Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Evolution of Freddy Krueger: Appreciating the “Nightmare” Films in Anticipation of the Remake/Reboot/Prequel

By the time 1984 rolled around horror movie audiences were very familiar with the slasher genre. Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees had been around for a few years. There had been three Halloween movies, although Myers took vacation time for Part III. There had been four Friday the 13th films. Also audiences were familiar with Leatherface, the Prowler, the Miner from “My Bloody Valentine,” the Driller Killer, the killer from “Prom Night,” etc. I’m almost surprised A Nightmare on Elm Street was even a success. But actually it came at the perfect time. In the six years since “Halloween” started the subgenre, slasher movies were becoming tedious, cheap and horrible. It needed a boost and Freddy Krueger was the only one who could do it.

Horror master Wes Craven was sort of ingenious in creating boogeyman Freddy Krueger for several reasons. First of all, not only did he give this character lines of dialogue, but he made him funny and scary. Granted he doesn’t really have funny lines in the original film, but you know he was just itching for some wisecracks. Freddy remains one of the few slashers who actually talk and while he’s been give more and more lines as the film series have progressed, it is trademark wit that makes Freddy stand out amongst the Jasons and Michael Myers out there. He gave him a trademark look and weapon: his wonderful homemade knife glove, which still is one of horror films’ most recognizable images. Also, Craven created a character that simply can’t be killed. When Jason gets killed a million times in his films the audience never really believes that this guy should still be around. But with Freddy, who exists in the dreams of his teenage victims can simply just live forever.

Wes Craven’s original film “A Nightmare on Elm Street” remains one of the best and important films in the slasher genre and currently stands as my 25th favorite movie of all time (although “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare,” like it or not, is still my favorite of the series). It has many iconic images which includes one of the most memorable murder scenes in horror history. I dare you to watch the scene in which Tina is clawed, thrown out of her bed, and dragged up the wall and onto the ceiling, only to fall back to her bed in a bloody mess. The scene is frightening, disorienting and a pioneering moment in slasher history. And we all remember the bathtub scene, Johnny Depp emerging from his bed as a pool of blood and Freddy rising from Nancy’s mother’s bed.

The many sequels were, not surprisingly less memorable, but fun nonetheless. “A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge” remains one of the strangest and controversial of all the sequels. Quickly dubbed the “gay Freddy movie” by its fans and detractors, it features Freddy’s attempt to possess the body of an effeminate teenage boy and kill teenagers in the real world, rather than in their dreams. Wes Craven had nothing to do with this one, but did return as co-writer for “A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors.” It stars a young Patricia Arquette who’s committed to a mental hospital with fellow teenagers who are all dreaming of Freddy. Freddy’s trademark one-liners made themselves apparent here: “Welcome to primetime, bitch!” These wisecracks were pushed into overdrive in “A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4: The Dream Master.” This film still remains the franchise’s most profitable even though its director was ironically Renny “Cutthroat Island” Harlin. The film featured great production values, slick cinematography and plenty of Freddy wit. Its dream sequences were very elaborate. This is the one where the girl from “Just the Ten of Us” is turned into a cockroach. The series started nose-diving with “A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child” which featured Freddy using the heroine’s unborn child’s dream to kill the local teenagers. This one shows Freddy as a baby. Ugh. New Line Cinema reluctantly greenlit “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare” as an opportunity to kill off everyone’s favorite scarred child murderer. Apparently someone thought that working as an assistant production manager on Part 1 made director Rachel Talalay capable enough to direct this fifth sequel, (ok, relax, she produced the other sequels, but still come on, she sucks!) which had its ending sequence shown in gloriously cheesy 3D. The story this time around was a muddled mess and attempted to show a lot of Freddy’s backstory. You're not hallucinating; that is Alice Cooper as Freddy's abusive father. It also features Freddy at his “funniest.” He shows up as the Wicked Witch of the West for crying out loud and kills a kid in a video game. This is the worst of the series and an embarrassment for all involved. Thankfully, Craven returned for part 7: the wonderfully clever “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.” The film brilliantly took place in the “real world” and had the fictional Freddy haunt the Nightmare films’ cast and crew members. It was pretty ahead of its time but unfortunately audiences didn’t turn out for this postmodern gem because after 10 years of Freddy Krueger movies people just didn’t care anymore. Ironically, the equally clever and tongue-in-cheek horror flick “Scream,” released just two years later (directed by Craven), went on to become a massive critical and financial hit. And of course, the less said about “Freddy vs. Jason” the better.
So that brings me to the point of all of this Freddy talk and that is a remake is in production and is slated for release next April. Robert Englund, who I can’t believe I’ve failed to mention this whole time, won’t be returning as Krueger as this reboot will be seen as completely fresh. Oscar nominee and former child star has been Jackie Earle Haley will be taking on the iconic role and when you watch this amazing teaser trailer for the new film, maybe you’ll actually find it to be scary and decent looking. As a fan of this series I can honestly say I’m intrigued by this film and I encourage you to find it interesting as well. Even though there seem to be more remakes than original films coming out of Hollywood, I’m not really against it. It seems like they want to make Freddy Krueger scary again. Remakes, while always mostly unnecessary, are always fun and exciting commodities. Yes they are just products to be devoured by fans who are willing to give up their hard earned dough, but frankly I wouldn’t it have it any other way.

