Horror Movie Review: A Nightmare On Elm Street (dir by Wes Craven)


Damn, this is a scary movie.

That may seem like an obvious point to make when talking about the original A Nightmare On Elm Street but it’s still one that needs to be made.  I always seem to forget just how scary the original is.  I mean, there’s been so many sequels.  And there was that kind of silly movie where Freddy Krueger fought Jason Vooerhees.  And then there was the fairly forgettable reboot.  Freddy Krueger is something of a cultural icon.  Even people who have never watched any of the movies knows who Freddy Krueger is.  Freddy has become so well-known for his quips and his puns and his bad jokes that it’s easy to forget that the reason he put razors on his gloves was so he could kill children.

Despite the fact that Jackie Earle Haley took over the role in the reboot, Freddy Krueger will always be associated with the actor who first played him, Robert Englund.  What’s interesting is that, whenever you watch or read an interview with Englund, he comes across as being literally the nicest guy in the world.  (His autobiography is one of the most cheerful Hollywood memoirs that I’ve ever read.)  Before he was cast as Freddy, Englund was a fairly busy character actor.  It’s always a little odd when he pops up in some old movie on TCM because, inevitably, he’s always seems to be playing a nice and often kinda shy guy.  Supposedly, when Englund auditioned for the role of Freddy, he darkened his lower eyelids with cigarette ash and he purposefully said very little while meeting with director Wes Craven.  Craven, who based Freddy Krueger on a childhood bully, was impressed enough to cast this very likable actor as one of the most evil killers in the history of horror cinema.

And make no mistake about it.  In the first film, Freddy Krueger is terrifying.  He’s not the joker that he would become in later installments of the franchise. When he does laugh, it’s because he’s taunting his latest victim.  This Freddy isn’t quite as quick-witted as the Freddy who showed up in Dream Warriors and other films.  This Freddy keeps things simple, popping up in your nightmares, chasing you, and, once he catches you, killing you.  It’s not just his glove and his burned faced that makes Freddy terrifying in this film.  It’s how determined and relentless he is.  He’s not going to stop until he catches you and, seeing as how he’s already dead, there’s really not much you can do to slow him down.  Englund plays Freddy as being the ultimate bully.  The only joy he gets is from tormenting the rest of us.  It’s a testament to the strength of Englund’s performance that memories of Freddy dominate our thoughts when it comes to A Nightmare of Elm Street, despite the fact that Freddy is only onscreen for seven minutes.

It’s an effective film, not just because of the nightmare scenes but also because of the scenes that take place in the waking world.  The majority of the film follows Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), Glen (Johnny Depp), Tina (Amanda Wyss), and Rod (Jsu Garcia, who is credited as Nick Corri in this film) as they try not to die.  And let’s be honest.  None of these characters are particularly deep.  Rod’s the bad boy.  Tina’s the rebellious Catholic.  Glen’s the nice guy.  Nancy’s the good girl.  They’re archetypes that should be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a slasher film.  And yet, you really do care about them, especially Nancy and Glen.  (Admittedly, everyone that I’ve ever talked to about this film seems to care about Rod the least.)  Langenkamp, Depp, and Wyss all give such likable performances that you really do find yourself worrying about what will happen to them when and if they fall asleep.

I rewatched A Nightmare on Elm Street last night and I was shocked to discover that, even though I knew what was coming, the movie still scared me.  The sight of Freddy straining against the wall over Nancy’s head was still unbelievably creepy.  The gory scene where Freddy attacks Tina still frightened me, as did the famous geyser of blood scene.  Even the much-parodied scene where Freddy’s glove rises up between Nancy’s legs while she sleeps in the bathtub still made me shudder.

It’s easy to take for granted just how good and scary the original Nightmare on Elm Street actually is.  For horror fans, it’s a film that deserves to be watched this October season.  Just don’t fall asleep afterwards.

Cleaning Out The DVR: The Sandman (dir by Peter Sullivan)


(Hi there!  So, as you may know because I’ve been talking about it on this site all year, I have got way too much stuff on my DVR.  Seriously, I currently have 189 things recorded!  I’ve decided that, on January 15th, I am going to erase everything on the DVR, regardless of whether I’ve watched it or not.  So, that means that I’ve now have only have a month to clean out the DVR!  Will I make it?  Keep checking this site to find out!  I recorded The Sandman off of the SyFy on October 14th!)

