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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.


Drive (2011)

I have a tendency to miss out on great films in the theatre due to an uncertainty about them.  I can get so used to how mainstream films are marketed that when I see something distinctly different, it’s hard to be sold on it.  Thankfully, better late than never, some trusted word of mouth finally got me to check out Drive.  To my sensibilities, this is an astonishing, flat out amazing film.  This feels like if Michael Mann made a movie between Thief and Manhunter, and was scored by Tangerine Dream.  This is fully evocative of a 1980s neo noir crime thriller with its sense of tone and atmosphere and using a magnificent soundtrack to envelop an audience into its emotion.  Beyond that, I feel Drive is also brilliant.

Ryan Gosling stars as a Hollywood stunt driver by day that moonlights as a wheelman for criminals by night.  He’s employed and aided by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a former stuntman who is propositioning the shady Bernard Rose (Albert Brooks) to invest in a race car venture with this “Driver” as their star.  Though a loner by nature, the Driver can’t help falling in love with his beautiful neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young mother dragged into a dangerous underworld by the return of her ex-convict husband.  After a heist goes wrong, Driver finds himself driving defense for the girl he loves, tailgated by a syndicate of deadly serious criminals including Rose himself and the bull-headed Nino (Ron Perlman).  Soon he realizes the gangsters are after more than the bag of cash, and is forced to shift gears into a brutal, unrelenting head-on collision.

I will grant that the film is not heavy on plot.  It’s fairly simple and straight forward keeping itself contained to a small collection of characters.  Some might find that a letdown.  However, the substance of this film is in the presentation.  Ryan Gosling’s character is very minimal on dialogue allowing his presence and the atmosphere of the film to carry the Driver’s weight.  The performance alone is very understated and low key, but not skimping on intensity or humanity.  His carefully chosen words hold purpose, and Gosling’s soft spoken delivery forces an audience to focus their attention closely.  Sometimes, a lack of dialogue can bring a mystique and an intriguing quality to a character, and Gosling sparks that magic.  His performance allows you to read more into the man instead of him telling you about who he is, and that’s not an easy thing to pull off.  The scenes where the Driver and Irene are together bring a subtle charm and heart to the surface.  You see the brightness in the soul of this character that contrasts, and later, compliments his grittier, darker side.  When he has to become that more intimidating, brutal person later on, Gosling has no problem being convincing.  You can feel his visceral intensity permeating the screen.  I was impacted hard by those razor sharp moments, and this all comes together in a rock solid piece of work by Ryan Gosling.  This is my first exposure to his talent, and I couldn’t be more blown away.  Also, wrapping him in that Scorpion jacket is just wickedly cool.

Carey Mulligan puts in a gracefully beautiful performance.  She and Gosling have a fine chemistry that gives the film its warmth and purpose.  Their performances reflect nicely off of one another with heart and subtlety.  She never has to say a word to reflect Irene’s emotional conflict over her feelings between her husband and the Driver.  Mulligan touchingly shows that in her eyes and expressions, and how she gravitates to this new charming, under spoken man in her life.  It’s an engaging and inviting piece of work.

Albert Brooks is a shocking powerhouse heavy here.  He’s intimidating as all hell while still having his light hearted, humorous moments.  Still, I never stopped getting that shady feeling from him that he was a mob boss that could slash your wrist or stab you in the eye with a fork without batting an eyelash.  There’s such a fine line the character treads that Brooks walks with ease.  Even when he’s being friendly, there’s still that sense of unease behind everything he says, and even before you know he’s a mob boss, you get the feeling that there’s something not entirely straight about Bernie Rose.  For me, he ranks amongst the best like Christopher Walken in True Romance or Robert Prosky in Thief.  He can turn from being your best friend to your absolute worst enemy in half a heartbeat without even seeing a shift in the character’s manner.  It’s all rather matter of fact with him, and Brooks carries the appropriate weight to achieve these character traits throughout the picture.  I love Albert Brooks’ performance supremely.

The supporting cast is also finely textured.  Bryan Cranston has a broken down heartfelt sympathy as Shannon, the mechanic and former stuntman that aids and endorses Gosling’s character.  He’s a good natured person who gets in too heavy with the wrong people, and you can’t help but feel for him when things turn worse.  Ron Perlman’s gangster character of Nino is interesting.  He’s a Jewish man trying to make himself out to be an Italian mobster.  It’s not an overt part of his performance, but it ties into Nino’s motivations for being a “belligerent asshole,” as Bernie Rose puts it.  Nino has plenty of bravado and ego, but not a lot of good sense.  Perlman nicely inhabits those qualities with plenty of enthusiasm.  Oscar Isaac does well as Irene’s husband Standard.  The character clearly stands out as a person stuck in a number of unwanted situations.  These criminals are violently pressuring him to do this job for him to pay back his debt, and it’s subtlety obvious that his wife does not want to be with him, anymore.  Isaac shows the character’s regret well, and comes off more of a sorry man than a sympathetic one.  He’s a guy that’s made a mess of things, and knows nothing will ever be okay ever again.  The damage is done, and he’s just trying to sweep it under the rug as neatly as possible.  However, he’s endangered the lives of his wife and son, and the Driver has no sympathy for the man.  He only helps him out for the benefit of Irene and Benicio.  These actors all add a strong array of emotion to the film which heightens the tone and atmosphere.

