Slowly by slowly, little by little, we continue to try to catch up with the avalanche of films from our October horror spectacular. Here are the mini-reviews from the second half of the fourth week of October, 10/22 to 10/25. Coming up, we finally approach the end of the 31 Days of Halloween with the fifth (and final) week of October. We’ll be discussing new films like Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Contracted: Phase 2 and The Gift, as well as old favorites like Jaws, Trick ‘r Treat and Swamp Thing. Stay tuned, gentle readers: that light at the end of the tunnel might be daylight or it might be some sort of creepy ghost train…only one way to find out!
A Nightmare on Elm Street — It all started here. There’s a reason why Wes Craven’s seminal creation would go on to spawn not only a blockbuster franchise but a genuine pop culture phenomenon: it is, quite simply, one of the best, most original films to come out of the entire history of the horror genre, from the silent days to modern times. By welding the burgeoning slasher genre to something explicitly supernatural and dream-like, Craven made a cinematic Frankenstein that would change the game for decades to come and introduce the world to one of the most iconic boogeymen of all time.
Much grittier than anything else in the series until Craven would return with New Nightmare, there is very little of the trademark wisecracks and villain worship that would come. In the original installment, Freddy Krueger is a terrifying creation, a scarred, insane, remorseless child killing demon who morphs and bends reality to his whim, far removed from the smarmier jokester that the character would eventually become. The setpieces (Johnny Depp sucked into his own bed; the body-bag dragging down the school hall; Freddy in the bath; the victim tossed around her room by an invisible Freddy) are as iconic as anything by Argento and the cast is likable enough to make us actually care what happens. In a long career, Wes Craven would never top this unforgettable blast of pure nightmarish nitro.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge — Coming off the high that was the original entry, the first sequel to Craven’s iconic creation was always going to have an uphill climb. It’s not that director Steve Miner didn’t try: there are certainly moments and setpieces (the opening school bus bit is pretty great, for one) that stand up with the first film. There’s a gleefully gonzo element to much of the film that allows for exploding parakeets, backyard barbecue massacres and an unexplained (but plainly obvious) homoerotic subtext that prevents the film from ever becoming boring.
On the other hand, however, Freddy’s Revenge is also sort of a mess, featuring an unnecessary possession angle (Freddy takes over a teen’s body in order to continue his killing spree), lots of rough acting and an unfortunately silly aftertaste to much of the proceedings: the aforementioned parakeet is one of those oddities that would never fit in anywhere, regardless of the film, context or era. If anything, Freddy’s Revenge stands as a fledgling franchise taking the first tentative steps towards immortality.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors — The first NOES film that I ever saw in the theater (I snuck into the showing when I was the ripe old age of ten), Dream Warriors is also my very favorite installment in the series, including Craven’s original. Hell, the third entry in the NOES franchise is actually one of my favorite films, of any genre, period.
For my money, Dream Warriors is the perfect culmination of what Elm Street has to offer: the kills/setpieces are inventive, unnerving and pretty glorious (Freddy as puppetmaster and “Primetime Freddy” are probably my favorites); the kids are likable and fun; the pop-metal soundtrack is appropriately kickass (in that patented late-’80s way) and, most importantly, Robert Englund’s Freddy finally perfected his trademark brand of razor-sharp snark here, finding a perfect balance between smarmy sarcasm and genuine dread. Dream Warriors also has the benefit of being one of only three Elm Street films that creator Craven was directly involved with: although he didn’t direct the film (that honor would go to The Blob remake’s Chuck Russell), Craven did co-write the script. As far as I’m concerned, horror films just don’t get much better than this.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master — Although it’s at least a solid half-step down from the utterly amazing Dream Warriors, Renny Harlin’s The Dream Master (his precursor to action juggernaut Die Hard 2) is still a great film and a more than worthy entry in the franchise’s “golden era.” We continue to get more of Freddy’s back story here and, although the humor is much more upfront, this is still, first and foremost, an inventive slasher film. Dream Master is also where Alice, NOES’ best final girl after the original Nancy, really comes into her ass-kicking own.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child — Although Stephen Hopkins’ (also known for Predator 2, Judgment Night and the criminally under-rated Ghost and the Darkness) Dream Child is much jokier and more gimmicky than its predecessors, it’s still a fun, highly watchable and suitably entertaining entry in the series. Although the film is never as inventive as the ones that immediately preceded it, the notion of Alice’s ever-sleeping unborn child is a great revelation/complication and the “doll party” death is still one of the ickiest and most disturbing in the entire franchise. The last truly good NOES film, since I’ve always considered New Nightmare to be a slightly different kind of animal.
Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare — When it first came out in theaters, I remember that I couldn’t get enough of Freddy’s Dead, the “supposedly” final installment in the Elm Street saga (at that time, at least): I know that I saw it at least twice but I might have actually seen it three times, to be honest. I do remember one thing quite distinctly, however: if I got any more excited about the film’s 3D aspects (we were given glasses at the screening and I think I still have a pair stowed away somewhere), I’m pretty sure that my head would have literally exploded, sending brain matter to every corner of my humble multiplex.
Time and perspective, as they often are, have not been kind to The Final Nightmare (feature debut for Tank Girl’s Rachel Talalay and one of only three non-TV credits to her resume, thus far). In every way, Freddy’s Dead is the absolute nadir of the series (including the goofy second film), a film that’s much more interested in throwing silly, random pop culture references at the audience (“You forgot the Power Glove!” is as immortal as it is idiotic) than it is in crafting anything approximating a legitimate scare. Gone is any notion of actually being frightening, in any way, shape or form: this is Freddy Krueger as stand-up comic, “slaying” the audience with the aid of things like an extended Wizard of Oz gag and cameos from Tom and Roseanne Arnold.
Despite a genuinely intriguing core premise (with all of the children on Elm Street finally gone, the adults have all gone insane), Freddy’s Dead is nothing but one lame, dated raspberry after another. Small wonder, then, that when the series did finally attempt to move past The Final Nightmare, it went in the completely different, meta-fictional direction of New Nightmare: when you’ve scrapped the bottom of the barrel straight to the wood, there’s just no further down to go.
Saw: The Final Chapter — As hard as it is for me to believe now, there was once a point in time where I not only really liked the Saw series but actually anticipated each entry with something that probably approached a low-level kind of fanboyism. Youth, as we all know, is very much wasted on the young.
By the time I finally got around to watching the concluding chapter of the series recently, not only was I no longer a die-hard fan, I actually disliked much of what I previously enjoyed, finding only the first and third entries to really have any merit. Saw: The Final Chapter (or Saw 3D, if you were “lucky” enough to catch it in theaters) is, without a doubt, the absolute worst entry in the franchise, a feat made all the more impressive when one remembers how truly wretched the 4th and 5th installments were. Loud, chaotic, nauseatingly violent, lunk-headed, ugly, inane and tedious, The Final Chapter manages to wrap everything up with a bow by introducing so many deus ex machinas and “twists” that it’s pretty obvious the series’ caretakers must dislike it as much as we do. The very best, most succinct way I can describe this film is “obnoxious.”
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare — After the franchise went out in a cotton-candy bang of celebrity cameos, Nintendo references and more bad one-liners than an amateur open mic, it seemed that Freddy Krueger and his little spot of suburban hell might go the way of the dodo. Instead, creator Wes Craven would return to the series he kickstarted a mere three years later with New Nightmare, a smart bit of meta-fiction that would serve as a sort of dry run for what would become Craven’s “modern-day” legacy: the Scream series.
Much more serious, stream-lined and genuinely eerie than anything in the franchise since the debut film (not surprising, considering the genesis), New Nightmare uses the conceit that the actual creative personnel behind the films (writer/director Craven, original stars Heather Langenkamp and John Saxon, Freddy portrayer Robert Englund) are now being haunted by an honest to god demon, a creature which has decided to portray itself as Elm Street’s resident stalker for familiarity reasons (think of the various forms that It takes throughout the novel, as comparison).
