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New Nightmare (1994)

After the horrendous Freddy’s Dead, New Line Cinema was willing to entertain ideas from series creator Wes Craven on a new entry to the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise.  This film is partly a return to form for the series, but also ventures into a completely and radically new direction.  The entire film is set outside the realm of the franchise in our reality.  Many of the main characters and cameos are people playing themselves, to a degree.  Heather Langenkamp, the heroine from the first and third films in the series, plays herself.  We also have appearances by Wes Craven, John Saxon, and Robert Shaye – all playing themselves with some creative licenses.  Robert Englund is of course here, playing both a more eccentric version of himself and the demonic incarnation of Freddy Krueger.

Heather Langenkamp lives a content life with her husband Chase Porter (David Newsom) and son Dylan (Miko Hughes).  However, her sense of safety is compromised by a series of unsettling phone calls which Heather believes are from an anonymous stalker.  Coupled with this is some increasingly strange behavior from Dylan.  Heather gains little comfort from her former co-stars Robert Englund or John Saxon about either her paranoia or concern for her son.  While she does not allow her son to watch any of the A Nightmare on Elm Street films, with her promoting the ten year anniversary of the original, she cannot escape its looming shadow.  She soon finds out that Wes Craven is planning on making the definitive Nightmare movie, and that he has been plagued by nightmares of his own.  It has practically become an epidemic as the same disturbing dreams have come to Heather as well as Robert Englund himself.  Craven eventually tells Heather that what is haunting them is an ancient demon that has been roaming from story-to-story since the beginning of time, but has come accustomed to Freddy.  Now, it wants into our world, and Heather is the perceived gatekeeper betweens the realms of fantasy and reality since she was the first to defeat Freddy.  Dylan is a key focal point of this demon’s plan to lure in Heather.  As all the elements begin to converge, the world around Heather starts to transform into the twisted existence of this guised Freddy Krueger.

New Nightmare is a creatively successful film that was not a financial success in 1994.  I don’t think New Line Cinema knew quite how to market this concept in a way that was concise to an audience.  It’s a far more cerebral concept than had been introduced into the series prior, but even then, it still requires a good amount of exposition to get a handle on.  It’s very strange that at the time of release I had never even watched any of these films, and hadn’t spawned my horror movie fandom, yet.  Still, I was entirely aware of this film while no one else seemed to be.  Thankfully, time has given it the respect and admiration it deserved.

Wes Craven absolutely wrote an ambitious and smart screenplay.  I think this shows a maturing of his artistic sensibilities.  This is very high concept employing ideas that could not be competently handled by just anyone.  There have been plenty of poorly conceived and/or executed reality-bending films, but only a special few that have done it with inspiring results.  While that’s mostly true of any genre, this is one that doesn’t have as high of an output, and is usually only tried when a filmmaker feels ambitious.  Most fail because they don’t have the right intellect behind them to pull it off without becoming pretentious, contrived, or fall into a style over substance trap.  The films that do succeed have visionary filmmakers behind them who know how to convey the concept smartly and effectively.  In New Nightmare’s case, it connects you directly with the characters, and invests you in their plights while methodically building up its premise with fine dashes of foreboding tension and suspense.  It treats its horror and gruesome deaths with real human emotion and grief.  These are real people experiencing real terror and pain.  Thus, it increases the dread and danger of their situation with a heavy weight that an audience can truly feel.

This film is exceptionally solid while it’s not so much slasher horror as supernatural, psychological horror.  Craven relies more on subtle atmosphere and a series of creepy, unexplained events, much like a haunted house story, to scare an audience.  There is some gore, but it is only in a few scenes.  So, on a slasher film level, New Nightmare does feel very starved for gruesome bloodletting, and that does detract from the film for me.  There’s not enough visceral pay-off for the building up of suspense and atmosphere.  Heather is truly terrorized by what this demon does to her life, tormenting her at every turn, and claiming the lives of a few people closest to her as well as traumatically manipulating her son.  Those elements are executed outstandingly well.  You can feel her fear and frayed psychological state increase throughout the movie.  Freddy has very restrained screentime, which is a pleasant change from his overexposure in previous sequels.  Wes Craven instead uses the screentime to intelligently and clearly setup the reality transcending premise before unveiling the revamped Freddy Krueger.

This ancient demon has decked Freddy out in a generous use of leather, and a frightening new glove of razors.  It’s no longer rusted, but very shiny and skeleton like showing off Krueger’s burned hand.  The new make-up design is certainly fresh, but still looks like prosthetics instead of an organic piece of burned flesh.  It’s certainly better than the very rubbery appearance we got in the last few films, but I’ve still seen better burned flesh effects elsewhere.  Generally, the redesign does give the character a darker edge which supports the premise of the film, and that this is not actually Freddy but a demon taking on his appearance and persona.

