Tuesday, July 22, 2014

It's Just A Dream....a review of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge is an odd ball film. Much like our anti-hero Krueger, it’s the bastard son of the entire franchise, quickly dismissed and ignored for everything that is wrong with it (of which, there is a lot). But what about what it gets right?

Let’s get something out of the way right now: yes, there’s an undertone to the film’s story about homosexuality and dealing with one’s inner struggles; the scene of Freddy fully coming out of Jesse’s body being a not too subtle punch right in the nose. At the same time though, Nightmare 2 wants to be just like all the other popular Horror releases at the time and have a higher than normal body count, showing the one true instance of a Nightmare film trying to edge its way into Slasher territory.

Writer David Chaskin openly admits that he intentionally added the gay undertones into the story focusing on new kid young Jesse Walsh and his struggles to fit in at school after having just moved into Springwood’s most famous haunted house. By basically flipping the script and swapping the traditional “final girl” character for a “final boy”, Nightmare 2 challenges its audience on many levels, not willing to just be your average, run of the mill pseudo-Slasher. The fact that the name “Jesse” is sexually ambiguous lends more credence to the notion of swapping sexes of all the main characters. 

Chaskin’s gamble on the story elements of Nightmare 2 and director Jack Sholder’s passé handling of the material may have been intended to do something a little bit different, ultimately the audience didn’t really care. As a result, Nightmare 2 has fallen into the same company of misunderstood sequels like Halloween III, in search of vindication from fans. 

But, what does the film do right that most fans tend to miss? For starters, there’s Robert Englund’s performance as Freddy. As far as I’m concerned, this is the film that shows the true birth of the Freddy we all know and love. Many of the mannerisms that have become associated with the character – the maniacal laugh and the pose immediately come to mind – are evident in this film. It’s worth noting that New Line execs initially started filming without Englund, feeling that any stunt player could portray Krueger and the audience would be none the wiser. This, of course, is the first mistake the film makes, with it being painfully obvious during the shower murder of Coach Schneider, as the stunt man in a Freddy mask hopelessly waddles out from the steam with all the presence of a white piece of paper.

This is the film where Englund completely takes ownership of the character! 

Later on, there’s the pool party scene which has divided Nightmare purists to this day since it breaks all the rules established in the first film. But it’s this scene where Englund really shines for me as he struts around the party after causing havoc and killing a few teens. Sure, this scene is a blatant attempt to add a body count, but I’m willing to forgive it for just how cool Freddy is in it! 

Make-up effects artist Kevin Yagher took over the design of the character this time, infusing a sort of witch-like appearance with a hooked nose and more pronounced chin. This is also the first time that Freddy’s sweater has the stripes down the sleeves and features the frayed wrists, neck and hemline; in short, the look everyone knows! Just look at his first appearance in the film on the bus in Jesse’s nightmare; as he’s slowly stalking back towards the frightened teens, the blades on his glove slicing up the bus seats . . . that’s pure, sadistic evil right there!  

As a kid, I remember not really being too into the fact that Freddy doesn’t even wear his glove for the 2nd half of the movie after emerging from Jesse’s body. Now, as an adult, I can’t really say I’m any less not into it, but I kind of understand it and appreciate it. Having the blades come right out of his fingers kind of a cool look I guess.  

In terms of his character, fans should be more appreciative of Freddy in Nightmare 2 specifically because it’s the last time we really see him before he became the jokester/game show host type in later sequels. He’s still a seriously evil dude and quite scary, but he’s got some solid one-liners as well; some standouts being “You’re all my children now”, “You’ve got the body…I’ve got the brain” and my personal favorite, “Help yourself, fucker!" 

Another interesting statistic that make Nightmare 2 stand out from the rest of the series is that it’s the last film where the kills are (somewhat) grounded in reality in that Freddy’s slicing and dicing and not getting cartoony with his methods of knocking kids off. During that pool party scene alone, there are some seriously vicious glove attacks on some of the kids!  

Plus, since I first discovered Nightmare 2 on VHS, I've got to mention the cool cover art here.  For me, that is the artwork for the film.  In fact, when I first saw the original poster art of Jesse holding Lisa in front of a mirror, with Freddy staring back, it just felt wrong compared to what I'd grown up with.  A few years later, I'd collect a poster for Nightmare 4 that featured the original photo used for this piece (albeit obviously reversed for the VHS cover).  Freddy just looks so cool on this cover and it certainily played a part in wrangling me in as a fan.  Next to the VHS artwork for Dawn of the Dead, I'd say this is a prime example my belief that artwork does matter; if it looks cool, is put together well, and completely catures your attention, then it's certainly a Win in my book!