Now, speaking of atmosphere, the score constantly hit me as something very akin to Tangerine Dream’s score for Risky Business.  It has that very light, dreamy quality to it most times, but does delve into very dark, heavy territories.  There are foreboding, tense moments in this score that are just mesmerizing.  Cliff Martinez crafts a deeply enveloping auditory experience which soaks into nearly every fiber of the film, but the filmmakers pick key moments where silence holds more weight than a soundtrack.  The collection of songs in this film retain that 1980s ambient synth-pop quality, but have a modern quality that is beyond my ability to articulate.  From my own independent filmmaking experiences, I know how insanely difficult it is to find modern original music that sounds like it came from the 1980s.  So, the fact that music supervisors Eric Craig and Brian McNeils discovered and assembled music of this amazing style and quality impresses me to no end.  I purchased the CD soundtrack, and it now ranks as one of my absolute favorites of all time.

The chase scenes of Drive are masterful.  The first one is exceptionally smart being tactical in evading the police instead of going for outright action.  That aspect come later after the botched robbery.  It’s short and to the point being very slam bang intense, and not over indulging in itself.  The opening sequence is exceptionally refreshing by being intelligent.  On top of being realistic and smart, it is an excellent introduction to our main character showing his precision as a getaway driver.  These scenes are expertly shot accentuating the distinct tones and tensions of both sequences.

When this film gets brutal, it holds nothing back, and hardly goes in predictable directions.  The Driver never relies on a gun, and instead, goes with blunt force trauma to inflict violence upon people.  The scene where he goes into the strip club wouldn’t be nearly as effective if he just brandished a gun the guy’s face.  When you see the Driver pull out a hammer, you know this is going to be dead serious business, and it’s not going to be pretty.  It’s a startling, powerful sequence which further propels the character’s threat level.  He’s not just some cool headed amazing driver, he’s a dangerous man not worth crossing.  The violence overall is graphic and gory, and shockingly unsettling.  Emotion just pours through these scenes.

I am further floored by the cinematography talents of Newton Thomas Sigel.  I’ve previously reviewed his work on The Usual Suspects and Fallen – both gorgeous films with their own identities.  Drive is no different.  No shot is ever wasted, and every composition is chosen with purpose.  How the film is shot reflects the artistic vision realized with the music, acting, and editing.  The film has inspired moments of absolute cinematic beauty due to Sigel’s artistic brilliance.  The elevator scene late in the film is a magnificent example of this.  The lighting and color tones used throughout create rich visuals which enhance the film’s atmosphere further.

This is a film where every element is cohesively used to create a powerfully enveloping experience.  The conservative editing style of Matthew Newman allows Sigel’s shots to hold their weight, and establish a somber or rich tone that draws an audience into every moment.  The music enhances those moments to create a wonderfully vibrant sonic quality for even the most still or fluid sequences.  I haven’t seen a film like this since Manhunter.  The music plays such a prominent role in creating a rich atmosphere that is as in the forefront of the picture as the actors.  Each aspect is integral towards what is a wonderfully engrossing motion picture.

Drive is something which shows what independent film can do.  It takes chances.  It goes for a filmmaking style that has not really been around in more than twenty years.  It takes an immensely effective way of crafting and presenting a film that a major studio would likely not embrace.  It’s an intelligent, fresh, and creative film that feeds the senses.  It gives you white knuckle action, a heartfelt romantic storyline, strong character drama, graphic brutality, gorgeous cinematic moments, intelligent writing, amazing performances, and a beautiful, exciting soundtrack.  It’s hard to imagine all of these phenomenal visual and auditory elements coming across in a screenplay, but Hossein Amini clearly wrote something truly inspiring on those script pages to inspire the amazing film we ultimately got.  I know nothing of the James Sallis novel this was based on, but clearly, the written word captured the vibrant imagination of these filmmakers.  I will admit that Drive is not a mass audience movie as it requires an appreciation for a certain filmmaking style, but for those that love a slick 1980s style crime thriller that utilizes strong atmosphere and a prominent synth-pop soundtrack to wrap you up in its story and characters, this is absolutely for you.  In my view, Drive is a meticulously crafted masterpiece of cinema born out of a bold vision from director Nicolas Winding Refn.  I love this film thoroughly, and I cannot give it a higher recommendation than that.