Category Archives: Random Stuff
June 1978 marked the 40th anniversary of Superman’s debut in Action Comics #1. By now, Superman was more of a joke than anything else. Considered a square Boy Scout in tights, he chugged along in his comic books, trying hard to still be relevant. He was still on TV, though not in a live action series. After George Reeves’s death in 1959, live action Superman just didn’t happen. There’d been a Broadway show, which had been televised as a special, and a few small attempts in kiddie-fair specials, but mostly Superman had been relegated to cartoons on the small screen. He had his own cartoon from 1966 (the year another DC Comics megastar returned in live action) to 1970, and was a star in Super Friends, beginning in 1973, but live action? No. The late-1960s belonged to Batman, with Adam West bringing the Caped Crusader to the small screen, as well as the big screen for one movie. That show never even made it to the 1970s. Between the high camp of Batman and the general sour disposition of the Vietnam War, not to mention the civil unrest that was going on in the United States at the time, who cared about Superman?
Well, Ilya Salkind, that’s who. The young movie producer convinced his father, Alexander Salkind, and Pierre Spengler to purchase the film rights for Superman in 1974. At that point, the task was to make the movie. I’m not going to get into the rest of the story. It’s readily available (and, honestly, fascinating) throughout the Internet as well as a myriad of documentaries for various versions of the movie. Suffice it to say that five months after the 40th anniversary, on December 10th, Superman: The Movie premiered.
I was aware of this movie before I saw it through Superman II trading cards. Because I was almost a year-and-a-half when the movie came out, I wasn’t aware of it, nor did I see it. It wasn’t until the movie debuted on TV that I saw it the first time. I feel like it was a yearly Movie the Week until home video killed that tradition. I feel like it ran for three hours on TV. I feel like George Reeves stopped being Superman for me at the moment of watching t this wonder-to-the-eye of special effects and…well, wonder, and the man my mother told me was Christopher Reeve, who was also not really flying, but was hanging by wires, and lying on tables, became Superman.
Like Star Wars the year before it, Superman: The Movie may have failed if had come out sooner. It may have failed had the producers gotten a Big Name Star to fill in the blue spandex. But it didn’t. Oh, boy, it didn’t.
The cast is superb. You know this, I know this, I should just stop. But I won’t. Brando is convincing as Jor-El, member of the Kryptonian Council as well as major scientist. Susannah York as his wife Lara isn’t in much of the movie but her pathos is undeniable. She does not want to give up her only child, no matter the consequences, but does so anyway. Jackie Cooper and Marc McClure as Perry White and Jimmy Olsen also shine. And while she’s a little goofy at times, Margot Kidder as Lois Lane is spot-on. It’s really a surprise her career didn’t take off after this movie. Gene Hackman is an interesting, diabolical, and sometimes chilling Lex Luthor. The inferiority complex that Luthor must have in shown with his choice of sidekicks, the bumbling oaf Otis, played by the always-great Ned Beatty, and the sultry, sexy Miss Teschmacher, played by Valerie Perrine. Her outfits and very presence would be enough to send many boys into puberty, even in this movie. And don’t forget Glenn Ford or Phyllis Thaxter as Jonathan and Martha Kent. Ford’s death scene chilled me as a little boy (and, truth be told, does so now, too). All these actors are great in their parts, chewing up the scenery and getting the viewer to believe in the world of Krypton, Smallville, and Metropolis. But the center of the movie, the spoke on which this wheel turns, is–
Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent and Superman. I went back on forth about giving Reeve a paragraph to himself instead of lumping him in with the rest of the cast–after all, Kirk Alyn and George Reeves were both placed with their casts–but I had to. The choice of the unknown, too-skinny classically-trained actor to embody the Man of Steel in the flesh was a bold one. When Christopher Reeve was cast as Superman/Clark Kent, George Reeves was still planted firmly in everyone’s mind as Superman, even though he’d died when Reeve was only six years old. Reeve portrayed Clark Kent as a classic screwball klutz, think Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby. Yet, Kent never really feels like a farce. There’s a real-world simplicity and charm to him that sells him. Reeve had said that one of keys to playing Clark Kent in the way he chose was to make sure he didn’t walk into every door, but to make sure Clark got through the door with aplomb nearly as often. If anyone has ever been able to sell that Clark Kent and Superman were two different people, it was Reeve. As far as Superman is concerned, Reeve gave him an earnestness that was almost dorky, but never made it seem like he was better than anyone. Reeve’s Superman wanted to be human, and it could be read on his face. But this Superman wasn’t simply the do-gooder as presented in previous incarnations, and he was nobody’s wise uncle. He was the older brother you trust, but he also had an edge. Take the following exchange: Lois is interviewing Superman on her balcony and says, “Clark said you were just a figment of somebody’s imagination…like Peter Pan.” After some back-and-forth on who Clark is, Superman replies, “Peter Pan flew with children, Lois. In a fairy tale.” Who knew that Superman had game? The implication, of course, was that they weren’t children. This was no fairy tale. The line would be a hard sell but it works, and I give credit to Reeve.
Still, someone had to write that line, and the writers were Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, and Robert Benton. And after Richard Donner came onto the film as director, Tom Mankiewicz did a tune-up to the script, though his credit is “creative consultant.” The story and script are great. Because the producers wanted to film Superman and Superman II together, the original story was quite large. With Richard Donner on as director, the feeling that this was a fantasy for children went away. The director of the horror classic The Omen might be doing Superman, and he knew it would be seen by children, but his intelligence and that of the writers was not to make a kid’s movie. They took Superman fairly seriously. After a great black-and-white prelude that features a little boy speaking and opening an issue of Action Comics, as well as a Daily Planet building with rotating globe, after the opening credits with John Williams’s wonderful music, the first line of the film is Marlon Brando as Jor-El saying, “This is no fantasy.” Brilliant. We’re reminded of this throughout the movie. This is no fantasy, no fairy tale. Superman is made plausible and, in some ways, is the most realistic character in the entire movie.
And while I’m talking about Richard Donner, his direction is great. The actors inhabit the roles entirely and seem at ease. Technically, the movie looks great and has Donner’s touches as an activist as well as a storyteller. One rather adult moment that I caught (that may only be in the extended version) happens in the scene when Lois Lane meets Clark Kent. Lois’s desk in outside Perry White’s office amongst six other desks, three facing one way, three facing the opposite so the occupants can look at each other over their typewriters. Lois shows Clark where his desk is, which is across and kitty-corner to her own. In typical Clark Kent fashion, he needs to squeeze behind her in the tightly packed, busy newspaper office, just as she bends over. He brushes against her and she shoots up, eyes wide, shock on her face. Clark mumbles something, pushes his glasses up, and quickly gets to his desk. Her look at him is over in an instant, but it’s a priceless scene that proves that he is the Man of Steel…everywhere.
John Williams once again creates a classic theme. As he did with Star Wars, he created a symphonic story that matches the beauty of some of the scenes, as well as the heroism of the character. The music is as important to this story as anything else in the film.
Superman flies! The tagline on many of the posters and advertising of this movie was, “You’ll believe a man can fly.” And for the first time in live action, that was a promise nearly kept. Using masterful wirework as well as technology developed for Star Wars, Superman really appears to fly, which not only serves the story in general, but gives us one of the classic scenes of cinema: Superman and Lois Lane flying. It is a scene that is beautiful and filled with wonder. Sure, 1978’s special effects don’t hold a candle (or an iPhone) to what is capable now, but its beauty isn’t in its realism but in what goes down in the scene. Two people are falling in love though they know they can never really be together. For the first time, Clark Kent actually has found someone he can be comfortable with, and Lois Lane has found something that’s more important than her career. It’s a scene that should be silly, hokey, but works.
Otis is a bit too dumb. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ned Beatty and his role as Otis, but it’s a bit of a stretch that Lex Luthor would keep around such an idiot. I like the idea that he would have those he deemed lesser than him as henchmen but Otis seems borderline retarded. Even Miss Teschmacher is a little too dumb for Lex, though she has much more realism than the bumbling oaf. Now, I hope I’m not coming across as one of those fanboys who feel that every superhero/science fiction/space fantasy/nerdmovie should be serious with no comic relief, but I think it’s a little much. The joy of this movie is the decision to move away from the 1966 Batman‘s camp but Otis almost belongs there. As a result, so does Lex Luthor. That said, I’m writing this from the perspective of a 35-year-old. The 5-year-old thought Otis was great, so I guess that really settles this minor gripe.
The ending. The idea of having the movie end with Superman changing the rotation of Earth and thereby changing the course of time brings the movie straight into fantasy, which is great considering the first line of the movie. That said, I leaves too much open. When the world went back and saved Lois, did everyone get saved? Did the missiles not hit anything? Because it seemed that Superman didn’t bring time back far enough to erase their launch. And if he did, and there was no launch, when Superman picks Lex Luthor and Otis up, do they even know why, or are they befuddled because they never launched their plan? And if they launched the missiles, then wouldn’t they strike anyway? Or did Superman in essence make a copy of himself that took care of the East Coast missile and then is erased when time catches up again with post-Earth spinning Superman? Because if that’s the case, then maybe he disposed of the West Coast missile offscreen and understood the other one would vanish and become him.
You see what I mean? Time travel is not for the faint of heart! Only aliens in blue police boxes and teenagers in Deloreans should attempt it! It feels like a cop-out. Originally, this was to be the ending of Superman II. The ending for this film would have Superman getting the missiles in time and sending them into space, where they’d explode and meet up with the Phantom Zone inmates, General Zod, Ursa, and Non, and free them. The final shot of Superman was supposed to be the three evil Kryptonians flying toward Earth, which is why they’re at the beginning of this movie. Richard Donner was convinced by others that his original ending was too small and to put the Earth spin at the end of the first film.
And speaking of offscreen, we never actually see Superman get Lex Luthor or Otis. He is overjoyed to see he saved Lois (who is upset that her car ran out of gas and that he couldn’t be her taxi service or something), then flies away. Suddenly, Luthor and Otis are carried into the penitentiary’s courtyard. What about Miss Teschmacher? Well, if you happen to own the 2000 extended cut of Superman, you get the answer about Luthor, Otis, and Miss Teschmacher…in the bonus features. In the nearly 10 minutes of restored footage to the actual movie, that was kept out. I received the Superman Anthology Blu-ray set for Christmas last year so saw this feature, though it may be on the 2000 DVD (I’d need to check but am way too lazy).
