Friday, April 30, 2010

An Evisceration On Elm Street

The most that I've ever asked out of Platinum Dunes' string of remakes is that the new film be at least a little better than the worst entry in the original series. It doesn't have to top the original - that would be setting the bar impossibly high both for them and for me - but I do think the remake has to edge out the worst of the sequels. Otherwise, what good is it? When you're only asking that a Texas Chain Saw Massacre remake be slightly better than Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994) or that a Friday the 13th remake be just a marginal improvement over Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989), I think that's like handing out an easy win. Most critics and fans are much, much harder on Platinum Dunes' filmography than myself but as a viewer, I'm easy. When I go to the movies, I'm looking to be entertained and to that end, I'll let a lot of things slide without complaint. Given that, when I tell you that I kind of hated the shit out of the Nightmare on Elm Street remake, don't think that I went in with the mind to trash it.

The goal of returning Freddy to being a true figure of fear was - in principle - an admirable ambition on the part of the filmmakers. Unfortunately, A Nightmare on Elm Street '10 feels like the work of people who just don't know how horror movies work. For that matter, it also feels like the work of people who don't know how movies work. The first feature film from acclaimed music video director Samuel Bayer, this new Nightmare is completely inert. There's no suspense, no urgency, no dynamics between the actors, no sense that one scene should build on the last; it's a film made by someone too concerned with creating a look to bother with a story. This movie introduces the concept of "micro-naps," and let me tell you - I think a lot of viewers of this film will be forced to take macro-naps to get through its running time.

The script by Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer floats a couple of interesting concepts; the idea of casting some doubt on Freddy's guilt is intriguing and I liked the suggestion that perhaps only Nancy is able to bring Freddy out of the dream world. That does it for anything worthwhile not found in the original, though. The rest is just a sombulistic shuffle, shoehorning in lifeless recreations of moments from the first film - homages that only serve to do unnecessary damage to the remake. For example, when Freddy pushes against the wall over the bed that Nancy is lying on, causing the wall to stretch like rubber, even the most ardent defender of CGI will balk at how the practical approach of the original was abandoned. I guarantee you the same moment would've produced at least a minor cheer from audiences had they done it in the practical style of the original - just for the fact that it would have been neat to see them keeping it old-school, at least for that one famous shot. With the CGI, though, it looks like shit and - happening early in the film as it does - it automatically sours the mood.

Speaking of sour, what's up with kids these days? I don't know if actual teenagers are really this dour as a rule but the kids in this film are a miserable pack. Sure, they've got a lot to worry about, what with being stalked in their dreams and all, but how about showing some signs of personality? In the original film, all four of the main character were distinct and memorable (even the asshole, Rod, had a certain charisma thanks to Nick Corri's performance). As played by Heather Langenkamp, the original Nancy was a gutsy, resourceful, and quick-witted heroine. The new Nancy, as played by Rooney Mara, makes week-old road kill look like Robin Williams at his most manic. In the original, one of the most endearing scenes involved Nancy and Tina (Amanda Wyss) howling with laughter at the comically botched attempt of Glen (Johnny Depp) to fool his mother into thinking he's staying at his aunt's house by the airport. It was a moment that effortlessly convinced the audience that these were real kids, real friends, and it helped make it matter when Krueger starts to pick them off. In the remake, however, facial expressions involving too many muscles seem to be outlawed.

As for Freddy himself, while Jackie Earle Haley was an inspired choice to take over from Robert Englund, the script lets him down badly. The make-up doesn't do him any favors, either. The awkward look of Freddy in this film reminds me of the baffling revisions made to the Supermam costume in Superman Returns (2006) in which they inexplicably couldn't even get the 'S' chest emblem right. Of course, Haley's Freddy couldn't have looked exactly like Englund's, no matter what, but putting aside the fact that the two actors have different facial structures, couldn't they at least have not given Haley such stupid cat eyes? It's distracting - every time there was a close-up of him, I kept wondering if I put fresh litter in before I left the house.

