Friday, November 13, 2015

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Thirteen Conversations About One Thing' (2001)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13. 

Although it's probably one of the better-known movies with the number 13 in its title, I've been putting off watching Thirteen Conversations About One Thing since I first started this project nearly six years ago. I've watched plenty of obscure and awful low-budget movies before getting to this generally well-respected indie drama, because I remember disliking it so much when I first saw it, probably soon after it was released on home video. At that time, it was a critically acclaimed Sundance favorite that I was eager to see, and I came away seriously disappointed. I thought that maybe this time, with the expectation that I would find the movie irritating and pretentious, I might be pleasantly surprised. But no, I had pretty much the same reaction as last time. This is a self-important bit of meaningless nonsense, featuring good actors struggling with schematic, mannered writing.

The one moment I remembered clearly from my first time watching this movie was tortured attorney Troy (Matthew McConaughey) repeatedly reopening a cut on his forehead as a sort of penance for the hit-and-run car accident that caused it. It's an apt metaphor for director and co-writer Jill Sprecher's film, which obsessively picks at and reopens the same thematic wounds over the course of its running time. As the title implies, the movie focuses on characters discussing the same basic issues over and over again, although the "one thing" is never directly specified. It's something like fate or chance or happenstance, with Sprecher interweaving the stories of four New Yorkers dealing with existential crises. There's Troy the lawyer, who boasts about putting bad guys behind bars but then runs like a coward when he accidentally hits a woman with his car; there's college professor Walker (John Turturro), who feels unsettled after a mugging and is having an affair with a colleague; there's Gene (Alan Arkin), a middle manager at an insurance company and an curmudgeonly pessimist; and there's Bea (Clea DuVall), a sunny, optimistic housekeeper whose attitude changes after she's hit by a car (driven by Troy).

All of their stories are heavy and overwrought (the final act includes two suicide attempts, one successful and one not), and every character speaks in a series of parables and proverbs that they have ready for seemingly any occasion (it's no surprise that Sprecher was a philosophy major in college). It's a showy demonstration of shallow philosophical ideas, with heavy-handed bits of symbolism (Walker, a physics professor, writes "irreversible" in big block letters on his classroom chalk board, after we see characters making life-altering decisions). The characters are more like archetypes of human behavior than real people, and the actors have trouble making them feel like more than academic exercises (although Arkin comes close). The cloying score and the rigid visual style, with transitions that always over-emphasize the symbolism, create this oppressively self-important tone that the story just can't back up. Its philosophy never graduates beyond freshman level.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Nightmare Week: 'Wes Craven's New Nightmare' (1994)

It sort of seems like Wes Craven's main goal with the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise was to get it to end. On the first movie, his original ending had Nancy waking up and realizing the entire thing was a dream, with her friends that Freddy had killed still alive and well. Luckily, the studio convinced him to go with the more sinister, ambiguous ending that really works better for the tone of the story (although what they most wanted was to keep the door open for sequels, presumably). Craven never wanted there to be any sequels, and when he returned as a writer and producer for the third movie, it was again with the aim of wrapping things up; he even killed off Nancy at the end of the movie. But of course that didn't stop New Line, either.

Even after the studio explicitly killed off Freddy in Freddy's Dead, they came back with another movie three years later, and Craven once again tried to put an end to the series. His idea for New Nightmare was actually his original pitch for the third movie, with Freddy escaping from films into the real world, but it works much better here after the series has kind of run itself into the ground, and after Freddy has been very specifically killed off as a movie character. New Nightmare functions as an epilogue of sorts, not concerned with any of the cluttered mythology that built up over the course of the various sequels, nor with Freddy as a character with a particular background and motivation. Here he's more of an avatar for the idea of evil, for malevolent forces in stories going back to early fairy tales. The details of Freddy's origin are irrelevant; what's important is his popularity as a villain in horror movies.

New Nightmare seemed pretty groundbreaking to me when I first saw it as a teenager, although it looks a little less sophisticated in retrospect. Part of the reason is that two years later Craven made a more clever, entertaining horror movie about the nature of horror with Scream, and part of the reason is that some of the effects and the acting just don't come off as well now. After struggling a bit in Dream Warriors, Heather Langenkamp returns here (playing herself) to give a really strong performance, and Craven is smart to build the entire movie around her. Robert Englund still gets top billing, but his role, both as Freddy and as himself, is more limited. The non-actors who play themselves, including Craven and producer Robert Shaye, perform decently, but the real problem is child actor Miko Hughes, who is incredibly annoying and unconvincing as Heather's son Dylan.