After the Battle
Superman: The Movie is a masterpiece. It’s one of the first adaptations of a comic book character that took the whole thing seriously. It was a movie not just for the kids but also for the grown-up kids who’d been fans at all in the forty years Superman had been around at that point. When the movie came out in 1978, it was big. Suddenly, Superman was cool again. It had intelligently set up the second movie in its first few scenes. It couldn’t be long before Donner and the rest would provide Superman II. With the way this movie turned out, what could possibly go wrong?
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.
I was probably a junior in high school when I first read that New Line Cinema was going to not only bring Freddy back from the dead but that none other than Wes Craven would return to rebirth Freddy. I was excited, albeit skeptical. I hadn’t been a huge fan of Craven’s post-A Nightmare on Elm Street movies Shocker and The People Under the Stairs but was hopeful that he would be able to rejuvenate Freddy. I was a senior by the time the movie was released.
I loved it.
I left the theater with a bounce in my step. Not only had Craven rethought Freddy and Nightmare but he made a movie that was more than a sequel. It was a film on its own; one didn’t need to have seen any of the Nightmare movies in order to understand and enjoy this movie, yet, knowing at least the first movie helped this one. Also understanding where Freddy went wrong enhanced the telling.
Unfortunately, despite some of the best reviews that any of the previous Nightmares received, New Nightmare hardly found an audience (if memory serves, I was the only person in the theater; or perhaps one of two or three people). The film was released amid very little fanfare and disappeared quickly. Except for the horror magazines like Fangoria and the Fred-heads (again with that silly term!), New Nightmare may as well not have happened. Except…in the years since its release, it seems to have found its audience.
Wes Craven’s return. For real this time. The legend is, this was the first idea Craven pitched in 1985/6 for Nightmare 3, a sort of behind-the-scenes/Freddy comes to haunt the filmmakers story and New Line Cinema passed. I can’t say that I blame them and while I’m sure it would have been an interesting movie, it probably wouldn’t have had the power that the movie did in 1994, ten years after Freddy’s debut. Craven, who’d had some ups (The Serpent and the Rainbow) and some downs (the aforementioned movies) after the original Nightmare, seemed to be ready to explore the idea of Freddy Krueger and what his (Krueger’s) success meant more than to make another Nightmare. He also seems to be as interested in the storytelling process and what the horror film means as he is to scare the shit out of you. So his script and his direction bring us a Nightmare like no other. This is a master at work, folks.
Craven’s story for this movie is one of my favorites. By moving outside of the continuity (ha!) of the previous movies, he is able to dissect 1) Why the hell is Freddy Krueger and the Nightmare movies so popular? 2) Do horror movies affect their audience and if so, how? 3) For the filmmakers of such movies, where does the line between fantasy and reality lie or is it blurry? 4) Do horror stories serve a purpose other than a) making a quick buck for their producers, b) to scare people, c) giving a hard-on to immature assholes who think it’s cool to watch people die gruesomely in movies? These are questions I believe all creators must ask themselves if they write scary stories. And like other creative people, Craven uses his art to look at these things. Stephen King has surely done it in almost every story he’s written that has a writer as the main character, though the most successful King writers are Paul Sheldon from Misery, Thad Beaumont from The Dark Half, Mike Noonan from Bag of Bones, and Stephen King from The Dark Tower. With New Nightmare, Craven has done the cinematic version of this.
Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, and Robert Englund. These three returning to the Nightmare playing themselves is great fun. Only an idiot would believe that the lives of these three are so intertwined that they are all so buddy-buddy, yet their acting is so good you do believe it. I’m sure that these three actors truly do have admiration for each other as well as a friendly relationship, but I don’t know that I buy Langenkamp and Saxon chilling in the park, talking about life while Langenkamp’s son is playing. The performances have me buy it for the movie, though, each time I see it. Langenkamp’s performance trumps either of her earlier Elm Street efforts. The decade between the first movie and this one (and a better director than the third movie’s) brings out a performance that should have gotten her more parts in good movies. Saxon plays himself restrained and understanding, the fatherly friend we all hope to know. Englund’s turn as the uber-celebrity of the series is both hilarious and understated. I should note that the acting by the New Line execs as themselves, as well as Wes Craven as himself, are all pretty good (although Robert Shaye is pretty bad, but in a good way, this time).
Robert Englund as “Freddy Krueger.” All right, he’s really not Freddy this time. He’s Freddy in one appearance at a talk show where Langenkamp is being interviewed, dancing around and doing the Freddy The Clown shtick. The demon that has taken the form of Freddy, though, is good. The new makeup is a streamlined, enhanced version of the burns that Freddy sported throughout the main series, though here is a more artistic rendering. The muscles underneath the broken flesh have lines coming from a center point and look unnatural and cool. The contacts that keep the entire eye white except for the tiny black pupils are creepy and work. The turtleneck sweater, leather pants, knee-high boots, and trench coat that are all tight around the Demon-Freddy’s more muscular body works. The muscular body, for that matter, works. And, of course, the claw fashioned after the claw on the poster of A Nightmare on Elm Street, complete with a thumb knife gives the final touch. This is a Freddy who wants to kill you. He’ll have a smartass line (I don’t want to use one-liner), but he’s really more about chopping you up.
The funeral scene. After Heather’s husband Chase (David Newsom) dies in an “automobile accident” (he fell asleep at the wheel), there’s a funeral with Heather, her son (Miko Hughes), the babysitter Julie (Tracy Middendorf), John Saxon, and Robert Englund all in attendence. Also in attendance is Wes Craven, the people from New Line, and several cast members from the previous Nightmares. Again, it’s unrealistic that this would actually happen, yet it’s a great touch to the fantasy of the piece. Craven has given us in this scene (as well as the examples I wrote of before) what many people believe happens in Hollywood. Everyone knows each other and they’re all friends. The sweep of the mourners is so quick, you really have to be paying attention to see Jsu Garcia, Tuesday Knight, and others in the crowd.
The style of the movie. The real world scenes of the film are shot in a documentary style that compliments the story and the nightmares are more cinematic. The cinematography of the movie is strong and the special effects are good, utilizing everything that was available in 1994.
The ending. About halfway through the movie, Heather is reading Hansel & Gretel to her son Dylan (Miko Hughes) and she gets to the where the children throw the witch into her own oven. The story gets graphic and, considering the hellish few days the two have been through, Heather decides it’s too much and stops the story. Dylan grabs her arm and says, “No, Mommy. Keep reading.”
“But, Dylan, honey,” Heather says. “It’s too much right now and besides, you already know how it ends.”
“But, Mommy, I have to hear Hansel and Gretel get away.”
I’m paraphrasing but it goes along those lines. This is brilliant. Most people who watch/read horror stories want the heroes to survive and the monster killed. When a book like Cujo comes along, or Darabont’s adaptation of The Mist, where tragedy seems to win (even though the monsters, for the most part, do not), they get upset. Yet, those same viewers will often be happy when Carrie’s hand pops from the grave for one last Boo!, as Brian DePalma and his screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen have happen in the film version of Carrie. This sort of Boo! has become a staple of the horror film and was forced upon Wes Craven during the shooting of A Nightmare on Elm Street. What this essentially tells the viewer is, “Yes, you’re safe for now, but this monster is still alive and is going to come back.” Perhaps it’s a means of saying that evil never dies and tragedy never ceases, or perhaps it’s a mistake because, essentially, there’s never any closure.
The ending of New Nightmare does no such thing. The ending has Hansel & Gretel get back home, so to speak. There is no Boo!, just a FADE OUT as Heather and Dylan read a screenplay they find on the bedroom floor after their final confrontation with Freddy. The screenplay is called Wes Craven’s New Nightmare by Wes Craven. Perhaps Craven has a point here.
Miko Hughes as Dylan Porter, aka. Heather Langenkamp’s fake son. Miko Hughes started playing Creepy Kids pretty young, as the ill-fated Gage Creed in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. Here he plays another Creepy Kid. I’m not against Hughes as a young actor–the boy was cute and seemed to have some talent–but I’m afraid Craven made a fundamental mistake that many movies make with their children in movies like this: the kid is creepy! It’s not because he’s taping knives to his fingers and swiping at his mother, or foaming at the mouth, or seemingly channeling Freddy, but that he looks doped most of the time.
Well, he hasn’t had much sleep because of his nightmares, one can argue. True that (I’m so gangsta sometimes I gotta check myself befo’ I wreck myself), but I’ve dealt with a child who has had little sleep and catatonia isn’t in the cards, not in the few days this story takes place. The kid lost his father, though, Bill! I know, but the kid is four/five-years-old. I’m pretty sure that he wouldn’t be so out of it. I may be wrong (and I’m sure you’ll let me know), but that’s what I’m thinking. The Creepy Kid thing is something that bothers me in movies and someday perhaps I’ll write an essay about it, but I’ll leave poor Miko Hughes (whom I’ll still quote, “I played with Mo-ommy and I played with Ju-udd, now I wanna play with yoou!”) alone here and say that a better performance could have been gotten from him. He has some very good moments in New Nightmare, but the majority of his part bothers me.
Johnny Depp was never asked to appear in New Nightmare. As mentioned above, a slew of actors from the Nightmare movies were asked to come and take part in the funeral scene. Noticeably missing, though, is Johnny Depp. In the 1999 DVD commentary, Wes Craven reveals that he didn’t think that Depp would be interested in making a cameo. He reveals that when they ran into each other at a function after the movie was released, Depp told him he would have made the cameo with no hesitation. So now we will always be haunted by Freddy smashing Johnny Depp in the face with a frying pan in Freddy’s Dead and long for a somber look toward his first onscreen girlfriend in New Nightmare. Lesson to be learned, kids: Always ask.
The final battle. Again, Craven fumbles the ball in the final battle. I had originally written that Craven drops the ball, but that’s not quite true. The final battle in this movie is superior to the final battle in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Craven utilizes matte paintings, miniature sets, digital effects, and practical effects to pull off Freddy’s labyrinth in the nightmare world, all of which is great. Heather, who has become Nancy again, has gone to the nightmare to rescue Dylan. There’s some creepy stuff here. Unfortunately, a lot of it is silly. Again, I wonder if it’s the old Evil-Isn’t-As-Strong-As-It-Seems thing. Two of the silly sequences in the final battle are that Freddy tries to eat Dylan…alive–his mouth opens wide enough to fit the boy’s head–and the long, long, long tongue that wraps itself around Heather/Nancy until it’s stuck down with a knife, then it retracts like a vacuum cleaner’s cord, leaving a snake-like forked tongue. This rubbed me wrong back when I first saw the movie and it rubs me wrong now.