The bottom line about Nightmare 2, though, for me is that it’s just another stop along the Elm Street series. Whether or not fans dig it is completely subjective. At the worst, it’s not as good as the original film, but at the very least, it’s not as bad or silly as some fans feel the later sequels are. If you’ve been overly dismissive of Nightmare 2 over the years, give it another shot . . . you might just be surprised.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

It's Just A Dream . . . A Nightmare On Elm Street retrospective Part 2

Picking up where we last left off, I feel it's only appropriate to cover the next phase of my Freddy Fandom and dive headfirst into some of the crazy stuff that was going on and being marketed to impressionable young minds like mine!  At that particular point in time between 1987-1991 or so, Freddy was pretty much king as far as I was concerned and his popularity world-wide was definitely at its peak.

In the tri-state area of New Jersey/Pennsylvania/New York, we had a chain of department stores called Clover.  Now, I have many, many fond memories of going to several Clover stores as a kid, but none of them were as cool as the one outside of Easton, PA at the Palmer Park Mall.  For me, that store was the first and best one and, whether it was with my parents or, especially, my grandmother, I always seemed to get a cool toy whenever we were there . . . I'll never forget the day we walked into the store and saw this gem . . . 

The perfect Christmas gift for EVERY kid!
Just try and imagine the excitement that poured out of me when I saw this incredible Freddy doll -- that talked!! 

By now, I'm sure you're familiar with the legend of this doll; Matchbox, a toy company known primarily for toy cars that competed with Hot Wheels, for some strange reason decided to do a string of Freddy merchandise.  Naturally, marketing the bastard son of a hundred maniacs to kids (least of all, Freddy was a child murderer!) was bound to raise a few eyebrows and piss off some parents.  So, almost as soon as these dolls hit toy shelves, they were pulled due to mounting pressure from parental groups.  But, I got one . . . actually, I had two!

For whatever reason, the first one I got didn't quite work as it was supposed to.  The doll has the old pull-string mechanism on its back to make it talk and, no doubt due to too many tugs of the string, the mechanism ultimately wore out.  This resulted in a chipmunk-voiced talking Freddy which, given the phases he says, was somewhat hilarious, but ultimately frustrating for a 7yr old!  Being that my Mom is the coolest mom on the planet, she took me to various other Clover department stores in search of a replacement (exchange) and we ended up in one outside of Allentown, PA.  This is the doll I still have to this day!

Although he's got his chimpmunk voice from years of abuse, he's still a badass.

...how I've managed to hold on to this thing for all these years (with his hat!) and not have defaced him or destroyed him in any way aside from my minor dings and scrapes, is beyond me.  In tribute to the Freddy puppet in Nightmare 3, this doll hung on my bunk bed, with this little hollow plastic feet banging along the metal frame.  This doll was, of course, reissued and sold at Spencer's Gifts in 1994; though it was the same style of doll and same plastic molds for the head, hands, and feet, the talking mechanism was replaced with a push-button in his chest.  The paint scheme, sweater pattern, hat, and phrases were done differently as well.  Just found the one I'd had in its original box and gave it to my nieces (who were absolutely thrilled) since we have the original and my wife has one of the reissues.

Cool sidenote on the subject of Matchbox talking dolls...anyone remember the Pee-Wee Herman and Ernest talking dolls?  Both had similar builds to Freddy (ie: hollow plastic heads, hands, feet and they also feature the pull-string mechanism).  Along with the talking Freddy, I also had the Pee-Wee Herman doll; I vividly remember having him wear Freddy's hat and pretending that he was Indiana Jones!

Another cool bit of Matchbox merch that I actually stumbled upon at a flea market is the Maxx FX Freddy action figure.