Whatever mistakes the original series may have been guilty of, the irrepressible gusto of Englund's performance and the inventiveness of the practical FX set-pieces (who can forget the Kafka-esque transformation of Debbie in The Dream Master?) always made those films work. The remake, however, has neither a memorable Freddy or any standout set-pieces to offer. It has no clue about being either fun or scary. The best anyone could possibly say about this trip to Elm Street is that it resides resolutely in the middle of the road.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Scared Sheetless

By introducing surrealism into the staid n' stagnant slasher formula in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), writer/director Wes Craven put to bed the cycle of copycat cinema that had dominated the horror genre since the success of John Carpenter's Halloween (1978). In place of a prosaic, everyday world where overall-clad killers lurked behind shrubbery, hid in closets, and raided kitchen drawers for knives, there was a fantastical new 'rubber' reality.

Freddy Krueger wasn't just some lumbering party crasher, invading our space...

Instead, he forced his way into our world, stretching it out of shape.

Post-Halloween, slasher films had stuck to the same old tricks...

With A Nightmare on Elm Street, the slasher genre dramatically shed its skin, ripping its way free.

It was a call to action...

...For horror filmmakers to wake up and start dreaming again.

That nothing like that happened and that - rather than leading to adventurous films out to follow their own individuality - A Nightmare on Elm Street simply inspired imitations, shouldn't be a surprise. Horror has eternally been a genre cursed by sleeping potential...and lulled by borrowed dreams.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

3-D Ring Circus

This is not a happy time for movie fans who regard 3-D as an obnoxious gimmick. What began as a trickle last year with the remake of My Bloody Valentine and the sequel The Final Destination has become a deluge of three-dimensional terror. Coming this year is Piranha 3-D, Resident Evil: Afterlife, and Saw 3-D. And going into production soon will be Ridley Scott's Alien prequel, the next Final Destination sequel, Shark Night 3-D (!), Spring Break Zombie Cruise 3-D (!!), the monster movie Burst, and the just-announced third installment of the Ring saga. Like it or not, 3-D is quickly becoming the new standard. It's just a shame that the new movie The Human Centipede couldn't have put 3-D to its advantage as well, don't you think?

Having been a kid during the short-lived 3-D revival of the early '80s, and as someone who still thinks Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn (1983) embodies the 3-D experience, to see the format come back with this kind of popularity feels a little surreal. 3-D used to be a punchline and now almost any movie that has made serious money lately has done so by virtue of 3-D. Anyone who believes the trend will pass and that this technology is going to fade back into obscurity is dead wrong. The interest may naturally level off over the next few years but the demand for 3-D is not going to disappear. There's a whole generation of kids growing up now for whom 3-D is what they expect to see when they go to the theater. My five year old son doesn't look at 3-D as a gimmick, it's simply how he's always known movies to be.

As someone who felt like their dreams died a little when 3-D's comeback proved to be a flop in 1983, my inner twelve-year-old can't help but welcome the prospect of many more 3-D horror movies to come. At the same time, I do worry about the format completely overtaking the genre. 3-D horror is geared towards providing pure popcorn entertainment and while I'm all for enjoying movies on that level, it'd be a crime if that started to become the only kind of horror movie that studios were willing to release in theaters. There's a type of mood and atmosphere and a type of suspense that 3-D just doesn't lend itself to (at least not yet - maybe future filmmakers will change that) and I'd hate to see the 2-D releases of the future have to settle for direct-to-DVD distribution (or else be converted to 3-D, as with next year's The Cabin In The Woods and Priest).

Of course, very few 2-D horror films of late have really distinquished themselves so going for the full-on 3-D circus isn't necessarily such a loss. But yet much of what makes horror great is that it allows the audience to project itself into the film. To have 3-D doing that work for us is bound to lead to an audience too lazy to be scared.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The New Fango

Magazines aren't nearly as pivotal to genre fans today as they were in the pre-internet age so the changing of the guard at FANGORIA, as longtime editor Tony Timpone hands the reigns over to Chris Alexander with issue #293 (on sale now), isn't likely to shake the pillars of the horror community in the way that it once might have (I still remember how crestfallen I felt when Uncle Bob stepped down). However, to see Fango under the stewardship of a new editor for the first time in almost 25 years really is something of a big honkin' deal. I picked up my copy today and eagerly pored over its pages, looking to see how the first issue of the Alexander era shaped up.