The Morning After
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is really not a sequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street. Had it been made twenty years later, it probably would have become an instant classic (of course, the story might have to change…maybe Heather would be the mother to a teenage girl haunted by Freddy…). Craven’s script and direction is superb. The film is a minor masterpiece in horror cinema and rivals the first Nightmare in many ways. The questions that Craven asks about the responsibility of the creator of horror stories are serious, important ones. His commentary on 1980s horror is also pretty important. By cheapening the monsters like Freddy Krueger, by diluting them and turning them from our worst enemies to the friends we can look forward to seeing once a year, the horror genre is cheapened. It becomes a sort of fun way to see terrible things happen to pretty people. The doctor Heather must answer to when Dylan is admitted to the hospital, played frustratingly well by Fran Bennett, is the voice of the censors and those who do not like and do not understand why some horror can actually be called art. She accuses Heather’s work in the Nightmare movies (and, in essence, Wes Craven, Robert Englund, et al) of being hazardous to children.
A good horror movie, a good horror novel, doesn’t just scare us but also mixes a real idea into the ingredients, just like any good book or movie does. Freddy Krueger acted as a way for people to release the stress for people living in the late twentieth century. Why was there a horror boom from the late 1970s through till about 1991/92? Because people were scared. The Soviet Union, the threat of nuclear warfare, AIDS, the results of the 1960s/1970s social movements that had changed the way things were (most often for the better, but whenever anything changes–for good or for ill–new fears surface), high inflation without higher pay, the old ways slowly dying as newer, sleeker ways came in–it was a hectic, scary time. The horror movie/novel and characters like Jason Voorhees, Leatherface, Michael Myers, Chucky (consumerism gone mad, folks), the Cenobites from Hellraiser, Cujo, Christine, and, of course, Freddy Krueger helped encapsulate that. In 1994, under a President who wasn’t as scary (despite what the Right would have had you believe) as Ron Reagan, Wes Craven was willing to look back and willing to tell us why Freddy worked and why he stopped working.
The themes that carried Craven through New Nightmare would be revisited two years later when a young screenwriter by the name of Kevin Williamson sold a script called Scary Movie to Bob Weinstein at Dimension Films and they approached Wes Craven to direct. Over the course of shooting, the movie would be renamed Scream and helped rejuvenate the horror film for a bit, straight through one very good sequel, one good sequel, and one shitty “Why bother?” sequel. But it started here with Freddy, with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.
It would have been a bad choice for him to revisit Freddy and try to do an in-continuity movie (shit, those who made in-continuity movies couldn’t get it right!). This settles the argument. Even though New Nightmare is often lumped together with the other sequels, it really is so much more than that. Yes, there are a few small blunders, but the movie is worth watching and studying. It’s a movie as much about storytelling as it is about dreaming, though one could argue that storytelling and dreaming aren’t all that different.
There were no new Nightmares for the two years I was in junior high school, which is probably all right, junior high was a bad enough nightmare. Still, the horror didn’t stop. A week before I began the eighth grade, the night before my thirteenth birthday, I saw a profile of Stephen King on ABC’s Primetime Live. It made me more curious about him than ever so the next day I bought his novel The Shining. By chapter 3, I decided I wanted to be a writer. It was 1990.
I don’t remember when I first learned of Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare in 1991, but feel like it was in a movie poster. Either way, learning about a new Nightmare to open on September 13th (it was a Friday), just weeks after I began high school, was pretty cool. So there I was in the theater during the opening weekend, with my 3D glasses waiting for the right moment and….
Would it be hyperbolic to say that I knew it would be a turd before the movie’s title had even shown up? At the start of both Dream Warriors and The Dream Master, the writers/directors put quotes from Edgar Allan Poe and The Bible respectively. The Dream Child skipped this but director Rachel Talalay (who concocted this story and co-wrote the screenplay) and co-screenwriter Michael DeLuca (who had written episodes of Freddy’s Nightmares—A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Series) put in a quote by Frederich Nietzsche.
Okay, says fourteen-year-old Billy. That’s a good quote. Then comes another quote:
And we’re off. I knew this would be garbage. At fourteen-friggin’-years-old I knew this movie would suck, but I hoped I was wrong. I could end the essay right here because there’s really no reason to go further. But I will, because I’m compulsive (and perhaps too self-indulgent) and because you’ve stuck with me to find out which Nightmare I deemed THE WORST NIGHTMARE EVER.
After that wonderful quote, the title comes falling down one letter at a time like boulders, a title that I hated when I first learned of it: Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. It pretty much says everything right there. Why see it? Then a really horrible map that appears to be shot from a computer screen pops up, revealing that Springwood, the town that Freddy has haunted since 1984, is in…Ohio? But what about Tina’s reference to weird things happening before earthquakes in the first movie? And the palm trees that pop up in shots throughout the series? O-fuckin’-hio?
Then the shit really hit the fan, and with it in 3D, oh, what a mess was made.
I left the theater numb. (Well, I always leave a movie theater numb. I actually refuse to talk about a movie for a while after I see it and never speak of the movie while still in the theater…unless it’s so good or so bad that I cannot help myself). I left the theater with a hatred for Rachel Talalay and Michael DeLuca and Robert Shaye and New Line Cinema for ruining The Greatest Monster Of All Time.
So, let’s get our gloves on and dissect this muthafuggah, shall we?
Yaphet Kotto. He acts in this movie. He is one of two people who do. Like Dr. Neil Gordon (and one could argue Nancy was also an adult in Dream Warriors), he is an adult that believes in Freddy and is willing to help dispose of him. Unlike Dr. Neil Gordon, he didn’t have good writers like Frank Darabont to give him much to do. His talent is wasted.
Lezlie Deane plays Tracy. She’s also pretty good in this movie. Her portrayal of the damaged girl with anger management issues is pretty right on and she’s worth watching.
The running time is 96 minutes. I used this same joke on Freddy’s Revenge. Deal with it.
Speaking of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, this movie makes the second of the series look like Citizen Kane. This is a dream for that movie.
The clips that run through the closing credits. They remind viewers that Freddy Krueger had some good moments before this movie.
The story/script. The story was by Rachel Talalay and the screenplay by her and Michael DeLuca. Talalay had been working on the Nightmare movies since the first movie when she was an assistant of some kind. She worked her way up to producer and somehow convinced New Line to let her take control of this movie. In interviews on the 1999 DVD set, Talalay shows the same sort of stupid arrogance that Jack Sholder shows in his interview regarding Freddy’s Revenge. They blame this factor and that factor on why their movies sucked, and Talalay points that this was wrong and that was wrong with the predecessors and that her budget wasn’t good and the 3D gimmick was forced on her by New Line and….
Neither of the directors of the two failures of the series seems to want to shoulder the responsibility. Neither wants to cop to the fact that they are horrible storytellers, yet both have proven it with the movies they’ve done after Freddy’s Dead. Go to the IMDb and look. I’ll wait.
Back? Okay. The story gives us another revelation about Freddy: he was married and had a child! And it appeared that he lived in Nancy’s house at the time. And this house, which we’ve been following since 1984 (which seemed to have changed locations in 1988 when Kristen and her friends went to visit it), suddenly sprung a water tower behind it. Anyway, there’s a boy (Shon Greenblatt) who leaves Springwood and ends up in some city where the authorities place him in a home for troubled kids. In the hopes of fixing his amnesia, Dr. Maggie Burroughs (Lisa Zane) brings him back to Springwood, which we find has no children because Freddy got them all (although I think Roseanne Barr/Arnold/Barr and Tom Arnold ate them all), and…. Oh, it doesn’t matter. The story is a mess. And the math is off. Even when folks have tried to bring the timeline together in the expanded universe, it’s off and doesn’t make sense.
“I wanted this movie to have a more gritty and urban feel and a distinct visual style to it. What I tried to bring to The Final Nightmare was a real story,” Rachel Talalay said in an article from Fangoria (thanks, again, to The Nightmare on Elm Street Companion for this quote). If it was “a more urban and gritty feel” she was after, she failed. First off, the idea of A Nightmare on Elm Street was, I would think, the horrifying acts of suburban parents and how it comes back to haunt their children. For every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. Freddy kills suburban children, gets arrested, gets out of jail free. Suburban parents burn Freddy. Ten years later, Freddy comes back for the suburban kids–several of them coming from broken homes (most likely having something to do with roasting someone)–through nightmares. As far as her “distinct visual style,” Talalay’s direction is sloppy. There are hardly any transitions, neither in the story nor between clips. The camera seems to move when it should be still and is still when it should move. I think she wanted the 3D feel throughout the movie, even though it’s only at the end where the 3D comes in.
The acting is horrendous. It has, arguably, one of the best casts in the series when you look at it on paper. Lisa Zane had a name at this point in some independent movies and some B-movies, Brecken Meyer–who wasn’t known but was headed for an okay career, and the aforementioned Kotto. Yet, except for the two actors listed above in the Dreams section of this essay, none of the actors pulls it off. Shon Greenblatt, who plays John Doe, is the first person we’re introduced to and he’s terrible. He gets angry for no reason and overacts. His lines are given as naturally as pus being expelled from a pimple, with nastier results. And his character is stupid, and I use the term stupid, I don’t mean that I don’t like the character so he’s stupid, but that John Doe had the mental capacity of a sack of oats. I mentioned above that the math doesn’t make sense. John Doe is supposed to be a teenager and he believes that he’s Freddy’s child, but even a fourteen-year-old who was horrible at math (me) knew that he was too damn young to be Freddy’s child. Freddy was already toast by the time he was born. Meyer plays the spoiled pot-head with about as much skill as a rock. Luckily for him, Clueless and The Craft were coming up. Ricky Dean Logan as Carlos is okay, but isn’t great. He’s a deaf Hispanic kid who uses his disability to annoy those around him by removing his hearing aid to shut out their voices. And finally, Lisa Zane sleepwalks through the movie. Maybe she signed on before reading the script? I don’t know, but what a waste.
Robert Englund as Freddy. Freddy is a comedian in this movie, except he’s not funny. The acting is overdone, most of Freddy’s lines are shouted, the lines are just terrible, and silly pantomimes are used too often. Don’t get me started on the makeup, which is the worst makeup of the series. Freddy Krueger is the star but this movie is crap and he’s crap in it. The best parts in the movie with Freddy, funny enough, are when Englund is out of makeup, and he’s almost good in then.
