Monthly Archives: May 2013
With barely a year having passed since Atom Man vs. Superman finished its 15-week story, the Last Son of Krypton made his return to the silver screen in Superman and the Mole Men, released by Lippert Pictures. According to my research, the film was meant as a test for a planned Superman television series. Since the late-forties, televisions had begun popping up in homes, and while it still wasn’t considered a mandatory appliance like a refrigerator, it was well on its way. The success of the serials no doubt made National Publications (later DC Comics) and producer Barney A. Sarecky think that television would make a great home for the Man of Steel.
Superman and the Mole Men introduces the two most important cast members of the 1952-1958 series The Adventures of Superman, notably George Reeves as Superman/Clark Kent and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane.¹ The runtime is only 58 minutes, which (in my mind) shows that it was conceived as a way to get two episodes for the series in the future.²
For many, George Reeves was the first Superman they knew. He was my first live-action Superman, though he’d been dead for 18 years before I was born. The Adventures of Superman were still rerun all the time when I was little. While Christopher Reeve donned the cape a year after I was born, it took awhile before his movie to come to television so was essentially unknown to me. George Reeves in his badly padded suit with the cape that, for some reason, had a neck that hung down to mid-back, was the first “real” Superman I experienced. He was the reason my mother felt the need to tell me that Superman wasn’t real, that he was played by an actor named George Reeves who wasn’t really flying, but was lying on a table and made to look like he was flying. And before anyone decries my mother as being a party-pooper who was trying to kill the magic inside me, please note that she was trying to save herself the heartache of attending her little boy’s funeral, or visiting his broken body in the hospital, after he’d put on his blanky and jumped off the second floor porch trying to fly.
I wasn’t much older when I found out Reeves was dead. Still, this is his first go at the Man of Steel and worthy of a looksee.
George Reeves is Superman. That’s the thing with this character, it seems every actor who has portrayed him has done so perfectly for the time in which their doing so. Well…almost every actor. But George Reeves definitely catches the 1950s Superman perfectly. He gives this vibe of being the uncle you love and who will always have the right answer for you, but will also kick some ass if needed. Reeves was 37 when he first donned the cape in 1951, which is actually a year younger than Kirk Alyn in the first Superman serial. Reeves’s Superman wasn’t as enthusiastic as Alyn’s, though. Reeves was cooler, laid back. When I watched Alyn, his Superman had a look that said, “I’m Superman, mofo! Let’s dance!” Reeves’s Superman is more, “Yes, I’m Superman, and heed my warning. If you don’t, I will easily and nonchalantly kick your ass.” In Superman and the Mole Men, his Clark Kent is seen onscreen almost as much as his Superman and Kent is no bumbling fool. He is intelligent and sure of himself. If he happens to be a little cowardly, well…who can blame him? Superman is as wise as he is powerful, and acts as a counsel to humans as much as a one-man police force.
Phyllis Coates is very good as Lois Lane. This Lois is much more serious in this incarnation than she was for the serials. She exhibits intelligence and strength. I would think that playing Lois Lane would be something actresses at this time would appreciate.
Superman flies! Briefly, anyway. It’s said that the filmmakers behind the Kirk Alyn serials tried having him fly using wires but it didn’t look good, so they went with the animated flying. In Atom Man vs. Superman, they showed Superman flying in close-ups, meaning, Alyn was in front of a light-colored wall/screen with smoke being blown at him. In Superman and the Mole Men, George Reeves flies away on wire. Now, this apparently didn’t stay the norm. Reeves had a bad experience with the wires, falling and nearly suffering a concussion early in the series. He swore off ever using the wires again afterward and the series resorted to Reeves using a springboard to jump out windows or off screen and then was matted into various backgrounds as he lay on a table or something, arms and legs out before and behind him. In this movie, though, the wires are still in use and the audience gets to see, albeit briefly, Superman fly on film.
The story by Richard Fielding (apparently a pseudonym for Robert Maxwell and Whitney Ellsworth, producers of the series) is actually pretty good. Yes, there are some silly things that I’ll get to in a bit, but there’s a definite message in this tale. The Mole Men of the title are beings that live far, far, far below the Earth’s surface and are found through an oil well that has drilled deeper than any other drill ever. They come up and frighten the people of Silsby, a small town in Texas. A lynch mob is formed to kill the Mole Men and Superman it there to talk sense to the lynch mob and stop them. In the days of the Red Scare, and a decade before the Civil Rights movement would really do their thing, this tale is about acceptance and reason. It is actually a good message for today, in a world where the Pat Robertsons and Westboro Baptists use their 1st Amendment rights to preach hatred in the name of god, in a world where people with dark skin and beards are often harassed for fear of being terrorists. Superman, in 1951, is telling people to chill out. He stops a lynch mob in a time when things like this happened because of the color of one’s skin. Keep in mind, this movie came out less than four years before 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi. Superman’s insistence that the townspeople, the lynch mob, leave the Mole Men alone is all-too-real.
No Jimmy Olsen or Perry White. No Metropolis, for that matter. What the hell? This is Superman, right? Yet, we’re in a small town and country (read: a backlot) with Clark Kent and Lois Lane investigating the weird happenings around the oil well. Of course, both characters (and the city) would appear in the TV series, played by Jack Larson and John Hamilton, but for Superman and the Mole Men, neither is present.
The Mole Men are, sadly, pretty lame. I’ll give it to the filmmakers that the actors they chose to play the Mole Men are sympathetic–even cute. But the strange bald-cap/wigs and the zipper-visible-in-the-back “furry” suits for their bodies are laughable. Considering how important they are to the movie, it’s sad. Again, there’s a feeling that because this is a movie aimed at little boys the production values didn’t need to be great. The feel isn’t much better than that of the serials, and the Mole Men look almost as lame as Atom Man’s strange bucket helmet.
Superman…flies? Yes, it seems contradictory to have Superman’s flying in both sections, but if you’ve followed me long enough, you know that I do this kind of thing from time to time (dear oh dear). While seeing Superman take off (with the help of wires) must’ve thrilled the little boys in the theaters across the country, never actually seeing Superman fly except for one shot that lasts less than five seconds must’ve been a huge letdown. His “flying” is implied by the camera looking down at people on the streets as the camera flies overhead, with a few pedestrians looking up and pointing. And that one scene where we see Superman actually flying? He’s catching a falling Mole Man in midair. Cool, huh? But both characters are animated. Just like in the serials. It quickly goes to a shot of George Reeves on wires catching the falling Mole Man (an obvious dummy on a wire). Luckily, they worked this out for the series.
After the Battle
Overall, Superman and the Mole Men is pretty entertaining, and at just about an hour long, it’s the right length. It doesn’t suffer from the bloating that the previous Superman serials had, and the story is actually pretty clever. There’s no supervillain in this. The enemy is the frightened, ready-to-kill people. George Reeves debuts as Superman with aplomb and the feeling that he’s not only watching out for us, but is there to advise and teach us. It makes for a good introduction to a Superman who would last until Reeves’s death.
¹ Coates only played Lois Lane for the first season. Apparently, it was unsure the series would survive past its first season and came out nearly a year after its initial shoot. When the series was picked up for a second season (and beyond), Coates was unavailable to return. The producers went to Noel Neill to reprise her role from the two previous serials.
² This is, of course, exactly what happened. The last two episodes of the first season of The Adventures of Superman were the only two-part storyline of the entire series, entitled “The Unknown People.” The movie was edited down for television and any reference to “Mole Men” was edited out.