Brilliant concept and killer box art here!
This first figure was designed to be a pilot for a new line of "dolls" aimed at boys based around movie make-up techniques.  Think of it as MEGO doing a toy based off of the SyFy Channel's Face-Off series!  In fact, the back of the box even advertises the rest of the line including, Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, and even the ALIEN!  Sadly, these were never produced as this Freddy figure fell victim to the same angry parental fury that limited the shelf life of the talking doll.  Hell, I don't even remember seeing this in stores, as the only one I ever saw as a kid was at a flea market, like I said, and the dude wanted $50 for it, which seemed like a ton of change to me back then.  Although he's the greatest dad on the planet to this day, Dad wouldn't get it for me that day, which I'm actually grateful for, because I doubt this would've survived the way the larger doll did.

However, shortly after I first moved to Chicago in 2008, I was checking out the local comic shop which always had a stockpile of great toys and action figures I'd grown up with.  One day, while visiting on my way home from work, I spotted the Maxx FX Freddy figure, mint in the box!  I couldn't believe it and figured it would be commanding the same insane prices I'd seen at Horror conventions over the years . . . no way, it was actually under $10!!  You bet your ass it came home with me that very day!

Just pretend that Robert Englund is actually in the make-up and that his hat actually fits.
The figure itself is more clunky and fragile than it looks.  Since all of the "special effects" have to fit over the 6" doll that comes with it, the pieces are oversized and make Freddy much taller than any similar figures.  In fact, it was actually really difficult to fit his feet into the KISS-like boots!  How little girls manage to put Barbie's feet into all those crazy shoes, I'll never know!  Since he is pretty fragile, these days, he's just been chilling on top of the entertainment unit in the Crypt, surrounded by other action figures. 

Up next in the toy department, enter LJN Toys.  Now, if you grew up in the 80s and early 90s, you may remember LJN for creating some of the worst (best?) and most frustrating Nintendo games for titles like Friday the 13th, Jaws, The Karate Kid, Back to the Future, and of course A Nightmare on Elm Street among many others.  LJN also produced toy lines for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins, and their most famous lines Thundercats and WWF Wrestling Superstars (you know you cracked a few of your friends over the head with one of those hard, rubber Hulk Hogans).

In 1989, LJN took full advantage of their Freddy license, releasing a Freddy Squishem (similar to a stress reliever), a Freddy Fright Squirter (nothing more than a giant Freddy head that spit water), and a "Monster Squirt" squirt gun shaped like Freddy himself.  Not from LJN, but a yo-yo company called Spectra Star, there was even a Freddy yo-yo, depicting our hero with his glove on his left hand...even as a kid, I was weary of stuff that didn't get it right!  None of those toys sparked my interest though, as I went for their hard rubber statue-like doll . . .

Freddy says "how about that Ghost band, eh?
This guy has been in my collection ever since and sort of stood guard by my VCR and DVD player, hidden away behind a stack of unlabeled VHS tapes on a shelf.  Again, I'm amazed I still have it in the great condition that it's in.  Some years ago, I touched up his glove with some silver paint on his blades and to simulate solder scarring.  Although the pic might say otherwise, his boots are actually black. 

Another cool LJN item that crossed into another Horror franchise was Spitballs.  I remember finding these at a K-Mart when they came out; I instantly had to have both Freddy and Jason, though I'm not sure at this point if I'd been allowed to see any of the Friday the 13th movies.  Each was sold separately on a blister card, packaged with a "victim" spitball.

Jason has seen better days in terms of paint (note the red I added to his axe wound).  I've no idea where their victims went though.
The earliest Freddy-related toy I had is probably a cheap, dime store "stick-up" made by a no-name company in 1988.  I remember Mom buying one for me at a local Mini-Check 5 & 10 store and I was pretty stoked since this was the first official Freddy action figure I had.

Garfield and 'Baby On Board' window clingers be damned!
You can see by the package artwork and motif of the figure that it's based on Nightmare 3, though as a kid, I'd no idea why Freddy was wearing a trench coat on the card art.  My fondest memory of all this merch coming out at this time was the great promo photos on the packaging, all seeming to have come from a photo shoot for Nightmare 3.  Actually, I had at least two of these little Freddy guys . . . I've seen a variation that is barefoot and has a slightly different sweater, but I can't remember if I had that one or not.  Somewhere, I'm sure at least one of them survives in the boxes and storage bins my parents have been awesome enough to hold onto from my old bedroom and our attic when they moved recently!

