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A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)

Nightmare on Elm Street 4With the strong success of the third movie, New Line Cinema struck their biggest gold with this 1988 sequel helmed by Finnish director Renny Harlin.  The Dream Master takes a lot of what made Dream Warriors marketable and entertaining and amplified it.  This is definitely the most mainstream film in the franchise with many pop culture sensibilities, and that resulted in the largest box office take until 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason.  For many years I had formed a much more negative opinion of this film, but now that I’ve watched it again, I can say that this is a very well made movie.  However, I cannot say that it’s a very effective horror movie.

Proving there’s no rest for the wicked, the unspeakably evil Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) is again resurrected from the grave to wreak havoc upon those who dare to dream, but this time, he faces a powerful new adversary.  As her friends succumb one by one to Freddy’s wrath, telepathically gifted Kristen Parker (Tuesday Knight) embarks on a desperate mission to destroy the satanic dream stalker and release the tortured souls of his victims.  However, her power will have to be passed to her friend Alice Johnson (Lisa Wilcox) as she has the ability to overcome Freddy’s control, and absorb the power of her slain friends to end Krueger once and for all.

I do enjoy a couple of Renny Harlin’s movies.  The Adventures of Ford Fairlane and Die Hard 2 are definite favorites of mine, and I am anxious to watch Cliffhanger very soon.  However, I don’t think horror really is his strong suit, despite how gory his early films are.  I will certainly hand it to him for having a great handle on gore effects, and his films usually look damn good on all levels.  Still, this film is a long way removed from the brilliant execution of chilling suspense and the masterful enveloping experience of terror of Wes Craven’s original classic.  However, on a technical level, this is probably the best made film of the franchise until New Nightmare.  Harlin just knows how to move his camera in smart, cinematic ways.  There seems to be more camera movement overall with some steadicam work, and smart, engaging camera angles.  This is a very polished looking film having nearly triple the budget of Dream Warriors, and it shows through in all aspects.  It has vibrant colors, but a good mix of light and dark.  The whole movie feels just a little more theatrical in its lighting as well.  Thus, the mood is a little more artistically crafted, visually, than Dream Warriors, but it does lack a good dose of suspense.  The film has its gore, its violence, and its imagination in high gear, but doesn’t make itself all that scary.

This film loses a lot of potential emotional resonance having to recast Kristen Parker with Tuesday Knight.  There was apparently a turbulent experience for Patricia Arquette on the previous movie, and for possibly other reasons as well, she chose not to reprise the role of Kristen.  Knight does an okay job, but it really feels like a filler role to motivate the plot along quickly to put Alice in the lead role.  It also comes down to how she is written.  There is no motivation given for why she’s convinced that Freddy’s coming back to get her, and it feels like a large step backwards for the character.  She seemed to evolve a little in last film to a stronger protagonist, and she feels regressed to a more timid, easily spooked person here.

Returning from Dream Warriors are Ken Sagoes and Rodney Eastman as Kincaid and Joey, respectively.  They still deliver perfectly to what they did in the previous movie, but their chemistry with Knight is not as good as it was with Arquette.  I really like that The Dream Master feels like a direct sequel by bringing back these surviving characters while segueing into a new cast.  We spend the first act with them, fearing for their lives from Freddy’s imminent rampage of revenge, but then, it shifts into another gear that once again builds upon the premise of the series.  It feels like Freddy is triumphing here as an nearly indomitable force, and we need a stronger hero with special powers to combat him.

This film greatly builds Alice up as our new heroine.  We get glimpses into her emotional and mental state, both affectionate and angered, from under her meek appearance.  The film nicely balances establishing her as a well rounded character in all aspects while keeping Kristen also in the forefront in a more troubled state.  Lisa Wilcox proves to be a solid actress with fine range.  We see her take Alice from this lowly, slightly introverted young woman to a vibrant, tough fighter.  Yet, we get moments of endearing sweetness and heart making her easy to sympathize with.  We follow Alice as she grows into this awesome character, and delivers in spades as an action hero that a film of this sort required.

I think the idea of Alice gaining the powers of her friends as Freddy kills them is great.  It creates a fresh dynamic in the story that while Alice suffers the grief of her dying friends, she becomes stronger by them so that she can battle Freddy.  He is savagely tearing through them at a fast rate making the situation all that more dire and seemingly insurmountable.  It definitely moves the film along at a tight pace, and makes for an entertaining and original sequel.  I will hand it to the A Nightmare On Elm Street movies for always seeking out new ideas so that no film feels like a carbon copy of another.  The ideas might not always work, but there’s at least an effort put forth most times.

