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A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

You didn’t think I could let Forever Horror Month go by without a look at old Fred Krueger, did you?  I think A Nightmare on Elm Street came out at just the right time.  The slasher film craze had exploded, but then, began to water itself down with all the imitators.  There were still good ones out there, but it was already time for something fresh to shake up the genre.  Something to bring it back to a terrifying and original concept that was conceived by a master in Wes Craven.  Where the effectiveness of some other horror films have diminished over time for me. A Nightmare on Elm Street still holds a chilling nerve in my spine.

In the town of Springwood, on Elm Street, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) and her friends are experiencing violent nightmares where they are stalked by a badly scarred man with a clawed glove of razors.  When Nancy’s friend Tina (Amanda Wyss) is brutally murdered in bed one night, Nancy believes that it wasn’t Tina’s boyfriend who killed her, but the man who terrorizes their dreams – Fred Krueger (Robert Englund).  Unfortunately, her claims are dismiss by her father, Police Lieutenant Donald Thompson (John Saxon), and her alcoholic mother (Ronee Blakley).  So, Nancy, aided by her boyfriend Glenn (Johnny Depp), Nancy fights to stay awake to discover the truth behind Krueger, and find a way to stop him for good or never sleep again.

Right from the start, the film sets a dark, gritty, frightening tone with Freddy’s construction of his bladed glove.  This film truly is a nightmare come to life with the shadowy boiler room being the perfect backdrop for Krueger.  It’s damp, steamy, and filthy – a dangerous industrial environment for a sleazy, twisted killer.  From there, the film haunts you with creepy, surreal images that touch your deepest fears.  Once you are in Freddy’s realm there is no safe harbor.  He wants you to know you’re trapped and ensnared in his sick, demented reality.  He’s the master of the domain that is your dreams, and that’s what’s most frightening of all.  He can violate you deep within your mind, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t go forever without sleep.  Eventually, you are going to fall asleep, and that’s all he needs to have his way with you.  Unlike other slashers, Freddy doesn’t just stalk and kill.  He gains vast pleasure by psychologically tormenting his victims so that when he finally goes in for the kill, it will be all the more sweeter for him.  Freddy is a glorious sadist.  He both literally and figuratively feeds off your fear.  It’s what gives him his power and pleasure.  The glove was also a brilliant idea by Wes Craven.  Most slashers just kill with whatever’s handy, but Freddy puts his own signature mark on his victims with a weapon custom built for himself.  It’s a direct and distinct extension of his twisted personality.

Robert Englund instantly created an icon here built off of Wes Craven’s imagination.  He absorbed himself into the weight and feel of this character through the amazing make-up effects, and the dingy, distinct wardrobe.  The body language alone conveys a sickening individual who takes perverse pleasure in everything he does.  Every little gesture with the blades, every wiggling of the tongue, every slinking movement creates a terrifying performance that burns itself into your psyche.  The fact that Craven keeps Krueger so secluded in shadow, and only highlights certain aspects of his figure or face, enhances the intimidating power of him.  This is the most vile rendition of Fred Krueger we have ever gotten, and I think it’s a real disservice to horror audiences that he became so campy and cheesy in the later sequels.  I know Englund preferred going the darker route, but most directors preferred the comical punch.  I cannot fathom why because Freddy proves to be his most frightening in his purest form.

Beyond just Robert Englund, the film is packed with a great cast.  Heather Langenkamp steps into a strong lead role as Nancy.  I love that the film sets up Tina as the potential protagonist, but swerves the audience when gruesome tragedy strikes.  This allows Nancy to overcome her own grief and build herself up to a confident, smart heroine.  Yet, she never loses her honest sense of compassionate emotion.  Nancy does feel fear, very intensely, but she fights to conquer it every step of the way.  Langenkamp looked and felt like a genuine fresh faced girl next door which made her performance vulnerable and realistic.  The strength she brought to Nancy was incredible making an audience believe in Nancy through every terrifying moment.

Johnny Depp, in his very first acting role, is also great showing off the charm and talent we’ve come to know from him.  As Glenn, he’s funny and sweet.  I also believe casting John Saxon is always a rock solid choice.  He brings a fatherly warmth to Donald Thompson showing concern for his beloved daughter.  He’s also entirely believable as a commanding police officer with a fine screen presence which just exudes strength and confidence.  Ronnie Blakley is quite remarkable as this drunken mother who is clearly unable to cope with the crime she helped commit.  Amanda Wyss puts in a great performance selling the intense fear of Tina, and showing the subtle terror that trembles underneath.  Overall, everyone in this cast does an immensely solid and greatly admirable job.  They make this a film filled with character you can genuinely cared about, and thus, seriously fear for.