Before we get to that, though, how about a standing O for the departing Tony Timpone? As his farewell editorial states, he isn't going that far, just taking on other responsibilities on behalf of FANGORIA. He won't be calling the editorial shots anymore, though, and his abdication of a position he's held for close to a quarter century is a milestone for Fango. Whether it's due to the mag's status in the world of genre journalism as the old kid on the block, or to its coverage of mainstream horror (especially the kind of pseudo-horror, like Twilight, that drives fans into an indignant rage), FANGORIA has unfortunately become an easy punching bag in some circles but I believe Timpone should be commended for guiding the mag through so many ups and downs in the genre's fortunes. It couldn't have been easy to edit a horror magazine during the '90s and make it work, for crying out loud, but Timpone did it. Throughout Timpone's lengthy tour of duty (ably assisted by Managing Editor Michael Gingold, who is keeping his long held position with the mag), Fango remained a indefatigable cheerleader for horror films both big and small and never smacked of cynicism or elitism. That rates as an achievement in my book.

Now, as for how Alexander fares at his first time at bat - the answer is "very good." When Alexander first came into the Fango fold a few years back, taking on the role of Canadian correspondent after leaving his digs at Rue Morgue, I was excited to see how he'd be put to work in the pages of Fango. However, as a fan of his Rue Morgue column, it never seemed to me as though he was utilized enough. Unsurprisingly, in his first issue as editor, his writing is featured much more (go figure!) and it immediately helps make the mag a more lively, impassioned read.

Among the Alexander-penned columns is "Trash Compactor," in which Alexander lauds praise on his favorite low-end genre pics (this month's feature, 1981's estimable zombie opus, Burial Ground), and also "Sound Shock," in which genre soundtracks are discussed (the inaugural column looks at the soundtrack for 1978's Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake). There's also "Monster of the Month," which some might see as little more than a one-page throwaway spent on spotlighting a famous ghoul (the feature kicks off by giving props to Mr. Barlow from Tobe Hooper's 1979 Salem's Lot) but with the old-school design of the page affectionately harking back to the look of Famous Monsters, I found it to be one of the highlights of the issue.

The rest of #293 is pretty much business as usual (set visits, Monster Invasion, Dr. Cyclops, Nightmare Library, etc.), although it seemed to me that Alexander phased out the kind of excessive coverage to zero-budget indie efforts that's been allotted in Fango's pages lately. There's still plenty of attention given to the little guy but the mag's attention is spread nicely among the new and the old and between studio pics and indie horror. I also have to commend Alexander for not going with a Nightmare on Elm Street remake cover, by the way - or with any coverage of the new film (there is an article, however, with interviews with some of the cast members of the original Elm Street films - including Freddy's Revenge star Mark Patton). This total rejection of a major genre film on the eve of its release is, more than anything else, a sign of a new day at Fango. Timpone published an article devoted to the new Nightmare last month but this is traditionally the kind of major release that would've been milked for at least three or four pieces over the course of a few issues. Personally I think the remake could've borne more attention without venturing into overkill but I appreciate Alexander's decision to not go by the established Fango playbook.

As a final thumbs-up, I just want to say I welcome the return of the much-missed film strip to Fango's cover. It's not exactly like the film strip of old, but I'll take it. I just hope a little more tweaking on the design front is planned. That's really all this issue calls for in regards to moving ahead - a few tweaks. Fango wasn't broken to begin with - it just needed some new blood.