Now don’t think I’m a hater. (Yes, I wrote that). Robert Englund is a classically trained actor and his portrayal of Fred Krueger in the original Nightmare elevated the character to great heights. But as I said in my last essay, the character, and his portrayal of the character, is too diluted. And even if it’s the editor’s/director’s fault for choosing the humorous takes over the scary ones, Englund holds some responsibility–there’s only so much you can blame on the editor. The very first time we see Freddy in this movie is when John Doe’s house is in the air and Freddy comes by with a black cape, pointed witch hat, and riding a broom. He shouts, “I’ll get you, my pretty! And your little soul, too!” I would think at that point, he must have had at least a leetle veto power.
The cameos. Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold. Johnny Depp poking fun at the “This is your brain on drugs” PSAs that used to run and were already old when these culturally hip people put the movie together. Alice Cooper as Freddy’s adoptive father. Each one of these cameos cheapens the movie. They worked in The Muppet Movie but not in Freddy’s Dead.
The dream demons. These are horribly-done puppets/CG characters that float around and promise Freddy immortality and power in the dream world, answering the question: How did Freddy get his power? To me, he was scarier without us knowing. That’s the magic of the horror story: answers aren’t needed. The makers of Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare disagreed and they give answers. As is so often the case, the answers are lame.
The 3D effects. Now, folks, I like some of the recent results of the new 3D craze. I think that digital 3D can be great and is fun for some movies (though I did feel it detracted from Avatar, which needed all the help it could get). Freddy’s Dead‘s 3D was almost twenty years before digital 3D and it was bad. It made a bad movie even worse.
The clips running through the end credits. Yeah, they were great to see on the big screen, but they only pointed out how horrible this movie was.
The Morning After
I put off watching this movie on DVD and actually skipped it last summer when I did my Nightmare-a-thon, but decided I should watch it when this kakameme idea came to post these little write-ups. Maybe, I thought (hoped), like Freddy’s Revenge, Freddy’s Dead would have some charm. Nope. It didn’t. At least the makers of the second one had the excuse that they didn’t realize how big Freddy and A Nightmare on Elm Street would become.
The movie makes me sad. With a little bit of thought, with a little bit of understanding, with a little bit of caring, even this movie could have redeemed the issues with the prior two movies. Instead, it felt like a big ol’ Fuck you to the fans. It was as though New Line Cinema, aka “The House That Freddy Built”, were laughing at the people who’d made them the company they had become, a company that would be bought by Time-Warner a few years later and would go on to make The Lord of the Rings.
The movie still feels that way. Of course, as an adult, I know that nothing lasts forever. There can only be a finite number of stories before you have to rethink something. The comic books have been doing that for seventy-five years with Superman, Batman, etc. Still, a television series like Lost proves that quality storytelling can be done in far more time than it takes to watch the entire Nightmare movies, if the story is told by people who care about the story they’re telling, and the audience who is receiving it.
There were several reasons to look forward to the summer following the sixth grade, the summer of 1989. It was the last summer before I began junior high school (which I didn’t know would be hell). I remember feeling a lot anticipation for that summer. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was coming to movie theaters. So was Batman. I had seen Lethal Weapon on video and while Mom and Dad didn’t take me to see Lethal Weapon 2, I knew it wouldn’t be too long before it came to video. Ghostbusters II was also coming out (though I missed seeing that movie until it came out on video; the first of only two times I’ve seen the whole movie, the most recent was last year). The last thing that really got me excited was the last movie I’d see in the theater before the nightmare known as junior high (and pre-adolescence): A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child.
My mother, who wasn’t hip enough to have liked The Dream Master, left it up to my father to take me. Diggit: Dad doesn’t like horror movies. For that matter, my father doesn’t like most movies. Old westerns, The Horse Whisperer (which I have yet to see), and maybe a few early Clint Eastwood movies, otherwise Dad just isn’t interested. But he loved me (the old man still does) and he took me.
The Dream Master was a huge hit. The Dream Child was not. Was it Freddy fatigue? Was it that despite large numbers of people who went out to see the fourth Nightmare, far fewer actually liked it? Was it that teen pregnancy was a little too close to home for the Nightmare demographic? Perhaps it was all those things. Perhaps none. Another cause could be that the Horror Boom of the 1980s was about to crash. Stephen King was taking a short break to deal with some personal issues, and there were too many bad books on the shelves and even more bad movies in the theaters and on video rental shelves.
The Dream Child was directed by Stephen Hopkins, who, like the two previous Nightmare directors, went on to have a pretty active career once moving away from Elm Street. The story was by the horror novel writing team of John Skipp and Craig Spector, and Leslie Bohem, who wrote the screenplay. Somewhere in my memory, I link the writer David J. Schow to the film, too. New Line was tapping into the Horror Novel Boom for creative ideas. If I’m wrong that Mr. Schow (who appeared in Borderlands 5 with me, Stephen King, John Farris, and others…go find a copy on eBay) had anything to do with The Dream Child, I’m sure someone out there will correct me.
My feelings on the movie, released a few weeks before my twelfth birthday, have changed little in the twenty-one years since it came out. As a matter of fact, those early thoughts have solidified and become more adult. I actually have reasons for some of those feelings.
More continuity! This movie continues the story of characters we met in the previous movie. Woo!
Lisa Wilcox returns as Alice Johnson. Her performance in The Dream Master needed a little oomph until the end, but as I said in the last essay, it was probably that the director was about cool camera angles and flashy effects more than he was about acting. Wilcox does a far better job in The Dream Child, though she no longer looks like a teenager, even one graduating from high school. Her performance is solid and helps the movie flow. The only other comment I have is her hair. Her hair was dyed red in The Dream Master so people wouldn’t get her confused with Tuesday Knight. For The Dream Child, she sports her natural blonde hair. I’m always for the red hair, though.
Some of the supporting cast is okay, too. Nick Mele’s return as Mr. Johnson, who is a recovering alcoholic (he wasn’t recovering in The Dream Master) plays a sympathetic role, a real character arc from his assholy tendencies in the prior movie. Danny Hassell returns as Dan, Alice’s boyfriend. His performance is all right, it’s just good to see a returning character. Of the new victims–er…um…teenagers–it’s really only Kelly Jo Minter as Yvonne who is worth watching. She was trapped in high school in the 1980s, stuck in Summer School, for instance.
Stephen Hopkins brings a gothic feel to this movie that is missing from The Dream Master and only hinted at in Dream Warriors. The sets are usually darker in this movie than in the previous and there are shots of the institution where Amanda Krueger (the writers have dropped the whole Sister Mary Helena name) worked that remind me of the best gothic movies. This is a man who could have made a really good Nightmare, given better material.
Poor material or not, the idea of Freddy trying to use the dreams of an unborn baby is a good one. I know a lot of fans think it’s lame but I’m not one of them. Why not? If the execution is poor, it wasn’t for lack of trying.
The majority of the characters survive. This fact helps stop The Dream Child from bringing the Nightmare series too far into slasher movie territory.
The weak cast. Erika Anderson as Greta, the bulimic/anorexic teen model, and Joe Seely as Mark, the skateboarding comic book geek, are both all right but weak. They have their roles to fill and both do so, but are (wait for it…) stereotypes. Kelly Jo Minter is able to make Yvonne rise over any stereotype she might be in. The people who play Greta’s, Mark’s, and Dan’s parents have all the depth of sitcom parents.
The missed opportunities. Stephen Hopkins seems to be a director with talent. The movie isn’t too bad, except…well…I’ll get to that soon enough. It feels as though the screenwriter(s) could have taken the idea, the fear that all people have about being parents but especially a teenager with an unplanned pregnancy, and have gone further with it. Instead, we get a creepy kid with haunting blue eyes who keeps showing up, being creepy, and is calling Freddy his friend. We have a comic book geek taken out in a comic book dream, a bulimic/anorexic teen model killed by being fed to death (more on this later, too), and, well, other silly things that are supposed to be scary but are not. When Freddy comes back to “life” in the church from the last movie, he has a strangely long left arm and hunga-munga bare feet that last for only that scene. Why? Then Freddy’s face appears in an ultrasound nightmare. It’s scary only in that someone thought that would be scary. There was a lot more possibility with the material that seems to have just been put aside for the quick and easy. And if my two examples didn’t tip you off, then you’re gonna be shocked when I say that another nightmare is–
Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger. When he is reborn, after the required lame one-liner (“It’s a boy!”), there’s actually a creepy, nearly horrifying moment, if one can get past the stupidly long arm with the equally stupidly large hand attached (his gloved arm and hand are normal)¹. There are a few moments toward the end, when Freddy is walking down a corridor and the overhead lights are swinging and he blinks in and out of existence that somewhat works. Even the strange staircases-everywhere-ending that is reminiscent of a German expressionist film and M.C. Escher more than A Nightmare on Elm Street movie works. These are, I believe, Stephen Hopkins’s touches. Freddy, though, ruins this movie. He has become a comedian in this movie, yelling gallows-humor one-liners and making us, the audience, co-conspirators to his deviant acts.
I understand that Robert Englund is a working actor and will go where the money is to pay his bills–Freddy Krueger was a guaranteed paycheck–but I would have to think that if you have helped build a character as strong, as memorable, and as scary as Freddy Krueger, you wouldn’t help dilute him. In a recent interview with Rue Morgue, he says that he and whatever Nightmare director he was working with on the later movies would often shoot two versions of a scene: one rife with quips and one-liners and another that was darker, meaner, and scarier, and that the editors/studio would often choose the former over the latter. Perhaps that is the case. New Line Cinema, in my book, had made some pretty terrible choices regarding the Nightmare movies thus far and didn’t really see them as anything other than cash cows. The art and thought Wes Craven put into the initial idea and resulting movie had been discarded before they even finished principle photography of that same movie, when Robert Shaye and New Line forced him to shoot different endings for cheap scares (and possible sequels?). By turning Freddy into a punk-antihero-lounge-comedian, they could sell more tee shirts, posters, dolls, etc., with his likeness.
If The Dream Master is the movie where Freddy Krueger stops being scary, then The Dream Child is the movie where he becomes boring. The movie halts each time he comes onscreen with his wisecracks. Oh, and I’m not fond of the makeup on Freddy this time around, either. In certain lighting, from certain angles, it’s quite effective, but when well-lit, it looks horrible.