From 2004 through 2010 I wrote a column called American Gauthic for the magazine Dark Discoveries, which seemed to have some regular readers. A few, anyway. In 2006, I wrote an installment on Harlan Ellison, which was apropos. The reason I was writing the column was partly because of Ellison’s own excellent columns that I’d read collected in An Edge In My Voice, Harlan Ellison’s Watching, The Harlan Ellison Hornbook, and The Glass Teat books.¹ They inspired me. Looking back on the earlier columns make me cringe. I was beginning to hit my stride, though, by the time I stopped writing them.²
Today, on Harlan’s 79th birthday, I’m posting my essay. It will be revised and have annotations throughout. I hope you enjoy and, if you aren’t familiar with his work, make yourself so.
From Gautham to Ellison Wonderland
Someone suggested at one point (I think it may have been John R. Little–whose work, including Placeholders, The Memory Tree, and Miranda, I love) that I write an installment about one of my favorite writers, Harlan Ellison. It’s a daunting task, really. Others who are far more talented than I am have done so and have barely touched the surface of the entity that is Harlan Ellison. But there have also been many less-talented people who’ve written about Ellison, so I figured why the hell not?
I’ve said to friends that if Stephen King is #1 on my favorite writer list, then Ellison is #1.5. As King pointed out in one of the last sections of the chapter called “Horror Fiction” in his 1980 nonfiction book Danse Macabre, “it is impossible to separate the man from the work.” The reason this is so is because Ellison has a persona that is as hated as it is loved and is as famous as any of his stories. There are few people who tend to fall into a gray area in regards to him.
I’ve never met the man. Some would count me among the lucky ones. I have had a little bit of contact with him, though, through the bulletin board at his website, which was begun by Rick Wyatt. Our few exchanges have been pleasant. At one point he needed a specific printing of his collection Troublemakers that I happened to have and I sent it to him. I soon received a first printing of the book with a short thank-you note on the book’s title page. It’s amongst my prized books (second only to my signed edition of Borderlands 5).
In person, I saw Ellison (along with Neil Gaiman and Peter David) at MIT in October 2001. I didn’t stick around for the signing because at the time I was too nervous and…well, there were some other complications, too. Gaiman brought out most of the crowd but Ellison was electric. What I remember best about that night (besides the albino with the goggles who seemed to have orgasmic fits almost every time Gaiman spoke, including, at one point, screaming “We love you, Neil!”), was the pure joy Ellison had reading his story “Goodbye to All That.” There was a running joke in the story that, after the third time the audience laughed, sent Ellison into a childlike dance of glee.
There was also an exchange with a young man that brought tears to my eyes. It was after one of Ellison’s diatribes about Internet piracy (this was in the midst a lawsuit against AOL) in which Ellison called most of the people in the room stupid. The young man was clearly upset and asked Ellison if he thought calling people stupid helped the message. Ellison came to the edge of the stage (which made some of the audience ooh and aahh, expecting him to pounce the young man and tear his throat out, to which he responded, “Shut the fuck up”), and asked, “Do you think you’re stupid?”
A brief hesitation, before, “Yes.”
Ellison climbed off the stage and went to the young man. “The very fact that you asked that question means that you’re not stupid.”
Then Ellison went on to explain about how asking questions and caring is so important.³
What does all this have to do with reading Ellison? Well, I think it’s a window into what Ellison’s work is about. There’s a lot of screaming in his earlier (and sometimes his later) work, mouths or no mouths, but there’s always an underlying tenderness–or at least an underlying caring–that is essential to Ellison the man.
Ellison seems to be a burst of energy; someone more prone to running around on stage like Robin Williams (who is a friend of Ellison’s) than sitting at an Olympia manual typewriter writing stories. This may be one of the reasons Ellison has published only four novels compared to the 1700 stories and essays. Like the man, his stories are bursts of energy that leave the reader moved.
I first became aware of Harlan Ellison when I was thirteen, when I bought the first edition of George Beahm’s The Stephen King Companion. There was an interview with Ellison in that book, along with an essay from Harlan Ellison’s Watching. I read the interview and essay, and the name was filed under Someone Important In the Genres and that was about it. Ellison’s name popped up again for me in the aforementioned chapter of King’s Danse Macabre. Again, it was filed under a similar heading (along with Someone I Should Read Someday), and then ignored.
It wasn’t until we got the Sci-Fi Channel and I began watching their show Sci-Fi Buzz (which I miss wholeheartedly) that Harlan Ellison really hit me. He had a commentary on the show, done mostly from his legendary home Ellison Wonderland (or the Lost Aztec Temple of Mars). Being around seventeen, I thought he was a jerk. Yelling and screaming at the tv audience. But I was also entertained. And, while I might not have admitted it at that point, I looked forward to his small contribution to the show.
One night I flipped through the channels and stopped at CNBC to see who Tom Snyder was interviewing. He occasionally interviewed people I was interested in. This particular night he was interviewing Harlan Ellison and I remember thinking, It’s the old grouch from Sci-Fi Buzz. They were discussing Ellison’s new collaborative effort with Polish surrealist Jacek Yerka, Mind Fields, and Snyder asked Ellison what his favorite painting in the book was. Ellison said it was the painting called Ellison Wonderland, one of only two paintings in the book whose name he changed (because it reminded him of his house); the other story/painting was “Susan.” Snyder pulled out a large package and told Ellison that he had a surprise for him.
Ellison looked flustered and there, in his hands, he now held the painting Ellison Wonderland. And I saw something that, at that point, I didn’t think was possible. Harlan Ellison was speechless. Tears welled in his eyes as he stammered and finally was able to thank Snyder. Smiling, Snyder went to a commercial and I wiped the tears from my own eyes. Within days, I bought Ellison’s first volume of the ill-fated White Wolf Edgeworks project, which featured the collection of stories and essays called Over the Edge and the collection of Ellison’s column An Edge in My Voice. I was nineteen. I was hooked.
It’s been almost 17 years since all that happened. A lot has happened to me (and Ellison) in that time, but my admiration for the man and his work has never foundered. His audiobooks are amazing. His performance of “Jeffty Is Five” brings tears to my eyes every time I listen to it. Ten years ago, when I was very unhappy in my marriage and wasn’t sure what to do, it was his performance of “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” that made me realize what I had to do. Like the characters in that classic story, I was trapped in something and I needed to make a painful decision to fix escape. That story gave me the courage to take off my wedding ring and decide it was time to end the marriage despite the fear I held for my relationship with my then-five-year-old daughter.
When people talk about Harlan Ellison’s work (when they can get past the legend surrounding him, anyway) it seems that the words angry and painful are often used. And while that may be true for many of his earlier stories, something that carries through almost all his stories is the hope that Ellison has for the human race. If he’s angry at you, at me, at all of us, it’s because he sees in humanity the godlike abilities to create, to nurture, to love. Love is a huge theme in Ellison’s work…having gone through four marriages before meeting and marrying his wife Susan, having gone through an uncountable number of relationships, Ellison’s work is as much about what it means to love as it is about anything else. He also sees humanity’s self-destructive nature and shortcomings and it upsets him.
