Friday, April 18, 2014

The Films of 1984: A Nightmare on Elm Street


As difficult as it is to believe, 2014 marks the 30th anniversary of Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the horror film that introduced the world to dream monster Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund). 

Historically-speaking, A Nightmare on Elm Street is significant not merely for commencing a franchise that came to include five direct theatrical sequels, but a two-season TV anthology, Freddy’s Nightmares (1988 – 1990), a nifty re-imagination in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), a cross-over, Freddy vs. Jason (2004) and a misguided re-boot in 2010. 

The Freddy series put New Line Studios -- “The House That Freddy Built” -- on the map, as well.

In a broader genre context, A Nightmare on Elm Street was the rubber-reality venture that ended the long reign of the naturalistic slasher films of the early 1980s; films with titles such as Happy Birthday to Me (1981) or My Bloody Valentine (1981). 

Those older films eschewed supernatural horrors, and focused on mad-dog killers (usually in masks) who killed teenagers with very sharp implements. The killers were largely silent killing machines, without much by way of personality.

The slashers’ episodic nature remained intact in A Nightmare on Elm Street’s modified “rubber reality” format, but in general, rubber reality tales (like Hellraiser [1987], for instance) were buttressed by more imaginative special effects, and supernatural, loquacious monsters.

Eventually, even the ultra-naturalistic Friday the 13th film series moved towards more rubber-reality-type fare because of Freddy’s re-direction of the genre.

In just a few short years, then, Freddy Krueger became the king of American horror films, and a pop culture sensation. The modern, 21st century horror film has moved back towards a more naturalistic setting and tone, in large part due to the success of the found-footage sub-genre, and so Freddy today seems like a character who perfectly captures his particular era: the 1980s.

The relative quality of A Nightmare on Elm Street’s sequels has been debated up and down, again and again, even in the Wes Craven movie Scream (1996), but the original film remains a powerhouse of terror, even thirty years later. The 1984 film has lost none of its atmosphere of mounting, pervasive dread, and Craven’s imaginative style and content continues to impress.

The film’s artistic success is based on a few crucial factors. 

As Sharon Packer writes in Movies and the Modern Psyche (page 49), A Nightmare on Elm Street is “intriguing because of its ability to blend the supernatural with psychoanalytic subtexts.” 

In Visions of the Night: Dreams, Religion and Psychology, Kelly Bulkeley argues that Craven’s effort generates it “narrative power by tapping into people’s common dream experiences, in this case, the experience of recurring nightmares.”

These observations about A Nightmare on Elm Street seem right on target, and yet for this critic, the film always resonates because it globally applies its surface vs. reality conceit

In other words, A Nightmare on Elm Street concerns both the appearance of reality, and the true reality that dwells or roils underneath that (false) appearance. 

Virtually every aspect of the cinematic tale can be studied utilizing this particular bailiwick. Impressively, A Nightmare on Elm Street even finds a literary precedent for this conceit, and frequently references the works of Shakespeare, mostly Hamlet, but also Julius Caesar.

In addition to this thematic virtue, A Nightmare on Elm Street remains a turning-point in horror history, I submit, because the “final girl” archetype, -- here represented by Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy Thompson -- finally blossoms to full maturity. 

Although Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode survived her experience with boogeyman Michael Myers in Halloween (1978), Nancy’s battle with Freddy in Nightmare is determinedly different.


At some point in the crisis, Nancy takes control and responsibility for her life and her struggle, and defeats Krueger on his own terms. Nancy does so using her insight, resourcefulness, and planning…not just by a lucky turn of fate.  

This fact is perfectly dramatized when one contrasts the “High School English Class” scenes featured in the Carpenter and Craven films.  The former is about fate, and the way that fate determines action and destiny.  

The latter is about a hero (Hamlet) digging for and excavating the truth against great odds and entrenched power. 

One scene is about surviving by circumstance, the other is about actively participating and re-shaping your own future.  Nancy is a hero, then, who takes responsibility for her survival in an affirming, powerful fashion.


“Nancy, you dreamed about the same creep I did…”

A high school student, Tina (Amanda Wyss) becomes obsessed with a recurring dream.  At night -- every night -- she dreams of a stalker in a fedora and red-and-green-sweater.  He is armed with a razor-tipped glove.