The censors. By the late 1980s, Middle Amurica had had enough, damnit! All these horror movies and heavy metal songs and MTV and titty magazines and the new Fox Network with their Married…With Children that actually had porn stars on, and that radio guy from New York, Howard Stern, with his filth and…well, their heads were ready to explode. It was bad enough when Freddy Krueger was playing in small theaters and drive-ins, but now he was everywhere! The Religious Right, Tipper Gore, and their ilk were determined to set America back on its righteous path by protesting Freddy Krueger. Matchbox’s talking Freddy Krueger doll, glimpsed in passing at the local Child World (I miss that place), was pulled off the shelf before it could make it under my Christmas tree. The Dream Child, which didn’t just feature a child murderer/molester come back for revenge as the hero, but also dealt with teenage sex/pregnancy, fetuses (we all know how much the R.R. loves fetuses), and any number of other things that could/would damage any unsuspecting child/teenager who could sneak into the theater to watch it. As a result, some of the effects were toned down. Dan’s death on motorcycle is edited down to be not as graphic, and Yvonne’s death is edited to that Freddy is no longer dipping into her innards to feed her (which leads to the question: Why does she have a bleeding belly? when we see her later on). Honestly, the cuts were minor, but one senses that the story may have suffered from the motivation of trying not to offend people who would never actually see the movie, anyway, but just stand outside the theater with their signs and damn those who did want to see it.
The Morning After
My feeling when I saw it, weeks away from being 12, was: Not as bad as 2, not as good as 1, 3, or 4. I feel the same way twenty-four years later. The Dream Child shows signs of weariness. By churning out a movie a year, New Line Cinema exhausted the very people they wanted money from: the fans. Yes, the nine-to-twelve-year-olds were still excited by seeing Freddy in a new movie, but the older, more refined teenagers were growing tired. This is a shame because with A Nightmare on Elm Street and Freddy Krueger, New Line Cinema had on its hands the potential to make a few movies that were all good, scary, and thoughtful. Instead, it kept Freddy in a sort of veal cage, changing writers and directors, hiring actors with less and less skill, adding more and more special effects, and generally not giving a damn about the series that had put the company on the map.
Stephen Hopkins does a good job in the scenes leading up to Freddy and after he’s gone, but while Freddy is onscreen, he’s a joke. Super Freddy. Puh-lease. Freddy on a skateboard. “Bon appétit…bitch!” Come on. Shut the fuck up and be scary.
Still, The Dream Child isn’t the worst of the sequels. It has some inspired moments, an idea that I still rather like, and some decently creepy, if not horrifying or terrifying, moments.
Freddy’s Nightmares–A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Series continued another season after this movie, with Freddy’s makeup matching what he wore in The Dream Child. But the series, not very good to begin with, lost even more viewers and was canceled. Such is the way. After all, Tales from the Darkside, Monsters, and other horror anthology shows were also disappearing. Sales were beginning to drop on those horror novels and horror movies were beginning to sink at the box office.
New Line Cinema saw the writing on the wall and pulled Freddy out of the marketplace for a while. They were busy trying to acquire Jason Voorhees from Paramount Pictures. Just imagine what one could do with both Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger….
¹One can argue that the very fact that Freddy exists in dreams makes it okay for his left hand and his feet to be oddly large, and I can except that if they remained so throughout the movie or if strange morphs of his body–aside from gimmick nightmares–were part of the norm. The only physical thing that changed with Freddy, other than the hat and sweater, is his face. One could argue that as different teenagers dream about him, they add their own twist, I guess. But…I don’t think it completely works. Maybe if each person dreams a different look for him, but not in the larger sense.
I have a cold. I’d somehow managed to mostly avoid one this year but, alas, I was found. There were a couple of close calls, but they were averted by Airborne, the magic bubbly stuff that keeps my nose clear and my head clearer. This time, maybe it was too little too late. And now….
Yeah, yeah, I know. Waaah! Widdoo baby has a cowd! Waaaahh!
Well, that’s the problem. I think the baby gave it to me. Her and I are going to have to have a talk. Or maybe it was the teenager, who may have given the baby a cold. If I were smarter, I’d try to trace it back. Or if I cared more.
Anyway, this is what happens when I’m sick. I sit around and kvetch. Still, I worked on the latest Nightmare In Gautham installment (look for it Thursday!). And I may even do some line-editing for the next chapter of the novel. We’re nearly at the halfway point of the story and there’s still plenty of rewriting/revising left. I’m hoping to have this draft done by summer. I think this is realistic and not just me trying to trick myself as has happened in the past. The main reason is that I’ve finally been able to keep a regular schedule. This has gone on for about a month-and-a-half.
That’s really the secret, I think. Which I’d learned many, many years ago, but going back to school, a marriage dissolving, a new job, dating, taking care of a child whom your super worried about because of separation and divorce, meeting someone, falling in love, getting your heart broken, meeting someone else, getting your heart broken again, meeting someone, snap goes the heart times three or four, breaking other people’s hearts, starting a new career, and meeting someone, falling in love, moving in, and getting married all sort of made me lose track.
That’s all right now, because just like what happened in 1998, when my teenager was born, the new baby has afforded me the opportunity to get back on schedule. I’m not sure why. So I try to get in here at 9 PM, though some nights I’m in here at 10, and I work until around 11 (unless the baby wakes up…). And so far, so good.
But tonight…ugh…sinus headache and some weird sludge dripping from my nose.
So maybe the novel will wait until tomorrow. Maybe tonight I’ll read until I give the baby her 11 o’clock feeding.
Or maybe not…
So as I was revising my latest installment of my series of essays on the A Nightmare on Elm Street movies, I was interrupted by the sound of a crying baby that needed to be fed. As I fed the baby, I remembered that I’d always meant to write about the opening song of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, “Running From This Nightmare.”
This song has stuck with me ever since I rented the VHS when it came out. It is complete 1980s synth-pop, a la Tiffany and Debbie Gibson. The song was recorded by Tuesday Knight, who portrayed Kristen in the movie. I daresay that this song is her best contribution to the movie.
Here it is. Enjoy!
I was ten, I guess, when I first learned of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, though it came out days before my eleventh birthday. I wanted to go to the movies to see it as I had the third movie but didn’t have the chance to. My first viewing of the movie was on VHS, rented from a video store (a local chain, I believe). I liked it a lot. At eleven, I loved that Freddy said all these sarcastic one-liners and that the movie was visually fun to watch. I liked that he was just so big, larger-than-life. I also liked that this movie had so many special effects, effects that were all over the tv.
Again, its place in American culture is important. The Horror Boom was at its peak. There seemed to be shows on tv every other weekend about horror special effects, including a special that aired in syndication called Stephen King’s World of Horror, a special that gave me the first hint of who this Stephen King guy was as well as showed me how some of the effects that garnished The Dream Master came to be.
MTV was at its height. It had changed the culture and was, at this moment in time, the place kids went for entertainment, news, and information. Freddy Krueger’s ascension was as much a result of MTV as it was the Horror Boom. Freddy had a very rock n roll/punk persona. He didn’t care about social norms or what was appropriate. He was a big ol’ Fuck You to the establishment at the end of the Reagan era and the kids, damnit, were listening. I may have only been 10/11, but I was one of them.
Wes Craven was officially off the movie. For some reason, New Line didn’t go with Chuck Russell or Frank Darabont to write/direct. I suspect it was a financial decision. With Dream Warriors a success, it probably would have cost more to rehire them than it was to go with new talent. One problem, though, was a writers strike that made the screenplay difficult to pin down. They went with Finnish director Renny Harlin to direct. The movie was shot in early 1988 and released that August.
Character continuity. Freddy’s Revenge kept Nancy’s house (and diary) but bailed out on any other character (except Freddy) from the first movie. Dream Warriors bailed on its predecessor and returned to the first movie without any mention to the second movie. The Dream Master takes place sometime after the events of its predecessor and re-introduces us to the survivors of Dream Warriors: Kristen Parker (this time played by Tuesday Knight), Joey (Rodney Eastman), and Kincaid (Ken Sagoes) in all his stereotypical glory. Freddy even returns from the junkyard grave he was placed in by Dr. Neil Gordon and Donald Thompson.
Lisa Wilcox as Alice. Her acting in this movie could be better, but the character isn’t supposed to have much personality in the beginning of the movie, so it sort of works. If she’d had a stronger script and a better director, her performance may have been better. She’s in the dream section because I find her purrrrty.
The overall acting. Look, there are no future Johnny Depps or Patricia Arquettes or Laurence Fishburnes in this movie, but for the third sequel to a low budget horror movie (and being a low budget horror movie in its own right), the cast is pretty good. The teenagers are believable enough. Nicholas Mele as Alice and Rick’s father is very good. I believe in the characters, which is all one could hope for. Another standout is Alice’s brother Rick, played by Andras Jones. Part wise-ass, part martial artist, part caring brother, he brings a certain level of realism to the part and helped make this movie a cut above the typical horror movie sequel.
Robert Englund as Freddy. By now, Freddy Krueger was more than just the bad guy in some horror movies, he was a genuine pop icon, up there with Lugosi’s Dracula and Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster. Englund is able to infuse Krueger with glee as he tortures and picks off the teenagers in this movie. Krueger looks like he’s having fun because Englund is having fun playing him. More on Freddy later on, though.
The special effects and the visuals. Renny Harlin may have won more Razzies than just about any other director, but he brought a certain style to The Dream Master that some of the other movies didn’t have. With the success of the previous three Nightmares, there was also more budget for more effects, which were interesting and fun.
The late-1980s charm. Like Freddy’s Revenge, it’s pretty easy to see where in American culture this movie takes place. From the music (this is the second Nightmare to have a real soundtrack, but the first for it to have its soundtrack so entwined with the movie) to the hair styles to the clothes, this movie reeks of the late 1980s. And like Freddy’s Revenge, it’s taken twenty years for that charm to surface. Hardcore fitness? Check. A nerd like Revenge of the Nerds? Check. A karate kid like…well…. Check. MTV reference? Absofuckinglutely!
The ending. I like the ending. The church set is pretty cool. The idea of evil looking at itself and dying is a nice one. The souls on Freddy’s chest introduced in Dream Warriors coming out and getting their revenge is a nice touch.
Who’s that girl? Ooohh…it’s Kristen. Patricia Arquette, who so famously squealed her way into our hearts as Kristen Parker in Dream Warriors, is replaced by singer-actress Tuesday Knight. According to The Nightmare on Elm Street Companion, producer (and Freddy’s Dead director) Rachel Talalay said that Arquette was never approached to reprise the role. Since it wouldn’t really be until 1993’s True Romance that Arquette would become a star, the only reason I can think of is the same reason I figure for not bringing back Chuck Russell or Frank Darabont: money. Arquette would probably have wanted a lot more. The other reason, and even more likely, is that Arquette probably would have said no. Coming from a family in the business, she might not have wanted to have been pigeonholed as a scream queen. After all, Joey, Kincaid, and even Kristen’s mother (Brooke Bundy) all returned to Elm Street for this movie. And even though Talalay says New Line never approached Arquette, I’m not sure that I’m convinced.