Nightmare 1: A, Freddy's Revenge: B, Dream Warriors: B+, Dream Master: B, Dream Child: C+, Freddy's Dead: D, New Nightmare, A+, FvJ: D. Check out the teaser trailer for 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' (2010) below:

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Derby Fully Loaded: Drew Barrymore’s Roller Derby Drama “Whip It” Almost Skates Towards Victory

“Whip It” is one of those “triumph” in the end movies, in which a young person goes against their parents’ wishes and proves that their love of a particular sport or activity was worth all his or her secrecy. The plot is nothing new and technically the way the story is told is nothing new, but the actors certainly lift it above standard underdog story. Unfortunately this is going to be just considered “Juno on skates” and while in some ways it is (it’s quirky, weird, funny and hip) it’s not nearly as well written or directed. And I’m okay with that. Drew Barrymore makes a nice debut and while she’s no Alfred Hitchcock, and seriously who is, she brings enough to the table to have a warm and enjoyable enough time.

I’m going to be honest and say that I was super psyched for this movie. I watched the trailer over and over and it gave me chills. It was so happy and fun and colorful. I couldn’t wait to see Ellen Page’s next performance (although I’m starting to worry that she might be typecast as the quirky rebel girl). And then I saw the movie and while I liked it, I have to say on the whole I felt slightly disappointed. But it’s totally my fault and not the movie’s. it’s sort of like when I built up “Slumdog Millionaire.” I was really excited and then I saw the movie and I was like, seriously what’s the big freakin’ deal?

“Whip It” takes place in a small town in Texas. Seventeen year old Bliss’ (Page who is wonderful of course) mother forces her to participate in sexist beauty pageants because frankly I guess that’s all there is for girls to do in small town Texas. However, one day she sees a few “alternative-looking” girls on rollerskates. It turns out they’re in a Roller Derby league and it piques Bliss’ interest. She goes to see a bout with her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat from ‘Arrested Development’) and is instantly transfixed. She’s encouraged to try out for the league and although she’s underage (you have to be 21) she does it anyways. She goes from falling over in her Barbie skates to being one of the best members on her team (yeah right).

Bliss doesn’t tell her folks that she’s participating in roller derby, because she assumes they “won’t understand,” which is probably a correct assessment. Her mother Brooke, played by the always reliable Marcia Gay Harden, participated in beauty pageants as a young girl and has passed down her unattainable dream to Bliss, who doesn’t even want it. Her dad, played by Daniel Stern, (who apparently has been hiding under a rock or something) is just portrayed as a typical Texan goofball. Bliss’ parents are nice enough but nowhere near as sympathetic as Juno’s dad and stepmom were in “Juno.”