Since this film amplifies all of the entertaining qualities of the previous movie, we get a Freddy Krueger who cracks more jokes, throws out more one-liners, and has significantly more screentime.  Robert Englund still does a very good job with this material maintaining his own standards of integrity as an actor.  Unfortunately, the portrayal of Freddy in this film just falls further away from that frightening figure that stalks the dark recesses of your worst nightmares.  For crying out loud, he is seen in broad daylight on a sunny beach with a pair of sunglasses on.  That’s one of my least desirable images from this franchise.  It’s the total stark opposite environment to place Fred Krueger in.  The scene in question has Kristen going into her own idyllic dream, and then, Freddy crashes it in a very Jaws homage fashion.  The better way to do this would be to have the sky go dark and stormy, and have Freddy invade her dream in a more ominous way.  Keeping Freddy in the shadows is where he is the most effective, and while there is some of that here, the liberties taken just don’t work to maintaining him as a scary figure.

The effects work here is amazing and rather ambitious.  The waterbed scene is great in both concept and execution as Joey tries to reach the naked beauty inside, but then, gets gutted by Freddy.  The most shocking and disgusting effects are when Freddy goes after Debbie, and she is transformed into a insect piece by piece.  Even for as much gross stuff as I’ve seen in horror movies, this sequence still makes me cringe and my stomach turn.  It’s no wonder I haven’t worked up the nerve to watch David Cronenberg’s The Fly.  The big ending to the climax where the souls are fighting to break out of Freddy is greatly elaborate and highly impressive.  Many different effects were used to pull this off, and they cut together seamlessly and to fantastic effect.  While some of the effects are dated and a little cheesy, they still work for the film’s overall style, and were certainly high grade for their time.

The music is very pop oriented with a mostly synthesizer style score creating a great ambient mystique.  It is a perfectly 80’s soundtrack with a number of really good rock tracks from Billy Idol, Dramarama, Vinnie Vincent Invasion, and Tuesday Knight herself performing the opening title track “Nightmares.”  I really like the sound of all of it because it gives the film energy, style, and a little bit of edge.  It helps to energize the movie and the audience as events unfold and build up to a really great climax.

I now do really like this movie.  It is fun, entertaining, exciting, and quite smart in a number of ways.  Renny Harlin does a great job with the well developed screenplay.  Unfortunately, where it fails is in actually in the horror department.  I’m not sure what to classify this movie as because it does have gruesome, nightmarish imagery, and great effects along with a solidly put together cinematic atmosphere.  There’s just not much here to scare an audience with outside of the graphic scenes of gore.  There’s very little effort put into building up tension or suspense, which are key to roping an audience in tightly.  It’s a fun, dark fantasy with a pitch perfect pop culture sensibility and excellent violent, gory moments.  The Dream Master is a largely fun time spent with a very capable and enjoyable cast, and so, it is easy to see why this was such a big box office success.  I just wish there was more to be potentially scared about in this tightly paced 93 minute runtime.


A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)

Nightmare on Elm Street 3Sequels tend to be an inferior breed of movie, especially in the horror genre.  However, sometimes, when you get the right mix of talent together, and especially getting the input of series creator Wes Craven, you can create one the most beloved films in the entire franchise.  Freddy’s Revenge fell off-track with the ideas and mythos of Freddy Krueger, but this film, Dream Warriors, got it solidly back on track in stellar, awesome ways.

The last of the Elm Street kids are now at a psychiatric ward where Freddy Kruger (Robert Englund) haunts their dreams with unspeakable horrors.  Their newest fellow patient is Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette) who has the ability to pull others into her dreams.  Their only hope is dream researcher and fellow survivor Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), who helps them battle the supernatural psycho on his own hellish turf.

From the beginning, you can see that this film is again embracing the atmosphere and surreal qualities of Craven’s original.  It feels directly in synch on numerous levels.  The opening dream sequence is very nerve-racking and visually captivating.  The first ten minutes of this sequel is better than anything in all of Freddy’s Revenge.  Overall, it features a great and imaginative collection of nightmare sequences that are all shot and lit in very interesting and moody ways to evoke mysterious and frightening feelings from an audience.  This is also a greatly paced film balancing its attention amongst this ensemble cast exceptionally well, and moving the story forward tightly.

Bringing back Nancy was a stroke of genius, and it continues her story purposefully and smartly.  She’s grown and matured to a point where she can truly help these troubled kids band together and fight Kruger and their own fears.  Heather Langenkamp does a lot of great work reprising this role bringing confidence and compassion to Nancy.  Teaming her with Patricia Arquette results in a strong pairing that work excellently off one another.  Kristen grows stronger through Nancy, as does everyone, but she is clearly the highlight.  Nancy fully passes the torch to Kristen in many ways, and Patricia Arquette does a truly standout acting job here.  I love that this movie isn’t just about Nancy.  It’s about all of these great, dimensional characters coming together to combat Krueger as a force to defeat him in grand fashion.