Madison (Shae Smolik) is a little girl who appears to have some issues.

For instance, her father just died under the most mysterious of circumstances.  One of the last things that he did before he died was get paranoid when a police car drove by him.  He was carrying a gun when he died, as well.  Also, he died right in front of Madison.

Madison ends up at the hospital, where she has violent nightmares and struggles so much with the doctors and the orderlies that she has to be strapped down.  Since both of her parents are dead, a call is made to her Aunt Claire (Haylie Duff).  Claire is willing to adopt Madison but Child Protective Services is a bit less enthusiastic.  Claire is unmarried and hasn’t always been the most responsible adult.  She currently works as a photographer, taking pictures of aspiring Bettie Pages in her garage.  Can Claire not only prove herself to be a good mother but also solve the mystery of what happened to Madison’s father?

You probably read that plot description and thought to yourself, “That sounds like a typical Lifetime film.”  And certainly, there is a bit of Lifetime to be found in this SyFy movie.  Peter Sullivan has produced, written, and directed several films that have appeared on both SyFy and Lifetime.  Haylie Duff is a regular Lifetime actress.  For a financially struggling photographer, Claire certainly does live in a nice, big house, which is one of the most familiar signs that you might be watching Lifetime film.

However, make no doubt about it, this is definitely not a Lifetime film.

You see, the reason why Madison is a nightmare to deal with it is because she’s linked to a monster.  The reason why Madison is an orphan is because the monster killed her father.  And now that Madison is living with Claire, the monster is coming for both of them.

And what a monster!  Seriously, the Sandman is about as frightening as a SyFy monster can get.  As you can probably guess from the name, he’s made of sand. The best way to avoid him, of course, would be to go some place where there is no sand but good luck with that.  SAND IS EVERYWHERE!  The Sandman pops up whenever Madison is in danger.

Nosy neighbor wants to know about Madison’s father?  Here comes the Sandman, pouring in through the kitchen faucet!

Hospital doctor planning on recommending that Madison be institutionalized?  Sandman!

In fact, anyone who poses a threat to Madison, whether real or perceived, can expect a visit from the Sandman.

Tobin Bell plays Valentine, a government agent who thinks that Madison could be weaponized.  He’s probably right but seriously, everyone should know better than to mess with the Sandman.  That said, it’s always fun when Tobin Bell is in one of these movies.  He’s just such a good villain.

The Sandman was a good mix of Lifetime family melodrama and SyFy horror.  As the aunt and the seriously disturbed niece, Haylie Duff and Shae Smolik were believable and sympathetic and the Sandman made for a memorable monster.  Watch this movie the next time you’re planning on spending a weekend at the beach.

Back to School #40: Better Off Dead (dir by Savage Steve Holland)


Better-Off-Dead

There’s something really sad about knowing that John Cusack does not like the 1985 teen comedy, Better Off Dead, despite the fact that he himself starred in the film.

Just how much he dislikes the film depends on who you talk to.  I read an interview with the film’s director — the wonderfully named Savage Steve Holland — in which he said that Cusack approached him after a screening of the film and told him that he totally hated the film and would “never trust” Holland again.  (What’s truly sad is that Holland also said that this encounter caused him to momentarily lose all interesting in film making.)  However, a few years ago, Cusack said, while answering questions on Reddit, that he didn’t hate Better Off Dead, he just felt that it could be better and that he was glad that other people still like it.  In another interview, Cusack said that the “absurdist humor” of Better Off Dead just wasn’t his thing.

John, I understand that you’re a serious actor and I’ve always had a lot of respect for the fact that you’re an outspoken liberal who is still intellectually honest enough to hold Obama up to the same standard to which you previously held Bush.  But honestly, John, maybe you should loosen up just a little.  Not all of your movies have to be The Butler!  There’s nothing wrong with enjoying yourself onscreen.  And there’s nothing wrong with entertaining an audience and leaving them happy.  Better Off Dead may be one of more lightweight films that I’m reviewing for this Back to School series but it’s a lot of fun!  It makes people smile.  And you know what?  A lot of those smiling people are going to be more willing to see you in a film like The Butler because they’ve also seen you in films like Better Off Dead.

