Once Upon a Time In The 80s: Sequels (Part 4 of 17)

“Leaves the door wide open for a sequel,” is a phrase that was not part of the cinematic vernacular even in the 1950s. It really does sound like something you’d say after watching a slasher movie. These films, of course, were very popular in the 1980s, but just because you didn’t see a horror movie didn’t mean you were safe from someday hearing of a sequel.
 

In the 1970s the ‘pre-sold’ product became a big thing with studios there were many literary adaptations so logically sequels would soon follow. In 1981 there were 42 sequels produced worldwide; in 1989 there were 124. By the end of the 80s there were six Police Academys, five Halloweens, Howlings, Star Treks and Nightmare on Elm Streets; if you wanted to kill someone you could strap them to a chair and make them watch these in succession. There’s probably more but it would get redundant. As opposed to the positive legacy of special effect, the 80s left us with a trend that has only gotten worse. While there are no new series that are growing ridiculously, although Friday the 13th has reached 10 [now 11 with a 12th in development], it is much easier for a film to get a sequel now such as Legally Blond which didn’t even hit 100 million, but was made on no budget so the profitability was easier to hit. Another new trend is immediately announcing a sequel: when Spider-man opened with $115 million dollars in its first weekend the studio announced plans for a sequel. Opening weekend sequel plans have become commonplace and they can be directly blamed on the 80s who exacerbated sequel-mania in a need for guaranteed money.

While the contrived sequel can be called a spawn of the 80s on the good side there is also the series. The difference is that a series is a story that is not supposed to be in one film or book as the case may be. While there was only Indiana Jones and Star Wars these films helped develop the business concept of ‘the franchise,’ more so to me than the other films than those sequelized ad neauseum. The franchise by my estimation is a designed series of films that will also be a cash cow. To me these two series planned by Lucas and Spielberg are what set the stage for some of the better films of our times.

The studios relied on the sequel for easy money because the horror films that made them all their money were pick-ups. The Slasher Trinity of Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street were all independent productions which cost their respective distributors practically nothing. Thus, when they each took off like rockets they didn’t want to see the profits stop. And like at anytime in film history, you never know what’s going to be a hit and what isn’t, no matter how much test research you do. So they figure they’d just repeat what worked. And people went, and will go, if only out of curiosity.

While I can justify all these sequels that seemingly have no point I in no way excuse them. Because what started as just a rash has become a plague and now any film which shows and inkling of profit potential is a candidate to be butchered and repackaged in a sequel. For the most part I very much enjoy these films of the 80s, but a tendency towards needless repetition is something I can live without.
 

Work Cited:  http://us.imdb.com/List?year=1989&&tv=on&&keywords=sequel&&nav=/Sections/Years/1989/include-commongenres&&heading=8;sequel;1989

Note:  This is a recapitulation of a paper I wrote in film school. It will be published here in installments. This is part four you can read part one, two and three here.

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61 Days of Halloween: A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment, I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

A Nightmare on Elm Street shares one, and likely only one, distinction with the film The Perfect Game. That distinction is that it excelled, for the most part, in elements that were new and unique to it and botched what it attempted to recreate. In the latter the recreations were from other sports films, in the former the recreations were from the original version of the film.

Perhaps the best thing this film has to offer is that it seemingly breaks new ground in belief in the horror film. One of the most tired clichés in the horror film is the fact that in the face of overwhelming evidence some characters just flat out refuse to believe that there’s something out of the ordinary happening, or as Buffalo Springfield would say “There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.” Very quickly someone does believe the theory that it’s a nightmare come true. The majority do not believe right away but at least someone does, laying the foundation for the rest of the dominoes to fall.

What this film does casting-wise is unusual, it seems to subscribe to the theory of “Put your worst foot forward and kill it,” meaning that the first two characters focused on and killed (Kellen Lutz as Dean and Katie Fowles as Kris) are the worst actors in the film and thankfully those who receive the majority of the focus are progressively better.