Over the course of the eight films that featured actor Robert Englund as the sweater-garbed, razor-fingered Freddy Krueger, the make-up was tweaked from film to film but the essence of Freddy remained constant - a face that appeared on everything from bubble gums cards to lunch boxes (but curiously, no bed sheets!) during the character's heyday. Although the upcoming A Nightmare on Elm Street remake starring Jackie Earle Haley superficially sticks to those same essentials, with the costuming retaining the classic fedora, sweater and glove, the new Freddy's burned-scarred mug just doesn't look like the Freddy we're familiar with. In going forward for a new generation, making adjustments to an icon's appearance may have been necessary but it's still jarring to go from this:

To this:

As clearer views of Jackie Earle Haley's fried face have come to light, I finally clicked on who his Freddy reminds me of - Christopher Lee's Frankenstein Monster from 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein:

For fear of copyright infringement, Hammer Studios had to get as far away as possible from the flat-top, bolts-in-the-neck Jack Pierce make-up known from Universal's Frankenstein films. The look invented by Pierce was instantly iconic, the look devised by Hammer, far less so. It worked in the context of the film, it just didn't have that classic feel to it. Pierce's Monster was such a familiar sight, a viewer could recognize it even in shadow or silhouette. In contrast, Hammer's Monster looks ghastlier but less distinctive. The Universal Monster had a glowering, cadaverous look, Hammer's was just ugly - like an unfortunate accident victim.

Going from Englund's Krueger (designed by make-up artist David Miller) to Haley's, there was no copyright issues at work - just a different conceptual agenda. Just as Hammer's Frankenstein strived to be a grittier movie than James Whale's 1931 original, one that had to distance itself from the camp of the Monster's last onscreen appearence - 1948's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein - so too were the makers of the 2010 Elm Street determined to restore the character's darker shadings rather than remind viewers of Freddy vs. Jason (2003).

It remains to be seen how well recieved the new Nightmare on Elm Street will be - but it seems certain that regardless of the merits of the film as a whole, the new Freddy is destined to go down in history, much like Hammer's Frankenstein Monster, as a crude likeness of an icon.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Help Is On The Way!

It's been over a day now since I've seen Kick-Ass and I've been mulling over why I wasn't over the moon about it like some fans have been. You'd think it'd be completely up my alley as it ostensibly plays right to the hardcore comic book geek but while I got some good laughs out of it (mostly thanks to Nicholas Cage), in the end Kick-Ass left me feeling more empty than exhilarated - a feeling that's only grown since my viewing. Ultimately, I think Kick-Ass wasn't quite for me because it's not the way I view heroes. I don't have any problems with some fictional heroes being full-on killing machines - I'd be awfully sad to live in a world without Rambo or The Punisher, for instance. But when you're talking straight-up superheroes, there's a level of idealism that I don't think should be casually dispensed with.

In that regard, a movie that's everything Kick-Ass isn't is 1980's Hero At Large. John Ritter stars as Steve Nichols, a struggling actor who takes a job dressing as the comic book hero Captain Avenger to promote an upcoming movie but after he stops a robbery while in costume, he decides to keep on fighting crime. While Steve briefly loses his way morally after getting caught up in a PR scheme by NYC's mayor's office to have him continue as Captain Avenger but only foiling staged crimes, he eventually proves himself as a true hero by rescuing a child from a burning building. I haven't seen Hero At Large in many years but it was an early HBO favorite of mine as a kid. It was corny, it wore it's heart on it's sleeve - and at the risk of sounding square, I'll take it over Kick-Ass any day.

The best part of Kick-Ass for me was the speech that Dave Lizewski, aka Kick-Ass, makes early on in the film to a gang of punks as he tries to keep them from beating up on a lone victim. Incredulous at this skinny kid's dogged determination to get between them and their target, they say he's crazy for helping someone he doesn't know but Dave's defiant response is that it's crazier to see someone being attacked and to do nothing about it. By the end of Kick-Ass, I found it slightly depressing that a character who is initially depicted as a selfless defender of his fellow man was turned into a character willing to pump bullets into criminals - and even worse, that this development wasn't even acknowledged within the film as being a huge transformation. Dave is pretty much the same kid after taking lives as he was before - except maybe he's a little cooler afterwards.

Most of the movies I enjoy have a body count so I'm not going to be a hypocrite about violence in films but there's a difference between, say, a Death Wish film and Kick-Ass. I never thought the violence in the Death Wish series looked fun. For viewers, there's obvious gratification in it, yes - the vicarious excitement of seeing someone refusing to be helpless against crime - but in those films being a vigilante was depicted as being a death sentence for your soul. In Kick-Ass, however, slaughtering human beings is made to look like a romp.