Hughes' awful performance is really the movie's main liability, and it undercuts the power of Heather's emotional journey, since the story really hinges on her dedication as a mother. Freddy's incursion into the real world targets Dylan, and that awakens Heather's protective instincts. Craven ties the story back into folklore, and a mother rescuing a child is one of the most primal fables of all. Langenkamp brings real emotion to her performance, but most of Dylan's moments that are meant to be creepy end up falling flat. The movie works in spite of him, not because of him.

And while Craven doesn't bring the same level of humor to this movie that he did to Scream, he does get in some solid jabs at the dumbing-down of Freddy and the franchise, and he weaves in some effective (and fairly subtle) callbacks to the first movie. It's a shame that he fumbles the finale, with the metatextual elements taking a back seat to yet another battle against Freddy in a generic dream world. The final scene, with Heather reading the movie's script to Dylan, is a perfect closer for the movie and the series, though, and overall New Nightmare does its job of rehabilitating Freddy as a real threat (no cartoony kill scenes or dumb one-liners) plus giving the series some closure. Unfortunately for Craven, once again his efforts to end the series failed; New Line released Freddy vs. Jason nine years later.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Nightmare Week: 'Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare' (1991)

After the third, fourth and fifth movies in the Nightmare on Elm Street series followed more or less directly from one another, the big finale jumps ahead 10 years and features none of the familiar characters from previous films (other than Freddy, of course). Instead of feeling like the culmination of the entire story, Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare comes off like a rushed, cheap wrap-up, with a story that's equally dissatisfying whether it actually is the conclusion of the Freddy Krueger saga or just a fake-out ending (as turned out to be the case, of course). Apparently at one point the movie was meant to star a grown-up version of Jacob, Alice's son from The Dream Child, as well as some of the characters from Dream Warriors (although I'm pretty sure almost all of them are dead at this point), but that was scrapped in favor of retconning a whole new family for Freddy, as well as tacking on some poorly thought-out elements to his mythology.

The ostensible main character of the first half turns out to be a red herring, and not a very interesting one, either. The nameless teenager dubbed John Doe (Shon Greenblatt) is possibly the last teenager left in Freddy's hometown of Springwood, Ohio, since by now Freddy has killed all the children and teenagers. It's never quite clear why John loses his memory, or why he's been allowed to survive when Freddy has killed everyone else, or what his actual background is (and Greenblatt is terrible at conveying his emotional distress). He ends up in a generic city with no memory and no identity, and is picked up by the police and placed in a shelter for troubled teens. There he meets social worker Maggie (Lisa Zane), the movie's actual main character, who decides that the best way to jog his memory is to take him back to Springwood, because his only possession is a newspaper article that mentions it. A trio of generic teen rebels from the shelter stow away on the trip, because Freddy needs more victims.

I was disappointed that the movie didn't spend more time exploring the idea of the quasi-post-apocalyptic Springwood, which is its only intriguing addition to the mythology. I like when horror series take their premises to the extreme logical end, and I think an entire movie could have been made about the large-scale effects of Freddy's killing spree, if the producers weren't going to bother following up on characters the audience actually cares about. But instead it's an excuse for a distracting cameo from Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold and a couple of surreal scenes, then back to Nancy's boarded-up house (again) and Freddy killing teenagers in moronic ways. The video game-themed death of one of the characters in this movie has to be the dumbest Freddy kill in the entire series.

In addition to giving Freddy an entirely new family tree (a wife he killed, a daughter taken away from him), this movie also modifies the mystical explanation for Freddy's existence, replacing the "dream gate" stuff from The Dream Master with "dream demons," which manage to be even cheesier. The three ancient demons that supposedly granted Freddy his powers look like flying sperm with skull faces, and it doesn't help that they're presented (along with the entire climax of the movie) in super-chintzy 3D. After markedly improved effects and set pieces in the fourth and fifth movies, Freddy's Dead looks like it was produced at bargain rates.