Another positive is Kyle Gallner who carries this film in similar fashion to how he carried The Haunting in Connecticut. His sidekick Rooney Mara is also quite capable and a good sidekick in the film.

So, here comes a mandatory talking point: the CG. Most of the time it’s not great, not great at all. One of the things this film tried to recreate digitally was Freddy stretching through the wall. However, who would possibly want to get that in the can on set by using latex like they did in the 80s? Let’s spend money and use CG so Freddy can squirm all serpentine behind the wall and have it look totally bogus. Yes, bogus. I had to revert to 80s slang to communicate the ineffectiveness of the non-practical technique. Even when the CG was good, like when Kris could no longer fight that she was dreaming and the classroom around her exploded into ash, it only aided the film in going more over-the-top than it needed too.

The major knocks against this film will follow, and again, it’s a shame that they are big and many because it wastes a new interpretation of a now classic character. By having a new actor fill the role of Krueger in such a different way it proves that the character does have as much elasticity and room for creativity as the Joker in Batman. Jackie Earle Haley plays Freddy in a much more straightforward manner and less comedically than Robert Englund, making him more effective in this viewer’s opinion. His performance aside there were sadly some character issues with Krueger.

This film, while it does try to make Freddy a more straightforward and scary version than in the past – most noticeably by giving him a more realistically burned appearance than his prior incarnation, managed to both soften and coarsen him simultaneously. The coarsening was in his dialogue and mainly his diction. It’s a more foul-mouthed, blunt and disgusting Freddy. Apparently, his being a child molester isn’t enough anymore and to push the envelope he has to talk about it some. The way in which he was softened, however, is that he is only now, in death, a killer. His victims were all allowed to live. What was wrong with having him be a ghost-like entity who was still seeking to wreak havoc because he’d been killed by a mob is beyond me. The fact that while alive he didn’t kill one of the children he harmed does give Freddy more motivation, but we’re not dealing with the most plausible concept to begin with so that justification hardly needs addressing and does create a logic flaw in the past, mainly being why would a psychopath think the kids wouldn’t talk?

While there is more to Freddy’s back-story, which is new and good to see because it was a compelling and chilling part of the tale, it created and contributed to the number of issues with logic this film has. Examples of logic flaws include: Nancy at one point sings the “Freddy Song” yet never really follows it up or wonders why she knows it, yet she has repressed other kinds of memories, so what purpose does it serve? Jesse, aptly played by Thomas Dekker, is arrested way too quickly it’s almost like a Reichstag fire situation and aside from lacking credibility it hurts the story. The line “Who can remember being five?” stands out as being quite lazy on a few accounts, firstly, it’s clear Dr. Holbrook (Connie Britton) is hiding something and is not pressed about it and, second, even if I buy that these kids all repressed memories of what happened to them (which is easy to believe), the film also wants me to believe they all stayed in the same town and now almost all go to the same high school and don’t remember having known each other? Also, while the factoid about insomniacs experiencing micro-naps is a good touch and an added suspense element, as then one won’t realize they’re dreaming, it’s repeated ad nauseum in dialogue to make sure we remember the fact. Similarly, the allusion to the Pied Piper of Hamelin is duly noted but has no effect whatsoever on the story and is clumsily done. If the reference was to be fit in why not have Krueger read it to the kids?

Perhaps the biggest logic flaw, which is also the biggest argument for the fact that for some reason they also sought to soften Krueger, is the fact that at one point Quentin (Gallner) doubts Krueger’s guilt. Quentin’s contention is that it’s mass hysteria and they all made it up and were instantly believed, which in a post-McMartin Trial world is a legitimate enough point to address as it wouldn’t be the first false accusation of its kind. The problem is that there is no moment of decision for the character and it’s not even debated it shifts immediately from “this happened” to “we lied” with nothing in between. And only their continued investigation into how to rid themselves of Krueger proves otherwise.