The meta-angle is smart because it allows Craven to not only return to the franchise he created but to also comment on the violence, terror and nightmares he’s left behind in his wake. More so than his peers, Craven has always been at his strongest when he’s not only creating horror but actively commenting on it, perhaps due to his early turn as a member of academia. As a NOES film, New Nightmare performs lots of smart fan service, giving Elm Street acolytes the opportunity to spend a little more time with some beloved old friends: as a horror film, it’s generally successful, trading in the gaudy variety of the later films for a more streamlined sense of stalk-and-slash. That said, the film’s action can tend towards the cheesy, at times (the final confrontation, in particular, is pretty silly), and there’s never the overriding sense of fun produced by the best films in the series (3, 1 and 4, if we’re keeping score). It’s a good film, mind you, and exponentially better than what immediately preceded it: it’s just never been one of my personal favorites, that’s all.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) — I actively avoided watching the 2010 remake of Craven’s immortal Nightmare on Elm Street for a few different reasons: I really, really dislike unnecessary remakes; the recent “reboot” of Friday the 13th not only didn’t add anything new to the mix, it wasn’t even a particularly good F13 ripoff and the NOES “reboot” looked identical; I didn’t think Jackie Earle Haley was a suitable replacement for Robert Englund’s take on Freddy; the implied ultra-serious tone turned me off in the pre-release buzz; there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with the original NOES and I wasn’t sure what the new one was supposed to “fix” or “improve” and, of course, the most important reasons: I really, really dislike unnecessary remakes.
When it came time for this year’s October programming, however, I decided to give the reboot a shot and programmed it at the tail end of my NOES “marathon”: if there was ever a time to approach this with fresh, unjaded eyes, this was it and believe me when I say that I absolutely tried to do so. Despite my preconceived notions, I was fully prepared to let Samuel Bayer (better known for directing roughly a million music videos) blow me out of the water with his vision.
And then, of course, I actually watched the thing. Too technically well-made to be called crap, I still don’t have a problem applying the descriptor: this is soulless, overly glossy, loud, inane garbage, the kind of by-the-numbers modern multiplex filmmaking that’s conducted by committee rather than imagination. The new take on the makeup is awful, Haley’s performance is so generic and beige that he completely fades into the woodwork and all of the numerous references to the far superior original film (such as the “Freddy in the wall” gag) only serve to show just how chintzy and lame the new version is.
Look, I get it: modern audiences don’t like old stuff. No problem. In that case, why not give them someone new, then, instead of some idiotic reinterpretation of something that they’re not going to give two shits about in the first place? The NOES remake is offensive precisely because it appeals to exactly no one: old school fans need this roughly like we need a hole in our heads, whereas “the youth” will probably find this tepid version about as fascinating as listening to Gramps talk about record stores.
Dead of Night — Perhaps the less said about this haphazard late-’70s TV anthology film, the better. Consisting of three stories, Dead of Night features a suitably interesting cast (Ed Begley Jr., Patrick Macnee, Elisah Cook Jr., Horst Buchholz, Joan Hackett and Lee Montgomery all feature prominently) and then doesn’t give them much of anything interesting to do. Ranging from a pre-Back to the Future time-travel jaunt to a clichéd vampire period piece to a grieving mother bringing her dead son back from beyond, nothing here hits with any lasting impact and the overall impression is of a strictly bottom-of-the-shelf product slotted into a lonely Sunday night in order to kill time. Hopelessly dated, Dead of Night is proof that not every wine becomes a classic with age: some just turn into vinegar.
Lost River — Although it’s often easy to forget, celebrities and matinée idols are really, at the end of the day, just human beings like every one else. As such, they love (or hate) corn chips, sing in the shower and idolize other celebrities, just like everyone else. Case in point: leading hunk and all-around indie-action renaissance man, Ryan Gosling. While he may be a mega-charged star, in his own right, it’s pretty obvious that the Gos also really, really looks up to writer/director/badass Nicolas Winding Refn. After all, Gosling was already a lead before Refn cast him in the enigmatic Drive but it was that film (and role) that have clearly resonated the most with him: his “legitimization” in the world of “cool” films, as it were.
For his directorial debut, it’s not surprising that Gosling would turn towards the Danish wunderkind for inspiration, nor is it necessarily surprising that the result would be a huge mess. After all, Refn had to walk before he was setting the asphalt on fire, priming the pump with his Pusher series and the kinda/sorta biopic Bronson before diving into the weird with his surreal Viking curiosity Valhalla Rising and the magical-realist brutalist epics that would follow. With Lost River, Gosling jumps in without testing the waters, aiming for something like the neon-lit melancholy and perversion of Only God Forgives.