“Jeffty Is Five” is my favorite story of his. The story has always choked me up, but Ellison’s reading of it has made me cry. Here is a fantastic, subtle story filled with love. And, maybe, a small amount of anger. Another favorite of mine is “The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie,” in which a Hollywood star of old films is rediscovered in a diner and brought back to Hollywood in the late 1960s. It’s a heartbreaking tale and Ellison pulls it off with panache. I first read it when I was about twenty-four or so. At twenty-six, I read Nathanael West’s novel The Day of the Locust and wondered how much West influenced Ellison’s own tale of that bitch of a vampire called Hollywood. I also love his story “Incognita, Inc.” This is a story about a man who has to put an old man out of business. The old man is a mapmaker who makes maps that will find things one could only imagine. All these stories have the caring that Ellison has for the world, mixed with the anger at what corporations and selfishness does to people.
His work has certainly influenced my own. Right after completing “The Growth of Alan Ashley,” I called it “my Harlan Ellison story” in an e-mail to a friend. Not that I’d copied his style or tried to mimic his voice, but because I tried to take the way he bends reality until it’s a mirror image of itself and use it in my own way. So when I heard that it would be in Borderlands 5, in a sense, I felt as though I’d succeeded. After all, Ellison had a story in the first volume of Borderlands.
His influence can also be seen in this column. Going back to that first Ellison book I owned, and then reading his collection Harlan Ellison’s Hornbook, and other essays, certainly made me consider being able to do anything like this. Even the logo I had for American Gauthic was reminiscent to the logos Ellison had for his columns.
At 79, he’s not done yet. His Edgeworks Abbey imprint has been working with Publishing 180 has released eight books in the last couple of years, including two (so far) this year, and while some of the books reprint classic stories, novellas, and screenplays, they also premiere never-before-collected work. Last year, Kicks Books published his early books Pulling a Train and Getting in the Wind. This year, Hard Case Crime republished his first novel Web of the City. Subterranean Press is republishing two highly-regarded early collections, Gentleman Junkie and Other Tales of the Hung-Up Generation and The Deadly Streets in very nice collectible editions. DC Comics will be publishing the long-awaited graphic novel 7 Against Chaos. And while there aren’t any on the horizon that I know about, the CD series of On the Road With Ellison from Deep Shag Records is up to six volumes now and I recommend them all. And that’s off the top of my head (with a leeeetle research).
While I’m excited about this new stuff, I still have a lot of his older stuff to read. And reread. Whether one loves or hates the man, one cannot ignore the impact his stories, his visions, have had. Whether he’s the Zorro or Jiminy Cricket of the speculative fiction fields can be argued, but what cannot be argued is his blazing talent. And what cannot be ignored is, love him or hate him, he’s done things his own way and has held no one else responsible for the outcome.
I’ve learned a lot about what to do and what not to do from Harlan Ellison. And I look forward to many more years of his lessons. And, more than that, many more stories. I think Harlan would agree that when it’s all done, it’s all about the stories.
Right before this went to installment went to press in 2006/2007, I needed to change my address with Harlan Ellison’s newsletter, Rabbit Hole, which comes through his Harlan Ellison Recording Collection, and I mentioned the piece in the letter I sent. His wife, Susan, sent the last issue of the newsletter with a Post-It saying they’d “love” to have a sneak peek. So I sent it. Harlan Ellison called and left a voicemail to thank me for it, as well as correct a few errors and help me zipper my fly as far as some poor proofreading was concerned. It’s one of those moments that is so weird, yet so welcome.
When the essay was published in early 2007, I received another voicemail from him, again thanking me (and correcting a few things). Both voicemails were lost, since I was never able to figure out how to save them. Since the publication of this essay, Erik Nelson’s phenomenal look at Ellison’s life, Dreams with Sharp Teeth came out. Besides the incident with the young man at MIT mentioned above, there’s a clip where Ellison says, “I’m an Atheist, folks,” and some woo-ing can be heard. That’s me and my best friend Toby.
I never returned the calls to Harlan because I never knew what to say. It’s one of the many times my social anxiety has gotten the better of me. Still, I have the knowledge–an enough friends to heard the messages, including my wife, who heard the message back when she was my girlfriend–to know they existed.
Harlan’s influence has been great on me, both his writing and his life. So it is with great joy that I say–
Happy birthday, Unca Harlan! And thank you.
¹ I also found inspiration in Tom Monteleone’s M.A.F.I.A. column in Cemetery Dance.
² I stopped writing American Gauthic for several reasons, the biggest of which was lack of time. I needed to take classes to keep my job and found that a lot of my time was eaten away. Time wasn’t the only reason, but it was a big one. I’d happily go back to writing it for Dark Discoveries or another publication if the opportunity arose. I’m much better at time management now.
³ This incident appears in the documentary about Harlan called Dreams with Sharp Teeth, as is another clip from that evening.
Based on the overwhelming success of 1948’s serial Superman, Columbia Pictures and producer Sam Katzman decided to get the gang together for a sequel. So in 1950, children found that the Man of Steel had returned to their local movie houses in Atom Man vs. Superman. With a screenplay by George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, and David Matthews, and directed by Spencer Bennett, the original cast joins with Lyle Talbot as Luthor to tell a sprawling new story.
Like its predecessor, this is an interesting look back at a time when entertainment was more innocent and more naïve. This is a serial that is unabashedly for children and says “To hell with the adults!” It makes me wish I’d been a child back then to see it and other serials of its ilk.
Once again, the cast is really good. This shouldn’t come as a shock since Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill, Tommy Bond, and Pierre Watkin return as Clark Kent/Superman, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White. With the exception of Ms. Neill’s hair and hat (her hair is shorter and black this time, more like her comic book persona) nothing about the actors has changed in two years. Most of their performances are as good, if not better, than they were in the previous serial. Alyn once again dons the cape with gusto and enthusiasm. This is a Superman who revels in being Superman. Clark Kent is just as lazy and cowardly as before, with that twinkle in the eye that lets the kids in the audience know that Superman is just around the corner.
Lyle Talbot as Luthor is possibly the closest Lex Luthor has been to the comic book version on the silver screen. He’s intelligent, mean, and more than willing to do what it takes to become powerful and destroy Superman. While everyone gets hung up on Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Lex Luthor, Talbot’s is certainly not going to surround himself with the likes of Miss Teschmacher and Otis.
The story is once again quite epic. I guess it’s difficult not to make an epic story at 15 chapters of 15-to-20 minutes in length (nearly four-and-a-quarter hours). With the mysterious Atom Man to contend with, and the newly “reformed” Luthor suspected to behind him, Superman is kept busy. The story is grander, including a place called The Empty Doom (which is a lot like The Phantom Zone) that we actually go to, a spaceship for Luthor’s escape from Earth, a flying saucer that shoots Clark and Lois down (cliffhanger!), ray guns, synthetic Kryptonite (that’s missing one element to truly work–sound familiar?), and– Well, you should just trust me on this. It’s massive.
