead drinking game, the rule would be, "after every batshit crazy setpiece, finish your drink." You would now be finishing your first drink.

It's not altogether clear what happens next, but eventually John is far away from Springwood, and in police custody; he is remaindered into the custody of Dr. Kelly (Yaphet Kotto, who can't really call this a skeleton in his closet, I don't think) and social worker Maggie Burroughs (Lisa Zane, Billy Zane's sister, who in the same year co-starred as Colin Firth's love interest in Femme Fatale. I will not tell anyone what opinion to hold on this matter). Dr. Kelly, we find, is a sort of dream therapist, and if that seems like a direct rip-off of Dream Warriors, don't worry: this film so utterly strip-mines the Nightmare series that this first infraction hardly even registers by the time we're done. For the record, Maggie is suffering from recurring nightmares about a little blonde girl. When this is explained, it will be exactly the explanation that you will already have figured out roughly thirty minutes earlier.

The other ne'er-do-wells are Tracy (Lezlie Dean), Carlos (Ricky Dean Logan) and Spencer (Breckin Meyer, who also doesn't really get to call this a skeleton, as it was almost certainly his career peak), who between them have one character trait: Carlos is a pothead. Also, Meyer was actually sixteen at the time of shooting, which makes Spencer the first character I've seen all summer being played by an actor who was, if anything, younger than the role required.

Maggie takes an interest in John, because somebody has to and it damn sure isn't the audience. Chiefly, she is interested in his insistence that something bad will happen if he falls asleep (he can't remember what), and his collection of newspaper clippings that describe killings in a small town that John remembers as "Springwood," particularly one photo that shows a water tower Maggie recognizes from her dream.

Road trip! Maggie and John drive to Springwood, the interchangeable teens stowing along, and when they arrive, here was my first thought: "Looks like somebody enjoys Twin Peaks! For Springwood has very much the surface-level feeling of that show, as effected by a creative team that had no particular idea what they were doing. But that's not much of an observation. I only bring it up because one of the characters would actually repeat it, when he was being menaced by a strange pair of sub-Lynchian crazy people who weren't sure why their children were missing. These crazies, for the record, were played by Roseanne and Tom Arnold, and I think that neither of them can really call this a skeleton, either.

Maggie and John go looking for clues while the other three suck the air out of the film in an ill-advised series of comic scenes. The two people who matter find that the insane adults left in Springwood have vague hints about Freddy Krueger, his life and where he came from, and of particular help is a scrapbook of news clippings, one that boldly declares "4 Dead in Ohio," perhaps the most shockingly unfunny Easter egg-type gag that I have ever, ever seen.

Eventually, the three bozos end up at 1428 Elm Street (well, duh), and Freddy pops up to do his baroque "In ur dreemz, stalkin your kidz" routine, and the sequences here are so incredibly strange that I simply must stand in amazement. First, given the rules set up the previous five films, they don't make a damn bit of sense - apparently Freddy can work in the real world as much as he damn well pleases now. Perhaps Springwood has become his kingdom, or something. It's not at all clear. But given that the series began from the elemental terror of wondering, "what if that dark figure we all have in our bad dreams could actually kill us?" it's a bit perplexing that in this, the final true entry in the franchise, Freddy should no longer be a dream killer, but instead some sort of poltergeist of surrealism.

The deaths - particularly Carlos's - are strange, with an alienating combination of unfunny humor and unscary horror. True of every film since the third, of course, but in this case they're so oddly cartoonish: Carlos dies because Freddy turns his hearing aid (oh, right, there was a bit of character somethin' somethin' involving Carlos being deaf in one hear because his father abused him) into a super-powered bug, and then explodes the boy's head by making loud noises, including dropping pins on the ground and scratching a blackboard.

It was here that I decided that Freddy's Dead was Dada, and that made it a bit easier to make it through to the end.