Wes Craven shows such a talent for suspense here.  He carefully unnerves an audience with subtle sounds and glimpses of terror, firstly.  Then, when Freddy finally reveals himself, it’s a truly scary sight as he torments Tina with a grin and a despicable laugh.  Just as Freddy torments his victims, Craven uses those moments to freak out his audience to build up the suspense and tension.  He prolongs the fear with masterful skill so that the pay-off will be frightening beyond your imagination.  The kills are gruesomely brilliant with no lack of gore or blood.  The screen is soaked in crimson many times in the movie., and the violent impact of those four blades slicing into flesh is always terrifying and shocking.

All of the special effects in A Nightmare on Elm Street are absolutely impressive and truly ambitious.  Today, as the lackluster remake proved, a lot of these effects today would be done with severely unconvincing and unimpressive CGI.  Back in 1984, everything was done practically, and the results are just astonishingly excellent.  Even knowing how they did it takes away nothing from the viewing experience of the film.  The movie magic is still there, and it is still massively effective.  From Tina being dragged up the wall and ceiling of her bedroom to Freddy’s form pushing through the wall above Nancy as she sleeps to all the subtle tricks and slight of hand to achieve so much, these are timeless, classic images that are the result of talented, innovative minds.  They entirely sell the chillingly surreal qualities and power of Krueger.  It’s amazing that they achieve so much on a budget that was less than $2 million.  Compare that with the $35 million budget of the 2010 remake which couldn’t pull off the same effects with even a fraction of the artistic quality or effectiveness.

Charles Bernstein beautifully score this film with just the right approach.  The main theme is instantly recognizable with its sort of nursery rhyme melody, but has a haunting, foreboding quality lying behind it which is purely brilliant musicianship.  The score, in general, is purely enveloping with a wide, rich range using synthesizer in gorgeous fashion.  It disturbs and unsettles at nearly every dark turn.  The sound design works in tandem with the score by fully immersing an audience into Freddy’s world.  The sounds of the boiler room come to magnificent life in a full surround sound experience.  I think it’s one of the best audio presentations of any horror film I’ve ever heard.

Again, what really sets this film apart from its slasher brethren is the psychological aspect.  Freddy isn’t a killer you can simply outrun.  He’s lurking in the dark recesses of your dreams, waiting for you to fall into his clutches.  It’s amazing to me that Wes Craven is such a sweet, easy going, regular guy, but is able to delve so vividly into the chilling imagery and nature of nightmares.  Scary experiences from his childhood forged many of these inspirations, but so much touches a frightening nerve, such as the bloody corpse of Tina in the body bag beckoning to Nancy, that it demonstrates Craven’s creative brilliance.  He taps so deeply into the mechanics of horror, and is able to craft beautifully gruesome images that could dig their way into your own subconscious.  I think Craven is at his best when he’s pushing horror to a higher level beyond the visceral.  Whether it’s the psychological aspects of this franchise, or the mystery aspects of the Scream films, he has a unique quality to inject into horror films that I really enjoy.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is a horror classic that goes beyond just the slasher genre.  It was created by a team of greatly talented and dedicated individuals in front of and behind the camera.  No other film in the franchise quite matches up to the dark, pure horror quality of Wes Craven’s original.  While there are sequels with their own enjoyable and respected qualities, there are many which simply lost sight of what horror was, and diluted the powerful and effective tone of fear the franchise was built upon.  Regardless of disappointing sequels or poor remakes, the 1984 original will always stand as an eternal horror classic.


Sleepy Hollow (1999)

I haven’t been a loyal follower of Tim Burton’s career, but the films I have seen from him, I very much do enjoy.  Sleepy Hollow is a very pleasant entry in his career, collaborating with Johnny Depp, that strikes the right balance between Burton’s quirky humor and dramatic gothic storytelling.  It’s fun, exciting, and scary all at the same time.

Constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) of the New York police arrives in the small village of Sleepy Hollow in 1799 to solve a mystery of murders. With all the victims found with their heads missing, everybody in Sleepy Hollow is talking about the ghost of the “Headless Horseman.”  He is supposedly out in the woods seeking revenge for his murder many years ago.  Crane, believing only in logic, refuses to believe the public’s theory about the horseman and begins his investigations, only to find his faith shattered when he himself encounters the headless horseman.  Yet, he is compelled to resolve his investigation after falling deeply in love with the beautiful young Katrina (Christina Ricci).  Their fates intertwine as Ichabod attempts to unravel the supernatural and wicked mysteries that threaten everyone’s lives in Sleepy Hollow.  It’s a magical tale of sense against myth.