Director Rachel Talalay (who worked her way up from assistant production manager on the first movie, which is kind of heartwarming) and screenwriter Michael De Luca attempt to delve into Freddy's psychology with the revelation that Maggie is his long-lost daughter, and flashes of his messed-up childhood. But Freddy's connection to his supposed child is weaker than his connection to his previous opponents, and the flashbacks are full of cliches about the tortured upbringings of serial killers. Englund gets a chance to emote, playing Freddy without makeup, but it's hard to find emotional resonance in a movie that's more concerned with dumb jokes. When Maggie finally vanquishes Freddy, it ends the entire series in an anticlimax. "Freddy's dead," she says in the movie's final line, which is meant to sound triumphant but comes off more like surrender.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Nightmare Week: 'A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child' (1989)

For some reason, I assumed that A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child was a sort of Rosemary's Baby riff, with Freddy mystically impregnating returning protagonist Alice (Lisa Wilcox) and forcing her to give birth to his unholy spawn. The opening scene even implies this scenario, as we see shots of two people having sex without being able to make out who they are. Eventually Alice comes into view, gets out of bed and heads to the shower, where it becomes apparent that she's in a dream, one in which, as usual, she's trapped and in danger. Freddy doesn't show up, but Alice finds herself in the asylum where his mother, Amanda, was gang-raped and impregnated by inmates (as referenced in Dream Warriors), one of whom is played by Robert Englund. So it's not unreasonable to expect a Freddy Jr. to show up soon, but Alice's eventual pregnancy is the result of normal unprotected teenage sex with her jock boyfriend Dan (Danny Hassel, also returning from the previous movie).

The function of Alice's pregnancy is not to birth Freddy's demon offspring, but rather to give Freddy a new (and sort of narratively lazy) way to invade people's dreams. When Alice and her friends find themselves confronting Freddy while ostensibly awake, Alice deduces that Freddy is entering the dreams of her unborn child, then using that child (named Jacob) to bring others into the dreams, much like Alice herself is able to do. It's just a roundabout way of giving Freddy the chance to kill another bunch of disposable teenagers, who are inordinately skeptical about his existence, considering the guy has probably killed half of their peers. Freddy is a little less cartoonish this time around than he was in The Dream Master (which practically turned him into Bugs Bunny), but he's still pretty silly, prone to bad one-liners and elaborate, themed murder tableaux.

Director Stephen Hopkins and screenwriter Leslie Bohem hint at some serious issues, including (obviously) teen pregnancy, drunk driving and eating disorders, but all of that stuff is easily tossed aside in favor of more grotesquerie from Freddy. Some of that grotesquerie is sort of impressive, or at least more horrific than the cartoonishness of The Dream Master: The scene featuring Alice's possibly anorexic friend being stuffed to death full of food by Freddy has a sort of Monty Python vibe, and the abandoned asylum where Freddy's mother Amanda was killed has an air of ornate gothic mystery. Mostly, though, the movie is a series of ridiculous, over-the-top deaths, along with some superfluous additions to the increasingly tiresome Krueger mythology. The one interesting idea it presents is that Alice could easily stop Freddy just by aborting her baby (and thus ending its dreams), but she dismisses that idea so strongly that the movie could be read as forwarding some sort of perverse pro-life agenda.

Wilcox is stronger here than she was in the dismal The Dream Master, but she's still a weak opponent for Freddy compared to Heather Langenkamp or even Patricia Arquette. Englund once again gets above-the-title billing, but even he seems a little bored with Freddy's role as a jokester. The supporting characters are entirely disposable, although at least the filmmakers give a nod to some past character development, with Alice's father now a recovering alcoholic, and both expressing a moment of grief for her brother, who got killed by Freddy in the last movie. Those are tiny moments in what is overall a pretty sloppily told story, though, leaving Freddy only as hastily vanquished as he was the last time, and ready to rise again whenever the bottom line demands it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Nightmare Week: 'A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master' (1988)

With A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Freddy Krueger completed his transformation from shadowy, menacing villain to full-on cartoon character, a pop-culture icon who showed up in music videos and would soon be the Crypt Keeper-like host of his own horror anthology series, Freddy's Nightmares. Anything scary or disturbing about Freddy has completely disappeared by this movie, and it's clear that the character's fame has gone to the filmmakers' and his portrayer's heads (actor Robert Englund gets sole above-the-title billing in the credits). Whereas the Freddy of the first movie spoke only sparingly, the Freddy of The Dream Master is quite chatty, quick with his groan-worthy puns and one-liners (which don't even have the nasty, sarcastic edge that they did in the previous movies). On top of that, his kills are all ridiculously elaborate, more like funhouse rides than gruesome or scary deaths. Freddy has become a victim of his own success.

