A Little Post About Wes Craven, the Monster Who Made Me Write
I’ve never written an obituary or anything of that sort before, not at any meaningful length or for anyone of significance, unless you count the essay I wrote about my father a couple years after his death. The best obituaries are those that aren’t narcissistic, but are able to encapsulate the stature of that person in the context of both the individual writer’s life and in a much broader sense. So, I’ll see what I can do, walk that tightrope. Read the rest of this entry »
You and Me and the Silver Screen
People file into seats, their shoes sticking mildly to the soda drenched floor, and they sit down. The lights come down, and the emerald screen bathes the audience’s faces in the words “This preview has been approved for all audiences”. A collage of trailers and commercials that last nearly half the running time of the actual film plays before our eyes, and finally, when the film begins, the experience begins. Five minutes into the film, my mouth filled with popcorn with enough salt to rival the Dead Sea, I look to my right. Unsurprisingly, my father is there, his head arched back, his body relaxed, his mouth slightly agape, his eyelids fluttering, his snoring, at the moment, just light background noise masked by the Dolby Surround Sound of explosions and/or husbands and wives bickering. I’m not surprised by this image; as a matter of fact, I’m surprised it took this long. He was normally out by the second commercial. But seeing him asleep, there was something in that that was comforting. It was the kind of image I assumed I would always live with.
Sweet Dreams Aren’t Made of This: A Look at Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
This essay was originally featured on VeryAware.com.
Before he was asking audiences what their favorite scary movie was, Wes Craven made a scream with the infamous and terrifying A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREETin 1984. As profitable as that series would end up being, spawning six sequels, one cross over film, and a much maligned 2010 remake, Wes Craven stepped away after the first film. However, in 1994, he saw an opportunity to test out some of the self-referential and meta commentary that would pretty much define his work when SCREAM would be released two years later in 1996. WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE is the best of the NIGHTMARE sequels, and one of the best and most underrated horror films ever made. Not only did it set up the themes of SCREAM and its subsequent franchise, but it provided commentary on the process of filmmaking and what happens to that when a little nightmare called franchising happens.
Opening in on what looks like another run of the mill Freddy Krueger film, the camera pulls back from a dilapidated dungeon to reveal a film crew and… the making of another run of the mill Freddy Krueger film. So, it seems, from the first frame, Craven knows what audiences, regardless of their loyalty to the franchise, have come to expect from the series. There’s something different with the tone though. The sense of foreboding and classic Gothicism mixed the postmodernity people have come to be familiar with, but more than that, a sense of revisionism.
But, perhaps, we should explain what’s going on before jumping head first into the film. Heather Lagenkamp is married, has a son, and the NIGHTMARE franchise is pretty much behind her, since it’s been ten years since the original. She has, however, been receiving anonymous calls, having strange nightmares, and is getting the feeling that her past is coming to haunt her in reality. Her son, Dylan, is sleepwalking and experiencing similar nightmarish occurrences. He’ll be standing in the kitchen watching the original film on the television, transfixed by the man with the knives for fingers beckoning the audience towards the screen. Wes Craven, meanwhile, is working on a “top secret” film project, which turns out to be the product of new nightmares he’s been having. Parts of this sound familiar, don’t they?
Wes Craven’s reentry into the NIGHTMARE series is unique for a number of reasons, but probably first and foremost for its ability to uniquely blend fiction and reality, and address that approach head on. Heather Lagenkamp, who played Nancy in the original NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, plays herself. Robert Englund, Freddy himself, Robert Shaye, the franchise producer, Wes Craven, the creator and mastermind, and other cast and crew from the series all make appearances, setting up the film as if there really is going to be another NIGHTMARE film. This is instead of the audience knowing they’re watching another nightmare film. Even some of the camerawork set in reality, with its pseudo-documentary, cinema verite-ish handheld style, suggests that we’re watching something akin to a making-of instead of an actual film. This, however, only lasts part of the time. As much as Craven may like to tease his audience, he doesn’t like robbing them of the experience completely.