All the actors are as great as could be imagined.  Langenkamp is even more beautiful here than ever before, and her performance is very true to the situation, despite its fantastical nature.  I refer mostly in regards to the parent-child relationship, and how she does whatever is necessary to protect her child.  Now, while this film blurs the line between reality and fantasy, this applies to the presentation of the people.  Much of the stalking elements in the story were taken from the real Heather Langenkamp’s own experiences with a stalker, and so, there’s a personal element to this story for her.  Overall, she brings a great weight of maturity and strong emotion to a role that was likely challenging for her to grasp.  It was bold and brave of her to put as much of her personal life on screen like this as she did, and if it wasn’t Wes Craven asking her to do so, I don’t think she would have done it.  On a related note, Miko Hughes shows a wealth of talent, and is really endearing.  Most kids in horror films tend to be annoying or worse, but he managed to be very likable and endearing.

Robert Englund, as always, clocks in with all he has.  This time, his Freddy performance is intimidating and fearsome.  There’s not a wisecrack to be had, and he still remains engaging as a dark villain.  His screentime is quite limited until the final act of the film, but enough is done throughout the picture to increase his menace and power.  I know for a fact that Englund did prefer portraying Freddy as darker, but most directors preferred the comical approach.  Thankfully, Craven brought the character back to where he works best, and Englund did a great job there.

John Saxon also returns in a supporting role, and I’ve always had a fondness for him.  He’s just such a captivating and marvelous actor with a very fatherly or commanding aura about him.  He always inspires confidence, and consistently does solid work.  I thoroughly enjoy every bit of work I have seen of him.  Tracy Middendorf stars as Julie, Dylan’s babysitter, and really comes off as sweet and caring.  She’s definitely the ideal babysitter.  I could easily go on and on about the cameos and solid acting, but to sum it up, the acting in this movie is wholly satisfying and exceedingly far above slasher genre standards, as is everything with New Nightmare.

This is definitely one of Wes Craven’s best and most modern looking films.  Director of Photography Mark Irwin gave the film a lot of visual integrity, firmly grounding it in a dramatic reality.  There’s a nice use of blue tones that add to the atmosphere that Craven nicely crafted.  This looks like a serious, intelligent film for a more mature audience, contrasting the more juvenile sensibilities of previous Elm Street sequels.  Mark Irwin really showed a great ability to artistically shoot a suspenseful film, and it’s great that Wes Craven used him again on Scream.  It’s only a shame that most of Irwin’s filmography after this were comedies, many of them rather stupid comedies.

The story behind the inception of New Nightmare is also interesting.  The concept was spawned from a meeting between Wes Craven and New Line executive Robert Shaye.  He wanted to know, from Wes, what he thought was done wrong with the series, and if the company had offended Wes in anyway.  Craven made a number of valid points about Freddy becoming a comical buffoon, and Bob offered Wes the chance to rectify these errors.  I’ve always liked that cordial mentality from Mr. Shaye who never cared for burning bridges, only building a better company built on professional integrity and respect.  With that, New Nightmare came into being.

Even without comparison to the wreckage that was Freddy’s Dead, this film shines and soars high as one of the best of the series right behind the original film.  The only major drawback of the film, I feel, is that this demon-as-Freddy is not dispatched in a very clever way.  There’s really no fantastical element to it, as one would expect from such a fantastical concept.  It is more of a physical method of defeating him instead of a supernatural, metaphysical, or psychological one.  And even though I’ve never taken much note of J. Peter Robinson’s score, it is widely recognized as one of the best horror film scores around.  Ultimately, this is still one to highly recommend alongside the 1984 original and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.  Those are the definitive classics of the franchise, and those reputations are rightly earned.


Prince of Darkness (1987)

Prince of Darkness is certainly one of John Carpenter’s stranger and more underappreciated films.  It’s the second installment in what Carpenter calls his “apocalypse trilogy” (which includes 1982’s The Thing and 1995’s In The Mouth of Madness).  Simply put, this film is about the coming of the apocalypse, and the arrival of the Prince of Darkness – Satan himself.  This is one seriously eerie and creepy film, but it has the slowest pace of any Carpenter film I have seen.  I believe this film comes as an acquired taste.  It can take multiple viewings to really enjoy it fully, as it did for me.

A group of scientists, students, and priests – led by Father Loomis (Donald Pleasance) and Professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong) – have come to study a mysterious canister which has been sealed away in the basement of a Los Angeles church.  The eerie green liquid inside this canister proves to be supernatural as it defies gravity, leaking upwards to the ceiling, and soon, it’s discovered that it is self-organizing as part of a living intelligence.  This has made way for changes to occur in nature that herald the coming of something evil.  And those who come into contact with this liquid are transformed into mindless undead slaves of Satan himself.  Outside the church, the homeless and derelicts of Los Angeles become powerless against the influence of hell.  The few human beings inside the church are trapped – barricading themselves inside with threats all around them.  Theories are abound as to what is happening and philosophies about heaven, hell, and all of creation.  But whatever forces are at work, these few people must not only survive these servants of hell, but also prevent the coming of the Prince of Darkness from the other side.