I never gave much thought to the violence in the Kick-Ass comic because the series had such a sociopathic disposition all the way through. But with the movie, the notion that Dave's succeess as a hero rides hinges on him being able to kill feels wrong. It would only have really worked for me if there were an epilogue to Kick-Ass with Dave either selling off or burning his comic book collection because he didn't have any more use for the ideals that initially inspired him.

It's true that modern comic books are much darker than those of earlier eras - Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen (both from 1986) - ushered in a movement towards portraying grim n' gritty heroes that still influences the medium to this day. But even with that darker tone, killing remains a real rarity among the superhero set. They might brood a lot more than the sunnier heroes of the past did, but they seldom use lethal force. When they do, it's usually regarded as a shocker. From Kick-Ass, though, you'd think that comic book heroes must be out to murder all of their enemies. If that were true, that would make them assassins, or serial killers - not superheroes.

Maybe that's why being a comic book geek worked against me when it came to enjoying this movie. As an adaptation, Kick-Ass is true to the specific comic that it's based on but it's not faithful at all to the ethos of superhero comics in general. If Dave had been a movie buff who got his inspiration from blood-soaked revenge pictures, it'd make more sense. I'm not offended by Kick-Ass - I just can't reconcile the violence with the premise of the movie. Both in the comic and the movie, the violence seems to be a product of lazy writing - only there to impress readers who otherwise wouldn't think that comic books - or movies based on comic books - are cool. And as a comic fan, that puts me off more than the violence itself.

If Dave really wanted to become the kind of crimefighter that he becomes in Kick-Ass, then he wouldn't have been in comic shops reading about the likes of Captain America. Instead he would've been subscribing to magazines like Soldier of Fortune or Guns & Ammo. The real-life culmination of his heroic fantasies ultimately proves to be more about Smith & Wesson than about Batman and Robin. The problem with Kick-Ass is if I want to watch a movie about a killer at large, I'll watch a horror movie or a real vigilante picture - and if I want to see a hero at large, I'll go with the authentic item. Who wants to see a kid pretending to be a superhero when Iron Man 2 is on the way?

That's not kick-ass, it's half-ass.

Friday, April 16, 2010

One Fan Can Make A Difference

Dreaming of being a superhero is pretty standard for young comic book buffs. After all, if you didn't enjoy fantasize about being a larger than life crime fighter, why were you even reading these books to begin with? As someone who was addicted to comics as a kid, I wore more than my fair share of superhero-themed Underoos and I'd be embarrassed to admit how old I was before I finally came to terms with the fact that I was never going to be the bearer of a real Green Lantern power ring. I knew that I'd never be Superman because I was pretty sure I hadn't been born on Krypton but it was permissible in my far-flung imaginings to think that becoming an approximate version of one of my favorite superheroes wasn't out of the question.

Getting older, though, those goofy dreams of adopting a superhero persona for real fade away - or, for some, become relegated to live action role-playing games. In the new movie Kick-Ass, however, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) - the adolescent comic book fan at the heart of the story - wonders why no one has ever taken the obvious-but-bold leap to become a real-life costumed hero. When he decides to be the first, he receives a brutal beating at the hands of some ordinary thugs - a beating that lands him in the hospital with metal plates now installed in his body and some serious nerve damage to boot. This, after all, is what happens when someone really tries to fight the kind of battles that comic book heroes have been fighting for years. What happens - especially if you're a scrawny adolescent kid - is that you get your ass handed to you.

After that savage first beating, the "this is how it would really be" portion of Kick-Ass is over. One swift alley fight is all the reality that this movie can tolerate. What follows is every bit as fanciful as anything found in the Marvel or DC pantheon. Forget radioactive spiders, forget alien power rings - in the real world, what really would've happened after Dave's first try at being a superhero is that he either would've died (or been permanently crippled) thanks to his injuries or else he would have pulled through intact but would never want to be Kick-Ass again. Instead, Dave recovers and actually feels motivated to continue with his one-man war on crime (he compares the new steel in his body to Wolverine's adamantium skeleton, natch). More incredible than that, he soon finds out that he isn't the only costumed avenger in the city of NY and that these other heroes are hardcore.