Another cool piece that my parents saved for me is The Freddy Game, a 3D role-playing board game that I've had since its release in 1988 by Cardinal/Victory Games.  Set in "Freddy's house", in an almost Clue style, players would work their way through a 3D setting (complete with pop-up walls resembling a maze) trying to survive . . . the only catch was that one of the players really was Freddy!  To be honest, I don't think I ever actually played the game; instead, I just played around with the settings of the house, using it like a playset.  Regardless of that, I'm glad to have it in our collection of vintage board games!

In the upper left corner, you can see I tried to sell this at a yard sale for $1.00!
Something seems a little off about this guy...
One last piece of merch I'd like to cover is a sticker book that was released by Comic Images in either late 1987 or early 1988.   While I can't find an exact release year, it's definitely before Nightmare 4 in '88 as the book only covers the first three films.  You'd buy the book and then have to buy individual sticker packs that were about the size of trading cards -- though I can't remember if they came with bubble gum or not.  Surprisingly, the sticker book and stickers suddenly started popping up at Hot Topic stores back in 2005/2006 again! 
Kinda looks like those airbrushed t-shirts from the Jersey Shore, eh?
The most intriguing thing about this book, for me at least, is the cool, original artwork on the cover.  The book itself loosely covers the first three films in the series through a series of photos; I remember the photos on the spreads of each page being black and white and the stickers were in color.  There may have even been captions either in the boxes where the stickers would be placed or on the wax backers for the stickers. 
While I'm tempted to grab one of these books on eBay, I'm almost certain that my original book is still tucked away in a storage bin from my old bedroom.  Although I'm not 100% positive, I think I had most of the stickers in my book, though it was probably nowhere near complete.
Of course, this article is in no way near a comprehensive piece on all ANOES merch (I could do an entire blog just focusing on the merchandising angle of the series!).  In time, I might check out some of the more recent items that have come about -- it's worth noting McFarlane Toys' contribution with the original Movie Maniacs line, no? -- but I just wanted to focus solely on the stuff I grew up with.
Stay tuned for another edition of It's Just A Dream....

Thursday, July 10, 2014

It's Just A Dream....a review of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)

It should go without saying that Wes Craven’s original A Nightmare On Elm Street is a bona-fide classic.  As it turns 30 years old (!) this year, it continues to find an audience with younger generations, while sitting at the apex of a veritable gold mine – that being New Line Cinema, “The House That Freddy Built” and the Nightmare franchise itself – it has also managed to survive the dreaded remake back in 2010.  People love Freddy, it’s as simple as that.

You may have noticed that I’ve posted the original VHS cover art and not the poster artwork here; there’s an obvious reason for that actually.  You see, given my age, I unfortunately didn’t get to experience the Nightmare films in the theater (until Nightmare 5 actually) and only knew them all from their initial VHS releases.  In fact, I actually did a disservice to myself by not seeing them in chronological order at first, as I believe the first one I saw was either Nightmare 3 or Nightmare 4!  This, as you can probably figure, created an interesting perspective on the films and the character.

Perhaps foolishly – again, I was pretty young at the time, probably 6 or 7yrs old – my initial impression of A Nightmare on Elm Street was that it was “wrong” or simply not like what I’d already known about the world of Elm Street.   The first and most obvious thing is Freddy’s sweater . . . it always stood out to me that there were no stripes on the sleeves of the sweater in the first film and, honestly, it looked a little too neat, as it was missing the frayed ends on the wrists, neck and waist.  Character-wise, Freddy always seemed a little clunkier and a bit more raw and unpolished in that first film . . . looking at it today, I can understand that the character hadn’t quite been perfected yet by Robert Englund.  Some of his trademark mannerisms are still there, though they hadn’t yet been perfected. 

If you’re reading this blog, chances are that you already know the story of the film, so I won’t bore you with a synopsis, though it’s always worth noting the genuinely terrifying nature of the cusp of the film’s story . . . if you’re killed in your dreams, you’re dead for real.   Wes Craven’s original idea stemmed from newspaper articles detailing the sleep-related deaths of Laotian refugees in 1981.  Now, I don’t know about you, but that’s pretty heavy . . . sleep is supposed to be a peaceful experience, where your guard is completely down.