If you choose to watch this film, I suggest you get things as dark and as quite as possible, put in the DVD, get that surround sound just right, and get ready to experience one of the most haunting, frightening films ever.  This is possibly the most taut and suspenseful Carpenter film of all-time.  The master of terror gives us a film that nobody should easily be able to forget.  The score from John Carpenter & Alan Howarth is absolutely mesmerizing and powerful.  Right from the beginning, it sucks you into a creepy and absolutely ominous world, and doesn’t let go until the end credits have finished.  It’s an absorbing, killer work of musicianship that compliments the film marvelously.

The effects here are great.  There’s nothing here as complex as in The Thing (which Rob Bottin really delivered something groundbreaking), but there’s plenty of scary makeup work and visuals to unsettle any audience.  There’s such apocalyptic biblical imagery here – including swarms of creepy crawly critters – that it will have you squirming and jumping from your seat.  John Carpenter wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym “Martin Quartermass,” and man, he does just such an amazing job eliciting such haunting emotions.  The film has such a suspenseful power that it could ONLY come from John Carpenter.

That pseudonym is only one of several that Carpenter has employed in his career.  He uses them because he feels uncomfortable with his name plastered all over the credits as if it’s an egotistical thing to take so much credit.  Me, I believe in everyone getting the credit they deserve for the hard work they do.  The fact of the matter is that I know who Martin Quartermass, John T. Chance, and Frank Armitage are, and it is still John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.

The cast is full of Carpenter regulars such as Donald Pleaseance (Halloween, Escape From New York), Victor Wong & Dennis Dun (Big Trouble in Little China), and Peter Jason (They Live, In The Mouth of Madness).  Also, Jameson Parker from TV’s Simon & Simon is in a lead role as well.  It’s very much a Carpenter style cast in that he doesn’t cast big stars, but a lot of strong character actors that give the film a textured diversity.  I really enjoy all their talents, and they all put in fantastic efforts.  John Carpenter has always been great in the casting department (probably best displayed in The Thing).  We even get a cameo from shock-rocker Alice Cooper, and he contributes the title song from the album of the same name.  The song only appears in a small scene, and via a guy’s walkman radio.  In any case, it’s always nice to see Alice appear in a horror film via an acting role or as a musician.  He has no lines, but appears creepy enough as one of the derelict servants outside the church.  Overall, this cast gives a lot of life and character to this slow-paced film.

In a way, this is different from most Carpenter movies, mainly in pace.  He’s always made very smart pictures, and his horror has never been something you can entirely shut your brain off for.  And while Prince of Darkness is full of atmosphere that drives every horror element forward, it is much more an idea and philosophy driven screenplay.  There are very few action set pieces as the danger and horror are played through tense atmosphere and chilling visuals.  It’s a film that crawls in under your skin slowly, and requires you to stay mentally aware of what’s happening for it to have the proper effect.

There’s a good deal of discussion in the film about philosophies regarding dreams, death, hell, religion, and so forth.  This adds to the psychological aspect of the film since it revolves around such supernatural or paranormal phenomena birthed out of an ancient evil covered up by the church.  With the film having such a wide ensemble cast, they have plenty of room for differing opinions and beliefs, but don’t let this make you think the film gets bogged down by it.  Not at all.  As they uncover more truths, it enhances the fearful and foreboding atmosphere of the film.  There is a haunting evil taking form in their presence, and it is slowly consuming them either physically or psychologically.

In everyone’s dreams, they see a transmission from the future of a dark figure exiting the front of the church they are all holed up in.  They get only bits and pieces, but they all share it getting a little more each time they fall asleep.  It is another piece of the foreboding doom that lies ahead of them, and it is immensely effective.

Prince of Darkness definitely has similarities to an old style zombie film where a group of mismatched people have to fend for their lives against an undead army.  However, Carpenter just pushes it further with so much more substance and unsettling visuals.  This really is a nightmare come to life.  A constant theme in Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy is some sort of force consuming humanity and deteriorating it into something entirely inhuman.  In The Thing, it’s an actual alien life form that perfectly duplicates any organism it infects which could eventually wipe out the human race.  With In The Mouth of Madness, reality is twisted and distorted to where people become psychotic and homicidal in the wake of ancient evil reclaiming our world.  In Prince of Darkness, it’s sort of a bridge between the concepts.  As an ancient evil slowly claws its way back into our world, it also consumes nature and humanity until they become entirely mindless, inhuman servants.  Coming from three different screenwriters on three different films, that is an entirely fascinating conceptual arc.

This film is undoubtedly one of John Carpenter’s finest works.  Some don’t take a good liking to it because of its slow, slow pace, and its focus more on suspense than physical intensity.  Whatever the case, I find it to be a masterwork worthy of inclusion to anyone’s DVD collection.  The cast is very good, fun at times, but solid always.  The score is pure gold, a powerful accomplishment for Carpenter and Alan Howarth.  As in any Carpenter film, the cinematography is stellar, and the direction is absolutely phenomenal!  If you genuinely want to get creeped out to the max one dark, lonely night – this is the one film to watch!  I won’t say that Prince of Darkness is a perfect film as the pace can be a detractor to its potential.  Part of good tension and suspense is momentum, and it’s not entirely consistent here.  However, it is a great flick, and I will give it a great 9 out of 10.  If nothing else, the ending will grab you like only a John Carpenter film can!