Operating on a level that Dave can't hope to touch, the mysterious duo of Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage, turning in one of his best performances - his Adam West-style delivery while in costume is pure gold) and Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz, soon to be seen again in the Let The Right One In remake) are a sociopathic father-daughter team who have a special hate-on for the city's biggest gangster, Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong). These two new heroes are so ruthless, well-trained, and well-armed that they pose a serious threat to D'Amico. Dave, on the other hand, muddles through his new hobby as a self-made superhero on behalf of his pie-eyed dream of helping others. Despite his lack of ability, Dave really is hero material - mostly for the fact that he cares. He doesn't need any Uncle Ben-style shock to teach him a lesson - he already thinks it's a good idea to help his fellow man.

As an adaptation, the movie's script - written by Jane Goldman along with director Matthew Vaughn - represents a vast improvement over comic scribe Mark Millar's smug, cynical source material (material redeemed on the comic page by some of legendary artist John Romita Jr.'s best work - one of the high points of the film, in fact, is a segment featuring J.R. Jr.'s art in limited animation). However, in making Dave a much more altruistic, morally grounded person than his unpleasant comic book counterpart, it also opens up a hole in the narrative. It was easy to accept the troll-like Dave of the comic going along with Big Daddy and Hit-Girl's wholesale slaughter of criminals but in the movie, one has to wonder if this is really what Dave had in mind when he dreamed about being a superhero.

First of all, it'd be more correct to call the self-styled costumed characters of Kick-Ass vigilantes rather than superheroes. If you'll let me get comic book geeky for a minute, there's an important difference. Superheroes, traditionally, don't kill. It's what separates them from vigilantes. The Punisher, for example, is a vigilante while Spider-Man and Captain America are not. Sure, you could say that anyone operating outside the law is, by definition, a vigilante. But to be a superhero involves a code of conduct. Batman might strike fear into the hearts of criminals but he never kills. A criminal might die in the midst of a battle with the Cowled Crusader, but never as the direct result of Batman's actions. The day Batman kills is the day he stops being Batman.

Given that, Dave's attitude towards murder is something that should've been addressed. We see that he's taken aback by Big Daddy and Hit-Girl's actions but he never suggests that killing shouldn't be a part of a hero's repertoire. Now, had he expressed a moral issue with using lethal force, Kick-Ass might've had his naivete thrown back in his face and he might've had to accept through bitter experience that a one-man war on crime can't be fought according to gentleman's rules but that should've been incorporated into his character's arc, seeing him go from an idealistic fanboy to a hardened superhero in the real world. The comics that inspired Dave ultimately prove useless to him (on the other hand, they prove to be good research for D'Amico's son Chris, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and it might've been interesting to see him abandon his interest in comics as his illusions are stripped away.

Directed with plenty of panache by Matthew Vaughn and stocked with vivid performances, it's easy to get swept up in Kick-Ass but at the same time, I couldn't help but feel slightly put off by the movie's break-out character, Hit-Girl. While I didn't want any harm to come to the character (honestly, who wants to see a little girl get hurt?), and I liked Moretz's performance, the whole concept of the character rubbed me the wrong way. It's a kid with a foul-mouth, a blasé, too cool for school attitude when it comes to taking lives and who has advanced fighting skills that make most ninjas look as fleet as wounded elephants. Dave and his relatable insecurities was interesting to me whereas Hit-Girl was just a cartoon character seemingly created whole cloth from a checklist of what fanboys would find cool. Long before the climax, the whole movie has gone the cartoon route.

As cartoons go, however, Kick-Ass does a mostly super job. It's fun, on a certain kneejerk level. But like its pretend heroes, it's not quite bulletproof.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Comfortable Level Of Fear

For a horror film to truly frighten viewers an element of surprise or mystery is essential. Audiences can’t be scared if they’re complacent about the movie they’re watching. They have to be uneasy, caught off guard. Above all, they can’t feel safe. In principle, this may be true but in contradiction to that, audiences have shown time and again that when it comes to horror, what they crave – and perhaps even prefer – is the comfort of the familiar.