Either way, Tuesday Knight’s turn as Kristen Parker is okay, but there is a certain disconnect between her and the audience. She was a strong character in Dream Warriors and while Knight’s portrayal of Kristen is definitely more hard-assed, the character doesn’t feel right.
Again, stereotypes. Kincaid is written exactly as he was in Dream Warriors. Sheila (Toy Newkirk) is supernerd. Brooke Theiss plays Debbie, the hot fitness girl. You get the idea. Alice longs for Dan (Danny Hassel), the popular jock. In other words, A Nightmare on Elm Street is heading down typical 1980s slasher movie territory. Luckily for us Fred-Heads (I swear I didn’t make that term up), it’s not there…yet. But it’s damn close. I’ll get to the reason below.
Who wrote this thing?! The Dream Master was worked on during a writers strike. As a result, the story is by William Kotzwinkle and Brian Helgeland, and the screenplay is by Brian Helgeland and Jim and Ken Wheat (under the pseudonym Scott Pierce). There are also rumors that other people worked on the script and added things as well. Post-Dream Master, Helgeland went on to be nominated and win Oscars for such movies as L.A. Confidential and Mystic River, has written the upcoming Ridley Scott-directed movie Robin Hood, and directed Payback and A Knight’s Tale. (He’s also from my hometown, which is pretty cool). I guess the fact that the movie is good at all is a surprise, but the story is definitely lacking. It’s the kind of movie that if you’re watching it and not thinking, just being entertained by the cool camera angles and flashy effects, you don’t notice the holes in plot and logic. There’s a blurring of the nightmare/waking world in this movie toward the end that is major. At eleven years old I thought certain tricks, like Alice and Dan repeating a scene several times, was cool. At thirty-five, it doesn’t make sense. Are they awake? Are they sleeping? If they’re sleeping, where are they sleeping? They’re in an accident from sleeping at the wheel, but would that happen if they’re running to go save Debbie? And how come Nancy’s house is now very much Freddy’s house? And how come none of the three survivors of Dream Warriors mentions Nancy or Dr. Gordon, two people I would think they’d believe to be nearly saintly? And how does Joey get stuck inside his waterbed? And how come Kristen’s mother doesn’t know her daughter’s bedroom is engulfed in flames until her daughter’s boyfriend and his weird, mousy sister show up? And if what happens in your dreams happen in the real world, does that mean that Debbie’s parents are going to find a giant squished cockroach in their attic or will it just be Debbie’s crushed body? And…. Get it?
Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger. Yeah, that’s right, I said it. This is the first Nightmare that Robert Englund gets top billing, before the title no less. Not too shabby for the nerdy alien from V. By now, Freddy Krueger had become one of the 1980s answers to the Universal Monsters. Robert Englund had done interviews as Freddy, had hosted movies on HBO and music videos on MTV as Freddy. Freddy Krueger was on tee shirts, posters, yo-yos, albums, toys, pins, Halloween costumes…you name it. He was in music videos:
And where Freddy was, Robert Englund was. Freddy’s appearances became a sort of hammy, kitschy thing where Freddy would make quips at people, spin puns, and be a general friendly neighborhood child killer. I mentioned in my essay for Dream Warriors that Chuck Russell and his lighting people lit Freddy mainly outside of the shadows. In The Dream Master, Freddy is always lit very well. Not only that, but Freddy breaks the fourth wall!
You see, Freddy Krueger (and Robert Englund) is no longer just the bad guy in the Nightmare movies, he is the Nightmare movies. Teenagers are no longer paying to see whether or not the kids will escape Freddy, they’re paying to see how Freddy kills them, which makes The Dream Master different than the other movies of the series so far. However it’s the template created in Dream Warriors that starts it. More on this later. You see this in Kincaid’s nightmare where Freddy is reborn. The bones that were left in the junkyard at the end of Dream Warriors come together in The Dream Master (thanks to some flaming dog piss) and Freddy is born again. There’s a poorly dubbed moment when Freddy is posing, backlit, and says, “You shouldn’t have buried me…I’m not dead.” [Is this the best line they could come up with?!]. And then the camera, which means we, follow Freddy as he looks for Kincaid. We’re surprised when Kincaid, from nowhere, drops a car on Freddy. This isn’t the only time where it seems as though we’re following Freddy’s adventure. When Debbie becomes a cockroach stuck in a roach motel, we’re then outside the roach motel with a midshot on Freddy, who’s peeking into the small box with tiny screams coming from it. Freddy squishes it, ending the tiny screams and then says, “You can check in, but you can’t check out.”
Not only does Freddy become the star, but with all the zany camera angles, Freddy also becomes a model. Every line is accentuated with a flick of the finger-knives, or some pose that deals with the glove and knives. In other words, Englund’s performance as Freddy Krueger becomes too big. Though it’s still rather restrained compared to where it’s going (remember, I still have the worst of the movies to come), Freddy has officially stopped being the villain and has become the sarcastic 1980s antihero. Freddy becomes to the monster movie what Eddie Murphy became to cop movies around the same time.
The Morning After
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master opened on August 19, 1988 (almost a week before I turned eleven) and was a huge hit. It was the highest grossing of the original Nightmare series. That summer, Freddy was everywhere. Every entertainment magazine had a story about the movie or Freddy. He was on television and the radio. He had his own 900-number. Freddy was more than just the bad guy in a horror movie now; he was a star. The template had been set by the previous movie, Dream Warriors a year before. The anticipation for the third movie was pretty big and there were more photoshoots starring Freddy than previously done. With the success of that movie, the PR on The Dream Master worked overtime. Generally, the makeup job most people think of when they think of Freddy is the makeup job done for The Dream Master, even though this one is, again, different than its predecessors and successors. It’s very similar to the makeup used in Dream Warriors, only has more color to it. But I digress….
With Freddy the star, the teenagers are now automatic victims. Dream Warriors, trying to get away from Freddy’s Revenge, basically introduced us to teenagers whose purpose was to last only so long before Freddy picked them off. However, those teenagers were pretty well thought out and the audience could buy into them (though not as easily as Wes Craven’s original cast). With the fourth movie, even though we begin with three survivors from the previous installment, we get the sense very early on that most of these characters will not make it through. The reason: We never learn about them the way we learned about prior Elm Street characters. As a result, we have more stereotypes cast only for flashy death sequences and a villain who is now the hero.
This puts the Nightmare movies on track to become just another slasher series. Its saving grace is its imagination. Because Freddy haunts the dreams and nightmares of his victims, the audience is always given the treat of interesting and bizarre sets and imaginative terrors. Only, there are no terrors at this point in the series. There are no horrors. There’s some gross-out and a lot of eye candy, but nothing that really gets under the skin. The original Nightmare was full of horror and terror. Freddy’s Revenge has a few (albeit too brief) moments of horror and at least one of terror (again, Jesse fighting to keep the basement door closed but losing, only to turn around and find the monster right there). Dream Warriors had several creepy moments and, with Nancy and her father central characters, definitely had moments that qualify as horrifying/terrifying. The Dream Master has no real horrifying moments and certainly never terrifies us. It’s unsettling in a few minor moments, but mainly it’s fantastic (in the true sense of the word), gory, and over-the-top.
Yet, its popularity has cemented this movie’s version of Freddy Krueger into our minds.
It also helped get horror fans ready for Freddy on television. In the fall following the release of The Dream Master, an anthology television series called Freddy’s Nightmares — A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Series came out. Freddy was a character in a few of the episodes but was mainly the host, a la Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The first season (which has Brad Pitt in an episode) was the more “popular” season and had Freddy in his Dream Master makeup.
At this time, between the movie (which I didn’t see until its home video debut), the press, and the tv series, I was in full horror mode, renting such gems as Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night II and other classics (as an aside, give me the money and I’d happily write/direct a remake of Mary Lou). I watched some of the Friday the 13th movies if they came on HBO, Cinemax, or Showtime, and saw Halloween IV and V (the first one was difficult to come by, for some reason), but Freddy Krueger and the Nightmares he inhabited were the poison of choice in the monster category. I also became aware of the movies of Stephen King, Pet Sematary being the more recent of his movies released at that time.
Today, I still hold The Dream Master in my heart, not for any reason of quality but because it was part of the building blocks of what made me who I am today. I wish that the filmmakers/studio had had the interest/ability to get Heather Langenkamp back as Nancy. With her death at the end of Dream Warriors, and Kristen’s promise to “dream her into a beautiful dream”, it would have been interesting to make Nancy the anti-Freddy. This idea was done in the early 1990s in a comic book series (Nightmares on Elm Street) written by Andy Mangels and published by Innovation. It would have gone with Craven’s symbolism of Freddy as evil incarnate and Nancy as good. Alas, it was not to be.
The Dream Master stands out for all the reasons above and for being Freddy’s swan song for a bit.
But not our swan song, for we still have four more movies to get to, including what I think is the worst Nightmare in the series, and the second best (and on some days, the best) Nightmare. So stay tuned, folks. This nightmare is nowhere near over.
In the fall of 1986, just after seeing the double feature of A Nightmare on Elm Street and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge on HBO, my father took me to see the Sylvester Stallone movie Over the Top. Before you suggest that my father is horrible and should have been jailed for such a thing, I’ll remind you that in 1986, Sly Stallone was huge, and I don’t mean the growth hormones but as in a movie star. The best thing I remember from that day, though, is not Stallone’s trucking or arm wrestling, but the huge cardboard display in the lobby of the now-departed Cinema 140 for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. I was eager to see it, though I didn’t really think my Mom would take me. While she had begun letting me see some horror movies on HBO and on video, it was a whole other wall of pancakes to let your nine-year-old see a horror movie in a movie theater, right?
Yet, there we were in February 1987, Mom and me, sitting in the theater before the screen that would bring me to Elm Street. I wore my favorite red Raynor baseball cap with the brim in a position to protect me from the giant-ass Freddy Krueger on the screen. The brim would eventually be moved aside so I could actually see what was going on since Freddy is seen a whole lot onscreen at the end of the movie.
I was half a year away from being ten and I was jazzed as I left the theater. I thought that Dream Warriors was way better than Freddy’s Revenge and I couldn’t wait for there to be more Nightmares. I was already in a pretty deep NOES fever by this point. Dream Warriors intensified the fever.
