The first part of today’s installment will feature half of last night’s double-header: Stitches. Since I’ve got quite a few words to say about Stitches, we’ll handle A Lonely Place to Die in another post. On to the show!
Without a shadow of a doubt, Stitches is the single best Nightmare on Elm St. film since Part 3: The Dream Warriors. This may, of course, seem a little odd, since Stitches is clearly not related in any way, shape or form to Wes Craven’s seminal franchise. Upon closer examination, however, there are a few more similarities.
I’ve always loved the NOES series: it’s probably my favorite horror series (the Halloween franchise is way too hit/miss and I’ve always preferred Freddy to Jason) but I’ll be the first to admit its faults. After debuting with a serious effort, the series gradually became campier, with more of an emphasis on pop culture references (“You forgot the Power Glove!” being a chief offender), zany deaths and Freddy’s increasingly Henny Youngman-esque one-liners. The transition to camp was pretty much solidified by Part 5, with Part 6 being so over-the-top that it even featured Alice Cooper and Roseanne Barr. For a very short time, however, the series managed to get the tone absolutely perfect, with The Dream Warriors being (in my mind) the quintessential NOES film.
What made Part 3 work so well? In short, the synthesis between the scares and laughs was pitch-perfect. Freddy drops wisecracks but he’s still a seriously scary dude by this point. He hasn’t assumed the mantle of stand-up comedian yet and is very much a smug, sarcastic, nasty bastard (literally). The group of kids involved may still be ’80s cliches but they’re vibrant ones, clearly individuals and easy to like. The kills are also some of the most inventive in the series (the human marionette will go down as my favorite moment in the entire series, closely followed by the Freddy snake) and the effects work is astounding, especially considering the late ’80s glut of big effects bonanzas. In my mind, although the franchise remained entertaining, it never topped the third entry (the 4th is pretty good, to be honest, and I always enjoy the 5th, camp be damned).
Stitches, then, becomes the best NOES film since Part 3 by taking all the best elements of that film and running with them. The film begins with a tone that reminds one of the crude blue-collar humor of Edgar Wright before swinging easily into something that could best be described as a UK version of Scream with a greater emphasis on the interpersonal dynamics. The kids in Stitches are cliches, of course, but they’re not lazy ones. Each character takes their prescribed quirks and tics and incorporates them into something that actually feels like a real teenager. Shocking! You’re not supposed to like most of these kids (in fact, aside from the hero, most of them are complete assholes) but they feel so real that you can’t help but feel something when they die. And die they do.
You see, where Stitches really assumes the NOES crown is where it counts: the bad guy. A horror franchise is, literally, only as strong as its chief antagonist. Make them memorable enough (Freddy, Jason, Michael, Chucky) and they enter the cultural vernacular, becoming as much a part of the pop landscape as any celebrity. Make them too generic (any of at least a thousand slashers in the ’80s-’90s) and they sink beneath the masses of similar product. Stitches, the killer clown, is probably the best modern horror antagonist since Freddy was created.
As portrayed by Ross Noble, Stitches is spiritual kin to Bobcat’s repugnant Shakes the Clown. Hard drinking, as unhygienic as possible and obnoxious to the core (in response to a mother’s statement that he’s late to her child’s birthday party, Stitches replies, “And you’re fooking ugly. Just kidding.” before honking his lapel flower at her), he’s probably the last person you would want around your kids.
But these kids, man…these kids. The party is full of brats, a prank is pulled, Stitches accidentally ends up with a butcher knife in his head and the birthday boy is scarred for life. But, as a bizarre clown elder tells the hero (in one of the films coolest, weirdest sequences, akin to something by either Jodorowski or de la Iglesia), any clown that doesn’t finish a birthday party can never rest. And a joke is never as funny the second time around.
Stitches returns from the grave, six years later, to exact revenge against the now teenage brats. At this point, the film pulls its most glorious hat-trick of all. When Stitches returns, he’s not quite the scuzzy drunkard from the beginning. Noble has modulated his performance, slowed Stitches down a bit and, in the process, creates a classic performance. His line delivery recalls an even droller, drier Freddy Krueger and, to be honest, I could have easily done with more of him. The balance between chills and laughs is perfect, especially with the killer clown’s look being akin to King Buzzo in facepaint.
And those kills. My, oh my…those kills. Imagine a live-action version of an Itchy and Scratchy Show episode. I was originally going to use Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner as an example but, to be honest, those really don’t even come close to this film. Suffice to say that the kills in Stitches are absolutely brilliant, perhaps the best looking gore effects since the original Hatchet and the most ambitious, energetic set-pieces since the glory days of Dario Argento. All of the deaths involve an ironic clown angle (of course) but move in such genuinely fresh and daring directions that it’s exhilarating to watch. I will say that, even almost 30 years into my horror film viewing, there was some pretty shocking violence here. Played for laughs, perhaps, but way past the vast majority of mainstream horror offerings.
Since saying too much about any of them can spoil some very big thrills, I’ll keep rather mum on the specifics but I will say that there was one particular scene that set a bar so high that most other films can’t even see it. The scene involves an ice-cream scoop, a can opener and the cheestastic anthem “(I Just) Died in Your Arms Tonight,” ending with Stitches holding his victim in approximation of the Pieta, complete with a sadly wistful look on his grease-painted face. If you’re the kind of horror fan that can name every kill in Jason X, the kills in Stitches will probably take top honors on your list.
But are inventive kills really what make a horror film? Of course not. However, inventive kills, a great villain, exciting set-pieces, intelligent humor, astounding practical effects, good acting, a rich and deep backstory (all of the stuff about the clown council and the creepy clown crypt is so damn good that I really wish there was more) and a complete and overriding sense of fun are certainly what make a great horror film. Even better, the film ends with a fantastic set-up for a sequel (the tag is actually so clever that I hope it buries that stupid “one last jump scare before the credits roll” bullshit forever), one that I hope comes to more fruition than Buckaroo Banzai vs The World Crime League.
In short, Stitches is not only a great horror film but it’s a great film, period. It may be campy but it’s never stupid: this was a film made by people who obviously love films and are passionate about them. This passion comes through loud and clear, providing what was, for me, the most fun horror film I’ve seen in years. Had I seen this earlier, Stitches would have easily made my Best of 2013 list. To be honest, maybe that list already needs some revision.