While I think general audiences today are a little worn out on the repeated Burton-Depp collaborations, Sleepy Hollow is an excellent piece of work that’s worth your while.  Depp does a brilliant job as Constable Crane.  He brings a certain young naivety to the ambitious investigator.  He has bold new ideas about using science and intellect to deduce crimes that his superiors lightly dismiss.  The contrast of everyone’s grim, fearsome attitudes to Crane’s more upbeat mentality creates an amusing dynamic.  Crane is definitely intelligent and educated, but Depp’s clever, delicate balance between the serious and the tongue-in-cheek tone of Crane makes him such a delight.  True to the source material, Ichabod is somewhat cowardly, but he can muster up courage when it counts.  Beyond all else, he’s determined to resolve this twisting mystery that seems to have an air of conspiracy about it.  That’s what makes him a character to invest yourself in.  Despite his own trembling fears, he picks himself back up and pushes forward to finish what he began.  Depp shows a lot of sweet charm and humor making Ichabod a pure hearted hero that both amuses and inspires.

I will absolutely admit that I once had a fascination with Christina Ricci.  She’s a beautiful and highly talent actress who doesn’t shy away from challenging material.  What she gives us as Katrina is a lovely, graceful young lady that is indeed bewitching.  She carries an ethereal aura about her reflecting Katrina’s depth and purity of soul.  Ricci and Depp have a gorgeous chemistry that really lights up the screen, and enraptures an audience with their magic.  They are such an excellent fit that I’d love to see more of them together.

At the time of release, it was kept a secret that the Hessian Horseman was portrayed by Christopher Walken.  It was an added pleasant surprise when I first saw the film in 1999.  Aside from some animalistic grunts as he slays his victims., the Horseman has no lines of dialogue, and doesn’t need any due to how he is portrayed and presented.  It was a great idea to tell the Horseman’s story early on to have the bloodthirsty psychotic face embed itself in the audience’s minds.  The Horseman filed his teeth to a razor sharp point that made him appear more frightening in his enemies’ eyes.  It’s an amazing, ferocious design that sends a chill up your spine, especially in conjunction with Walken’s charismatic physicality.  It’s also great that the Horseman is not the ultimate villain, but a weapon used by a treacherous conspirator.

Tim Burton really culled together a magnificent cast with several veterans of stage and screen as well as some fine young talents such as Casper Van Dien.  Adding in some Hammer Films alumnus like Christopher Lee and Michael Gough was a very nice touch.  Miranda Richardson has a wonderful turn in this film that she seemed very enthusiastic about throwing herself into.  Her overall performance is marvelous.

The visual effects of Sleepy Hollow are astonishingly good.  Just getting the Headless Horseman to become a reality on screen was a big challenge, I’m sure, and there is nothing but top notch quality on display here.  The various decapitations and other gory slayings are phenomenally done.  What else would you expect from Industrial Light & Magic?  The effects never cease to impress throughout the entire movie.  The film has a generous helping of blood and gore to make some squirm or jump in their seats while others will simply relish its exquisite glory.  The practical effects are seamlessly integrated with the digital effects for a visually amazing experience.  I cannot praise this work highly enough.  While there are some silly moments with the visual effects, they are perfectly at home in a Tim Burton movie.

The gothic aesthetics of Tim Burton are realized in a magnificent way.  The film has a slightly desaturated, gritty look giving way to a more grim feeling of looming danger.  Sleepy Hollow is shot beautifully, strongly maintaining that dark tone of horror and tension.  Yet, there are plenty of picturesque sequences, such as a series of dreams Ichabod has which further enrich the fantastical, and sometimes, enchanting aspects of the movie.  This truly is a visually gorgeous film in a style that could only come from the imagination of Tim Burton.  And of course, Danny Elfman created a powerfully grandiose score that fits perfectly with Burton’s gothic stylings.  It is a stunning, sweeping piece of work that enhances all the dark, lovely, and magical atmospheres of Sleepy Hollow.

This movie really is a lot of fun.  Burton doesn’t take it too seriously as he applies his own dark comedy to the more violent, gruesome moments.  So, while the Horseman is chasing down and chopping off the heads of hapless victims, there’s usually a humorous quirk in there, but Burton keeps it in check.  He never allows it to compromise the dramatic integrity of the story, and instead sort of does it at Ichabod’s expense, which is entirely fitting.  Said story has plenty of mysterious aura and thrilling moments of tense horror and suspense.  The Horsemen, head or no, is very scary and intimidating.  He’s mercilessly violent and very smart.  There are superbly executed plot twists that are never cheap.  This is a smartly crafted screenplay which weaves its way around these solidly conceived characters.  The secrets and manipulations abound under the surface of this quiet village make for a fertile ground for this sort of story.  How everything is unraveled in the end is quite wicked.

