Friday, September 23, 2016

Worth Mentioning - Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

A sequel is dreamed up very quickly.


Founded by Robert Shaye in 1967, the studio New Line Cinema was on some shaky financial ground in the first half of the 1980s, until they took a chance on writer/director Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street. The project had been rejected by several other companies, but it paid off so well for New Line that they quickly put a sequel into production.

Craven didn't return to work on the sequel, which was written by New Line employee/first-time screenwriter David Chaskin and directed by Jack Sholder, New Line's in-house editor who has made his feature directorial debut on the 1982 slasher Alone in the Dark, which he also crafted the story for with Shaye.

The core idea of A Nightmare on Elm Street had been genius. There's a killer who stalks his victims when they're at their most vulnerable, when they're asleep. He is Freddy Krueger, a child murderer who was released on a technicality, so the parents of Springwood, Ohio formed a mob and got street justice, burning Freddy alive. But now he's back for revenge, continuing to pursue the young people of Springwood. He doesn't come into their house and lurk in their bedroom, they can't run or hide from him, he's waiting for them in their dreams, and they have to sleep sometime. If he catches and kills them in their dreams, they'll die in the real world as well. It's chilling because of how relatable is; everyone has nightmares at some point. What would you do if Freddy were after you?

The possibilities for how to handle the dream world in an Elm Street franchise were endless, but Sholder and Chaskin didn't really attempt to live up to the potential in that department. Dreams and nightmarish images were certainly included in Freddy's Revenge, but for the most part their story is much more along the lines of the average haunted house/possession movie.

A Nightmare on Elm Street ended with heroine Nancy Thompson pulling Freddy out of her dreams and into our reality. She then seemingly banished him from existence by taking away the power she had given him by fearing him, turning her back on him and belittling him. Freddy disappeared, defeated... at least until the ending jump scare.

Freddy's Revenge picks up five years after the events of the first movie, when the Walsh family moves into the former Thompson residence at 1428 Elm Street. Family patriarch Ken Walsh (Clu Gulager) hasn't told his wife Cheryl (Hope Lange) or children - young daughter Angela (Christie Clark) and teenage son Jesse (Mark Patton) - the stories of a woman dying in the house (Nancy's mother) or the young girl who went crazy there (Nancy herself), but the secrecy doesn't protect them. It isn't long before Jesse comes to realize that Freddy's essence still lingers within the home, seemingly trapped in the place where he was vanquished.

As of this film, the series hadn't yet established that it was set in Craven's home state of Ohio. These films were shot in California, so there are palm trees visible at every turn, and this film starts off with a sequence set in terrain that is definitely not Ohio-like. But it's a dream, so you can let that slide.

Sholder wasn't exactly interested in the dream aspect of Nightmare, but I have to give him credit for the opening nightmare - which finds Jesse as a passenger on a school bus that passes the stops off its last few passengers, careens off the road, speeds off through the desert, and stops in the middle of nowhere. Some incredible special effects kick in, showing the ground around the bus crumbling, leaving it hanging above a deep chasm. This is a bigger effects sequence than any of the nightmares in the previous film, and a sign of things to come for the series, which was largely sold on the impressive visuals of the nightmare special effects.

More than anything, the selling point for Elm Street sequels was the performance of Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger. That almost wasn't the case, as the filmmakers somehow didn't realize while assembling Freddy's Revenge how important the casting of Englund had been for the first movie. Englund wanted a pay increase for the sequel, so he was replaced. Someone else was cast as Freddy. Filming began with this person wearing the burn makeup and iconic outfit of the villainous character... and that's when Sholder realized that he needed Englund, appalled by the stiff performance of his replacement. I can't imagine how they thought they could pull off the story of Freddy's Revenge with an unnamed extra in the role of Freddy. It's not like he's a silent stalker like his peers Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Leatherface, or that he just jumps out and yells "Boo!" from time to time. He has scenes to perform and dialogue to deliver, although admittedly less than would usually be written for the character. Even if Englund were going to be replaced, the recasting required more care and thought than they apparently gave it.