There's plenty more ka-razy left in the movie, and I think if I recapped it all I would start to weep blood, so let's step back a bit: this is one bizarre-ass movie. I'm not joking about Dada, I really found myself wondering if the only explanation for that scene - and others, including Johnny Depp's cameo as a drug PSA spokesman (hm...still not a good skeleton), or the "FreddyVision" pot hallucination set to "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" - was that the director was trying to play a trick on...somebody. I don't really know who.

Since I brought her up, a word about director/scenarist Rachel Talalay. After various production team duties earlier in the series, she made her directorial debut with this project, and was in no particular way memorable or worth talking about. Like so many slasher filmmakers. So why bring her up at all? Because in 16 films this summer, she is the first woman director I've run into. Honestly, you'd never be able to tell. But it seemed only right to bring it up.

Like the rest of the series, Freddy's Dead had the decency to try to shake things up a little bit, and besides the fucked-up decision to set the action in the first year of the new millennium (and then making not the slightest effort to make it look like anything other than 1991), this film does something that I'm sure people were more excited about then than now: the Freddy Krueger back-story, in which we learn that he has a child (whose identity is not nearly so hard to figure out as the filmmakers wanted), and that he was abused in youth (the local children apparently chanted "son of a hundred maniacs!" at him. Charming, but it's "bastard son of a hundred maniacs"). Why? Humanising Freddy Krueger, serial slayer of children, wasn't actually necessary. But there he is, getting whipped by his daddy, in a cameo appearance by Alice Cooper, who probably could call this film a skeleton, although I'm sure doesn't. Most annoyingly, we find that three worm gods, the dream demons or something, came to him as he burned to death to offer him immortality if he would stalk people in their nightmares. This is the sort of moment for which a quizzically cocked head, the letters "WTF?" falling silently from one's lips, was invented.

Dada, yo.

It makes less sense than any preceding Nightmare film, which takes a bit of doing, although it's so out-and-out crazy that it's at least a little bit more entertaining than some of them. Plus, where The Dream Child was just straight-up bad, Freddy's Dad has a few flashes of "so bad it's good" brilliance; I particularly savored Shon Greenblatt, who couldn't act if the fate of all humanity rested on it. I've seen too many Friday the 13th girls who were cast solely because of their willingness to pad around without clothes on to call it "the worst performance ever," so let's settle for "the worst performance of the series."

Still, here at the end of things, I'm a lot sadder than I was at any point in the Jasoniad. At its aesthetic peak, that series was well-composed shots built around rancid characters and non-existent plot. The Nightmare films, at their best, were really damn good, and to see them devolve to the level of worm gods and Twin Peaks rip-offs and Freddy the Killer Stand-Up Comedian is just plain demoralizing.

Still, I'll give it this: it was a ride. Jason Goes to Hell had a similar level of narrative insanity - I'll never get to say "Pamela Voorhees, Queen of the Dark Arts of Necromancy/camp assistant" again, so let me enjoy this moment - but it sucked, just like its nine brothers. Freddy's Dead took enough energy to keep up with that even though it wasn't worth any effort, at least it was more diverting than boring. Yeah, in the same way that a car wreck is diverting; but you take what you can get with slashers. Besides, in all its lunacy, the series never felt like boilerplate. Every boneheaded mistake was honest, and every success was original. As the credits begin, we're treated to a montage of short clips from all six films, and I was struck by how many good moments (Heather Langenkamp) scattered in with the crap (the fire-pissing dog). And to be honest, I felt just a little bittersweet, knowing that the series was effectively over, something I never once felt during my F13 adventure.

Then I remembered that "final" doesn't mean a goddamn thing. And then I was just pissed off.

Body Count: Three humans, and let's go ahead and count Freddy himself for the fourth. I mean, come on, it's right there in the title!

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)

1 comment:

Green Angelus said...

I would like to add to that drinking game of yours.

Hard Mode: Every time Freddy Krueger makes a reference that he would have no reason to conceivably know about considering he died in 1970, take a shot.

Impossible Mode: Take a shot every time an actor tries to get across some emotion but just ends up looking like they were suffering from indigestion on set that day.