Taking place not long after Dream Warriors, The Dream Master sets about undoing whatever was satisfying about that movie's resolution, with the three living teen characters (Joey, played by Rodney Eastman; Kincaid, played by Ken Sagoes; and Kristen, now played by Tuesday Knight since Patricia Arquette probably got too famous for this shit) showing up only to fairly quickly get killed by a resurrected Freddy. Kristen sticks around the longest, but her main function is to pass along her power to bring others into her dream (a minor element of Dream Warriors that is heavily played up in this movie) to her friend Alice (Lisa Wilcox), who's the movie's real protagonist. There's no coherent reason for Freddy's return, even though director Renny Harlin and the screenwriters (including Brian Helgeland) specifically reference his previous burial in consecrated ground. The scene in which he comes back to life sets the tone for the unmotivated silliness to come, with Kincaid's dog (named Jason, ha ha) pissing fire to somehow open up Freddy's grave.

The Dream Master is the most slasher-like of the Nightmare movies so far, with Freddy quickly dispatching a series of vapid teenagers. It has the highest body count of the series to date, and each kill is an excuse for Freddy to engage in increasingly absurd methods of murder. He turns victims into pizza toppings and one into a cockroach. He dresses in drag as a nurse and turns his glove into a shark fin, Jaws-style. None of it is scary, and the best it can manage is to gross the audience out. Most of it is just laughable, which probably entertained audiences at the time (The Dream Master was the highest-grossing movie in the original series), but betrays the dark vision that Wes Craven had for Freddy in the first place.

As is common for later entries in horror series, The Dream Master also tries to build up a bit of mythology around Freddy; although it doesn't follow up on Dream Warriors' revelations about Freddy's mother, it does come up with a sort of half-formed idea about "dream gates," good and evil portals in dreams, of which Freddy is apparently the guardian of the evil one. Alice, in her capacity as the dream master, is able to absorb the strengths and talents of her friends who get killed, and she becomes the avatar of the good dream gate when she vanquishes Freddy and releases the souls of the people he's killed. Or something like that -- it's not very clear, and like the forced mythologies that crop up in other horror sequels, it'll likely end up getting ignored or replaced. Everything important about Freddy was established in his first appearance, and the more the movies add to him, the more they dilute his power.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Nightmare Week: 'A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors' (1987)

The consensus on A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors is that it's the best of the original Nightmare sequels, and it's certainly a big improvement over the mostly dreadful Freddy's Revenge. It doesn't have the strong personal vision of Wes Craven's bookending films, but it does benefit from Craven's presence as producer and co-writer, and unlike Freddy's Revenge, it makes an effort to delve into the main concepts and characters, rather than disregarding or drastically altering them. In addition to Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger (getting his greatest amount of screen time thus far), Heather Langenkamp as Nancy Thompson and John Saxon as her father Donald return from the first movie, and the story is tied much more closely to Nancy's initial battle with Freddy.

Dream Warriors takes place six years after the events of the first movie, as Nancy is now a grad student and expert in dream disorders, hired as a staff member at a psychiatric hospital in Springwood (which seems to sprout any large, heretofore unknown institutions it might need for plot purposes). A group of teenagers are all suffering from nightmares that they attribute to Freddy's presence, and they've consequently developed various personal problems, including drug addiction and suicide attempts. Of course, while the doctors dismiss the Freddy nightmares as delusions, Nancy knows that Freddy really has returned and is stalking these kids in their dreams.