Wes Craven returns. Kind of. Craven and Robert Shaye patched some of their problems up and Craven, with his writing partner Bruce Wagner, pitched and wrote a screenplay for Dream Warriors. For years I wondered what Craven’s screenplay would have been like without being touched by director Chuck Russell and co-screenwriter Frank Darabont. Thanks to The Nightmare on Elm Street Companion (the fine fansite where I’ve been borrowing the pictures that have appeared in these little diatribes), I was able to download and read Craven and Wagner’s screenplay. I have actually written a review of the whole script but for the purpose of this essay, suffice it to say that the script was bad.
Director Chuck Russell and co-screenwriter Frank Darabont brings Freddy Krueger back to his roots. Where Freddy’s Revenge alludes to the first Nightmare through conversation between characters as well as Nancy’s discovered diary, Dream Warriors makes no mention of Freddy’s Revenge. It’s as though the second movie were a nightmare best forgotten. Freddy first appears in a nightmare that Kristen (Patricia Arquette) is having and he chases her through hallways and tunnels, before finally appearing in a bathroom mirror and slitting her wrist. The rest of the nightmares take hold of Craven’s idea that in the dreamworld, Freddy can do and be almost anything, and runs with it. Even though the fans knew the rules by now, even though they’d been down this street before, the movie has enough surprises in it to make it feel like more than the third movie in the series. They use some of what Craven and Wagner put into the original screenplay, yet tamed it down, and actually make it more like the first movie, while still being its own thing.
Heather Langenkamp returns as Nancy Thompson. Without evil, there can be no good. Because Wes Craven is a writer as well as a filmmaker, and a very intelligent man to boot, he understands symbolism.¹ If Freddy represents evil at its worse, Nancy represents good at its best. During the course of the first Nightmare, Nancy becomes Freddy’s greatest foe. With her reappearance in the second sequel, the audience has someone they instantly connect to and root for. Now that she’s a little older and wiser, she’s a much more formidable foe for Freddy.
The overall cast for Dream Warriors also deserves kudos. Not every performance is great, and there are definitely stereotypes, but this cast far outshines that of the second movie’s. Patricia Arquette gets one of her first major film roles as Kristen Parker, the main character of the story. She is a little squeaky at times but there is a quality to her that makes one understand how she had a pretty good post-Nightmare career. Craig Wasson as Dr. Neil Gordon is superb as the stressed psychiatrist who cares so much for these troubled kids that he’s willing to put his career (and eventually his life) on the line for them. John Saxon returns as Donald Thompson, former lieutenant, current security guard. The cast portraying the troubled teenagers are also pretty good in this movie. Oh, and I can’t forget Priscilla Pointer as Dr. Simms and Laurence Fishburne (credited as “Larry Fishburne”) as the orderly Max. His understated performance also hints at the career he will enjoy.
One of the good parts of this movie is the information about Freddy’s origins. The mysterious nun that only Neil Gordon can see is a welcome addition. To find out that Freddy was “the bastard son of a hundred maniacs” is a pretty nice touch, while not a subtle one. Of course, an argument can be made that this information is one step toward making Freddy more human and more sympathetic, and that it’s also pretty melodramatic. All true, but it also sets Krueger up as more of a symbol. Evil is what spawned him, evil is what drove him through life, evil is what drives him in the afterlife. It also doesn’t excuse his actions in any way.
Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger. Yes, I know. I’ve put this in all the essays thus far. Don’t worry, it won’t always be this way (remember, my least favorite Nightmare is still impending…). This is the last film of the franchise where Robert Englund gets last billing in the opening credits. Freddy is still the villain at this point. Yes, his role is larger in this movie than in the first one, and maybe even the second one, but he is still the villain. The audience only sees him when his intended victim becomes aware of him. One of the most frightening shots of Freddy in the entire series is in Kristen’s opening nightmare. She’s running through a long hallway and far behind her, Freddy comes running around a corner with his glove raised, headed straight for her. I believe the shot is slowed down just a bit, just enough for the audience to think, Oh, shit! There he is! It is clear that Englund relishes the role and basks in playing this despicable monster. When he rips his sweater open to reveal the faces of his victims, the smile on his face is priceless.
The ending. I dare say that the ending in Dream Warriors is better than Nightmare‘s ending. The dual climax of Donald Thompson and Neil Gordon fighting Freddy’s skeleton in the junkyard where the Elm Street parents placed him and the nightmare boiler room from hell and the mirror room are more interesting than the Looney Tunes hijinks Nancy sets up to defeat the pulled-from-the dream Krueger. Even Nancy’s demise feels fitting, especially with Kristen’s promise to dream her into a beautiful dream, which could have been used as a set up for further movies (and was eventually used in a comic book series written by Andy Mangles in the early 1990s).
There are less nightmares in this film than the previous sequel and the ones that follow, but let’s explore them, shall we?
Heather Langenkamp’s return as Nancy. Huh? Didn’t you just tell us that is was one of the dreams of this particular movie? Yes, I did. While it was great to see Ms. Langenkamp’s return to Elm Street as Nancy, I feel as though her performance was a little wooden in some scenes and that Russell didn’t really give her much to do. By making Kristen the lead character, Nancy gets a smaller role in the film. Yes, a lot of the movie follows her, but I also feel as though she’s along for the ride a little more than she should be. Here’s a character that has so much more potential. Honestly, I believe it was less Russell as the director than it was New Line’s bureaucracy that’s to blame. For them, the Nightmare movies (and Freddy Krueger) were huge moneymakers. They got a small fan rebellion with the poor quality of Freddy’s Revenge‘s story and probably felt that returning to teenagers having nightmares was the thing to do. The fact that there are so many adults in the mix of this movie doesn’t happen again until Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, which we will get to in due time. Nancy’s return could have been more, especially if we’re going with the aforementioned symbolism of Freddy = evil and Nancy = good.
The beginning of the wisecracks. Yes, giving Fred Krueger a personality was genius on Wes Craven’s part, but here’s where the personality begins its decent. Freddy is still scary in this movie, but the sense of humor, while dark and smile- (and maybe even chuckle-) worthy, is a little too much. When Jennifer (Penelope Sudrow) gets pulled into the tv, do we really need, “Welcome to prime time, bitch.”? Yes, it makes us chuckle, but this is Freddy fuckin’ Krueger! I don’t mind him fucking with his victims, it’s one of the things that makes him so scary, but this is a little much.
The stereotypes. The idea of having troubled teenagers that everyone thinks have tried to commit suicide is a pretty good one. It brings us away from the suburban Elm Street, though these kids are supposed to be children of those original parents (it also brings us away from Craven’s viewing that suburbia isn’t as nice as one might believe) but some of the stereotypes are a little much. There’s a recovering young addict who liked to shoot up, played by Jennifer Rubin, who has all the stereotypical issues and fantasies (though Rubin’s performance is pretty good and transcends the stereotype). Then there’s the nerd who loves his Dungeons & Dragons-eque role playing games. There’s the girl who wants to be an actress (with a face for radio, if not the voice), the shy kid who refuses to speak but fantasizes over the stereotypical hot nurse. The head of the clinic, Dr. Simms, is another version of Nurse Cratchett, who lacks any real bedside manner or compassion. The worst of the stereotypes, though, the one that irks me every time I see this movie, is Kincaid, the young, angry, foul-mouthed black kid whose fantasy is to have Herculean strength. By 1987, we should have moved beyond that, yet there he is.
Nancy’s house becoming Freddy’s house. Boy, did this take a lot of Expanded Universe ‘splainin’! In Wes Craven and Bruce Wagner’s original script, Nancy and Kristen come across the home Freddy Krueger was born and raised in. It’s the typical haunted house. They find the house and their nightmares also bring them there. It’s not in Springwood on Elm Street, but somewhere else. Nancy is brought there in the same supernatural manner (though she doesn’t realize it) that pretty much brings many characters in horror fantasy fiction from place-to-place. Somewhere along the way from Craven & Wagner’s script to the Russell & Darabont script, Nancy’s house becomes Freddy’s house. Well, let me correct that: In this movie it’s still Nancy’s house. The idea, I guess, is that the nightmare version makes it look like a haunted house. For some reason, though, Freddy seems to have inhabited it in the nightmare. Maybe the boiler room was too uncomfortable. Who knows? But it throws us off. It’s good that it connects Nancy to the story again, but it doesn’t make sense that Kristen and others would go there.
The 1980s was a hot time for the horror genre. By the beginning of the decade, Stephen King had blown up and by the time A Nightmare on Elm Street came out, he was a household name. There were a lot of horror novels coming out every year and horror films being made. Maybe it was a sort of punk-anti-establishment thing. We had Ronald Reagan telling us everything was good, everything was fine, yet there was the sense that his finger hovered over The Button and all it took was his psychic to tell him he should push it; maybe this was one reason for the popularity of horror at this time. I think that a result of these times and the Horror Boom is that A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors benefited. Frank Darabont was (and still is) a huge Stephen King fan. By the time he would have been brought onto Dream Warriors, he would have already written and directed the short film The Woman in the Room, an adaptation of a Stephen King story. Of course, Darabont would go on to adapt and direct other movies based on other King works. The Shawshank Redemption–based on King’s novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and The Mist were all very good movies that captured everything that makes King not only such an entertaining writer but also a great writer. When work on Dream Warriors was underway, King would have been having one of his most prolific and biggest years ever, with the publications of It, Misery, The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three, The Eyes of the Dragon, and The Tommyknockers, not to mention the film adaptations of Pet Sematary, Creepshow II, and others I’m probably forgetting. Many of the ideas in Dream Warriors seem like something King might have put into the movie had he worked on it. The role of the adults in this movie is similar to the role of the characters of It, having to face something from the past, the teenagers being individuals with personalities, whether stereotypical or not. The way Nancy and Freddy seem to be drawn together is also reminiscent to how the characters of It are drawn to It.
Freddy has another makeover. Gone are the brown contacts and the too-high cheekbones, though the hook nose remains. His scarring is also more reminiscent of the second movie’s, yet less healed in some ways. His hat and sweater are pretty consistent at this point. The green stripes remain on the arms. The glove is back and there are no noticeable changes to it. What has changed is Freddy’s lighting. By now, everyone knew what he looked like. He was in magazines and hosting double features on HBO and doing interviews and appearing on MTV (to help sell the soundtrack) and showing up on posters, etc. His surroundings are still dark, but Freddy is lit better. The mystery of his face is gone and with it, so is the fright.
Freddy’s first music video! Dokken’s “Dream Warriors.” Patricia Arquette must be proud.