Tina discovers that her best friend, Nancy (Langenkamp) is experiencing the same nightmare, about the same boogeyman, and holds a sleep-over at her home when her mother goes out of town. 

Also at the sleep-over are Nancy’s boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp), and Tina’s juvenile delinquent beau, Rod Lane (Nick Corri).  When all the teens are asleep, the nightmare man strikes Tina and kills her brutally in her dream.

Rod is arrested for the murder of Tina by Nancy’s father, Detective Thompson (John Saxon), but Nancy is convinced that he is innocent, and that the dream stalker is “real,” and responsible for the crime. 

Nancy presses her alcoholic mother, Marge (Ronee Blakeley) for details.  She learns that some years earlier, the parents of Elm Street hunted and down and killed a man, Fred Krueger (Englund), who was a child murderer but escaped justice on a legal technicality.  The Thompsons and the other parents burned him alive, but kept his hat and finger knives in Nancy’s house -- in the furnace -- as a kind of trophy.

The murders on Elm Street continue, and Nancy realizes she must take affirmative steps to defeat Krueger and stop his plans to kill her. 

But should Nancy proceed as her boyfriend, Glen, suggests -- and which goes against her nature of “digging” and confronting the truth -- and turn her back on Freddy…thus robbing him of the energy she gave him?



“I’m into survival.”

In blunt terms, A Nightmare on Elm Street concerns the surface, and the underneath or “truth” that co-exists with that surface. 

Many aspects of this Craven film visit and explore this duality, or double nature. 

We detect this duality in terms of location, both with the suburban high school that seems normal, and the sinister boiler room underneath it, where Freddy rules. Many of the film's most terrifying scenes are set in dark labyrinth, or maze-like basements, a connective tissue between the surface above and the truth below.



We see the same duality in the real world, where people are presumed safe and protected by the rules of consensus reality, and the dream world, where there is mortal danger.  You die in your dream, you die in real life.

We see the duality in the Elm Street parents, who profess propriety and adherence to law and order, but who are, in fact, murderers. 

We even see it in regards to morality

Again, the Elm Street parents have crafted a world of apparent moral absolutism (where Christ on the cross protects teenage girls’ in their bedrooms…), but they actually practice moral relativism. For example, Lieutenant Thompson uses his own daughter, Nancy, as a pawn so as to achieve his goal of apprehending Rod Lane.  Similarly, Marge Thompson sees the murder of Freddy as the parents' "right" because the legal system failed to arrive at the conclusion they preferred.



Throughout A Nightmare on Elm Street, then, there exist two lines or tracks to keep abreast of simultaneously: reality as it appears to be true, and reality as it actually is.  Craven's conceit here was extremely timely, and reflected something larger -- and disturbing -- happening in American 1980s culture. 

Specifically, America was experiencing, very much, the same duality on a national scale. The myth that was being peddled at the time by those in power (and which was preferable to hard reality…) was that it was possible to “have it all.” 

As the authors of Landslide: the Unmaking of the President (1984 – 1988) wrote of this time, the new (Reagan) administration said it was possible “to cut taxes, and increase defense spending and at the same time, fight terrorism, roll back Communism and the threat of nuclear war, all without risking American lives. Reagan seemed to be offering a miracle cure.”  (Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1988, page 11).

Again and again during this time, symbolism (or rhetoric) and reality clashed. The new Administration promised to reverse the growth of an out-of-control Federal government, but after two terms under its control, the Federal work force actually expanded by over 60,000 employees. The same administration promised tax cuts, but actually raised taxes three times: in 1983, 1984, and 1986. 

What is the price when actions don’t match words or symbolism?

It’s fairly simple to calculate. From 1980 to 1988, America countenanced a staggering 2.7 trillion dollars in debt, roughly 200 billion dollars a year.

Who was going to pay that debt?

Future generations of course, and that’s precisely where the direct comparison to Freddy and his behavior comes into play. 

After all, Freddy is all about visiting the sins of the father upon the children.  He explicitly doesn’t go after the surviving parents of Elm Street (save for Marge in the finale…), but instead punishes those parents by taking their children away.  