All right, in the last essay, I pretty much bashed the writing and direction of Superman (1948). In many ways, the same problems persist. While there are very entertaining parts of Atom Man vs. Superman, there are some show-stoppingly bad parts. The serial is off to a pretty fast start, since Superman’s origins were told in the last movie (chapter 1), so we get to see our Metropolitan friends going about life and our Kryptonian hero do heroic things. Somewhere around the halfway part of the series, though, things begin to go wrong. Chapter 7, “At the Mercy of Atom Man”, the story stops dead as Luthor tells his aide the story of Krypton and Superman’s origins. Now this came as a shock because the way the story was told in the first serial, even Superman was unaware of where he came from. He suspected it was the planet Krypton because Kryptonite had an ill effect on him. Not only does Luthor retell the origin, but the audience is given much of the Krypton scenes from the first serial’s first chapter all over again. If you didn’t see it the first time back in 1950, this was probably great–especially if you were a kid–but even back then, an adult would’ve rolled their eyes at the strange nature of the backstory. And how does Luthor know? He was the only person on Earth who was able to decode a message from Jor El, sent out across the universe to get help for his doomed planet. From this point, the story gets weird. Lois Lane quits the Daily Planet after one insult too many from Perry White and she goes to work for Luthor, who now runs the local TV station. He says he’s reformed but Lois and Clark and Jimmy and Superman have spent the first half of the serial not believing him. But now she believes him. To make matters worse, her journalistic integrity is thrown to the curb because she’s a girl-on-the-street stopping pedestrians to ask them about the weather or if they prefer country life or city life. The one news story she’s sent on as a TV reporter–a major flood in the upstate town of Lawnville–she messes up because she refuses to take heed when the police tells her to move, the flood was on its way. There are other strange things, too, and stupidity on the part of the characters so the story will keep going.
Lois Lane isn’t herself in this serial. Look, Noel Neill is Lois Lane. She played the reporter through these two serials and all but the first season of the 1950s TV show The Adventures of Superman. And she was spunky and dead-on in the first serial, but in this serial I think she could have been better. Not only is the part written pretty poorly, but she sometimes goes through scenes as though she’s sleepwalking. Now, I don’t think it’s her. I think she was directed poorly. Maybe it was the huge amount of work filming a serial for a low budget took. I don’t know, but this Lois Lane is good sometimes, and other times she’s just blah. I wanted to like her but just didn’t care. Again, I think it was the way she was directed. I hope it was.
Atom Man was lame. His costume was horrible and he was confusingly lame. The big reveal on his secret identity was silly, too (thought surprising).
The reusage of footage got to be annoying. In the last few chapters of the first Superman serial, I noticed that when Clark changed in the Daily Planet closet, it was the same shots used. The same can be said for Superman’s take-offs out the Daily Planet’s window. This serial uses it, too. Over and over and over. They reuse a lot of footage from that first serial, actually. I guess over two years and 15 weeks, a child wouldn’t notice it. Still, I think it’s lazy.¹
The budget seems better on this one than on the prior one, though not much. It could just be a trick, though. Either way, lack of a budget means silly-looking stuff. The animation is even greater this time around. Though I give kudos to them showing us Superman flying up-close, so Kirk Alyn could be seen “flying.” The animation doesn’t only go to Superman flying, but also the flying saucer and spaceship I mentioned.
After the Battle
My feelings of Atom Man vs. Superman are pretty similar to my feelings on 1948’s Superman. They’re both great fun if you go into it with the sense that you’re time-travelling. If you’re looking for a deep, modern Superman adventure, you’ll hate these. If you want to see adults essentially do with Superman what you would’ve done with your action figures at six or seven years old, then you’ll enjoy them.
I’m really glad I watched these serials. They were only the third and fourth serials I’ve seen and they made me want to see more. They’re also fun to see from a historical perspective, like when Lois Lanes is annoyed with her “newfangled typewriter,” which looks like a manual office model except is electric. Also, seeing an early TV is pretty cool, too.
Overall, I recommend the serials, but only if you’re willing to play along. Take them for what they are: stories meant for young fans in a different world, a world before John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Vietnam, Nixon, Reaganomics, terrorist attacks, and overt cynicism.
¹ In rewatching The Incredible Hulk TV series for the past year (I’m almost done!), I noticed footage reused over and over again, sometimes completely out of context.
Ten years after Superman made his historic debut in Action Comics, and five years after his final Famous Studios adventure “Secret Agent,” Superman returned to the big screen in his first live-action adventure. Simply titled Superman, Columbia Pictures released fifteen chapters of Superman’s struggles with criminal mastermind the Spider Lady. Unlike the animated adventures before it, which were not just meant for the kiddies who went to the Saturday matinees but also for the boys World War II, Superman was meant to appeal to the kiddies in the movie theaters waiting for whatever adventure they’d paid their 40¢ to go see.
I don’t know when I’d become aware of the Superman movie serials, maybe my teen years, but I’d never seen them before I’d decided to write these essays (and as of this initial writing, I’m only four chapters into the subject of next week’s essay, the second Superman serial Atom Man vs. Superman). I wish I’d seen these as a kid, a young kid, before Star Wars ruined simple special effects for me, before seeing Christopher Reeve in the suit. Still, it was interesting to see this, only my third go at watching a 1940s movie serial (the other two will be subjects in a future essay series and involves a different DC Comic hero) and it was interesting. So, here we go….
The main cast is pretty good for serial actors. Now, not to put the form down, but movie serials are not known for their acting but rather for their adventures and cliffhangers. Still, Superman‘s cast isn’t too bad. Noelle Neill as Lois Lane is spunky and fun to watch. Tommy Bond as Jimmy Olsen is appropriately a pain in the ass. Even Pierre Watkin as Perry White, who mostly sits behind a desk and snarls at Clark, Lois, and Jimmy is good (though Perry White does get to see a piece of the action. He even gets his own cliffhanger!). Still, without the right person in the lead, this whole dog-n-pony show would fall apart, so enter Kirk Alyn as Superman.
Alyn played both Superman and Clark Kent differently and did a pretty good job with each. He will never go down in history as the Best Superman (or Clark Kent), but I daresay he’s better than Dean Cain. Alyn is tall with dark hair and has a heroic air about him. He even does “This is a job for Superman” (or they may have just used Bud Collyer’s voice, because it’s always in voiceover). As Clark Kent, he enjoys playing ‘fraidy cat and pulling off the secret over his friends. Almost too much (but I’ll get to that later). As Superman, Alyn gets an enthusiastic look in his eye, as though he’s having a good time playing the role. In this day and age of morose superheroes, it’s refreshing. While he is padded under the suit, he won’t be the last to be so. And if there are any criticisms I have, I don’t think they originate in his performance.
The nostalgia. Now, I’m hesitant to use this term because having come out in 1948, Superman is 29 years older than me. Still, watching the serial brings one back to a different time period that I’d be interested in visiting. Not living, no way, but visiting. I asked my father, who would’ve been seven when these came out, if he’d seen them and he said he didn’t think so. What a shame. Imagine being seven in 1948, before TV was mainstream, never mind cable, and seeing Superman in live action for the first time! Damn! Here’s a guy you read about in the flesh, being super. This is a Superman for a simpler time, a time when comics were kids’ stuff, a time when all it seemed to take was a man in a cape to solve things. The simplicity in this serial attests to that.
The scope. I’ll hand it to the filmmakers, they didn’t let a small budget stop them from trying to deliver an epic. With a story by George H. Plympton and Joeseph F. Poland, and a screenplay by Arthur Hoerl, Lewis Clay, and Royal Cole (according to the credits, adapted not just from Action Comics and Superman comic books, but also from the radio show), producer Sam Katzman and directors Spencer Benett and Thomas Carr really try to give the fans a sense of who Superman is, much more than the filmmakers responsible for the Batman serials of 1943 and 1949 (okay, I gave it away). The serial begins on Krypton and follows Kal El to Earth, where the Kents find him and raise his as their own until Clark, as an adult, heads off to Metropolis to try to be a reporter as he also saves the world as Superman. With the Spider Lady trying to take over the world (or something), the scope of this tale is pretty big.