That said, this has a hell of a great climax with plenty of fiery action and dramatic revelations.  Characters are kept in serious peril as it becomes a race to save lives while the Horseman in unleashed once again.  Action and suspense build up to a highly energetic and exciting level, and the pay-off is quite ironic and fitting.  It is all very satisfying tying up all the plot and character threads with that classic Tim Burton wit and charm.

This is a beautifully crafted film in every aspect.  It’s a visual masterwork backed by an excellent script written by the deeply talented Andrew Kevin Walker with a story co-developed by Kevin Yagher.  The latter of the two also worked on the creature effects here, and doing a remarkable job at it, too.  There are many tried and true Tim Burton talents who were involved with this film which instilled it with an amazing depth of artistry and talent.  The film definitely delivers on exciting tension and fearsome scares with a light air of dark, quirky humor.  It also weaves an enchanting love story through its haunting and startling mystery.  I really, really like Sleepy Hollow because, beyond everything else, it’s just a fun watch with plenty to take pleasure in.  This is truly one of Tim Burton’s finest outings, and I’m glad that Johnny Depp was along for the ride.  They both do a brilliant job through every frame of this film.  I give Sleepy Hollow my full recommendation.  It’s more than worth your while.


From Hell (2001)

The benefit of doing Forever Horror Month is that it has forced me to watch films that have been collecting dust in my DVD collection for about a decade.  I saw From Hell theatrically at the discount theatre with a number of my friends in 2001.  I do recall general impressions and plot details from back then including a slight letdown of the film’s conclusion.  Of course, my tastes have certainly matured since that time, and so, it will be interesting to see if my opinion of the film has altered any today.

Set in London of 1888, Jack the Ripper has been running amok in the Whitechapel district murdering and dissecting prostitutes. Scotland Yard Inspector Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp), aided by his partner, Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane), are on the case to figure out who this serial killer is and why he is killing these women in such a brutal manner. Abberline is an opium addict and when “chasing the dragon” he is able to have visions of the future, a certain psychic ability that allows him to solve cases. As Abberline and Godley investigate the crimes, they become acquainted with the prostitutes who were friends and colleagues of the victims. Abberline begins to fall in love with Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), one of the prostitutes, or as the nobles called them “unfortunates”, being hunted down by Jack the Ripper.  Abberline digs deeper and deeper into the conspiracy and attempts to solve the case before Mary Kelly is the next victim.

This was adapted from the comic book series by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell by the Hughes Brothers – Albert & Allen.  It’s not one I’ve ever read, but the comic book visual aesthetics occasionally show through.  There are striking moments of heavy reds or sickly greens that are very stylized, and do work with the editing approach to those gruesome moments.  The rest of the film is competently shot maintaining a natural look to the time period.  The identity of Jack the Ripper is kept artistically hidden through shadows, shots from behind, and smart framing.  It doesn’t get gimmicky.  It plays scenes out with the Ripper with an imposing, mysterious quality that builds up the threat of him.  It’s very solid work from a director of photography who started out shooting Evil Dead II and later occasionally working with surreal filmmaker David Lynch.

Now, this is a genre that kind of hits me in a pleasant place.  Mixing crime drama with a suspenseful, bloody horror genre just feels like my kind of taste.  The Jack the Ripper case is an iconic one in many peoples’ minds, and this film crafts the investigation and mystery very smartly.  It incorporates some great forensic knowledge which further enhances the quality of Inspector Abberline’s abilities.  This is very important as Jack the Ripper happens to surgically remove various organs from his victims, leaving behind a sickening and horrifying sight.  While the film inevitably takes liberties with the known truth, and hypothesizes about the unknown truths, what we get is tightly and sharply crafted.  It’s a very good script realized by some richly talented filmmakers.

The production design and wardrobe departments did an amazing job.  They seem to have realized the late nineteenth century with beautiful detailed realism.  The wardrobe is especially impressive with the distinct styles given to each character.  This extends to hairstyles and the overall grooming of the actors.  It’s elegant craftsmanship through and through which gives the film its grounded texture.  The filmmakers took great care to reproduce the sights of the murders and the wounds inflicted upon the victims.  While the film lays back on its graphicness for most of its runtime, it does have visceral impact through sharp editing styles and some impressive practical make-up effects.  There is one very graphic throat cutting scene that would likely have many squirming in their seats.  As the film chillingly drives towards its climax, the violence becomes immensely more graphic and disturbing.