The nightmares Heather has been having bring the evil of Freddy Krueger, that notorious slasher icon who may or may not need a manicure, to reality. The nightmares her son has been having bring the horror home. Which may be one of the points Craven is making. Although the influence of horror on children or audiences has been touched upon once or twice before (Michael Haneke’s FUNNY GAMES or Tom Six’s THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE II: FULL SEQUENCE), it really has not been done with the nuance (yes, you read correctly) that Craven was able to achieve with his NEW NIGHTMARE. Several times, minor characters ask Lagenkamp if she has allowed her son to watch the films she’s done and vehemently declare that they have a negative effect on children. And several times we see Dylan standing in the kitchen, staring at the screen or chanting that devilishly catchy rhyme: One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…
Freddy looks different in this film. Wildly different. As if forged in the ninth circle of Hell, the revisionist approach to the design of the character is almost a reinvention, something that is, again, addressed directly in the film. Wes Craven, when speaking to Heather about the script, discusses the evil that has manifested itself as Freddy. In this conversation, he skewers the insatiable producers who feel the need to make sequel after sequel, saying, “But the problem comes when the story dies. It can get too familiar… or somebody waters it down to make it an easier sell…” You see, folks, even Craven knows his limits! A good part of the film is spent illustrating the difficulties of coming to terms with reinventing or remaking something that is incredibly familiar and the hurdles that must be made in order to make that seem like a fresh sell the fans will enjoy. (The fans are a very demanding people.)
He is, of course, commenting on revisionism in general. As a director who has had his fair share of films remade (THE HILLS HAVE EYES, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, etc.), it’s interesting for him to approach the topic at all. But his reinvention of an iconic character would, in some ways, pave the way for Christopher Nolan’s reinvention of Batman and his further critiques on remakes, reboots, and rehashes in SCREAM 4. Not to mention that the script itself makes several appearances in the film, further accentuating the meta-ness. Not only does it appear in the film, but scenes that directly correlate with scenes on the page are almost read from the page. Spooky, huh?
Oh, did I mention the film is actually scary? Apart from being a very smart horror film (with some flaws and pacing issues), Craven brings some Hitchcock worthy suspense. Although it is, at heart, a slasher film (if an intelligent one), the film is so rooted in how meta it is that the simplicity of the Boogeyman walking around and killing people in their dreams is not enough. Like Craven says, it gets too familiar. So, the fear and the scares come from the paranoia and worry from Heather and the maternal fear of what is happening with her son. Watching a child basically having an epilepsy episode just after growling “Never sleep again” is scarier than just having Freddy slash his way through Los Angeles. But when he does appear, the new look – more monstrous than a man just burnt alive – is terrifying.
It’s that fear of what will happen to a child if he or she does watch horror films which Craven is commenting upon. The end of the film takes place in the same dream world dungeon, straight out of Hell, as the set that we see in the beginning of the film. After the deed is done and Heather and her son fall out of bed back into reality, we are left with a thought: the dichotomy between reality and fiction has clearly been made. Therefore, why is it so hard for other people to discern that? The harsh contrast of the jagged edges of the fiction and the innocuous realism of reality are distinctly made, and yet there are people who confuse the two. Craven makes the point in saying that Freddy is “making his way from film and into reality”. That inability to distinguish the two might be the most fearsome thing of all.
WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE is an underrated gem that shows that the writer-director could play the self-referential commentary game before SCREAM. With some nice performances and true terror, the film shines with its insightful look at the influence of horror films on the public and its very self-aware style. Perhaps the point of the film, besides making you think, is that you can and should sleep again. Because it’s all a dream, or rather, a nightmare…
Watch and See – My Top 101 Favorite Films: Part 4
Welcome to the penultimate installment of my top 101 favorite films of all time. Here, you’ll see: not shiny vampires, heists and cons, extreme Asians, adult fairy tales, war, black and white and color, the magic of film, the magic of romance, nostalgia, voyeurism, games, subverted tropes, a game of Chess, sleepy theater projectionists, all fun and no play, and the film that did what Breathless could not.
61. Nosferatu (1927) | Directed by F.W. Murnau
Murnau’s notorious illegal adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a stylish, creepy film that practically invented the horror film as we know it. Twilight can go suck it, for it’s Max Schrek’s Count Orlock that’s the original cinematic vampire. With gorgeous cinematography, despite it being very expressionistic, what Murnau did differently was he filmed on location much of the time. There’s still a warped sense of humor and horror behind each wall, and the shadows play tricks on the mind, as every haunted house should. Murnau’s horror film is unrivaled for its originality and technical experimentation.