The direction. Or the screenplay. Or maybe it’s the budget. Or maybe it’s that it’s 1948 and a serial made for kids about a guy with a cape and so isn’t taken seriously, but I felt like there were a lot of missteps in Superman. Kirk Alyn played Superman rather well, but I had a few small problems with him that I think stem from story and/or direction. Superman can be kind of a jerk sometimes. In hiding as Clark Kent, he occasionally likes to make Lois Lane seem like a lunatic. Considering she’s a star reporter in a major metropolitan newspaper in 1948, she shouldn’t be as dumb as she sometimes is, and Clark Kent/Superman really seems to enjoy fucking with her. He also beats up the bad guys. I mean, here’s a guy who can stop bullets, but he punches bad guys out on several occasions. The kicker is, the punches only hurt the bad guys as much as a normal punch would. So that’s just silly. Superman’s favorite move, though, is picking two villains up by the back of their jackets and smacking their heads together. Another issue I had with Alyn’s performance was that sometimes, he wasn’t very super. He had a tendency to run or walk with his arms out, as though on a highwire. I’m sure this had more to do with direction than interpretation. Either way, the direction and screenplay are sometimes lousy. No nice way to put it.
It’s too simple, too. I know the serial was made for kids, but come on. The simplicity of the story defies logic. A precocious child would surely see problems in logic, even in the “innocent” days of 1948. There is a ray (there’s always a ray) that does something that the Spider Lady wants. And then there’s…there’s… All right, I don’t remember much about the plot, mainly because it’s pretty bad. The intention of the serial, I think, wasn’t to tell a long story so much as to get Superman in live action onscreen. Since 15 chapters were what these serials were about, the story–pretty flimsy to begin with– is stretched to near breaking. Take into account the limits to the serial by budget and quality of special effects, and you have a story that is sometimes too naïve and takes great leaps in logic.
The budget is a problem. I don’t know what the budget for this serial was (I will revise this later should I find out) but I assume that it wasn’t a lot. First off, most serials didn’t have great budgets. Second, this doesn’t look as good or as polished as movies made earlier, like James Whale’s Frankenstein, which was released in 1931. Third, the actors are all B-actors or character actors. They all do well enough but are obviously not going to win any awards any time soon. More than all that the budget hurts because Superman really isn’t a character who is cheap to do. Because of his super powers, he should be larger than life, yet he never really gets there. Yes, Kirk Alyn helps in this department with his enthusiastic portrayal, but everything around him hurts, including–
The special effects. Superman’s powers are abysmally lame in this serial. The first time Superman arrives, he saves a train with Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen on it by fixing the track–off screen. There are jail bars he bends at one point that are laughable easy (they continue to rotate even after he is through the window). And then there’s the animation. We have grown used to seeing animated special effects. The main difference between 2013’s animated special effects and 1948’s is that we have CGI realistic looking effects while they used hand-animated effects. So when a thug shoots at Superman, the cartoon bullets that bounce off his chest are laughable. And when Superman flies away, the cartoon Superman that takes Alyn’s place takes you right out of the story. Even the sets leave room for improvement. The Spider Lady’s electrified web looks like something out of a suburban Halloween party, all glitter and cheap.
The locations. These serials were obviously shot in and around Hollywood. The same Columbia backlots are used and re-used, and a lot of the action leaves Metropolis for the desert around L.A. These serials aren’t about getting the feel of Metropolis right, they’re about telling a Superman adventure. But the day-for-night that changes between poorly filtered daylight to straight-out daylight is silly.
After the Battle
It’s not difficult to make a Superman story for the big screen, but it’s damn difficult to do well. Superman succeeds in some areas and fails miserably in others. Still, I look back on the experience of watching this 15-part serial with a smile on my face. I’m looking forward to watching its follow-up, Atom Man vs. Superman for discussion next week (or when I can finish it and write an essay about it). I recommend this serial in the way I’d recommend looking into any historical piece, and that’s what this is: history. It is the first time Superman appeared in live action on the big screen. And even though it’s pretty bad, it’s not bad, either.
When Superman debuted in 1938, no one expected the character to become as famous as he did as quickly as he did. But famous he became. By 1940, did he have his own title, but he had his own a radio drama. Like the monthly comics, the show became a hit. Hollywood wanted to capitalize on this success and Paramount Pictures got the rights to bring Superman to the silver screen. The story goes that when Paramount executives approached the famed Fleischer animation studio, at the time second only to Disney Studios, they said no. Their hits, Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor Man, were hardly realistic in tone or style, and for Superman to work, he had to be realistic. So the Fleischers set a price so high that Paramount would have to say no.
Paramount said yes and the rest is history.
The first Fleischer Studios Superman film, called “Superman”, (but also known as “The Mad Scientist”) premiered in September 1941. It was an instant hit. Over the course of the following year, the studio put out nine Superman shorts. They were all well-received, with the first being nominated for an Academy Award. But trouble brewed for the Fleischers and the studio was dissolved after the brothers’ feuds broke them up. Paramount transferred the property to their other animation company, Famous Studios. Famous released eight more Superman shorts between September 1942 and July 1943.
I was aware of these old cartoons at some point in my late-childhood, early-teens. I even saw one early one morning, though I don’t remember what channel. The “Fleischer Superman” cartoons (as they are most commonly known) were legendary even then. So much so that when Warner Bros. decided they were going to capitalize on the Batman films of 1989 and 1992 by creating an animated Batman series, they wanted the style of the show to be reminiscent of the (then) 50-year-old cartoons.
The animation. I know how that sounds talking about a cartoon but the animation in these shorts are nothing short of astounding. Their likes really weren’t seen for this subject matter until the Warner Bros. Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series in the 1990s, and the shows that have followed, including the direct-to-home video movies. This kind of animation of people and objects is a visual treat. In several of the Fleischer stories, which were very science fiction-oriented, machines worked to give Superman trouble and every cog and wheel was animated to perfection. The giant robots in “The Mechanical Monsters” weren’t just silly robots that moved at whatever angle the story needed them to move, but each machine worked in a way that adhered to science and engineering. Their designs were simple but technical. The use of rotoscoping—or using live action film to help animate—helped with some of the movement of the human characters, but many of Superman’s movements couldn’t be replicated in this way leaving only the talent of the animators.
The music is great fun. Sammy Timberg’s music is definitely of its time but makes Superman feel larger-than-life, as he should. Superman’s theme is easy to remember and recognizable. There’s a feeling that one should cheer when his theme comes up towards the end of every segment, just as he’s getting the bad guy.
The voice-acting is also really good. Bud Collyer plays Superman/Clark Kent and Joan Alexander plays Lois Lane to perfection, which should come as no surprise since both played their same characters on the radio. Much is made about voice differentiation between Clark Kent and Superman, and there should be a lot made. Collyer plays Clark Kent in a higher register that is much weaker than his alter ego’s voice. Superman’s voice is lower and much stronger. The most famous line from the cartoons is the same line made famous in the radio show (and went on into other media, as well): “This looks like a job for Superman.” The boldface type indicated the transition from Clark Kent’s voice to Superman’s. Collier is the stand-out but every actor in the films did great work.
The lack of much dialogue. At about 10 minutes per episode, there wasn’t really much need for a lot of dialogue. Generally speaking, what dialogue there was was limited. The majority of each episode had Superman saving the day.