So, here you have a film in which not only is Krueger not a murderer until after his death but you also have his victims believing that he may not have been guilty in the first place. It is not something that increases his villainy. What then is the point of having his absolute evil doubted? Is it armchair psychological reassurance to those who identify, however loosely, with Krueger that it’s OK because he’s not that bad? It seems unlikely but whether people want to admit it or not there is some level of identification felt with an antagonist. As Hitchcock and Truffaut discuss in an interview talking about Psycho there is a degree of that identification in that film and hence a slasher film such that the longer a franchise goes the more the villain is the star and the less you want to see him toppled. Ultimately, it just seems like another unusual decision which muddles the film.

Putting a more human face on Fred Krueger does not make him scarier. Having Jackie Earle Haley play him and not Robert Englund does but all of that is rendered nearly pointless by the rewrite of the character.

An examination of the back-story of A Nightmare on Elm Street was something I wanted to see. What it had the potential of is to intensify the fear because you more readily understand the evil. What should be sought from a more intimate portrait of the cinematic psychopath is not a softer, cuddlier interpretation of what it is he did, by having it be doubted and thus stripping it of its visceral impact, but a closer examination of it.

This very type of close examination was exactly what the Halloween remake did succeed in. It may or may not have crossed every T and dotted every I with regards to why Michael Myers became the way he was but it gave you a true, no-holds-barred glimpse of who he was before he was legend. It didn’t rewrite a history it enhanced a history, and that is what this film had the opportunity to do but it failed.


3/10

Horror Films and Stephen King (Part Five)

Note: What follows is a full analysis of the entire film, all other parts of this essay are fairly spoiler-free with regards to the film but this is not. You’ve been warned.

Maximum Overdrive begins with a title insert basically stating that the earth will be stuck in the tail of a rogue comet for about a week. The insert seems a extraneous to me and takes away from the story to a certain extent, however, King may have stated his reasoning in an earlier writing “…any horror film (with the possible exception of the German expressionist films of the teens and twenties) has got to at least pay lip service to credibility” (Danse, 156). One will note that even Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street give their slashers traumatic pasts they must exorcise. In this film the explanation comes early and removes a necessary suspense element I feel would’ve helped the story out. One may also notice that the picture of the earth used in this sequence is backwards meaning Egypt now looks out on the Atlantic. I don’t know how no one caught that.
    

The film is set in Wilmington, North Carolina for the duration of the story. The only other time King set a tale in the south was The Green Mile. He’s set tales in Nevada, Pennsylvania and had a few go across some states but usually relied on atmosphere or people he could sketch reasonably well, which is Maine. The characters in this tale while are sometimes sketched and drawn out by King, to the extent he could with the limitations of the film but they’re acted like caricatures in most cases.
 (Note: This geographic note was correct upon the original writing. Since then King has taken to wintering in Florida, thus his fiction goes there sometimes too).    

We first see the way that the comet affects machinery on the streets of Wilmington.  First, we see a news ticker over a bank that constantly displays the phrase “Fuck You.” Then we get the early King cameo in which, he’s a bumpkin who’s called an “Asshole” by his ATM machine, this is humorous but nowhere near as good as his role as Jordy Verrill in Creepshow.  These small details may add a bit of eeriness to the beginning but as is the theme throughout this film we get a lot more humor than fright. In this sequence all the laughs are intended.

After this we get what might be one of the more frightening sequences of the film, unfortunately no one really escapes this scene unharmed. There is no protagonist who makes their way out of this wreckage and moves on to where a bulk of the action takes place. Instead, what we get is quite an effective crash scene that shows that all machinery can now think and the drawbridge lifts even though all the cars got the green light. The bridgemaster and his assistant look befuddled and the bridge is a disaster area. Everyone is stuck at the base of the lifted bridge. A motorcycle rider flies off the edge, this is the source of the big continuity error one man slides of his motorcycle and we see him seemingly go in two directions, and also go out the gap which hasn’t opened as big as camera angles would have us believe later. This huge mistake is also surprising considering Evan A. Lottman, who edited The Exorcist and Sophie’s Choice worked on this film. This scene is somewhat freaky but is also a little extraneous.
    