62. Ocean’s Eleven (2001) | Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Soderbergh created his own Rat Pack with a remake of the ‘60s heist film. Gathering some of the biggest stars of the time, including Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and George Clooney, Soderbergh creates a very memorable and stylish heist movie that would change Hollywood heist movies forever. Soderbergh’s strength is that he is able to balance a labyrinthine plot with marvelous technical mastery. The director utilizes auteuristic techniques for what many would consider a fairly mainstream effort. Its inventive cinematography, the colorful palette reminiscent of Sin City, and the huge cast are all high points of the film. Regardless of how derivative a film may look just by a trailer or synopsis, when you have Steven Soderbergh behind the camera, all bets are off.
63. Oldboy (2004) | Directed by Park Chan-wook
The Korean crime noir sky rocketed the Asian Extreme movement to fame in the United States. Oldboy is, for one reason or another, absolutely infamous as a super violent, super gratuitous, and superbly written horror movie. Only one of those things is correct. Winner of the Grand Prix Jury Award at Cannes, the film, like I said, has its origins in film noir, with its first person narration and the fragmented memories. Is the film violent? Sure, but it is hardly as shocking as people make it out to be. Is it a horror film? Not at all. Violence does not a horror movie make. Park Chan-wook is actually quite skilled at leaving most of the violence to suggestion. Quick cuts and great editing aid the effect, actually making the scenes more visceral than graphic violence could have ever done it. The film is grittier and darker than the other films of Chan-wook’s thematic Vengeance Trilogy, but it remains incredibly effective nonetheless. Oldboy is one of the most incredible experiences to ever see, and you won’t see the ending coming.
64. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) | Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Del Toro’s adult fairy tale is a dream and a nightmare all at once. Using traditional elements from mythology and children’s fairy tales, Guillermo Del Toro fashions a political and moral allegory that only become more interesting with each subsequent viewing. There are a lot of things to love about this film, from its acting, its cinematography, etc., but what I like most about it is the visual realization of a completely different world. Though it takes place around the time of the Spanish Civil War, the world that Del Toro creates is a unique vision that incorporates many familiar elements. The visual symbolism adds depth to the film (such as the ever frequent Rule of Three). The end is heartbreaking and startlingly real. In this film, Del Toro proves that he is a well read, and skillful director, capable of creating his own world in film.
65. Paper Moon (1973) | Directed by Peter Bogdonavich
Bogdonavich is better known for his realistic portrayal of lost teens in the midst of the Korean War in The Last Picture Show, but his Depression-era tale of a con artist and the partner in crime who may or may not be his illegitimate daughter is the most fun. Ryan O’Neal and his daughter, Tatum, make the perfect team, and it is almost frightening to see such a young girl who can keep her father on her toes, both within in the film as a con artist and in terms of the acting. The gorgeous black and white photography and the jovial soundtrack are juxtaposed against the dark setting of the film. But worry not, this film is funny. With a hilarious turn from Madeline Khan, Paper Moon is a funny and sweet look at a slightly dysfunctional family.
66. Paths of Glory (1957) | Directed by Stanley Kubrick
What I would surmise as the greatest anti-war film ever made, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory would set up a recurring theme that would be featured throughout his career, including Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket. Portraying war as a machine that breaks down and destroys men, Paths of Glory is the story of a group of men in the French military in WWI who are sent on a suicide mission, but when they refuse and return unsuccessful and alive, they are accused of cowardice. Part film about war, part court drama, and all riveting emotional commentary on war, Kirk Douglas gives a brilliant performance and Kubrick eloquently and masterfully directs the most powerful message against war ever made.
67. Pleasantville (1998) | Directed by Gary Ross
TV in the 1950’s was quaint and retained a façade of family values. It was clean family fun. When the world is disrupted with reality in the form of art that challenges the norm for creativity, sex that challenges social values, and ideological changes, the transition is not smooth. But Pleasantville, with its brilliant use of color and black and white, presents a very real problem in the world today: acceptance of change. The people of the TV show within the film, a hybrid of Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver, amongst others, are xenophobic and closed minded and incredibly use to routine (and terrible jokes). That changes when two teenagers from the real world are sucked into the TV and trapped. It starts off as a very quaint, funny film, but moves into being a serious commentary on society’s perceptions of others. Incredibly clever and visually astonishing, Pleasantville finds new relevance with each viewing.