The lack of continuity. Lots of fans love continuity, and I’m cool with that, continuity has its place in series. I’m also one who believes leaving continuity behind to tell a single story isn’t a bad idea. These Superman short films seem to take place in a vacuum. There’s never any reference to previous adventures, there’s never any character growth. Those things were not needed. In 1941-1943, the target audience was the comic book reading boys in movie theaters waiting for that week’s western, crime, adventure, or horror movie to begin and what did they know for continuity? As long as Superman nearly fell but ultimately saved the day, they were happy. As such, if you don’t like an episode, it never happened. Done. End of story.
The Famous Studios shorts aren’t as good as the Fleischer Studio shorts. That’s the general feeling among fans and it’s true. The Fleischer films were very science fiction oriented tales that featured mad scientists, killer robots, and the like. The Famous shorts went between propaganda, crime, and fantasy. I have no problem with crime tales, Elmore Leonard is a favorite writer and I loves me the 1940s crime flicks, but some of these are a bit weak. For instance, in a short called “Showdown”, a mob boss (who strongly resembles Edward G. Robinson) is sending a flunky out dressed as Superman to commit crimes. Of course, the city believes that has Superman turned on them. Superman gets to the bottom of it and a bunch of strange, silly things happen. The worst are the propaganda films. This was during World War II, of course, and there’s a strong anti-Japanese and anti-German sentiment in the films. Of the eight shorts that Famous Studios produced, three were propaganda, two against the Japanese, one against Germany. The rest of the shorts were split between crime and fantasy. Even the animation wasn’t as good, though Famous used a lot of stuff from Fleischer.
The racism. It’s well-known that many older cartoons have a streak of racism in them, but it sticks out more now in the more progressive world. The Japanese soldiers and spies in the tales are every stereotype you can imagine from the time period. In the short “Jungle Drums”, there are Africans that are their stereotypes of the time. While one may be able to turn from those gross imaginings in Bugs Bunny cartoons (since they made fun of everybody), they’re more difficult to ignore in a Superman cartoon. As a result, the timelessness of the earlier stories disappear for an uglier reminder of How Things Were.
After the Battle
All in all, the Superman cartoon shorts from the 1940s work splendidly. The first nine are nothing short of masterpieces, and while most of the stuff I didn’t like came in the second eight, all of them are worth watching, preferably with a child on hand. This is one time when the old saying “They don’t make ’em like they used to” is a real thing (concerning the animation if nothing else).
The Fleischer/Famous Superman cartoons are more than just cartoons, though. They’re windows into a time passed, perhaps forgotten by all but a few. And the fact that they introduced Superman’s flying (his ability to “leap tall buildings in a single bound” looked funny) as well as set the template for Superman on film for the next twenty years, make them even more important to watch.
Growing up, there were only a few superheroes I really knew: Spider-Man, Batman, the Incredible Hulk, and Superman. I knew there were more, one of my favorite cartoons was Super Friends, which was a very kids-friendly version of the Justice League, and there were the other comic book heroes in the ads that ran in the comic books my father brought home with the milk and bread, but for me, those four superheroes (and I include Robin in with Batman) were the ones I really knew. And the head of them all, the most important, was Superman.
At least until I was about 10 or 11. Which makes sense, in a way. It’s around 9 through 11 that childlike wonder begins to dull as The System has its way with children and with that wonder, the idea of a man flying around saving the world from aliens and robots and mad scientists while all the time hiding behind a pair of glasses is preposterous and obviously something only a baby would believe. It didn’t help that 1989 was Batman’s year, with him popping up everywhere you looked. And so Batman moved in as my favorite superhero.
Batman kept that title until about three, four years ago. I bought the 700th issues of both Superman and Batman and found myself walking away with a renewed interest in the Man of Steel. And so it went. If you were to ask me who my favorite superhero is now, it’d be a toss up between Supes and Bats.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of Action Comics #1, the comic book in which Superman debuted. There have been many incarnations of the character over the last three quarters of a century. Just in the pages of the DC Comics comic books the modern Superman is very different from the original that was created by two very young Jewish men. What Joe Shuster and Jerry Seigel created was a god for the 20th (and now 21st) century. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan or not, without Superman, there’d be no…well…any of them.
Superman became so popular upon his debut in 1938, that by 1940 he had his own comic book and his own radio show. It wasn’t long before Hollywood came knocking. In 1941, the first of Superman’s silver screen adventures played out in theaters around the world.
This year marks not only the 75th anniversary of this literary and film icon, but it also marks the release of the much-anticipated new adaptation of Superman on the movie screen: Man of Steel, written by David S. Goyer, directed by Zack Snyder, and starring Henry Cavill as Superman.
For the next 11 or so weeks, I’ll be posting essays about Superman in the movies. I will be mostly skipping over his television years because I only have so much time to devote to this, though I will touch on George Reeves as the Man of Steel, I promise. I’m afraid that the 1990s Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Smallville, and the 1980s-1990s syndicated Superboy shows, not to mention the plethora of animated shows and direct-to-home-video movies will also be skipped (though the animated movies produced by Warner Animation will be looked at some time in the future, though not in as much detail). In other words, this is hardly a complete series of Superman on film, but it will do the job for a free enterprise on a website that’s not, technically, about superheroes or movies.
So let’s get this show started, shall we? Up, up, and awaaayyy!
Just so you know…
If you’ve been following my blog lately, you know I went through the Nightmare on Elm Street series of movies and I’ve since given the hint that I’ll be doing essays on Superman, too. Rest assured, I’m not intending to make this a media-related blog only. It’s just that I’ve been very busy with the six-month-old, the fifteen-year-old, my wife, my day job (teaching), and writing, which is, I suppose, why you come here. The essays are part of the writing category (I’m trying to broaden my horizons). Somewhere in all that, I need to sleep, to read, and to live. So…the in-between posts have been few and far between.
I intend to write some soon, though. I have thoughts on the horrible act of tagging, and I’m still thinking about doing what I call “Passive Aggressive Responses to Facebook Statuses That Annoy Me”. We’ll see about that last one.
So hang in there. Once school is done, I’m sure things will be a leetle easier.
I look at A Nightmare on Elm Street and its follow-ups as a huge piece of my childhood. You know my feelings on the movies, I spent enough time and energy on them, but I felt compelled to say a few more words on the Nightmare series before moving on.
New Line Cinema had a chance to create a horror film franchise that could actually maintain its scariness, in much the same way Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson would later do with Scream. They had a great villain and a great premise, all they needed was to understand what the nine-year-old in me, and those who have followed me this far along (and all the children in all the adults who are fans of series like this): You can’t do it for the money. Yes, you should be paid for it but the pay should be the frosting when it comes to art. Wes Craven made A Nightmare on Elm Street (and, I suspect, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare) out of the compulsion/obsession to tell the story, and the love of storytelling and filmmaking, not out of the desire to get rich and famous. By focusing on telling a really good story, by hiring people who understood the possibilities of the horror story (someone like Frank Darabont, for example), the Nightmare movies could have been scary as hell and still would have made New Line Cinema money.
Still, Freddy Krueger haunts me. At least once a year since I saw the first movie I have a bad Freddy Krueger nightmare. Love it or hate it, these movies turned me onto horror, which led me to Stephen King, which led me to reading and writing, which led me to…you. The imagination was there and Star Wars and superheroes and action figures helped cultivate it, but Wes Craven’s child is what led me to the realization that I could do something with all these fears and anxieties I have. Sure, it was Stephen King’s prose and storytelling that turned me to the typewriter (and, eventually, the computer), but….