We then cut and see the Happy Toyz truck, it’s adorned with a huge demon face on the grill and has a slogan emblazoned across its broadside (“Here Comes a Load of Joy,” King’s ability to come up with clever and humorous slogans is uncanny). It is driven by Andy (J. Don Ferguson) who stops at the Dixie Boy Truck Stop. We get our first good shot here it comes when Andy’s talking to one of the gas jockeys, it’s a medium from the inside of the truck and we get a hint that soon there’s going to be some trouble.
 

We’re introduced to our protagonist next, Billy played by Emilio Estevez in his first role outside of “The Brat Pack.” Someone should have told Emilio that it is very difficult to flex your acting muscles and make a name of yourself from one horror film. Inside the Dixie Boy we now see that the pinball, coffee and cigarette machines are going crazy in the game room and we get a bad performance out of Videoplayer (Giancarlo Esposito) who is quickly killed off.

The first act’s pace is relentless as soon after Duncan (J.C. Quinn) is outside filling the Happy Toyz truck and the pump has mysteriously stopped. He removes the nozzle to check what’s going on and gets sprayed in the eye with diesel. At this moment we get our first sample of the score, the true score and not any sort of source music. While the score like so many is reminiscent of Hermann’s Psycho we only get this stabbing music on a few rare occasions. A few old AC/DC songs were used for this film along with a new one entitled “Who Made Who?” I happen to know that Stephen King is a big fan of AC/DC but I feel that he knows enough about horror to not have left most of the music track in this film dead. There is a lot of silence and it wasn’t very effective at all. AC/DC provided the wrong kind of mood with their high to medium Heavy Metal riffs. It makes me wonder if most of the budget wasn’t diverted towards pyrotechnics and Emilio’s salary further taking away from the film’s quality.
    

We’re later introduced to Bubba Hendershot (Pat Hingle) who shows himself to be the human villain in this tale. He is unscrupulous and uncaring. His character is quite well played. Then we see King’s first big touch when we see a headline about the comet. Prior Duncan and Joey (Pat Miller) had been talking and it was more subtle and many people won’t realize that the “Mickey Mantle” they were referring to is Deke (Holter Graham), Duncan’s son. In this film King had a little more than 90 pages and too many characters to deal with in that allotted time.
 
   
Our next two mechanical attacks work in different ways and introduce two more characters. A hand-held electric saw attacks the waitress Wanda June (Ellen McElduff) gets her forearm sliced into this is quite a gross moment and also establishes Billy as the protagonist. Then we cut to the baseball field and Deke’s team has just won and the coach is attacked by soda cans shot out of the vending machine. There is some great makeup work in this scene and it’s also pretty funny along with a shocking steamrolling shot that literally made my jaw drop. There are more characters to get to though.
    

We are in a car and getting a radio report about the odd occurrences a la Night of the Living Dead, but more subtle, and are introduced to the Bible Salesman (Christopher Murney) and Brett (Laura Harrington) a hitchhiker he has picked up. The Bible Salesman actually ends up being quite a good hypocritical character in this tale carrying a briefcase with has gold leaf on it and has “The Holy Bible” scrolled across it. Brett is going to be the love interest and this party like Deke are heading to the Dixie Boy. Laura Harrington should have gotten an Oscar…thrown at her, she was so terrible in this film. As a matter of fact the casting in this movie for the most part is rather weak; I wonder why in the closing credits the Casting Director got top billing. A director should know his actors limitations and should have reworked his characters accordingly.
  

Staying in the mode of less than satisfactory acting we switch over to Curt (John Short) and Connie who are a newlywed couple. Connie (Yeardley Smith) who went on to make a name for herself on The Simpsons as Lisa, is so annoying in this role it is nearly impossible to sympathize with her. John Short is one of the actors who ruins some of Stephen King’s great dialogue by having no idea how to deliver it. This is where King should have stepped in and altered the dialogue. It does pain a writer to change effective and intelligent dialogue for simple, pedestrian dialogue but it should be done when the actors sound stupid saying these lines.
    