A national debt of the egregious size we racked up in the 1980s was, similarly, a visitation of the sins of the fathers upon the children. It was the kids who would be faced with paying the piper.

Other epochs and other decades bring other bugaboos. A whole raft of horror films from the 1970s, including Dawn of the Dead (1979) seem born from Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” malaise, for example, and 1950s horror films, in general, arise from fears about the 1940s detonation of atom bombs in Japan. So partisanship has nothing to do with it. Reaganomics is simply, in some sub-textual way, the basis for the sub-surface fears expressed in A Nightmare on Elm Street.

As a protagonist, Nancy Thompson fits perfectly into this discussion of reality vs. symbolism, or surface vs. reality, if you prefer.

Like the Prince of Denmark, she digs and digs, uncovering lies and murder, until she gets to the truth behind all the death and corruption.  

She discovers that her parents are murderers, and worse, that they are okay with the fact that they took the law into their own hands.  Their protestations of righteousness are hollow-sounding lies.  And it is here, in reckoning with those lies, that Nancy realizes no one can help her.

The police are powerless to stop Freddy, because he operates in his own reality. 

Her parents are similarly helpless, because they are either alcoholic, are unwilling to listen to their child’s fears.  

And at a dream clinic, scientists also prove unable to help Nancy survive against the looming threat to her very survival.


So Nancy learns the hard-lesson in A Nightmare on Elm Street that the older folks aren’t going to help her.  The Establishment, as it stands, is unwilling and unable to confront the truth, and solve the problem in an effective fashion.  In a sense, her parents have already sold her and her friends out.  Their illegal behavior – their solution to the problem of Freddy -- has given Krueger license to hunt and murder their children.

Nancy’s task is to see past the rhetoric and lies, and figure out a way in which she makes it forward. This task resonates not only with what was happening to the American economy in the eighties, but in terms of the Cold War as well. Nuclear War was never more than the push of a button away in this age, and the young generation wanted no part of it, and sought solace in what older generations called "death metal" and "dead teenager movies."

Again, the parents who brought the world to the brink of war might be viewed as culpable for creating that “demon,” while the younger generation, represented by Nancy, had to carry the burden of knowing that death -- apocalypse -- could come at any moment.  Freddy -- Craven's "bad father" -- is the avatar for all these generational fears; but particularly the fear that the world is fucked up, that it isn't your fault, and that, without doubt, the world is going to come and kill you.

What remains so fascinating about A Nightmare on Elm Street is Nancy’s predicament. Her mother notes: “You face things. That’s your nature…But sometimes you’ve got to turn away too.”  

What we are left with here, then, is a reckoning with the idea that society can’t continue -- that teenagers can’t grow up safely -- in the full light of reality, because it is too unpleasant. There are some things that are so horrifying that it is necessary to turn away from them.

But does turning away from them mean burying them? Does turning away mean medicating yourself to a state of numbness?  Some amount of denial may be desirable, healthy even, but first you must know what you are denying.  Nancy must learn when to dig for truth and when to turn away from the lies and corruption she finds.  So, in some weird and very eighties way, A Nightmare on Elm Street is about growing up, and finding your own way to navigate a messed-up world.

Again, this crisis speaks of a duality, doesn’t it? Do we face our demons, or turn our backs on them?  Perhaps because the world is so complex, both realities must be given their due...




All the sub-textual currency in A Nightmare on Elm Street makes the film pulsate with ideas and cultural fears, but what is actually seen on screen is…visceral.  

The death of Tina is one of the most horrifying and remarkable death scenes ever put to film (with Glen’s a close second, perhaps).  Tina’s death is violent, irrational, and based on the idea that a reality ignored is a reality that is dangerous, or deadly. 

An unseen assailant rips the beautiful teen apart, and razor cuts “happen” to her, because her parents have not been able to help her, or acknowledge the truth about the danger she faces.  Future Elm Street films boast far more elaborate death sequences, but for my money, Tina’s remains the most effective in the entire franchise.  Her murder galvanizes the senses. It terrifies. It goes so far beyond the pale -- and beyond rationality or Physics -- that viewers realize they have crossed over into a whole new world of terror.