68. The Prestige (2006) | Directed by Christopher Nolan
The man behind Memento and The Dark Knight Trilogy returned to his psychedelic roots after Batman Begins with this mind bogglingly perfect metaphor about the beauty and pain of filmmaking. Nolan takes sleight of hand seriously, and throughout the film, literally, as two magicians (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) go at it by trying to one up each other in their respective acts. Not only that, they also, you know, like ruining one another’s lives. But it’s all a magic trick. Through the three phases of the magic trick, the Pledge, the Turn, and the Prestige, Nolan creates an incredible illusion for the audience. The bottom line of The Prestige: everything about film is magic.
69. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) | Directed by Woody Allen
What could be lovelier than the story of a woman who is in love with the movies falling for a man who jumps right off the screen to court her? The answer is nothing. Although director Woody Allen intended the film to be a lot more “esoteric” than it turned out, highlighting how disappointing reality can be and how much more appealing fantasy is, The Purple Rose of Cairo is quite frothy and intelligent at the same time. One of the few films of Allen’s to explore fantasy (the other being Midnight in Paris), Jeff Daniels does a superb job playing the handsome and naïve screen character, an archeologist, and the rising star who plays the archeologist. Mia Farrow takes on the role of the neurotic, and does so splendidly. Full of wit and romance, it’s the best thing a film lover, and one who frequently falls in love with fictional characters, could ever imagine.
70. Radio Days (1987) | Directed by Woody Allen
Often compared to Fellini’s Amarcord, Woody Allen’s slice of nostalgia is one of his best films. Narrated by Allen and illustrating a wonderfully romanticized past through various episodes and vignettes, Radio Days is a beautifully fun portrait of the past. Allen would explore the power of nostalgia later again in Midnight in Paris, but it seems more light hearted here. Yes, that’s a very young Seth Green portraying a young Allen. Radio Days is fun and captures the world of a romantic remembering the best times of his childhood perfectly.
71. Rango (2011) | Directed by Gore Verbinski
Rango is the perfect example of an animated film that just so happens to be aimed at kids, but whose subverted subject matter is elegantly and fantastically handled. It’s a quasi-Western about a lizard that, as the convention holds, pretends to be something he is not. Conventions notwithstanding, the dialogue, allusions, and voice work are enough to wipe any of the inconsistencies out of mind. The animation, however… will blow your mind. Industrial Light and Magic, you know the guys who brought Star Wars to life, make their first feature film and it is gorgeous. It’s photorealistic to the point where you have to squint to make sure it’s only computer generated imagery. Johnny Depp is wonderful, of course. With a story ripped out of Chinatown, Rango superbly goes where all animated films go but few do with such panache: self-reflexivity and meta-humor.
72. Rear Window (1954) | Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock, I like to think, not only enjoyed scaring audiences and leaving their stomach in knots from tension, but also enjoyed challenging the audience as much as any auteur likes to. In Rear Window, he makes the audience complicit in voyeurism. James Stewart is the photographer stuck up in his apartment in a wheel chair with nothing to do but spy on his neighbors that live across from him. When he suspects one of them for murder, well, you know what happens next. It’s typically suspenseful for a Hitchcock film, but it really engages the mind in ethical decisions. To what extent are we just as guilty as Stewart in the voyeurism? (This technique would also find relevance in Michael Haneke’s Caché.) And were he/we not watching, would this man have gotten away with murder? It’s those kinds of questions that make Rear Window such a compelling thriller.
73. The Red Balloon (1965) | Directed by Albert Lamorisse
Lamorisse’s short film is a glorious, lighter than air ode to childhood. In a small world where balloons have a life of their own, the pure joy and gaiety of the film make it one of the most delightful gifts film has to offer. The photography is sweet and captures the saccharine mood perfectly. Perfectly tender and heartfelt, The Red Balloon is a pleasure.