And I’m not the only one. A group of fans made a great documentary in 2010 called Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy. It’s a huge documentary on the entire series, weighing in at about 4 hours, with lots of bonus stuff on disc 2. I highly recommend it. Anothe documentary I recommend is Heather Langenkamp’s own documentary I Am Nancy, in which she looks at fandom, the power of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, as well as the importance of the character she originated, Nancy Thompson. There’s a lot of heart in this documentary and it brought tears to my eyes, especially when a young woman in a wheelchair explains to Langenkamp how the character of Nancy has inspired her to keep going. Another highlight is an excellent interview with Wes Craven about the symbolism of Freddy and Nancy.
I feel like the guest who stays at the party too long, the person at the hair place who will not drop the topic even though it was over before it began. I hope that’s not the case. I also hope that if you’ve read this far, you’ve been entertained and perhaps have felt the desire to re-watch those movies. For those who give a damn about such things, here’s my Nightmare ranking list:
9. Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991, dir. Rachel Talalay)
8. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985, dir. Jack Sholder)
7. Freddy Vs. Jason (2003, dir. Ronny Yu)
6. A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010, dir. Samuel Bayer)
5. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989, dir. Stephen Hopkins)
4. A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988, dir. Renny Harlin)
3. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987, dir. Chuck Russell)
2. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994, dir. Wes Craven)
1. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, dir. Wes Craven)
And, as my Dad used to say, happy dreams.
I believe I was still living in Boston–or about to move to Boston, anyway–when the news hit that Michael Bay’s production company was going to try its hand at remaking A Nightmare on Elm Street. I want to note right here at the beginning that I am not totally against remakes. There have been fine remakes over time. The Wizard of Oz (1939) was a remake from the original silent version (Pamela disagrees with me on this, since one had sound and one didn’t; but back then it probably didn’t matter to the person bitching about it). Ben-Hur with Charlton Heston was a remake. The Man Who Knew Too Much with James Stewart, directed by the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock, was a remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much by a young British director named Alfred Hitchcock. David Cronenberg’s version of The Fly. The most recent version of Dawn of the Dead. Stephen King said that the a few years ago remake of The Last House on the Left was one of the ten best films of 2009 (I haven’t seen it, but will). No, I wasn’t against anyone remaking A Nightmare on Elm Street, I was against Michael Bay, Brad Fuller, and Andrew Form doing so.
They’d produced the remake of The Amityville Horror, which I thought was horrendous. I didn’t see any of their other remakes because they just looked…well…bad. I respect Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but it’s not a favorite movie. Friday the 13th has never done much for me. But A Nightmare on Elm Street…well, that was another story. If you’ve been following my Nightmare in Gautham series, you know why. I had always sort of fantasized about someone who got the possibilities of the mythology of Nightmare, who understood that Freddy Krueger was as much metaphor as slasher monster, someone who knew how to get under people’s skins and create a beautiful shot would step up to the plate and take it over. Better than that, I would have loved for Warner Bros. through New Line to return to Wes Craven and see if he wanted to try to redo it with a larger budget and better effects. Even better than that, I fantasized that my writing would become huge, that the movie studios would call and ask, “What do you want to do?” and my answer would be, “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”
But Platinum Dunes with Michael Bay, the creative genius who directed the crapfest known as The Transformers, was the guy who got the glove. I was nervous.
Then came news that Samuel Bayer, who’d directed Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (which always reminded me of a horror movie), had been tapped to make his feature film directorial debut with this movie. Interesting choice, but maybe….
Then came news that Jackie Earle Haley had signed on to play Freddy. Now my interest was piqued. I hadn’t seen him in anything but had heard enough about his performances. As time passed, I saw two of his most recent big roles. First I saw The Watchmen on DVD. Haley is the best part of the movie. Then I saw Little Children, where his performance was great. Yeah, I got jazzed for the new Nightmare.
As I saw more and more about it in the months leading up to the 2010 release, my interest grew more and more. That was when I originally wrote the Nightmare in Gautham series, fueled mainly by anticipation (not to mention ideas that had run through my head for decades).
So the Sunday morning of May 5th, 2010, Pamela and I went to a local movie theater for a private screening. Actually, it wasn’t meant to be a private screening, but Pamela and I were the only two people in the theater. I guess no one wants to go to see a horror movie at 10:20 on a Sunday morning. Yeah, my wife loves me. The movie was done by noon and we went for pizza afterward. That night, I wrote the first version of the following essay.
I have seen the remake/reboot of A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) only one other time. I think that tells you something.
Some of the actors playing the central characters. Rooney Mara as Nancy Holbrook. She had a strong personality and isn’t too bad as Nancy. My biggest complaint about her character is that it takes the audience too long to get to know her and then doesn’t give her as much to do as she deserves. In the years since, Mara was in The Social Network and was the titular character in the U.S. version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She brings a frankness and intensity to Nancy that the other characters lack. The same could be said about Kyle Gallner as Quentin and Katie Cassidy as Kris. I thought both were pretty good in the movie but neither were given much to do. The stand-out performances came from the adults, Connie Britton (though this didn’t show her range like Nashville does), Clancy Brown, and even Jackie Earle Haley as pre-burn Freddy.
Some of Samuel Bayer’s visuals. This movie is miles above some of the visual styles in the later Nightmare sequels, though with all the talk in the interviews about how “beautiful” the movie is, there could have been more from him. There have been some internet reports that there were clashes between Bayer and the producers and I wonder how much that had to do with it. Still, the film was pretty solid visually.
Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy Krueger. I write this with some reservations. He was, physically, a good match for Freddy. Also, the dude is creepy without makeup, so in the makeup he was able to go a little further. Freddy’s anger and rage came through quite clearly and it was Haley’s performance more than anything that helped with that. Of course, the strongest part of his performance had been seen last year in the teaser trailer, which features Freddy running from the Elm Street parents and eventually getting burned alive.
The feeling of the movie. I was actually pretty tense during most of the movie the first time I saw it in 2010 (for the record, Pamela didn’t feel the same way; she disagreed with me, “I was never scared or even startled, mostly because they showed it all in the promotional stuff and because the movie was just not scary”). Upon watching it again, the tension that the film brings has little to do with the story but more to do with the anticipation that something is going to happen, some sort of boo! More on this later.
The final battle between Nancy and Freddy. The creepiness of Freddy tormenting Nancy on her bed with her unable to move was a nice touch. The rage that Haley brought to Freddy and Mara’s perseverance in battling him gave the movie a harder edge. Rooney Mara nearly matches Heather Langenkamp’s resolve, but without the silly Wile E. Coyote gimmickry. It’s not perfect, and has some terrible missteps, but overall in enjoyable.
Freddy’s new personality is a little stale. Haley wasn’t bad with the lines (“Talk about a wet dream,” for instance) and some of the other Freddy things he did; licking Nancy’s face when they are outside the preschool; the scene at the end when Nancy is in the little girl dress on her bed and Freddy is taunting her; these are some of the good things about the new Freddy, but he doesn’t have the bad-ass strut he once did or that defiant stance that fucked with his victim. In other words, some of the things that made Freddy what he was is missing. It would’ve been a bad idea for Haley try to mimic Robert Englund’s performance, but you’ve got one of the coolest weapons in cinema history on your hand, and all you do is scrape pipes and the walls with it, and sometimes flicker the fingers? Sometimes Freddy limps. Sometimes not. Also, he just doesn’t fuck with the victims enough, and he barely takes joy in it when he does. In the attempt to take Freddy away from the clown he had become, they made him a little too serious.