And that brings me to the best part of the film and that is Bliss’ fellow teammates. We get SNL’s Kristen Wiig who is reliable. She’s more serious than we normally see her, but still fun. Quentin Tarantino’s favorite stunt lady Zoe Bell shows up as does rapper Eve. Barrymore shows up as the team’s funniest member who always seems to be getting punched in the face. It makes sense that Barrymore would play this role because its small enough for her to fulfill her directorial duties but potent enough to be remembered. Andrew Wilson is Razor, the team’s headbanded coach. And last but not least, Juliet Lewis shows up as the team’s nemesis.

Unfortunately while the roller derby scenes are fun and full of energy (and don’t worry the film does a decent job of showing us how the game is played) it gets bogged down by an unnecessary romance element that grinds the film’s fun momentum to a halt. Bliss catches the eye of a weird rock singer and she falls for him and they have a little fling. Of course I’m sure he’d love to hear that by the film’s end he’s unkowningly committed statutory rape. Fun huh?

“Whip It” has familiar story elements (writer Shauna Cross adapted the film from her novel) which you’ve seen dozens of times before, but I’m willing to state that the winning cast does a great job of making it all worth it. This is a fun effort from Barrymore. I’m interested to see what else she has up her sleeves. The film’s look is simple and isn’t particularly flashy. I’ll call it competent. The real reason to see the film is Ellen Page who always manages to make a film even better than it should be. While this is really just Juno-lite, it offers enough fun for a recommendation. GRADE: B-

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Seventeen Year Bitch: “Jennifer’s Body” is Not Another Teen Movie

“Jennifer’s Body” is not a movie I can recommend to everyone. Writer/former stripper Diablo Cody, who tries her hand at the teen horror genre, weaves a strange tale of female rage against the machine (the machine here is boys). If you liked Juno, you’ll find something to like here, which mostly includes Cody’s trademark cool and hip dialogue (“move on dot org” is so this year’s “honest to blog”). And if you crossed Juno’s post-modern coolness with that of last years indie cult horror hit “Teeth” in which a teenage girl’s vagina is equipped with a nasty and angry set of jaws, you can pretty get a vague understanding of what “Jennifer’s Body” is like. It’s certainly original, in terms of the horror genre, but I’m not even really sure I’d even call it a horror film. It seems like a really really really dark comedy. Think “Juno” with teeth in her genitalia.

“Jennifer’s Body” is a movie made by women. Like I said Oscar winner Diablo Cody is behind the words and director Karyn Kusama is behind the lens. I guess you could call the film a feminist look at high school. What we get is the story of two best girlfriends. One is Needy, who is played by Amanda Seyfried. She’s slightly nerdy, but cool enough to get by. She has an equally goofy yet charming boyfriend. She’s hardly on the lower ranks of the popularity echelon. Although maybe she’s a little needy, for lack of a better word. What she needs is her best friend Jennifer (the perfectly cast Megan Fox who expands on her I’m the pretty girl image from the “Transformers” role) who is the popular/hot girl who all guys go gaga for and all the girls want to be like. Frankly I don’t believe it because Jennifer is in the colorguard and frankly they’re never the most popular girls in school. Although Jennifer is the popular hot chick, she’s not really mean nor nasty. That is until she’s taken away by the members of an indie rock band called Low Shoulder, headlined by actor Adam Brody who will always be known to me as Seth Cohen from “The OC.” They take her away in a van after the bar where they’re playing burns to the ground, along with some of the town’s citizens. And when Jennifer returns, she’s not really the same person. Like all teenage girls, she’s boy crazy, but now she’s boy hungry. Jennifer quickly gobbles up a jock in the woods behind he school and Needy is curious as to why the male population at school seems to be dwindling.