Englund first appears in the film without Freddy's makeup, making a cameo as the regular driver of the school bus. Once the bus is in its precarious position in the desert, that driver turns out to be Freddy, in all his burned glory. He makes his way down the length of the bus, toward his cowering passengers in the back, moving in a way that only Robert Englund would move. He raises his razor-clawed glove to strike... and on the down swing, Jesse wakes up screaming. In the room that used to belong to Nancy Thompson.

As Jesse continues to dream of Freddy over subsequent nights, the dream stalker reveals to him that he needs him to achieve a goal, they have special work to do together. Freddy memorably tells him, "You've got the body, I've got the brain." He then proves this by peeling his own head open to expose his brain. Freddy wants Jesse to kill for him, sending him off to places in a sort of sleepwalk trance. Under the control of Freddy, Jesse goes to his sister's room one night, wearing the razor glove. But he still has enough control over his own mind that he doesn't harm Angela.

Making this a haunted house/possession film was a questionable decision, but Sholder and Chaskin do present the haunting of 1428 Elm in an interesting and effective way. The presence of spirits in ghost stories are often felt through areas being cold, but the presence of Freddy is felt through heat. Despite air conditioning, it remains unnaturally hot in the house. An unplugged toaster randomly bursts into flames. Sweat pours from Jesse as he sleeps. In dreams, lamps, candles, and vinyl records melt from the heat in Jesse's bedroom. The heat is even part of the most insane, ridiculous scene in the movie, where the Walsh family parakeet becomes a bloodthirsty, flying maniac that proceeds to explode mid-flight.

The fact that most of this is being experienced by the entire Walsh family allows Clu Gulager to deliver a hilarious performance as Ken Walsh, a man who thinks he knows everything and believes he can fix anything, even though he seems rather incompetent as a handyman. He's frustrated by the strange behavior Jesse soon begins to exhibit while being tormented by Freddy and accuses him of being on drugs. When the parakeet explodes, Ken figures that either the oven is leaking gas, Jesse blew it up with a cherry bomb, or maybe the situation was caused by the cheap seed Cheryl has been getting for the bird. Yes, in the mind of Ken Walsh it makes sense that eating cheap bird seed could cause a parakeet to explode into a little ball of flame. Ken is such an entertaining characters that some internet forum friends of mine started writing a comedy series called The Adventures of Ken Walsh.

Jesse's home life is descending into a farce, and his school life isn't a lot less complicated. He has a friendship with a girl named Lisa (Kim Myers), and there's a mutual attraction between the pair, but they're hesitant to act on it for whatever reason. Jesse and his antagonistic friend Ron Grady (Robert Rusler) also keep getting in trouble and put through the physical wringer by their gym teacher Coach Schneider (Marshall Bell), who is rumored to hang out at a local gay S&M bar.

Rumors about Schneider's proclivities are proven true when Freddy sends Jesse walking into that bar. Schneider catches him there and sees an opportunity to get inappropriate with a student. He takes Jesse back to the school after hours and makes him run laps, then sends him off to the shower while he suspiciously gets some jump ropes ready in his office. Then a supernatural force starts throwing Schneider's sporting equipment around. Those jump ropes come alive, wrapping around his wrists and dragging him into the shower with Jesse. His clothes are ripped off. Towels fly through the air to whip him on the ass. The shower fills with steam, obscuring Jesse from view... and then Freddy emerges from the area where Jesse was standing.

This scene was shot before Englund was brought onto the film, and you can tell. Freddy walks across the shower slowly, moving like a zombie, arms down at his sides. Freddy slashes Schneider to death with his glove, and then disappears, leaving a screaming, blood-coated Jesse to be the one standing in the shower, wearing the razor glove.

The more Jesse sleeps, the more control Freddy gains over him, but technically no one is asleep in this sequence when Schneider is killed. This movie doesn't play by any rules that Wes Craven would have written.