A Nightmare on Elm Street succeeds as rubber-reality and as horror film because it brilliantly charts the overlap between real world and dream world in ways that are shocking, and yet simultaneously familiar to us. 

We've all had that terrible dream in which we are being chased, and our feet sink into the ground, delaying and jeopardizing our escape. Craven harnesses that universal image for a chase scene here, in which a staircase turns to goo under Nancy's feet, and Freddy looms nearer.

Another universal image of terror involves Freddy -- just an unformed shadow -- in a dark alley.  He is a menacing but vague boogeyman who suddenly grows even more menacing, as his arms stretch and stretch to inhuman proportion.  There's something very basic or primeval about this vision, of arms growing longer and longer to entrap their prey.  And because Freddy is silhouetted, we can pour all of our various fears into him. He can be a bad father, a child murderer, a supernatural entity, or all of the above.


As a reflection of timely national fears and universal "nightmares," A Nightmare on Elm Street still succeeds wildly today...much more so than its unfortunate remake.  The film also represents a milestone in terms of the horror genre's portrayal of women, and is highly effective in generating its terror.  

Long story short: thirty years later A Nightmare on Elm Street is still bloody good.

Movie Trailer: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Cult-TV Flashback: The Incredible Hulk (1978): "Married"


As late as 1978, superhero television was still attempting to escape the gravitational pull of the campy but highly-entertaining 1960s Batman series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. 

That watershed ABC series, undeniably a prime example of colorful, counter-culture pop art, had so shaded the format requirements for superhero and comic book TV initiatives that a new template -- sans "BAM!" "POW!" and "WHAM" -- was required.

Resourceful and literate, writer/producer Kenneth Johnson crafted that new template when adapting Marvel's The Incredible Hulk comic-book for television. Instead of depending on dynamic super criminals, tongue-in-cheek dialogue, and out-of-this-world swashbuckling, Johnson grounded his new hero, David Bruce Banner (Bill Bixby), in a more familiar, less over-the-top world.

As author Gary Gerani observed in TV Episode Guides Volume 2 (1982, page 64), "he [Johnson] turned to a more intelligent and dramatic approach of a man whose life is upset by the fact that he can become this uncontrollable monster."

Series producer Nick Corea was even more specific about the program's approach: "Any writer who comes in with clones or extraterrestrials, we steer in another direction." (John Abbot, SFX #18, November 1996, page 76).

Today, we happily take costumed and colorful heroes at face value, as part and parcel of the triumphant, 21st century superhero genre. We want to see super villains and super feats. So the superhero stigma once associated with the camp 1960s Batman is finally gone. And in something of a turnaround, some viewers might actually gaze at TV's drama The Incredible Hulk -- which rigorously followed a format similar to The Fugitive -- as a bit of a relic; as a time capsule of a different era.

Times change. Tastes change.

Yet The Incredible Hulk ran for four successful years on CBS because of Johnson's dedication to the "human factor." A latter day Jekyll-Hyde story, The Incredible Hulk explicitly concerned the divide between human emotions and human rationality.

Think about it this way: we exist day-to-day by controlling our emotions; by keeping them firmly in check. 

Yet in the person-hood of the raging Hulk (Lou Ferrigno), our impulses are free...unfettered. For David Banner -- living in the last days of disco -- the struggle was an internal one; to manage that provoked Id; to restrain the instinct-based beast inside all of us who wants to react to every challenge, fear, and pain with raw emotion and brute force. Hulk smash!



One of the best and most touching episodes of The Incredible Hulk remains the second season opener, "Married" (written and directed by Johnson). A two-hour tale, "Married" originally aired on November 22, 1978, and guest-starred Mariette Hartley as Dr. Caroline Fields.

Caroline is a brilliant psychologist facing her own internal struggle: a terminal disease (like Lou Gehrig's Disease) that has reduced her expected life span to just six weeks.

Our protagonist, David Banner, arrives at Caroline's medical practice in Hawaii to seek her assistance in controlling his "monster," unaware of her own debilitating condition. In particular, Caroline is an expert in hypnosis, and David believes that she could hypnotize his conscious mind into trapping the Hulk within. In other words, he hopes to cage the Hulk with his brain.