If I heard this premise and didn’t know who was writing it, I would almost without hesitation not give it another look. I’d think it was a story guaranteed to wind up in the DVD bargain bin at your favorite local megastore. For some reason, Cody’s flashy writing and nose for clever dialogue is really what keeps this thing a float. And that is why I see this film more as a comedy than straight out horror. Yeah this thing is violent and has buckets of blood, but I’m not sure I’d say any of it was particularly scary. But I’m ok with that. Because as long as you can read it as a metaphor for high school and all things adolescence then it works. The performances here work, mostly because what the actors have coming out of their mouths are witty and fun. We see the film mostly through Needy’s eyes, not Jennifer’s, and it is her who we identify. It’s odd that she seems almost just as infatuated with Jennifer as all the boys in the school are, and we’re to wonder what exactly her character’s desires lay.

I wouldn’t really call this a boys are bad movie, in that I should be offended because its about a girl who kills boys, but rather a movie that has the guts to be horrific and yet sternly funny. In fact I see it more of a spoof of high school clichés more than anything else. Everyone knew that “mean, bitchy girl” in high school, and this movie dares to ask the question. What if that mean, bitchy girl was actually evil evil, not high school evil? It’s just like eleven years ago when the movie “The Faculty” answered the question, what if your teachers really were aliens?

So yes, I recommend this movie and while it’s certainly weird and different, and occasionally sloppy in its plotting (why does Needy seem to gain some sort of ESP power?), I think it’s clever dialogue and dark humor is what is really on display here. If you thought Juno was too hip for its own good then you’ll probably find this film a slog to sit through, but if you’re prepared to see what an indie rock band is willing to do to become famous, you should do yourself a favor and check out “Jennifer’s Body.” GRADE: B

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Theta Die: “Sorority Row” is a Campy Ode to Classic 80s Slashers

You simply can’t take a movie like “Sorority Row” seriously. I mean the movie opens and we see a pajama party taking place in a sorority house in which co-eds bare their butts while jumping on a trampoline. Actually this first shot is pretty impressive. I didn’t notice a single cut for a few minutes. Was this a “Touch of Evil” homage? Who knows. What I do know, is that if you’re a fan of any horror film that was made in the 80s you’re bound to find something in “Sorority Row” to love.

The film is based on “The House on Sorority Row” which was released way back in 1983, but since I was merely a new born back then, I was unable to experience it in theaters. So now we have an updated version which sort of plays like “Gossip Girl” meets “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” It’s about a stupid prank that goes horribly awry. It appears that a guy cheated on one of the Theta Pi sisters. And if you cheat on one Theta you cheat on every Theta. So they decide to teach this dude a lesson and the girl who he cheated on, Megan (Audrina Patridge), pretends to die from a pill that she was given. They decide to cover up the crime and drive out to the middle of nowhere. The sisters look for “sharp rocks to cut up the body” meanwhile, Garett (Matt O'Leary)the tool that’s being punk'd, whips out a tire iron and stabs Megan in the chest, which you guessed it, kills her for real. So they decide to cover up the crime for real, and in true horror movie fashion, the story flash forwards “8 months later.”

Cassidy (Briana Evigan) is the one sister, and inevitable ‘final girl,’ who has a conscience and never really wanted to go along with the cover up. We also have my personal favorite character Jessica (played with bitchy perfection by Leah Pipes) who is the blonde sorority president who is the Queen Bee. She’s given the best lines and she delivers them with skanky finesse. Unfortunately we also get Rumar Willis who basically is horrible as the sister who just can’t deal with the stress and has to cry every five minutes. Why she doesn’t get killed off first, I’ll never know. And Korean-American actress Jamie Chung adds the necessary diversity to the strictly all white cast.