Getting down to the performances, I believe Johnny Depp does a very fine piece of work here.  I like the accent he adopts for the role.  Very different from the one he used in Sleepy Hollow or as Captain Jack Sparrow.  He clearly worked on the details very meticulously to bring this intelligent person to life.  While, Frederick Abberline was a real life Inspector for Scotland Yard, the clairvoyance and drug use was reportedly not true about him.  Regardless, the character that is Abberline here is given a good measure of charm and perceptive intelligence.  Depp cautiously balances out Abberline’s assertiveness with the manner of a gentleman.  While he is a man that indulges in less than respectable vices and beliefs, he is still a man that is respected in his profession.  It is an impressively strong and dimensional performance.  Depp leads this film excellently.

Depp also displays a subtle heart and passion opposite Heather Graham.  She inhabits this particularly lower class woman with a lot of spirit and compassion.  While the love between Mary and Frederick is not a major part of the story, it is developed through the building of trust and charm between them.  The chemistry of Graham and Depp is solid and genuine.

Robbie Coltrane does very well as a Police Sergeant who takes his job with a lot of serious weight.  Sergeant Godley is written well as both a consummate street level investigator, and a trusting confidant for Abberline.  It’s a very well rounded performance that instills credibility and faith in Abberline’s unconventional methods for the audience.

The highly revered Ian Holm is also especially strong as the former surgeon Sir William Gull.  He shares some solid scenes with Depp throughout the movie, and delivers a fine dramatic performance that also offers up an intimidating quality late in the film.  He really portrays all facets of the role remarkably well.  All around, this is just a stellar cast with a great depth of talent creating an array of fascinating and realistic characters.  They all make a distinct impression upon an audience.

The affluent pretentiousness of Abberline’s superior, portrayed by Ian Richardson, strikes me funny.  His assertion that no Englishman would be capable of such an act shows how much sensibilities have changed in law enforcement over the decades.  Today, everyone’s a viable suspect, no matter who you are, but back in the 1880s, an educated or even sophisticated person would never be thought of as a violent criminal.  It was preposterous.  Furthermore, his arrogance impedes Abberline’s investigation to the point of obstructing justice.  Unlike Sergeant Godley, he has little faith in Abberline’s deductive abilities.  He cares only for the perception of the investigation, not the truth that it should uncover.  It’s simply another fine detail which exemplifies the era this is set in, and what struggles Abberline has to surmount and combat to prove his theories correct.  It sets a treacherous path that he must walk to expose this gruesome killer.

Ultimately, the Jack the Ripper plotline is resolved in a ghastly psychological manner that has a sort of fitting quality.  Considering, in reality, he was never publicly, definitively identified, the ending to this has to have an air of secrecy.  There’s really no way around that.  So, it couldn’t have ended as a standard crime story with an arrest and conviction.  Still, it lacks any sort of dramatic gratification of justice.  Grisly, unspeakable murders are committed, and for an audience, it demands something equally harsh. It’s sort of a subjective feeling.  If for nothing else, this conclusion just lacks a real punch.

Again, the romantic aspect is gracefully handled, but it can get a little lost amongst the main plotline.  Abberline becomes deeply invested in Mary’s well being, but it’s more of an ancillary story.  It comes and goes in the film never really dominating the characters’ actions too much, but it does surface every now and then when it has relevance.  It possibly could’ve been developed into a fuller part of the film to have more substantive impact.  The conclusion to this story is also a little downbeat.  I’m not sure it was necessary for it to end as it did, but it’s definitely not a bad ending.

So, yes, I think my initial impressions about the film remain about the same.  It has a very good story with plenty of suspense and intelligence, but the pay-off is quite lacking.  Maybe there are those that can appreciate it more than I can, perhaps those that have read the comic book series.  There was more than enough rich talent involved making this a very well made and slightly stylish horror crime mystery.  The Hughes Brothers did a very high quality job with this material, and Johnny Depp puts in a very satisfying lead performance.  While it’s not as quirky as some of his better known roles, this is a nice departure into more serious ground that I did enjoy.  “Do I recommend From Hell?” is the pressing question.  Sure.  While it’s ultimately not as wholly satisfying as desired, it’s still a worthwhile watch for many reasons.  If for nothing else, it’s a respectably well executed moody and chilling piece of horror cinema.