One other piece of info that you might be interested in. I mentioned above the copy of Craven and Wagner’s original screenplay for Dream Warriors (located at The Nightmare on Elm Street Companion). If you are a fan of the series, it might be interesting to read it. I read it with the hopes of reading a script that kicked the movie’s ass, but rather found a script with a lot of issues. I wonder if Craven truly intended that as a legitimate Nightmare or if he knew it would be rewritten. There are some interesting concepts in it, but I feel as though the script is lacking. Majorly lacking. What is interesting, though, is how much was borrowed by later Nightmares.
The Morning After
Overall, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors works. Freddy Krueger has his last hurrah as a frightening character, it’s great to see his original enemy back to square off against him, and the new kids (and adults) are formidable opponents. Chuck Russell (who would go on to direct the movies The Mask and Eraser with the likes of Jim Carrey and Arnold Schwarzenegger under the name Charles Russell) and Frank Darabont use Wes Craven and Bruce Wagner’s original story and build on it to success. Had they been interested (or allowed, I don’t know the behind-the-scenes story on why they didn’t work on any other Nightmares, though I have suspicions) in going further in this franchise, I suspect there may have been some interesting movies (or at least one interesting movie). At nine, I thought this movie rocked. I went home and built a Freddy glove with pens and pencils. Realizing how silly it looked, I built another one with popsicle sticks, until I was able to buy the official glove one Halloween. At thirty-five, I still enjoy the movie. It doesn’t have the power of Wes Craven’s original, but it is a solid sequel and is better than any of the Friday the 13th movies. It shows imagination and an understanding of fear.
In history, the movie made big change for New Line Cinema and garnered enough press that it was inevitable that Freddy would be coming back. Perhaps that’s where things went wrong. Eager to capitalize on Freddy’s ascent from cult figure to pop culture icon, the movie was barely out of the theaters before New Line was prepping A Nightmare on Elm Street 4. So the summer I turned ten, Robert Englund was in Freddy makeup filming the fourth movie, and things began to turn ugly….
¹ In 2010, a pair of great documentaries about the Nightmare on Elm Street movies had yet to be released. I Am Nancy, produced by Heather Langenkamp does not only show the importance of the character Nancy to the films she appears in, but also to the fans. It also features great interviews with Robert Englund and Wes Craven, who goes into great detail about the importance of Nancy as a character as well as a symbol.
So the response seemed pretty good to last week’s posting of my first essay in the Nightmare in Gautham series. I will begin revising the second essay tonight or tomorrow to have up on Thursday.
In case you missed it, last Friday I posted my short story “Snow Day” to the site. If you haven’t checked it out, please do so. People seem to really enjoy it. It’s a favorite of mine to read aloud because you can usually hear the audience react. Very cool.
Work on the novel continues and while I’m sure you’re sick of hearing about this faceless novel, I assure you that I’m making headway on it. And just to make stuff more interesting, I’ve begun a novella for fun. I don’t know if it’ll go anywhere, but I’m having fun with it.
Winter is finally winding down and I’m happy for it. It’s been a busy one. The baby is now 4 months old and the teenager turns 15 in less than a month. Talk about vertigo.
I finally finished The Twelve, Justin Cronin’s follow-up to The Passage. I enjoyed it but not as much as the first book. I’m interested in seeing where he goes for the third book.
My teenager has gotten me (finally) into Doctor Who. I’m in the 4th series (the Tenth Doctor) and am enjoying it, as I’m sure all of you have.
That’s pretty much it right now. Talk to you later.
I believe that there are low budget horror films that are masterpieces of cinema. Night of the Living Dead is one. Halloween is another. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is up there. Wes Craven had already done some pretty impressive films that dealt with fear by 1984. The Last House on the Left, with its shocking, no-holds-barred violence, and The Hills Have Eyes are both pretty interesting. It wasn’t until 1984, though, that Craven not only made a masterpiece of cinematic terror, but also unleashed on the world of cinema the best villain since Darth Vader first appeared onscreen: Fred Krueger.
I was nine years old when I first met Mr. Krueger in the fall of 1986. I have had at least one scary Freddy Krueger nightmare every year since.
You know the premise so I’ll save you a synopsis and go right to the nitty gritty.
Craven is a writer, maybe not the best writer to ever write screenplays, but better than many. He is a well-educated man who uses the horror film to express his ideas as much as to entertain. A Nightmare on Elm Street became an instant classic partly due to the writing. The characters are pretty believable teenagers and parents.
Though Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), Glen Lantz (Johnny Depp), Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss), and Rod Lane (Jsu Garcia) live on Elm Street¹ in Smalltown, USA (the town isn’t given a name until the second movie), the only teen who seems to have the sort of Americana suburban life one equates with a person living on Elm Street is Glen–Mom and Dad are still together, Dad makes the rules, Mom rolls her eyes but goes along. Tina’s mother has a boyfriend (we assume, there’s some guy shacking up with her and taking her on vacation) who says, in front of the fifteen-year-old girl, “Hey, babe, when you comin’ back to bed?” Rod Lane comes from a broken home and has had many skirmishes with the law. And the girl next door, Nancy Thompson, also comes from divorced parents. Mom (Ronnee Blakely) is an alcoholic, Dad (John Saxon) a lieutenant on the police force. Yes, some of the acting is a little wooden, but the young actors mostly bring Craven’s words to life.
The character of Fred Krueger was also well-thought-out. From the fedora to the red-and-green sweater to the claw to the scarred face, he is designed to be noticed and to strike fear. Most importantly, he is a character. Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and even Leatherface were pretty much silent killers. They chased their victims (hardly), slew them, and then went on their way. Fred Krueger fucks with his victims. Because his home is in the dream realm, he can do and be anything. Also, unlike most of those aforementioned baddies (including the body of Vader), Krueger isn’t played by a stuntman under a mask. Robert Englund took great pains to bring Fred Krueger to life and make him something more than the run-of-the-mill slasher. The thing that gets me most now is the pure fun Krueger seems to have throughout. The dude has a smile on his pizza face throughout the movie. He cuts himself to screw with his victims. He runs funny and makes funny sounds. He taunts them. On Krueger, the claw is more than just a weapon and a psychological motif, it is also a symbol that he is a cat and the teens are mice. He will chase them, play with them, and then eviscerate them, all while cackling and generally fucking with their heads.
There’s the way that Robert Englund carries himself as Fred Krueger, too. After Tina’s death, Nancy follows her body through the school to the boiler room. She finds a small habitat and then hears the knives on metal. She turns and Fred Krueger shambles out from behind boiler. His left shoulder is higher than his right, the sweater and the pants are too big for him, his fedora is messy, and he looks…well…terrifying. Even if he had no burns, I would not want that guy to be there.
One last thing before I move away from Fred Krueger: Interviews done by the cast and crew of the 2010 remake often mentioned Freddy’s campy one-liners and silliness as a point where they are re-imagining the character. Looking at the most recent incarnations of Freddy, I can see why, but Wes Craven’s first film has little-to-no campiness in the character. Krueger’s “sense of humor” comes directly from the goals I mentioned above, namely, to fuck with his victims. He’s not breaking the fourth wall to make the audience laugh as he does starting with the fourth movie. He doesn’t even really have one-liners.
Craven directs the film with a deft eye for details. The sheep that appears in the boiler room at the very beginning in Tina’s first nightmare is a great what-the-fuck?! moment. It’s a dream, after all. The nightmares have an internal logic but not an external logic. Nancy finds a “secret door” that leads to Fred Krueger’s boiler room. She also seems to be able to travel across town through a few, strange gates. Craven has fun playing with the strange happenings in a dreamscape. The wall that comes inward over Nancy, the stairs that melt below her feet, Krueger’s arms stretching out to create the sense that you cannot escape, the moment when he’s at Nancy’s front door wearing a Tina mask and, using Tina’s voice says, “Nancy! Save me from–” before returning to his own voice for the final word of the sentence: “Freddy!” Craven has done his research and it shows.
The music. I know it’s early-eighties synth crap, but it works.
Nancy’s watch. When I was nine-years-old, Nancy’s talking wrist watch was kinda cool. At 35, it’s kinda lame. According to the commentary track on the DVD, the watch was actually Craven’s watch at the time and was quite expensive.
Rod Lane’s characterization. He is the punk with a heart of gold. He was rude, crude, and antagonizing, but Tina loved him and so did we. Only, Craven never really develops Rod. He is far more realized than most of the characters that will follow in sequels, but I always felt he was a little too much of the stereotypical punk in the motorcycle jacket, complete with switchblade. All those things wouldn’t have been a problem had he been just a tad more developed.
Ronnee Blakely as Marge Thompson. Everyone else on the film seemed to be trying their best to give an A-movie performance to this low-budget (aka B) horror movie except Ms. Blakely. Her performance is a masterpiece of B-movie acting. It’s over-the-top, melodramatic, and borderline silly. I still love her in the movie, but, well….
The endings. I know, everyone agrees. From the moment Nancy pulls Fred Krueger out of the dream until the end credits, things go wrong. Not all things. Heather Langenkamp and John Saxon give great performances, but the Looney Tunes contraptions that Nancy put together in ten minutes or so from a book just underwhelms. If this is Craven’s way of displaying the popular idea that evil is, in actuality, stupid and not as powerful as first thought, well….
This is one of the few stories where the idea that “It was all a dream” might not be a cop-out, but to get to that point is ridiculous. I wonder if that was Craven writing his way out of a corner, or if it was because of his miniscule budget, or if he really thought mallets falling from the ceiling and tripwires that set off exploding lightbulbs would be a crowd pleaser. To me, it feels like, “Man, I have got to tie this story up. What can I do once Nancy pulls Fred out of the nightmare?”
I’m not going to bother mentioning Marge Thompson being pulled through the small window in the front door. If you’ve read this far, you already know the deal on that.
The Morning After
This movie rocked my world when I was nine. It introduced me to the horror genre. It gave me nightmares that I still have. It also opened a world of wonder. Craven could have produced just another slasher movie about a killer who comes back from the grave to seek some sort of vague vengeance on teenagers. Instead, he gave us a horror-fantasy story that was as filled with imagination as it was with fear. I wonder what would have happened had the larger studios not passed on it and he’d been given a larger budget. Would A Nightmare on Elm Street have been an even better film or would it have only provided more rope for Craven to hang himself with?
I still, obviously, love this movie. Nobody write 1,600 words on something without getting paid in some manner except for love. There are plenty of flaws but the good far outweighs those.
¹ But do they? As far as I can remember, the words Elm and Street are never actually spoken in the movie. The closest we come is when Nancy’s mother, Marge, tells her the “neighborhood parents” hunted down and burned Krueger alive. I wonder if the Elm Street in the title was more symbolic than an actual place.