The problem, of course, is that all of this is way beyond the abilities of a fledgling filmmaker, especially one who’s still getting the hang of essential storytelling elements. In essence, Lost River is a mishmash of several dozen disparate tropes and themes, pulling in everything from weird, futuristic sex clubs (ala Clockwork Orange) and submerged towns to wandering gangs and general dystopia. There’s a love story (or two) here, lots of evocative atmosphere, plenty of head-scratching strangeness (the sex club, in particular is exceptionally strange) and not a whole lot of narrative. We get random musical numbers, probably because Only God Forgives did the same thing, but the effect is more one of opening random doors and observing assorted activities rather than any sort of overriding theme or intent.
None of this would, of course, make a damn bit of difference if the actual film was as mesmerizing as it intends. It’s not, unfortunately, but it certainly does try: Ben Mendelsohn turns in another of those performances that reinforces his status as the modern-day’s go-to sleazebag, while Christina Hendricks and Iain de Caestecker are solid as the mother/son duo at the heart of the film. There are eye-popping visuals aplenty and the sunken town is a fantastic concept, even if the actual execution leaves a bit to be desired. Even better, Gosling and cinematographer Benoit Debie (who shot Gaspar Noe’s mind-expanding/exploding Enter the Void) turn Detroit into a virtual post-apocalyptic wonderland, a crumbling land of the dead that provides the best possible backdrop for what Gosling has cooking.
Which, as previously mentioned, just doesn’t amount to much, in the end. Films certainly don’t have to make sense: there’s no written (or unwritten) rule that’s ever enforced that, least of all in my personal rulebook. The chief sin of Lost River isn’t that it makes an imperfect kind of sense: the chief sin of Lost River is that it’s haphazard and random, mood and image for the sense of such. Gosling might be looking towards such stylish artisans as Refn, Bava and Argento for inspiration but he’s forgotten the most important part: first and foremost, those filmmakers could tell a story. Lost River might be an “experience” but it could (and should) have been a whole lot more.
Bone Tomahawk — Although I like and watch all kinds of films, there are two genres that definitely have a lock on my heart: horror films and Westerns. While I’ve loved and been obsessed with horror films since I was a little kid, I actually grew up disliking Westerns something fierce, although anything with Clint Eastwood in it was always at the top of my fave list, regardless of genre. Once I grew up and was actually able to appreciate the genre, I learned that I had been a pretty huge bonehead (sorry Mom and Dad!) and that Westerns could be every bit as glorious as the horror films that I always swore by. Doh.
Since that point, I’ve always had my eyes peeled for that perfect intersection of my twin loves, that Venn diagram of utter awesomeness: the horror-Western. Like most rare, reclusive creatures, however, the horror-Western is a mighty difficult one to pin down. In fact, in all of these years, I’ve really only seen two films that I would consider to be absolutely essential horror-Westerns: Antonia Bird’s criminally under-rated Ravenous (1999), one of my all-time favorite films, and J.T. Petty’s stunning The Burrowers (2008), which has been burned into my mind since the very first time I saw it. At long last, these past favorites can finally set another place at the table: writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk (2015) is not only the single best horror-Western I’ve seen since The Burrowers, it’s also one of the very best films of the year, hands down.
Bone Tomahawk, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love how Kurt Russell channels the world-weary air of latter-day John Wayne for his flawless portrayal of Sheriff Franklin Hunt, one of the most effortless cinematic badasses ever. I love how Richard Jenkins’ Chicory is the culmination of every sassy, ancient deputy in the history of the genre. I love how none of the characters, whether Patrick Wilson’s kind-hearted and “traditional” hero or Matthew Fox’s charismatic but odious “Indian-killer” are ever reduced to just simplistic stereotypes or lazy cinematic tropes. I love how the smart, Tarantino-esque dialogue adds to the overall feel and flow of the film rather than calling unnecessary attention to itself: there’s a great scene involving the relative merits (or lack thereof) of reading in the tub that provides big belly laughs without detracting from the film’s overall thoughtful, mournful air.
I love cinematographer Benji Bakshi’s gorgeous, panoramic imagery, beautifully composed shots that elegantly place our small, insignificant heroes into a massive, almost apocalyptic landscape that perfectly illustrates the immensity of their quest. I love that the horror element (cannibalistic, nearly inhuman cave-dwelling troglodyte savages who communicate via a series of eerie howling calls) is grounded in reality but never so ruthlessly explained as to lose its overriding air of mystery and menace. Did I mention how much I love the opening that features Sid Haig and David Arquette doing what they do best? No? Well, I love that, too.