From the earliest days of film, movie monsters have been willed back to life by the demand of audiences who didn’t want to let the likes of Dracula or The Wolf Man rest in peace. But yet the result of those return appearances was that the stable of Universal Monsters quickly stopped being scary and finished out their initial wave of popularity being paired with the comedy duo of Abbott & Costello. While modern movie monsters like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers escaped that kind of fate (never having to share the screen with the likes of Pauly Shore or Adam Sandler), they were still diminished over time - whether it be through increasingly gimmicky installments (Jason Takes Manhattan, Jason X) or by having the essence of the character diluted (in the case of the Halloween saga, any installment after Carpenter's original). While Freddy Krueger was never paired with a comedian, he himself became more of a jokester over the course of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, with actor Robert Englund’s later-day portrayal of the dream stalker marked by an increasing stream of quips and one-liners.

Actor Jackie Earle Haley's upcoming turn as Freddy Krueger in the Elm Street remake is being touted as a call back to a more serious interpretation of the character but aren't Freddy's days as a scary character over, no matter who's playing him? Trying to make a 'scary' Nightmare on Elm Street in 2010 seems like a put-on to me. A well-intended put-on, maybe, but still a put-on. The likes of Freddy, Jason, Pinhead, or Leatherface have long since become part of an odd charade in which audiences willingly pay for a horror experience without ever truly expecting to experience any horror.

It’s often said that horror films are like roller coaster rides in which people can experience danger without ever actually subjecting themselves to any risk and franchise horror movies are the ultimate embodiment of that analogy. Films like the original Psycho (1960) or the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) are movies that - upon their initial releases, at least - violently pulled the ground out from under viewers. They weren’t just roller coaster rides. They were roller coaster rides operated by untrustworthy madmen under the blanket of midnight - films that sparked angry outbursts and walk-outs. You just don't see that kind of livid reaction provoked by, say, Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III.

The fact that being pseudo-scared is something that enough people enjoy, however, says something about the social and psychological function that franchises provide. I'm susceptible to the appeal of these films myself - like, really susceptible! - and I have to wonder what emotional itch is being scratched. It's not about being scared so much as it is about the pleasurable memory of being scared. Revisiting characters like Freddy and Jason in sequels and remakes is like reflectively soaking in nostalgia for fear. It’s not a visceral experience that viewers are looking for. Instead, it’s the comforting phantom of that visceral experience.

As viewers, perhaps we become fond of the memory of being traumatized by films but are sometimes reluctant to seek out new and unfamiliar traumas (for myself, I can say that while I own the DVD of Martyrs, it's still sitting unwatched on a shelf). The famous (and often recycled) ad campaign for the original Last House on the Left (1972) gave viewers the hyperbolic advice that “To Avoid Fainting, Keep Repeating…'It’s Only A Movie, It’s Only A Movie'..." but sequels and remakes make any such psychological firewalls unnecessary.

Of course it's only a movie - it's the remake of Hellraiser. In 3-D.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Circus That Dreaded Sunrise

Things continue to be bleak on the job front for yours truly but the news that Synapse Films will be issuing some choice offerings from the vaults of Hammer Films - Vampire Circus, Twins of Evil, The Hands of the Ripper, as well as 1980's 13-episode TV anthology Hammer House of Horror - makes it impossible for me to be completely down. Of all the announced titles, it's 1972's Vampire Circus that I'm most excited for. For years, Vampire Circus was a recurring bootleg buy for me at horror cons, always hoping each trip to find a VHS dupe that would be at least incrementally better than my last one. While the early Hammer horrors of the '50s and '60s are the ones that get all the accolades and hoopla, it's the studio's later films - more experimental efforts, made as Hammer's popularity was waning in the early to mid '70s - that really caught my imagination as a kid.

Maybe it's just me but I don't know how any kid seeing Vampire Circus at an impressionable age wouldn't instantly became a rabid fan of this movie. I mean, the tiger lady alone was like "Damn!"

