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A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)

Nightmare on Elm Street 5This is where the film franchise took a serious slip and fall misstep.  Someone realized that Freddy Krueger was on the verge of becoming a bad punchline, and so, steps were taken to make this a darker, more mature sequel.  Rushed out into theatres just under a year after The Dream Master, director Stephen Hopkins did all he could to deliver a solid film, but there was too many misconceived qualities to be what the studio desired.  This was the lowest grossing film of the series up to that point, and the reasons why are evident here.

Having survived and seemingly defeated him, Alice Johnson (Lisa Wilcox) finds the deadly dreams of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) starting once again.  This time, the taunting murderer is striking through the sleeping mind of Alice’s unborn child.  His intention is to be “born again” into the real world at the expense of Alice’s new circle of friends.  The only one who can stop Freddy is his dead mother, but can Alice free her spirit in time to save her own son?

For me, the biggest and most evident issue with The Dream Child is that it tries to tie campy, overblown humorous elements in with a gothic looking slasher film, and that just curls my upper lip in disgust.  Stephen Hopkins certainly directs a very well shot movie, but that gothic production design is soaked in so much brown that it’s not inviting to look at.  That visual style is really contained within the dream world, but that has always been the more fantastical and visually intriguing aspect of these films.  Hopkins does have a great eye for stylish visuals, but it is a very drab film to look at in most cases.  If it had a more subtle, realistic color palette like Craven’s original, or followed along the vibrant color schemes of Renny Harlin’s The Dream Master, this may have been a more visually exciting movie.

Lisa Wilcox is able to stretch out and expand upon her previous performance as Alice.  She’s able to take that strong fighter, and add the emotional touches of heart and depth into her.  It feels very organic from how she initially was in The Dream Master, but just melding that with her new found strength.  Wilcox also brings out the heartache and inner turmoil of Alice with endearing charm and sympathy.  She’s pushed to new limits, fighting to save not only her friends, but the life of her newly conceived son, which Wilcox embraces with a great deal of depth and motivation.  All around, she leads this film with a lot of confidence continuing on as an inspiring hero for this franchise.  I feel it’s unfortunate that she is never revisited again because Lisa Wilcox is such a solid and versatile talent, and really gave us a standout character to rival Nancy Thompson amongst fans.

Now, Alice’s new cast of friends are not filled by bad actors.  They are quite good, but the characters just aren’t that appealing or entertaining.  The closest we get is the comic book artist Mark.  He’s decently fun, but is definitely downplayed.  He has some good dramatic moments, and showcases some heart at times.  It’s a shame that actor Joe Seely has nothing more to work with here because he seemed to have the potential to really breakout with a more entertaining performance.  With Yvonne, I understand the idea of the friend that doesn’t always agree with you, but she is too abrasive too often.  There is too much friction between her and Alice for my liking to where I just didn’t like the character.  With all the teenagers that have been killed by Freddy in this town, you’d think she would actually wake up to the truth and start acting more open-mindedly.  Instead, she remains a stubborn minded person dismissing her friends claims instead of trying to help them through most of the film.  That’s a friend I wouldn’t care to have.  Greta, the more upper class type friend, just doesn’t have much going for her as a character.  The actress portraying Greta’s mother, however, is just terrible all the way through.  She overacts the part to horrendously cartoonish levels.  Her performance is very forewarning of some of what we’d get in Freddy’s Dead.

I found the kid who plays Jacob, Whitby Hertford, to be rather unappealing to look at and rather annoying.  There was nothing about his performance that made me feel sympathy for him at all.  Even worse is that the make-up department did all they could to make him look uglier, creepier.  Surely, that was the intent, but part of the purpose of Jacob is to make him sympathetic; to make him someone you want to see saved from Krueger’s clutches.  I couldn’t care any less about him if I tried.  I really feel he should have been played more innocently, and have Freddy gradually corrupt him more and more to motivate sympathy from an audience and put more urgency upon Alice to act quickly.