74. Saw (2004) | Directed by James Wan
While it may have ushered a new wave of horror movies under the sub-genre “torture porn”, James Wan’s debut feature Saw is actually a smartly written and taut psychological thriller. The film lingers more on the ethical decisions than the final results of the “games”, and is reliant on a fairly clever nonlinear narrative. The twists and turns in the story are convincing in this film, and, though it gave birth to many a sequel offspring, its ending isn’t so ambiguous that it called for any of the sequels. Although the acting is stale and overwrought (I blame Cary Elwes), it is sustainable primarily on its script. Saw is actually a very chilling film.
75. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) | Directed by Edgar Wright
While I was never much into video games or comic books, even one mildly acquainted with the style of 8-bit games and panel to panel comics should love Scott Pilgrim. The film’s visual inventiveness is one of the best things about it, recreating the same tone and sound effects one would find in a classic arcade game. Therefore, arcade and comic in jokes abound. The film also delivers script wise, featuring a wildly clever screenplay with fast paced dialogue, as well as a very fun soundtrack. While Michael Cera may feel comfortable, at times too comfortable, in his awkward archetype, here it suits him well without being insufferable. There’s a certain amount of deluded confidence in his character which makes his role funnier. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays the love interest Ramona, and she gives her character some nice depth and a sense of vulnerability. Scott Pilgrim is a fun and wild ride, a game you’ll want to play again, long after your coins have run out.
76. Scream (1996) | Directed by Wes Craven
Horror started getting postmodern and incredibly aware of itself when Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson brought Scream to the screen. While at once parodying and revitalizing the once dead and dying slasher genre, Williamson’s sharp screenplay and Craven’s tight directing brought horror to the forefront once again. Playing on the tropes that were so very well known, Craven and his gang set up the rules to a successful franchise, and made his film a call for smarter horror films. The allusions and humor run rampant throughout the film. And it forever immortalized the single best question to ask around Halloween: “What’s your favorite scary movie?”
77. The Seventh Seal (1957) | Directed by Ingmar Bergman
If you’ve heard me complain about Godard’s sledgehammer approach to philosophy, the filmmaker I immediately run to escape that is Ingmar Bergman. Capable of moving an audience and conveying his deep personal thoughts on life and death without bashing you in the face with a shovel, the perfect example of his technique is The Seventh Seal. Fantastically atmospheric, with moments of witty humor, Bergman’s bleak film about the meaning of life and death is both entertaining and without a doubt one of the most philosophically deep films ever made. It gives a whole new meaning to “Do you want to play a Game?”
78. Sherlock Jr. (1924) | Directed by Buster Keaton
Bringing together a love of film and magic, Sherlock Jr. is probably Keaton’s most entertaining film, and undoubtedly his funniest. Some of his most enjoyable stunts are in this film, but the most magical sequence in silent cinema is in Sherlock Jr. After falling asleep at the projector, Keaton finds himself jumping into the screen and his environment changes from one place, to another, his body forcing itself to adapt. It’s one of the cleverest scenes ever made, especially within the silent era. And Sherlock Jr. is one of the most delightful films from the era as well.
79. The Shining (1980) | Directed by Stanley Kubrick
The Shining is a crazy amalgam of horror, suspense, chills, psychoanalysis, metaphor, and truly disturbing images. While there is much to analyze about the film, on a purely visceral level, it’s one of the scariest films ever made. Nicholson is perfect as the mad patriarch Jack Torrence, while Shelley Duvall is sadly underrated in a brilliant performance as his long suffering wife. The brutal shoot took a toll on the actors, which make their performances all the stronger. Kubrick’s stylish and skillful direction is all over the film, for, what is it more than Kubrick doing horror? It’s almost unbelievable the mileage Kubrick gets from this film, keeping the audience at the edge of their seats at all times. There’s never a dull moment in The Shining.
80. Shoot the Piano Player (1960) | Directed by François Truffaut
Sure, Godard can play the tribute game too, and while everyone likes to attribute Breathless as the film that shaped the New Wave, it’s Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player that did it too, and did it enjoyably. The comedy is deadpan, the action ripped from Hollywood noirs, and the romance believable and naturalistic. It’s so convincing in its adoration for Hollywood movies that it, at times, feels like a Hollywood gangster film simply made by a Frenchman. Truffaut’s film is a loving tribute to the films that inspired him.