Add to that, you give a pretty good performance in Better Off Dead.  In fact, you provide the film with a much-needed center.  A lot of the comedy in Better Off Dead may be absurd but John, your performance is so likable and so grounded that you keep the film from getting too weird.  You do such a good job as Lane Myer and are so convincing as a well-meaning but dorky high school student who is trying to win back his ex-girlfriend (Amanda Wyss) by skiing down a mountain that it allows everyone else to be as weird as the film will allow.  Without your excellent performance, John, the film would be a total mess.

BOD

Better Off Dead is essentially a collection of skits.  There’s a plot but the plot is really only there as an excuse for the nonstop jokes.  For instance, there’s Lane’s best friend, Charles (Curtis Armstrong, essentially playing the same character he played in Risky Business) who spends the entire film looking for things to snort and who, when standing atop of snowy mountain, says, “This is pure snow!  Do you have any idea what the street value of this mountain is!?”

And then there’s Monique (Diane Franklin), the foreign exchange student who lives next door to Lane and who pretends that she can’t speak English because she’s trying to avoid being set up with creepy Ricky Smith (Daniel Schneider).

There’s Lane’s mother (Kim Darby), who cooks some of the strangest looking meals ever seen in an American film.  There’s also Lane’s younger brother, who never speaks but who knows how to build a laser gun.  Even Lane’s father (David Ogden Stiers). who seems relatively normal, still manages to destroy the garage door.

There’s the fact that Lane’s romantic rival is named Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier).  Is that not just the perfect name for a villain?

There’s my favorite scene in the entire film, where a geometry teacher (Vincent Schiavelli) explains a complicated problem to his class and the class responds by cheering him along.  “Who wants to come up here and solve the problem?” the teacher asks.  The entire class raises their hands and goes, “Me!”

There’s quotable and memorable lines like: “I’ve been going to this high school for seven and a half years. I’m no dummy,” ” Now that’s a real shame when folks be throwin’ away a perfectly good white boy like that,” and “Gee, I’m really sorry your mom blow up, Ricky.”

And, of course, there’s that paperboy who wants his two dollars…

Seriously, John, Better Off Dead might not be your favorite movie but it’s really not that bad!

Want to see just how not bad Better Off Dead really is?  Watch it below!

Back to School #27: Fast Times At Ridgemont High (dir by Amy Heckerling)


Mike Damone

Mike Damone

Mike Damone, you little prick.

I’ve watched the 1982 high school dramedy Fast Times At Ridgemont High a handful of times.  I’ve reached the point where, every time I watch it, I know exactly what’s going to happen.  I know when stoner Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) is going to order pizza.  I know that Charles Jefferson (Forest Whitaker) is going to go crazy during the big game against Lincoln High.  I know that when Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) kisses the sweet but shy Mark Ratner (Brian Backer), he’s going to end up panicking and scrambling for an excuse to go home.  I know that Brad (Judge Reinhold) is going to get caught masturbating.  I even know when Anthony Edwards, Nicolas Cage, and Eric Stoltz are all going to appear in early performances.

Nicolas Cage, 30 years before he would agree to star in a remake of Left Behind.

Nicolas Cage, 30 years before he would agree to star in a remake of Left Behind.

In other words, I know exactly what’s going to happen.

But, Mike Damone (played, very well, by Robert Romanus, who is only an actor and shouldn’t be held responsible for the actions of a fictional character) — every time, I find myself hoping you’ll do the right thing and every time, you let me down.

Oh sure.  I know that you tried to raise the money to help pay for Stacy’s abortion.  I saw the scene of you on the phone in your bedroom, begging people to finally pay for the tickets that you’d sold them.  I know that you tried but when you couldn’t get the money, where were you?  When Stacy had to ask her older brother, Brad, for a ride to the clinic, where were you?  After Stacy left the clinic, she found Brad waiting for her.  Brad agreed not to ask Stacy who had gotten her pregnant.  He agreed not to tell their parents.  Brad was there for his sister.  Where were you, Mike Damone?