Ten years ago, I was able to do an email based interview with Robert Englund, and from that, I gained insight into the shift in the tone and portrayal of Freddy Krueger from scary and serious to cheesy and comical.  He said, and I quote, “I feel Freddy should be dark, but directors and fans like his dark humor.  In many cases during the filming of all the movies I would give a dark and a comical take for certain scenes.  Director liked the “button” that a laugh gives so they would often opt for the more comical take in the editing room.”  The choice to take Freddy into comical territory was indeed outside of Englund’s control, and he simply gave the filmmakers the best performance he could based on what they wanted.  This film delves deeply into the comical villain portrayal, and thus, the scare factor of Freddy Krueger is severely drained.  He was turned into a twisted clown that might make some people laugh, but is almost guaranteed not to scare you at all.  What is scary is that this is not the worst it would get to being.

The make-up work on Freddy does fall down in quality as he appears cheap and rubbery.  This is a byproduct of the rushed production schedule.  However, many of the various practical effects are impressive such as the motorcycle death sequence that seems straight out of Videodrome.  There are some cool visual effects used when Mark gets sucked into his comic books, but it was far from anything new.  It was mostly a retread of the classic a-Ha music video for “Take On Me.”  The climax features effects and designs directly copying from M.C. Escher’s famous artwork Relativity with all the upside down staircases.  It’s a fine idea, but it’s less surreal and just more whacky and silly.  I’ve seen it done in Looney Tunes cartoons before, and so, I would hardly associate it with a frightening, vertigo-like nightmare.  There are a number of very good visual effects in The Dream Child, but the ideas behind many of them aren’t all that great.  Plus, they seem even more dated than those of The Dream Master.

And of course, since this film deals with a pregnancy, I honestly don’t think that A Nightmare On Elm Street movie is the proper platform to debate the issue of abortion.  I am not going to inject my feelings on the issue here either.  This film brings it up as a serious issue for Alice to contend with, but she remains strong in her decision to keep the child.  People don’t go into a movie like this to have hot button socio-political issues debated.  They are there to have a fun time being scared.  Adding this sort of subject matter into the movie likely turned more than a few people off to it.  While it is not an aspect of the film that really bothers me, it’s just not something that needed to exist in a slasher movie.

This sequel also feels uneven in its plotting, and rather thin in certainly places.  The film is front loaded with establishing every element of this plot to where it leaves a lot of muddled meandering in the middle.  It probably rushes us into the thick of the story quicker than necessary.  Then, the film progresses past all of that to where it kind of goes through the slasher movie motions to rack up the body count.  It’s not until the final act that any of these plot elements are actively dealt with, and even then, it becomes very repetitive just in order to fill in the remaining runtime.  That’s odd to say since the film ends very quickly after Freddy is dispatched with, but still struggles to come in under the 90 minute mark.  The third act confrontation with Freddy runs around in circles, both literally and figuratively, to where it just doesn’t feel exciting.  Again, I didn’t care a thing for this creepy child Jacob to invest myself in Alice’s desire to protect him, and the filmmakers don’t really do anything to make him anyone to care about.  So, having Alice and Freddy chase him around the dream world for the whole third act was just tedious.  I generally like the further exploration of Freddy’s origins and bringing Amanda Krueger back into the fold from Dream Warriors.  I just don’t think all of these elements have enough impact on the climax as they likely were supposed to.  I understand not trying to close the door on Freddy, again, since he always comes back, but not trying to have a satisfying and solid ending to your movie is a terrible approach to have.

While Stephen Hopkins tried to take this into a darker, grittier look, it is the script that fundamentally sabotages that effort.  I’m even hard pressed to say if this is even a potentially good concept because it is executed so poorly from a clunky screenplay.  This is what you get when you rush the movie into theatres fifty-one weeks after the original.  Back in 1989, it took that long just to get a movie from theatres onto home video.  When you slow down, and take your time to find the right story and refine the concept, you will get a better movie in the end.  Instead, The Dream Child is enough of a mess to call this a major pothole in the steady road of success of this franchise.  While it was profitable, it did fall especially below expectations.  Thus, New Line Cinema decided to begin plotting Freddy’s supposedly ultimate demise with what would be the most horrendous movie of this entire franchise.  As for this sequel, ultimately, neither the attempt at a darker, more mature tone nor Englund’s best efforts could save it.  The film is watchable, but not especially satisfying.

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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.