Over a few weeks, David and Caroline fall in love...and are married. David tries to cure Caroline's disease, and Caroline tries to cure David of his affliction. And impressively, much of the episode's "action" occurs inside the mind-states of these two individuals.


As David is hypnotized, we see him physically encounter the Hulk in a barren, desert landscape. First, David tries to restrain the Hulk in heavy ropes. But the Hulk breaks out.

Then David tries a cage with steel bars. Again, the Hulk breaks free.

Finally, David attempts trapping the Hulk inside the mental construct of an impenetrable vault. But even here, the beast within him cannot be contained.


Meanwhile, Caroline attempts to use the mind-over-matter hypnosis technique to cure her defective "mitochondria" of the invading disease lesions. 

She envisions her put-upon cells as an Old West wagon train; and the lesions there as invading Indian raiders surrounding it. When David formulates a new drug (taken from the Hulk's skin sample...) Caroline imagines the drug as the cavalry, coming over the hill. This is all weird and wonderful stuff, and it fits in perfectly with the 1970s obsession with hypnosis.

The Incredible Hulk always concerned the ways in which our mind responds to external stimuli. We can choose to respond with rage; or we can choose to respond calmly. We can choose to respond with violence; or peaceably. "Married" is very much on target in terms of the series' overriding themes then, since virtually every major scene concerns the way our brain faces conflict and interprets challenges.

Today -- 36 years later -- "Married" has indeed dated somewhat. No doubt there. There are two worrisome scenes during which Bill Bixby and Mariette Hartley speak in atrocious Pidgeon English (talking about Chinese food...) and then perform bad John Wayne imitations. This is what seemed like witty and romantic banter in the 1970s, but today's it's just sort of cringe-inducing.

And also, "Married" evidences a big flaw common in many Incredible Hulk scenarios That flaw: the Hulk's presence isn't entirely warranted given the less-than-threatening circumstances.

For example, in "Married" two on-the-make "groovy" swingers wearing polyester pants two-sizes too small pick-up a drunk Caroline and take her back to their bachelor pad (along with a floozy...) for a night of casual sex. David arrives to take Caroline home, and then these two swingers suddenly become violent. They push David around. They pop a champagne cork in his face (!). 

Then -- all kidding aside -- they violently hurl him from their second-story bedroom balcony...into a glass coffee table below, thus precipitating an appearance by the Hulk. The un-jolly green giant then proceeds to tear the bachelor pad to pieces. It's an impressive-enough action scene, but entirely unnecessary. Not to mention unmotivated.

Why would two relatively harmless guys with sex on the brain suddenly turn egregiously violent? (And destroy their own apartment in the process?) This sort of thing happened a lot on the CBS series: people who you wouldn't expect to immediately turn to violence suddenly become a HUGE threat so that the Hulk can appear and save the day.

But leaving aside these dated elements, "Married" remain an outstanding episode of the CBS series. Perhaps because of the two-hour running time, Caroline feels like a "real" person and not just the guest-star/love-interest-of-the-week. And the relationship she shares with David doesn't feel forced or silly. It's clear that Caroline and Bruce are both suffering terribly, and sharing what little time they have left together eases that pain. That's as good a reason for marriage as any, isn't it?

There's also one incredibly dark moment in "Married." With only two weeks to live, Caroline plays frisbee with a little boy (Meeno Peluce of Voyagers!) on the beach. The scene is much longer than it need be; and focuses a great deal on Hartley in close-shot. There's almost no dialogue. The scene is mostly silent.

But inscribed on her expression is the agony and regret of the life Caroline will never experience. She will never be a mother; never have children, as she once dreamed of. This is an issue "Married" raised early on, but then returns to with this unexpectedly sad and restrained moment. I can't deny "Married" is a tear-jerker, either, but then that was a perpetual quality of The Incredible Hulk too: it was, overall, a pretty melancholy show.

What I admire most about "Married," however, are those "dream state" sequences occurring in the desert of Banner's mind; as David and The Hulk face each other down. It may not seem like much of a comic-book-style adventure -- there's no Marvel-style mythology or continuity in place -- but the human drama is nonetheless fascinating.