Story-wise, Craven’s script is damn near perfect, setting up all the rules of the Nightmare world and expertly bending the audience’s expectations of what is a dream and what isn’t a dream.  Of course, the series continued to play with concept to varying degrees of success, often having the audience just as surprised as the character(s) stuck in a never-ending dream.  In this first cast of Elm Street kids, Craven presents a few stereotypical cases:  the brainy “good” girl heroine, her jock boyfriend, the slightly “loser” best friend and her delinquent boyfriend.   Growing up, I knew and was friends with all of these types of kids!

At the center of the story, of course, is Fred Krueger and his murderous exploits.  There’s some great potential for a backstory which the series mined in later sequels with varying degrees of success; ultimately, it still feels real and undiluted by the pop culture phenomenon the character would become very shortly.  When Nancy’s mom finally reveals the truth about Krueger, the details leave prickly goosebumps on the viewer due to their grisly nature.

The cast is pretty spot-on, too, with Heather Langenkamp holding her own as Freddy’s first (and most fan favorite?) opponent, Nancy Thompson.   Langenkamp conveys the perfect “girl next door” charm that the character needs and is instantly identifiable and relatable.  In his first major role, Johnny Depp plays Nancy’s jock boyfriend, Glenn.  Now, one thing that sort of bugs me about Johnny Depp these days is how all the kids only want to check out Nightmare because it’s Johnny Depp’s first role . . . nobody cared about him then, but now that he’s Tonto, Willy Wonka, and Jack Sparrow, everyone loves the guy.  Whatever….I had a good time not telling my nieces Glenn’s fate while they oohed and ahhed over Depp when I showed them the film for the first time this past weekend.  Haha.

One major thing that I don’t think ever really registered with me as a kid about these films was the exact ages of the characters.   Amanda Wyss plays the film’s first victim, Tina, and shortly after her death, details of the investigation are heard on a radio in Nancy’s kitchen.  Right there, Tina’s age is confirmed to be 15yrs old!  Watching these films as a kid, the characters always seemed so much older than I was (for obvious reasons), so when I revisited the series sometime in my twenties and finally realized Tina’s age, I was blown away.  Some of the things that happen revolving around Tina in the wake of her death are made even creepier when I’m able to place myself in that age-range and look back on my own high school years and friendships from back then.

Now, obviously the film isn’t just about the teens who are haunted by Freddy, as the centerpiece of the story is squarely on the sins of their parents and their ideas of vigilante justice.  John Saxon and Ronee Blakley are great as Nancy’s parents, divorced and each having their own notions of what’s happening to their daughter and her friends.  Saxon is perfect as a no nonsense police lieutenant trying to solve a murder, all the while ignoring the skeletons in his closet about Krueger.  Blakley has her moments – most of which are hilarious, though I’m sure unintentional; still when she fills Nancy in who Krueger was and what happened to him, you can understand why she was nominated for an Oscar for Nashville.

How can there be talk about A Nightmare on Elm Street without discussing the special effects?  First and foremost, I have to give credit where it’s due to Lou Carlucci for designing and building the original glove seen in this film and most of Nightmare 2.  That thing is a true work of genius and, whether or not it was intended to become what we all know and love today, the seeds were most definitely there for something truly original!  Seriously, how many other low-budget independent horror films can you name that had a weapon that’s become as iconic as Freddy’s glove?  Of course, the glove itself was refined over the course of the sequels – which I’ll eventually get to discussing – but this one being the original, I’ll always have a certain fondness for it. 

As for Freddy himself, the credit with designing his make-up goes to David Miller.  Crude in comparison to the look in the sequels, Miller’s original Freddy make-up still holds up, though it’s probably my least favorite look-wise.   To me, it appears kind of just put together, whereas the later make-ups look cohesive as if they’re one giant piece.  Miller would return again in Nightmare 5, Freddy’s Dead and once again for New Nightmare, where he refined his original creation a bit . . . though that particular design still looks a little too rubbery to me.

For me, though, the most telling thing about the original Nightmare film is that it created a brand new movie monster in the form of Freddy Krueger.  Original, scary, yet likable audiences around the world dug him!  The character himself, in the few short years of the original series' lifespan, managed to get ingrained into popular culture and truly rub shoulders with the likes of Lugosi's Dracula and Karloff's Frankenstein's Monster.  Freddy was truly a product of the 80's and would soon transform and identify with the Heavy Metal/Punk scene to become, quite honestly, the definition of a rock star to Horror fans.