This movie was wild, making the Christopher Lee Dracula pictures look staid by comparison. No ordinary bloodsucker saga, Vampire Circus was packed with garish, eerie, sexual visuals. From their first horror successes, Hammer Films had been marked by lurid, pulp imagery but in combining the supernatural with an already elevated circus atmosphere, Vampire Circus had a more robust comic book sensibility to it. Fittingly, in the pages of the B&W magazine The House of Hammer #17, the film was adapted into a comic in fine style by writer Steve Parkhouse and ace illustrator Brian Bolland:

It's said that every kid wants to run away with the circus but while Barnum & Bailey famously promoted itself as The Greatest Show on Earth, it couldn't help but look merely earthbound compared to the unnatural wonders and dark freedoms found in Vampire Circus.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Golden Slumbers

Due on DVD May 4th, riding on the heels of the Nightmare on Elm Street remake, is the documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy. The box art for the DVD has recently been revealed and, as drawn by original Elm Street poster artist Matthew Joseph Peak, it looks awfully sweet. I'm actually more excited to see this franchise-spanning doc (produced by the same team responsible for My Name Is Jason) than I am to see the remake.

Unlike Halloween or Friday the 13th - series that I had to catch up with on TV because I was too young when the early entries of each series came out - I hit the ground running with Nightmare and saw the 1984 original in theaters. Being able to watch the Nightmare movies from the beginning gave me both a fondness for the series but also a little contempt towards it as well. I suspect it's a common reaction among fans to feel that, with rare exception, once they're old enough to see horror movies on the big screen unsupervised the movies don't seem as cool as the ones that came before their time.

The original A Nightmare on Elm Street, however, definitely lived up to the minor maelstrom of hype that accompanied it (hype was harder to generate in those pre-internet days). Every sequel after that, though, was an exercise in disappointment. Even the much-admired Dream Warriors seemed jarring to me at the time as that's where the Freddy one-liners started to take on a life of their own (although, admittedly, the one-liners in Dream Warriors are classic).

Still, time has made me fonder of The Gloved One and the carefree era that he reigned over. At the height of the Nightmare series' popularity, it seemed galling to this serious-minded fan to have horror's flagship character be all about buffoonery and MTV-style razzmatazz. Now I wish horror could have some of that love of pure entertainment back. Even the most moronic genre films today - such as The Unborn or Daybreakers - have a dunderheaded earnestness to them that's just boring. Freddy, on the other hand, was always ready with a quip and a cackle. Freddy may have been seldom scary but in retrospect, I realize that it was always a kick to have him around.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Battle Of The Bulge

Throughout the heyday of the drive-ins and grindhouse theaters, horror movie posters were forever attempting to out-sensationalize the competition with the most garish imagery permitted for public display. Exploitation films fought for attention in a crowded marketplace and posters had to convince prospective ticket buyers at a glance that they'd be getting the most bang for their buck. In the over-stuffed annals of notorious horror movie posters, though, I nominate 1980's slasher fave Maniac as being the sickest one-sheet ever.

Even for the early '80s, when there was a glut of lurid posters to be found, this was a repulsive piece of work. Try to imagine seeing this elegant art hanging in any theater lobby today. It just wouldn't happen because from top to bottom, everything about it is so wrong.

If I had to single out the most offensive aspect of this poster, though, it wouldn't be the bloody knife, or the woman's scalp held in the killer's hand, or even the glimpse of the killer's fat, hairy gut showing through the gaps in his unbuttoned shirt. No, I think the most appalling sight by a mile is the huge fucking bulge in the killer's jeans.

Apparently having the knife held directly over the killer's crotch wasn't an obvious enough phallic symbol. Hell, no - they had to get the actual dick in there, too, just so no one would not know that killing gives this guy a massive hard-on.

When Maniac was originally in theaters, offended women's groups painted over this poster and even though I don't support censorship, it's easy to understand the outrage. When it comes to horror movie posters, there's everything else and then there's Maniac. Whatever you say about it, you can't say that it was soft.