To be frankly honest (as if it wasn’t already painfully obvious), I loved every thing about Bone Tomahawk. Just like with The Burrowers and Ravenous, this felt like an instant classic from the very first frame, a feeling which remained constant and consistent throughout its runtime. This is not only a quality horror film or a quality neo-Western: it’s a quality film, period, the kind of immaculately made, exquisitely acted piece of art that makes my heart soar and validates any and every shitty, boring or clichéd film I’ve had to sit through this year. It’s an absolute given that Bone Tomahawk will end up on my year-end Best of list: if most critics didn’t wear blinders when it came to horror films, I’d be willing to wager it would end up on their lists, too.
Freddy vs Jason — The worst thing about Ronny Yu’s Freddy vs Jason isn’t that it’s a dumb film, although it certainly is that. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the film is aggressively stupid, pitched at such a loud, blaring and bubble-headed level that it all but guarantees derision from anyone who grew up on the original NOES and F13 franchises: by comparison, Freddy’s Dead and Jason Goes to Hell both come across as downright Shakespearen.
No, the worst thing about Freddy vs Jason, by a long-shot, is how hard it tries (and overwhelmingly succeeds) in making Freddy Krueger look like a complete and total moron. Never more than one banana peel slip away from outright buffoonery (perhaps that’s on the Blu-ray extras?), this is even more terrible when one realizes that it will also probably stand as Englund’s last official outing behind the makeup. When I think of Freddy, I’d rather think of the cunning, wily and bloodthirsty monster of Dream Warriors or New Nightmare, not the dope in Freddy vs Jason who spends the entire film running around shouting the equivalent of “Those meddling kids!” while shaking his tiny fists at the sky. There’s never a point here where Freddy approaches anything like his former menace (although the Alice in Wonderland riff is a nice try): he’s the whiny nerd making threats while someone gives him a swirly in the boys’ room, the blowhard doofus who needs a little comeuppance from the “cool kids.”
Is it fun, though? Eh…it’s certainly loud, kinetic and action-packed…is that the same thing? Although Freddy gets the shortest possible end of the stick, Jason makes out slightly better, possibly because his constantly bemused expression stands as a perfect surrogate for our disbelief. It’s almost as if Mr. Voorhees is thinking: “Huh: get a look at this, will ya? This is some pretty out there stuff, man.” The actual fight between Freddy and Jason is fun, sure, even if the whole thing feels suspiciously like one of those Peter vs the Chicken fights from Family Guy: at a certain point, they might as well be smashing through panes of glass on the street and upending fruit carts, for all the actual impact it has.
I will freely admit one thing, however: I laugh my damn ass off each and every time I watch the scene where the stoner, referencing Jason’s murderous rampage, observes “Dude, that goalie was pissed about something!” My guess? He just got finished watching this stupid movie.
Pay the Ghost — When it comes to Nicolas Cage, it’s never a given as to which side you’re going to get: will it be the teeth-gnashing, out-of-control, bee-hating Cage of The Wicker Man remake or will it be the restrained, low-key artisan of Joe? The glory of Cage, of course, it that it could be either (or both!): like a box of mixed chocolates, you never really know until you’ve paid your money and taken your chances.
For Uli Edel’s Pay the Ghost, we get a little of both sides, albeit watered-down: call it diluted Cage, if you will. And it works, for the most part: Cage is a massively likable presence as Mike Lawford, the hapless professor who manages to lose his young son during a chaotic Halloween carnival and uncovers a supernatural conspiracy when he tries to find him. There are some genuinely eerie moments here, even if many of them seem borrowed from similar genre fare like Mama or The Woman in Black (perhaps the closest parallel to Pay the Ghost’s themes and execution) and Edel (who was also responsible for the fantastic Baader Meinhof Complex) builds up a reasonable amount of tension throughout.
The biggest problem, as it turns out, is that the film ends up being both too convoluted and too familiar: the moments where Edel and screenwriter Dan Kay (scripting from Tim Lebbon’s novel) break away from the usual “evil forces snatching children” tropes end up being some of the film’s weakest, mostly because it’s often difficult for us to make the connections that the characters are. Even now, I’m not 100% sure of what transpired, although I’m pretty sure I’ve got the gist. That being said, the film is still a reasonable solid, well-made piece of multiplex-ready fare and features a strong performance from Cage and lots of creepy vultures: if that sounds like your thing, I suggest you pay this particular ghost and see what happens.