Schneider provides the most obvious gay content in the film, but there's plenty more just under the surface. The most popular aspect of Freddy's Revenge may be the homoerotic subtext, which Sholder managed to be oblivious to, while Chaskin kept the fact that it was a conscious decision on his part a secret for twenty-five years. Jesse is not the most masculine hero, and Mark Patton himself is gay, so many viewers over the years have come to see the story of Freddy's Revenge as an allegory for a young man struggling with his sexuality. His relationship with Lisa is quite chaste for the most part, and when things to get a little hot and heavy between them the influence of Freddy messes things up, so a scared Jesse seeks help in the bedroom of Grady, the guy whose pants he pulled down in gym class and with whom he was disciplined by their gay S&M-loving coach. Add in things like the dance Jesse does in his room while unpacking, the sign on his bedroom door that says "No (out of town) Chicks", and the board game in his closet called Probe, and you have a film that people can have a field day with as they point out all the clues that Jesse is gay.

Schneider and some stray lines (like Jesse talking about Freddy: "Something is trying to get inside my body", "He's gonna take me again") aside, these things really didn't stand out to me so much for decades, not until people started talking about the film's homoerotic subtext on the internet.


Lisa does her best to help Jesse out of his predicament. After finding Nancy's diary in Jesse's closet, Lisa does further research, locating the power plant where employee took twenty kids into the boiler room and butchered them. Knowledge of the past does not help Jesse's present, as Freddy continues to manifest physically in our reality through Jesse. A hideous, inhuman tongue emerges from Jesse's mouth while he's making out with Lisa. That's when he seeks help from Grady, but once he's in Grady's room the entirety of Freddy's body comes ripping out from within Jesse's, another showcase of awesome practical effects.

Now sporting organic claws, Freddy goes on to rampage through Lisa's pool party, again accompanied by intense heat - the pool becomes boiling hot, flames burst up around the fence row, etc. By entering our world through Jesse, Freddy is still able to manipulate reality, to a degree, like he does in the dream world. Items move without anyone touching them, doors and windows seem to lock themselves. Freddy even manages to disappear twice.

Knowing that Jesse is somehow trapped within Freddy, Lisa follows him to the old boiler room, where she has to fight her way past nightmarish creatures and through hallucinations for a final showdown that brings to mind a line from a film that would come out nine years later, Natural Born Killers. "Only love can kill the demon."

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge reached theatres just shy of a year after its predecessor - A Nightmare on Elm Street was released on November 9, 1984, and Freddy's Revenge followed on November 1, 1985. Freddy's Revenge was an even bigger hit than the first movie had been, although that's not necessarily a sign of quality and fan approval. In fact, Freddy's Revenge is one of the most disliked entries in the franchise. But with that first movie viewers had gotten a taste of something they liked, and they wanted more. Even though part 2 was a bit rocky, moviegoers continued to turn out for further sequels, making them such a success that the series saved New Line Cinema, which became known as The House That Freddy Built, and Robert Englund's Freddy Krueger quickly became one of the horror genre's greatest all-time icons.

I wouldn't say Freddy's Revenge is a bad movie, exactly, but it's certainly an odd one, bogged down by some bad choices made during its development and the fact that it seems to have been made by a screenwriter/director duo that didn't seem to realize or care what had made the instant classic they had been asked to sequelize so special. How can you take an idea as clever and franchise-promising as A Nightmare on Elm Street and then decide to get away from the thing that made it so unique, the nightmares? How do you not choose instead to pursue and expand upon the nightmare element and let your imagination run wild? That's what the filmmakers behind the best sequels in the series did.

I didn't question the choices made so much when I was a kid, so Freddy's Revenge does earn a pass in a lot of areas from the fact that I am very familiar with it and have something of a nostalgic connection to it, as I've watched it many times, starting when I was very young. It had already been made before I even got into horror, and I was so afraid of horror at the time when it hit cable that I was terrified by an image of Freddy Krueger that was featured in a guide of movies that would be showing on HBO and Cinemax that month. When I did get around to watching it as part of a larger series when I was renting my way through the horror sections of the local video stores a couple years later, I just accepted the story it told me. Freddy was trying something a little different this time around, but he would get back to living it up in the dream world in the sequels that followed.

I don't hold A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge in the highest regard, but I can't deny that it was one of the movies that made up the foundation of my horror fandom.

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