The Freddy makeup. The decision to go with more realistic burns was an error. What made Freddy’s burns scary in the original series was that they were kind of fantastic, not all that realistic. They were creepy in the dark, they were creepy in the light, they were creepy from afar, and they were creepy up close. The makeup in 2010 Nightmare looks too similar to that of real-life burn victims and becomes unsettling in a way that the filmmakers probably didn’t intend. And unless the camera is close-up, you really can’t tell what’s going on with Freddy’s face. He looks like a strange meatball with a body. Haley also wore contact lenses, one that was milky-gray, again, like a real burn victim might have. Robert Englund (mostly) didn’t wear lenses which helped give Freddy character. You never see the glee Freddy has taunting his victims because the eyes are hollow.
The CGI wall. It didn’t work in the commercials or in the movie. The $1.98 version in the original still creeps me out. This one made me roll my eyes and shake my fist at the screen.
The plot holes. The Elm Street parents never had any evidence that Freddy hurt their children, yet they track him down and burn him alive. The thing that made Wes Craven’s original so chilling was that the justice system failed the parents, so they then took the law into their own hands. I would think that with the Tea Party out there saying that people need to take their government back, with people like O.J. Simpson getting off a murder rap, that the twenty-first century Nightmare would eat that shit up. But no, the parents take the five-year-olds’ word that Freddy the gardener had done something bad to them and then go cook the guy. Quentin was shocked at this, and so was I. It doesn’t make sense.
Then when Nancy and Quentin go to the old preschool where Freddy had done some bad stuff to them as children, it’s pretty apparent the place has been closed down for a while. They break in, see how it has been vandalized over the years, go into the basement…and find Freddy’s little home, dusty, filled with cobwebs, but still there. How do they know? Why, because of the fingerknives lying on the workshop table. Yeah, so, all the parents pull their kids out of the preschool, the gardener disappears, the place closes down, and no one cleans the fucker out? I would understand if Freddy’s secret room were still there, untouched, with the pictures of Nancy and his Dark Knight clown mask on the wall, but the living quarters? Really? Which leads me to:
The past. Freddy Krueger was the gardener living in the basement of the preschool. Yeah. In the early 1990s, after Adam Walsh and all those other happenings in the world, would a preschool allow a gardener to live in its basement? And if it did, would a good parent send their child there? And even if one parent did, would others? It doesn’t make sense. There is no logic, which is scarce in this movie (remember, Michael Bay’s name is attached).
So in the past, the kids go home with cuts on them and tell their parents about going into “the special cave” where, it’s hinted at, Freddy molests the kids. However, he doesn’t seem to kill any of the kids. So when Craven was making the original, they dropped the molester part and for this one, they drop the killing part. All right…when Marge Thompson tells Nancy in the original that Freddy was “a filthy child murderer,” the audience understands what filthy means. But if this Freddy isn’t a killer, why fashion the glove? Because of all the things wrong with Krueger’s mind, he isn’t stupid. So he’s going to do bad things to the kids and cut them and expect the parents to never find out?
Nancy Holbrook had repressed memories. All right, I diggit. Nancy Thompson and all their friends do, too. Huh? That was always a plot point that stuck in my craw, from Craven’s masterpiece to this movie. Now, I have a very good memory. I remember being five years old in kindergarten, and four years old before it. Like the guy who knocked me into the snow as he was walking by carrying a shotgun after an argument with his girlfriend. I can remember that day very well. I also remember at two years old stepping on a large, black thumbtack-thing that lodged itself into the center of my foot. I still hate going barefoot. But Nancy, Nancy, Tina, Kris, Glen, Quentin, Rod, and Jesse can’t remember their peers either disappearing or themselves being molested by someone they seemed to love? One of them repressing the memory, sure, but all of them? I don’t know.
Another story issue concerns the Elm Street kids. Nancy, Kris, Jesse, Quentin, and Dean are all aware of each other and are all friendly, but they aren’t friends. The movie opens with Dean, who’s been having nightmares. We even see a bit of one. Kris comes to the diner where Nancy works (only for this scene) and Quentin and Jesse are eating. Jesse and Kris have recently broken up and Quentin and Nancy eye each other. This is pretty much what this version of A Nightmare on Elm Street does to introduce and build characters. By the end of the scene, Dean is dead. Kris believes in Freddy right away, and tells Jesse this at Dean’s funeral. Jesse tells her that nothing is going on when Nancy approaches them and tells Kris she believes her. Jesse tells Nancy to fuck off. We then spend more time following Kris, who seems like an over-privileged girl than her 1984 counterpart, Tina. Kris is the Janet Leigh of this film, just as Tina was in her version, only Kris is devoid of any real character. Even the sadness inherent to Tina’s life with her mother who went away for the night with her boyfriend is gone: Kris’s mother is a flight attendant who’s leaving for a bit. By the time Nancy becomes the star, we still don’t know her, because no one is really talking to her. Still, Jesse goes to see her after Kris’s death. After Jesse dies, Quentin informs her that he died in his sleep, though anyone in the jail who found his mangled body would believe otherwise. Again, there is no logic, and there certainly isn’t any characterization.
Because these Elm Street kids aren’t friends, we never learn who they are, and we never care who they are. The second half of the movie, which focuses on Nancy and Quentin in their search to uncover the truth about Freddy, almost reach a level where one may care about them. Almost.
The use of the quick extreme close-up and Freddy turning his head. It’s used too much. In a promotional video for this movie that is on the DVD of The Final Destination, they show Kris in her attic with a flashlight. The beam goes over some boxes, one of which has an old fedora on it, and when the beam slips back, the hat is an inch higher and Freddy is peeking at her. She screams and I screamed when I saw it on YouTube. They replaced this creepy moment with Freddy’s face coming at the screen quickly, like those internet videos meant to scare people. A genuinely creepy moment replaced with an internet scare. Nice.
Lack of internal logic. I know I’ve mentioned this several times already, but it’s really bad. Nothing really makes sense, and not in a nightmare-come-to-life kind of way, either. By making this new Freddy not kill the children, they remove the need for the glove. By making him a gardener that lives on the premises of a daycare/preschool, they remove the very real fact that parents would not have allowed that by the 1990s. By having the kids not be friends, they remove any pathos or empathy from the viewer. The story falls flat because the characters are as bad as some from the worst sequels.
The Morning After
In the grand scheme of Nightmare movies, I rank the remake between Dream Warriors and The Dream Master in terms of direction and feel and between The Dream Master and The Dream Child for Freddy, but overall, it’s just above Freddy’s Revenge and Freddy’s Dead. During the pre-movie press, Platinum Dunes and New Line kept forcing every person who had anything to do with this movie to say the movie was a re-imagining but it feels more like a lame sequel. Also, the movie just isn’t scary. Well, not in the way I thought the original was.
Overall, this Nightmare doesn’t do it for me. When I first saw it, I liked it well enough, but time and a second viewing have changed my mind. I don’t like it, because it feels devoid of the very things that made me love the original and its sequels. I’m not against remaking Freddy or the Nightmare on Elm Street series (I even have a great idea for a reboot…one that people I’ve told it to have actually been surprised by), but this one is weak at best, and flimsy the rest of the time.