One of those notably great characters is Dr. Neil Gordon.  There is a lot of heart and compassion in Craig Wasson’s performance.  You can see how much Dr. Gordon cares for these kids, and even Nancy to an extent.  I like that he has an arc of sorts here having his mind open to new possibilities, and growing into a stronger character when he deals with Donald Thompson.  He becomes more than just a caring doctor.  He becomes one that will fight for what he believes in.  The subtle subplot with Sister Mary Helena helps evolve his character in clever ways so he can believe in more than just science to lay Freddy Krueger to rest.

Also returning is John Saxon as a much more down-and-out Donald Thompson.  No longer a Police Lieutenant, he’s a drunkard security guard who did go into a downward spiral after the events of the first movie.  It’s a stark contrast of a performance, but Saxon is such an incredible actor that he achieves it remarkably well.  The progression of the character is handled with appropriate weight and integrity.  This film takes its characters seriously and treats them with respect.  Thus, it makes for a film with serious weight and integrity on the whole, which I really respect.

The rest of this young cast is absolutely superb.  They embody each character’s distinct personalities with a great deal of dedication and talent.  It’s a golden example of putting together a great ensemble cast for a horror movie.  While each character has emotional weaknesses, they have greater strengths which are expertly bonded together to become the titular Dream Warriors.  It’s also a great treat seeing a fairly young and slender Larry Fishburne as the upbeat and charismatic orderly Max.  He is very charming showing great energy and enthusiasm.

Now, this film was where Freddy started to become a little lighter in tone and throwing out a few wisecracks.  Even the low, deep voice is not consistently present, likely to accommodate that variation in tone.  However, he’s still an effective, threatening villain due to Robert Englund’s performance.  He still commands the frame, and has a great, imposing presence.  While there seems to be less screentime for Freddy here, the fear of him permeates throughout the film, and the threat of him is almost omnipresent.  The movie builds him up, and in a way, gives him more impact when he does strike.  He is far more powerful than ever before, and that makes for much more elaborate dream sequences and scenarios.  Dream Warriors also begins to unveil a little of his back story in regards to being the “son of a hundred maniacs,” which is great stuff.

With the imagination back in full force, the practical and visual effects shine through excellently.  There is plenty of gore on display that is effectively designed to unnerve.  The most memorable work, both in make-up and visual effects, are when Freddy uses Phillip’s own tendons to walk him to his death like a marionette, and the full-on Freddy serpent that attempts to eat Kristen early on.  Even in the climax, we get some really good stop motion animation, and some all around solid visual effects composites.  Where the previous sequel was very lacking in imaginative nightmares, this film is packed with them, and they all tie in perfectly with the story.  They are all crafted with solid suspense and smart scares.  I will grant that this film has more of a fun factor than the first, and that does require a little loosening of the horror tone.  However, this movie still delivers on the horror and frightening visuals due largely to the excellent effects work, and the talent of director Chuck Russell.

We are also treated to a greatly shot film.  The cinematographer uses subtle camera movements highlighting poignant moments, and the dream sequences all have great visual vibrancy.  Shadowy blues are used for the more haunting or mysterious scenes, and fiery reds are utilized when in the depths of Freddy’s surreal boiler room.  The look of Dream Warriors is not as dark and frightening as the first film, but instead, uses visual atmosphere to great effect.  Director Chuck Russell really approached this film seriously, not deteriorating it into silly, indulgent territory, and how it is photographed entirely reflects that intention.

Dream Warriors also features some great music, starting with the score from Angelo Badalamenti.  He works in the Charles Bernstein theme very well, and builds a great atmosphere beyond that.  He reflects the tone of dramatic weight and chilling horror with exceptional skill.  It is such a damn good horror film score, as should be no surprise from David Lynch’s regular composer from Blue Velvet onward.

And of course, the classic songs from Dokken helped break the metal band into a wide audience.  This film entirely exposed me to them between Into The Fire and the title track Dream Warriors.  They are two excellent songs, and they complement this more MTV styled sequel that hits you with more vibrant and stylized visuals.  You can definitely tell that Dokken was involved early on as Taryn is wearing one of their T-shirts in her first scene.  Of course, there songs are a small part of the movie, and it is Badalamenti’s score that drives the atmosphere and weight of the picture.

This sequel is the proper follow-up to the original.  Beyond just bringing back Nancy and her father, this just builds upon the original core ideas, and progresses them into a very exciting new place.  Nancy learned how to overcome Freddy in the first movie, but now, she teaches others how to fight him with their own set of strengths.  Some do parish, but others live to fight in another movie.  Wes Craven did early drafts of the script, and thus, had some creative input on this sequel.  Regardless of how much or little of his ideas made it there, I think his presence is still felt.  It is a smartly written film with a great cast of stellar young talents, and it still delivers on the scares and horror aspects.  Certainly none of the sequels measure up on a pure horror movie level to the original, but in terms of doing what a sequel should do, A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors does exactly that.  It expands the ideas and universe to have a fuller, more imaginative experience that entertains in new ways while still being respectful of where it came from.  This is an undeniable classic to franchise fans, and is certainly one of the most well loved slashers of all time.