So if you haven’t guessed by now, after eight months, someone knows these girls’ “secret” and is going to kill them off one by one. It’s finally slasher time! We get a wine bottle down a throat and lots of slashings by way of a pimped out tire iron. I have to praise director Stewart Hendler, who, even though this is his first feature film, seems to know the genre pretty well. He stays close to nearly every cliché and frankly I wouldn’t have it any other way. If you want to see an original horror film unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, “Sorority Row” is not the movie for you. It retains the cheesy yet classic elements of slasher movies of 80s past. Think: "Prom Night," "My Bloody Valentine," "Graduation Day," "The Initiation," etc.

This is not “torture porn” which seems to have been the focus for horror films of the past few years, but a genuinely fun slasher movie complete with hooded killer. Some of the dialogue, while at times painfully bad, can actually be pretty witty at times. Like I said Ms. Pipes luckily gets the best lines. So yeah, I mean this isn’t classic cinema by any means. This isn’t “Citizen Kane,” it’s not even “Halloween” but like the recent campy thrill ride “The Final Destination,” “Sorority Row” is destined to be another cult horror classic that will be rewatched over and over again by horror movie fans for years to come. GRADE: B

PS – Carrie Fisher is simply awesome as Theta Pi's house mother. She wields a mean shotgun and she totally deserved her own shoutout. Ms. Fisher I salute you.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Ragtime: “9” is a Fun, Stylish Animated Adventure

The animated post apocalyptic adventure ‘9" opened in theaters on, you guessed it, September 9th 2009. Much like the release of the remake of The Omen (which was released on 6-6-06) it seemed destined to be more of a gimmick more than anything else. Of course that is just dead wrong because "9" is an incredible wonder. A fun ride with lovable characters, frightening villains, and a fascinating visual design that is sure to wow you.

Ok so I was worried that this movie would be long and boring. But when I found out that it was literally 79 minutes (9 of which were most likely just credits) long I was generally estatic. I honestly had some lower expectations for this movie because I figured it would be all style and no substance and therefore a slog to sit through. That was the case with the film Coraline which came out earlier this year. At 100 minutes that flick was about 30 minutes too long and I almost couldn’t wait for it to be over. Director Shane Acker had no problem turning his short film into a runtime that flies by and yet keeps you captivated for 79 wonderful minutes.

I almost want to say the film’s animation style skewers towards stop-motion animation, but it’s definitely CG and I’m ok with that. While the film is dark and more appealing to older audiences, I was surprised at how wonderfully appealing a post-apocalyptic world could look. And if you think the background looks great don’t even get me started on…

The story involves a man who creates 9 different rag doll figures who he brings to life. We learn they are actually nine separate aspects of his personality. 9 is the main character who gives the film its title and you’re almost instantly entranced by him. He meets others who are just as lovable. I could tell right away that if I was ten years old, I would definitely want every "9" toy.
The character 9 is voiced by Elijah Wood and he’s an excellent choice, because a) he has a unique voice and b) because his voice lends an innocence that fits the character perfectly. He sounds young and naïve and it helps the viewer connect almost instantly. Of course, the other actors are fine as well. We get Jennifer Connelly, John C. Riley, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, and Crispin Glover as the other numbered characters. Each actor, along with the animators, create easily distinguishable characters.

I’ve been gushing about this flick and you probably don’t even know what I’m talking about. "9" takes place in the future. Like every other post apocalyptic tale (I’m thinking Terminator) we learn that technology has found a way to revolt against humans. The machines take over leaving a desolate wasteland behind. "9" more specifically tells the story of 9 who awakens to find himself in this wasteland and finds a small band of survivors who look just like him. They’re fighting off the evil machines one of which kidnaps one of these survivors. It seems as though only 9 can help to get him back. Writer Pamela Pettler, whose script is based on a story by Acker has managed to turn 79 minutes into a gripping tale of survival. This is an suspenseful action adventure story that just happens to be animated.

I’m not necessarily sure that "9" is a movie that will have mass appeal and I certainly can’t honestly recommend it to everyone. But if you’re a fan of either animation, or sci-fi, or just a good action adventure than "9" is certainly almost a guaranteed good time. GRADE: B+