What really upsets me is that, up until you abandoned Stacy, you were one of the more likable characters in Fast Times At Ridgemont High.  I mean, sure — you didn’t get to deliver any classic lines like Spicoli did.  And you weren’t adorably shy like Mark.  But, Mike Damone — I believed in you!  We all believed in you!  (Imagine me doing my best Tyra Banks imitation here.)  You were a cocky guy who spent all of your time selling concert tickets at the mall but you know what?  We all assumed that, underneath all of the attitude, there secretly lurked a good guy.  I mean, we could tell that you sincerely cared about your friend Mark and, because we’re all fools apparently, we even thought that maybe Stacy could bring out the real you.  When Stacy sat there writing “Mrs. Stacy Damone” on her test paper in history class, we understood.  Because, after all, we’ve all had a Mike Damone in our life.

Rat and Mike

Rat and Mike

But then, what happened?  Well, first, you had sex with Stacy despite the fact that you knew Mark liked her.  Of course, for all your bluster and talk, it turned out that sex with Mike Damone amounted to 2 minutes of squirming followed by that classic line, “I think I came.”  And then you left, saying those words that every girl dreams of hearing from someone she’s just been with: “I’ll see you around.”  (Or maybe you said, “I’ll give you a call,” or “I’ve got to go now.”  Either way, it was a pretty shitty thing to say, Damone.)

fast-times-at-ridgemont-high.19729

As you may have guessed, Fast Times At Ridgemont High is not your typical teen comedy.  In fact, over three decades since it was first released, it remains one of the best and most perceptive films about teenagers ever made.  Over on the A.V. Club, Keith Phipps refers to Fast Times as being “a Trojan horse of a teen comedy that balanced lowbrow gags with subtle humor, genuine insight .. and pathos,” and that’s such a perfect description that I’m not at all ashamed to repeat it word-for-word here.

Don’t get me wrong.  Though Fast Times At Ridgemont High has a lot more drama than you would expect from a film with the words “Fast Times” in the title, it’s also an undeniably funny film.  It’s just that, unlike so many other teen comedies, the comedy comes from a very real place.  This is one of those rare films where the characters are funnier than the situations that they find themselves in.  You laugh because you relate to the characters.  (Admitedly, you might also laugh at what some of them are wearing.  Mike Damone’s keyboard print scarf comes to mind…)

Hey I Know That Guy

Spicoli and Hand

Like many classic teen films — American Graffiti, Fame and Dazed and Confused, to cite just three obvious examples — Fast Times At Ridgemont High is an ensemble piece that follows several different students as they survive a year at Ridgemont High.  Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli is the character that everyone always mentions as a favorite and indeed, he does get the best lines and his battles with Mr. Hand (Ray Waltson) are definitely a highlight of the film.  People also always mention Linda (Pheobe Cates), who has a boyfriend in college and who walks in on Brad while he’s fantasizing about her.  And yes, Linda is a memorable character and not just because she bares her breasts during Brad’s fantasy.  She’s also Stacy’s best friend and I think we’ve all had a friend like Linda, someone who we looked up to and assumed had all the answers.  For that matter, Brad is also an interesting character and there’s something undeniably fascinating about watching as he goes from being a carefree, popular teen to being a guy working behind the counter at 7-11.

(If only Brad had not gotten Arnold that job at All-American Burger…)

Agck!

Agck!

However, for me, the film will always be about Stacy, if just because she’s the character to which I relate.  I know when I was 15, I felt a lot like Stacy and, every time I watch Fast Times, I feel like some of Stacy’s experiences could have been taken straight out of my diary.  I had the same combination of confidence and insecurity and the same questions about why boys could talk like men but never act like them.  Stacy, of course, is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh who gives a remarkably brave and vulnerable performance in this film.  Off the top of my head, I can’t tell you who won the Oscar for best supporting actress of 1982 but it doesn’t matter.  Jennifer Jason Leigh should have won it.

Jennifer Jason Leigh in Fast Times At Ridgemont High

Jennifer Jason Leigh in Fast Times At Ridgemont High

Fast Times is often referred to as being a Cameron Crowe film, largely because Crowe famously went undercover at an actual high school while writing the book that served as the basis for his script.  And yes, Fast Times is filled with scenes and characters that feel undeniably Cameron Crowe-like.  However, Fast Times was directed by Amy Heckerling and thank God for that.  Heckerling brings a sensitive touch to material that a male director would be tempted to play solely for exploitation.  Cameron Crowe may have written the script but it’s definitely an Amy Heckerling film.

And, sorry, Mike Damone — you’re still a little prick.

Mike Damone, a.k.a. Little Prick

Mike Damone, a.k.a. Little Prick