Along Deke’s journey on bike to the Dixie Boy we see the wrath of the machines has left many dead bodies splayed all over the place. We get an eerie feeling again with a guitar riff for each corpse that is found. If there is one thing that can be said for this film is that all the effects are well done; as we see the trucks maneuver, drive and terrorize people. When these vehicles are on the move on their own they even drive better than real people in film they did quite an admirable job in that respect.
    

Perhaps the best dialogue King has to offer us in this film is when the Bible Salesman is trying to sell some editions in the Dixie Boy. This is also where we see Wanda June start drinking it may be the most well written scene of the film capped off by the salesman saying “This Bible has everything from the creation of this beautiful world to the fall of mankind.” This is the closest we come to seeing the implications that King had intended to impose, aside from a painting of the Last Supper we see for a few seconds, in the short story and there isn’t enough emphasis placed on this scene in my opinion. I also feel it’s a humorous commentary on how the salesman doesn’t know his scripture because all Bibles, regardless of denomination, include those tales.
    

Right before Duncan goes out to be killed we see how the blood has escaped his burned eyes. It’s a rather creepy shot that reminds me of one of King’s favorite films X – The Man with X-Ray Eyes. This death occurs in minute 32 and already we’ve seen so many characters. The Bible Salesman is later sent flying into the sewer after he charged the truck that smashed his car. King, being one who doesn’t believe in any one Christian doctrine, throwing a Bible Salesman into a gutter is a great touch. The truck that decks him also rolls over his Bible briefcase which I liked. When the body is returned to the truck stop we get another good piece of dialogue Bubba says, “He’s dripping all over my floor.” to get the people moving.
    

Stephen King also usefully employs the sewer in the attempted rescue of the Bible Salesman who we find many minutes later is clinging to life in the gutter. This provides the film with it’s only truly good looking and dark cinematography. John Short also displays his inability to deliver a great off-color line written by King in the sewer sequence (“What happened to the people who peed in this?”). The salesman we see is ultimately not worth saving when Deke finds him and the salesman says “Help me or I’ll kill you,” very Christian.
     

Just after the trucks smash a phone booth, we assume in order to effectively isolate them, and begin to angrily circle the truck stop instead of attempting to build some tension we cut away to Curt and Connie, who are chased by an eighteen-wheeler, it’s literally a cut to the chase situation. King had the opportunity to have a situational and somewhat atmospheric film but I feel that was robbed from him by producers looking to imitate many of the 80s poorer films.
    

The way in which these massive hunks of metal are fought most of the times is through gunfire, this is aided by the fact that Hendershot has a huge armory in his basement, which seems to hold everything from AK-47s to Bazookas. The only way in which the special effects fail in this film, being no ballistics expert I’m not sure, but the bazooka’s missiles are never seen in flight we only see the truck exploding. With something that big I’d go to the optical lab and add it even if it is technically inaccurate. 
    

King touches upon the flying airplane mentioned in his short story but this also comes out as comical. Once again we have a nice shot from the inside of the plane and can see the plane operating itself. It is turned humorous by the employment of Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries.”
    