We don't like ourselves when we're angry. 

We don't like ourselves when we're bad tampered; when we let our "Hulks" out to roam. 

The Incredible Hulk's impressive "Married" externalizes and literalizes the idea of the emotional battle raging within each of us, the battle for control with our barely concealed monsters.

Finally, I'll be looking at The Incredible Hulk's impressive introductory montage this Sunday morning on the upcoming Outre Intro.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Late Night Blogging: Freddy Krueger 1-900 TV Commercials




At Anorak: Back from the Dead - The Five Lamest Monster Movie Resurrections


My latest post is up at Anorak, a look at five very lame attempts to bring iconic boogeymen back to life in sequels.

Here's a snippet:

THROUGHOUT cinematic history, our most beloved monsters — from Dracula and The Wolf Man to Freddy Krueger and King Kong — have returned again and again to haunt our nightmares, and our movie screens.

In any horror movie or monster movie sequel, the primary challenge is thus always quite specific: how do we get our beloved monster back after so thoroughly and completely defeating him at the end of the previous movie?  How do we snatch defeat from what seemed like victory?

Some movie franchises have proven cleverer than others at threading this particular needle, finding fresh and inventive ways to get our beloved monsters stalking again.

Other methods of resurrection, however, leave something to be desired.  In fact, many on-screen resurrections have been downright ridiculous.

Below are the five lamest monster movie resurrections. Some are terrible in concept, and some in execution. A few unlucky movies — like A Nightmare on Elm Street IV: The Dream Master (1988) — can check off boxes in both those categories.

Freddy Krueger Halloween Costume (Collegeville; 1987)




Pop Art: Freddy Krueger Comics (Marvel and Wildstorm/DC)








Collectible of the Week: MAXX Freddy Krueger (Matchbox; 1989)





During the height of the Freddy Krueger craze of the late 1980s, Matchbox released a unique toy that added Robert Englund's popular Dream Demon to the pantheon of classic movie monsters (including Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and the titular character of Alien [1979]). The toy was Matchbox's "MAXX FX Now Showing: Freddy Krueger."



The box legend implores the buyer to "assist MAXX in recreating the greatest horror heroes in the history of Hollywood." Well okay, if I have to...

"Recreate all your favorite movie monsters with these authentically detailed body parts," the box went on to describe. "Clothing and accessories help you quickly transform the mild-mannered MAXX into spine-chilling monsters. You can even mix'n'match characters on Maxx's fully articulated body to create your own unstoppable menace."

The other benefits of the toy? "Completely poseable," "authentically detailed," "easy on/off assembly." The box also promises that the toy "lets you in on the secret world of Special Effects" and implores the customer to "collect the whole world of MAXX FX."

So basically, you've got your average Ken doll here, garbed in a yellow short-sleeved short and plaid pants, and then a variety of clothing accessories that transform this smiling, mild-mannered gentlemen into the scourge of Elm Street. Among the accouterments: a gruesome Freddy head, a stylish (but ratty...) fedora, the famous Freddy glove with finger knives, and that gnarly green and red striped sweater. So dress up Ken (err, Maxx...), and "you...make...the..the change...happen!" 

Yes, Maxx is indeed the "Quick change artist and the master of special effects."


This is a fun toy, and for those Freddy fans out there who wanted to see kindly Ken transformed into a brutal serial killer and then go after Barbie...MAXX FX's Freddy is the toy for you. Intended for kids ages 6 and up (I barely qualify...), I still have this toy in the box (my grandparents found it for me at a flea market in the early nineties...). However, I have never - in any of my collecting travels - seen any of the other three figures in the set (Frankenstein Monster, Dracula - with bat wings - or, most interestingly, the alien). 

Somehow, I don't think that they were actually released; that perhaps Evil old Freddy here was the Maxx test balloon...that popped. I'd love to get my hands on the Alien one of these days (if only to spit molecular acid on Barbie...) but none are to be found even on E-Bay.

Pop Art: A Nightmare on Elm Street Sticker Album


Pop Art: Freddy Magazine Covers