Nancy's transformation from scared victim to empowered leader in some ways mirrors Sara Connor's transformation between the first two Terminator movies, although Langenkamp can't pull off the change nearly as well as Linda Hamilton did. The filmmakers dress her in a series of "career woman of 1987" outfits, and she retains the gray streak in her hair that Nancy acquired in the first movie, but the 23-year-old Langenkamp (who was great as a scared but resilient teen) too often comes off like a kid playing at being a grown-up. Still, she has moments of strength as Nancy, and the uneven supporting cast (which includes early performances from future Oscar nominees and CSI franchise stars Patricia Arquette and Laurence Fishburne) occasionally rises to that same level.

Really, though, Englund is the breakout star here, and Dream Warriors establishes the familiar pop-culture version of Freddy, with his puns and one-liners, and his ability to transform into anything that will scare his targets. Director Chuck Russell and the screenwriters (including Craven as well as future auteur Frank Darabont) tap into a lot of familiar dream imagery (running but being unable to get anywhere, watching a TV show that bleeds into a dream, feeling like you've woken up even when you haven't), and they use that familiarity to make Freddy's intrusions even scarier, augmented by some creative special effects and a clearly expanded budget. Despite his penchant for cheesy jokes, Freddy is still pretty menacing here, although the kids discovering their own dream superpowers is a little too Saturday-morning-cartoon to be truly intense (probably the reason I liked this movie as a kid).

The subplot about Nancy's colleague finding Freddy's remains and burying them in hallowed ground is likewise a little cheesy (especially with its tired science-vs.-faith angle), although it does allow Saxon the chance to play the elder Thompson as a washed-up drunk. The solidarity among Nancy and the misfit teenagers is the movie's biggest strength, and their forays into the dream world, which is much more clearly defined than it was in the first movie, make Dream Warriors feel like fantasy as much as horror (it reminded me a bit of some of Clive Barker's genre-hybrid work). Freddy's journey toward being a kid-friendly cartoon character may have started here, but on its own Dream Warriors is a solid movie that honors the legacy of its main predecessor.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Nightmare Week: 'A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge' (1985)

Despite my love for both of Wes Craven's Nightmare movies, before starting this series I had never seen several of the other Freddy Krueger movies, including the first A Nightmare on Elm Street sequel, Freddy's Revenge. Weirdly enough, the one thing I had gleaned about the movie recently was that it was full of homoerotic subtext, so other than expecting it to be terrible, that was really the only preconception I had going in. Both of those preconceptions turned out to be accurate, and even focusing on the movie entirely as an allegory for homosexual self-loathing doesn't make it any more interesting to watch.

Well, okay, maybe it makes it a little more interesting to watch, but overall, this is still a pretty terrible movie. First of all, none of the characters from the first movie (expect Freddy, of course) are present, and even worse, the basic premise of the first movie, the thing that makes it scary, is almost completely thrown out. Instead of killing people in their dreams, Freddy is attempting to possess the body of teenager Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton), whose family has moved into Nancy's old house (although it doesn't much resemble the house from the first movie), five years after the events of the original Nightmare. Freddy appears to Jesse in Jesse's dreams, but the killings all take place in the real world, where Freddy is somehow able to manifest using Jesse's body as his vessel. So staying awake is no protection against Freddy, and Freddy has supernatural powers even outside of dreams.

Jesse's efforts to resist Freddy "coming out" are one of the main sources of the homoerotic subtext, which screenwriter David Chaskin and star Patton (who is gay) have said was included intentionally, at least on their parts. Jesse also ends up at a leather bar with his macho gym teacher (Marshall Bell), and then later in an S&M-style torture scene as Freddy slowly emerges to kill the teacher. Jesse seems far more interested in his hunky best friend Grady (Robert Rusler) than in his whiny girlfriend Lisa (Kim Myers), whom he can't kiss without Freddy emerging to freak him out. And Patton's performance might charitably be called flamboyant, although it's really just bad, and mostly not in a fun, campy way.

The subtext is partially a result of the haphazard plotting, since certain moments that occur side by side don't necessarily connect unless they're viewed allegorically. It's hard to argue that as a strength, especially when everything above the subtext, from the performances to the set pieces to the storytelling, is so ineffective. Freddy is less of a presence than he was the last time around, and his kills aren't particularly creative or intense. There are one or two creepy images (a pair of dogs with human faces were pretty unsettling), but overall the movie isn't scary, and it ends with a cliffhanger that, instead of playing up the ambiguity as in the first movie, just emphasizes how inconsequential everything that preceded it really was.