Aside from the seemingly incessant presence of the comedy in this film we are also pestered by the lack of darkness; we are bombarded by light. “The dark, it goes without saying, provides the basis for our most primordial fear.” (Danse, 182). Cinematographer, Armando Nannuzzi, had done plenty of films in Italy for years on end and had most recently done quite an admirable job with King’s Silver Bullet. The nighttime footage in that film was effective in deemphasizing the low-budget werewolf but he seemed to thrive on the use of daylight to make some of his more impressive shots in Maximum Overdrive. In all fairness, Maximum Overdrive is a bright, pretty to look at film with sporadic good shots but it’s not quintessential horror. With the positive affect of darkness being so obvious one must wonder if budgetary concerns or perhaps weakness in the lighting department played into it. Even though much of the story is at day time in prose King must have realized he’d need more nighttime scenes for the film. He also knows that not only is it needed but the dark and night time is often heavily used in certain films. “All but approximately eighteen minutes of John Carpenter’s Halloween are set after nightfall.” (Danse, 186). Whereas after sunset we have but 17 minutes in the dark, and then we also have the interesting situation in which most of the human deaths occurred in broad daylight. In this film, the first scene to be set in a darkened place is in minute 48 and the sun only sets three minutes later more than halfway through the movie. Later on in the sequence, the truck stop also loses its power but this is not used in any sort of dramatically moving way and it comes back on before ever having taken any sort of toll on the story. And we are made well aware of it by a beautiful shot of the sunset.

Afterwards, we get the weird green effect in the sky which is larger in some areas of the sky than others. It was used at the beginning to symbolize the comet’s tail. In a poorly acted moment yet again provided by Laura Harrington, in the role of Brett, assumes the comet must be causing all this. It’s in a way also King’s most unfortunate piece of writing because the title card shown from the beginning is practically reiterated for the audience.  At night it seems that only Wanda June and Deke have been affected negatively. Billy is courting Brett, all others are unmoved by the celestial oddity. It’s very unusual that King with the understanding of character he has wouldn’t have gotten on these actors and told them they weren’t driving home the suspense and claustrophobic elements that should have been what was carrying the film.
    

Billy and Brett dominate this section of the film with their nighttime romance which I can only describe as filler. While I understand people can cling to each other in such a situation there was too much focus on the romance for my liking while I do applaud King for not being afraid to implement it. Wanda June dies an overacted death, she was completely drunk and yells the lines I least liked from King’s short story “We made you.” and if a film such as this can have a subtext she just blurted out part of it and she made this little speech more than once.

    
Another thing which constantly plagued this film was that it was very heavy with incident in the beginning and towards the middle of the film the action begins to taper off. The story becomes diverted to an extent.
    

Many times we are shown that Deke is the best drawn of all the characters. In the beginning we see him check on his injured coach, he’s then scared off by the salesman. He breaks down upon hearing about his father’s death, then the next morning has apparently regressed and is blowing bubbles. Not only that but when the trucks start beeping he not only realizes it is Morse code but translates it. What would have made this a better film was some more focus. At the end, when the great exodus of the Dixie Boy begins, we see eleven characters running, three of which I don’t think ever had their name uttered in the film but were perhaps named in the script.
    

The Morse incident is where the trucks admit that they need to be refueled. Billy’s reasoning eventually wins out. They pump gas for the truck because the dried out ones might call for one or many that can destroy them. A few more vehicles do show up including what appears to be a mini-flatbed with a machine gun set on a tripod, which in the end seems a little too beatable. During this sequence Emilio Estevez’s performance, which was nothing earth-shattering to begin with, also slips when we see him yelling at the truck, the Happy Toyz one with the Green Goblin face.
    

Towards the end we get an escape. The truck stop blows up. The Evil Truck which has been harassing the people and is the villain gets a bazooka in its open mouth. This moment is somewhat effective as we think for a moment maybe that one can’t be beat but then it explodes. We end with another annoying title card with a sappy finishing touch and some odd Soviet involvement in destroying a “weather satellite.” And the film closes on a comedic note with the last line of dialogue being Connie saying “Ooh, I think I’m gonna whoops my cookies.”
  
 
Maximum Overdrive is a film that has a few shocking and jaw-dropping moments. All the effects are well done and the cinematography is well-composed. What King ends up providing is a movie that ends up being a pretty good comedy/adventure, which is probably why he didn’t like it all that much. He should definitely give it another go because despite the bad casting there were some good performances in this film most notably those of Holter Graham as Deke and Pat Hingle as Hendershot. One thing King can be thankful for is that his film doesn’t ever tread into the so bad it’s good region.