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Black Christmas (1974)

Black ChristmasMany attribute the birth of the slasher genre to John Carpenter’s Halloween.  However, a small Canadian film from 1974 laid the groundwork for the genre and especially Carpenter’s seminal classic.  Black Christmas is likely known to younger horror fans by way of the remake that I never saw.  You do yourself a serious disservice if you have never seen the original because it is still a greatly effective piece of horror filmmaking with a collection of surprisingly notable talents involved.  Who would have ever thought that the director of the beloved family film classic A Christmas Story would have once done a Christmas-themed slasher movie?

The college town of Bedford is receiving an unwelcome guest this Christmas.  As the residents of sorority house Pi Kappa Sig prepare for the festive season, a demonic stranger begins to stalk the house.  A series of grisly obscene phone calls start to plague the residents of the sorority and soon they will each meet their fate at the hands of the psychotic intruder.  As the Police try to trace the phone calls, they discover that nothing is as it seems.

Watching this film you will see right from the start its influence.  The killer, Billy, as he refers to himself, is hidden almost entirely throughout the film through the use of a point of view camera.  Clearly, this trick would be re-used in both Halloween and Friday The 13th, but neither achieves it quite as well as Black Christmas.  That’s because of what more is added to it in terms of the killer’s psychotic behavior.  Director Bob Clark creates an amazing sense of unease with the point of view camera work.  The wide angle lens coupled with the slightly unsteady camera movement reflects the psychosis of this killer.  The completely deranged phone calls are still frighteningly disturbing.  They got right under my skin from the start, and continue to escalate as the film progresses.  The radically unhinged psyche of this deranged killer is manically on display throughout the film, and Clark wastes no time establishing the nerve-racking suspense and horror.  The fact that we know there is a crazed killer hiding out in the attic, unknown to everyone in the film, immediately injects suspense and terror into nearly every scene in that house.  I will admit, it’s been a very long time since I’ve watched this film, and damn is it still insanely creepy and effective.

Black Christmas was an especially low budget film, and so, it has a rough, grainy quality.  However, it is photographed very solidly showing the talent involved, and even then, the rugged quality of the film stock adds to the dark, unsettling tone.  The pacing might feel slow to a certain audience, but this is not a film that drags along.  Every methodically paced moment is used to great suspenseful effect, and Bob Clark knows so immensely well how to elicit these spine tingling feelings.  Each scene builds story, character, or towards the terror of the picture.  Yet, the film still features a few fine moments of levity to give it a needed contrast on a rare occasion.  It also has a collection of stunningly solid talents in front of the camera.

Olivia Hussey is a wonderful lead portraying Jess with a lot of compassion and vulnerability.  Hussey has a sophistication and warmth to hear in addition to maturity and intelligence.  This builds Jess into a relatable character to worry about on multiple levels, and she plays terrified exquisitely well.  She also does feel like a woman coming into her own as Jess deals with her boyfriend Peter.  He wants to have a baby with her, but she’s against the idea creating a troubling friction between them.  You might think this is a frivolous subplot, but it directly ties into the mystery and paranoia about the film’s killer moving forward.  Keir Dullea, most well known from 2001: A Space Odyssey, is quite superb in this very conflicted and emotionally aggressive and unstable role.  He’s very intriguing to watch as the relationship between Peter and Jess is torn apart, and begins to become a perceived menacing threat.  Dullea and Hussey work exceptionally well with one another laying out the drama between them smartly and poignantly.

And yes, this film has John Saxon.  That automatically increases its coolness factor.  I just love the authority and weight he brings with him in anything I see from him.  As Lieutenant Fuller, he’s everything you’d expect – confident, level headed, and concise.  He really echoes this performance in A Nightmare On Elm Street, but surely builds upon that.  As Fuller, he’s rock solid, just the way I want my John Saxon, but still has a moment of two of levity that is very much welcomed.

Margot Kidder puts in a surprising performance.  Sorority sister Barb is meant to be rather crass and heartless, and Kidder hits that right on the mark.  Add in the constant smoking and drinking, and you’ve got a character that is not endearing.  Yet, she makes a definite impression.  The rest of the cast is not particularly notable, but everyone does a very solid job with their distinct characters.  They make this a horror film with likable characters who you can easily fear for as lethal danger stalks them from the shadows.

Black Christmas definitely feels like a 1970’s horror film.  Beyond the aforementioned dark, grainy look and the obvious fashion and hairstyles, this film has almost a similar style as The Exorcist.  There’s very little score except in exceptionally key moments as Bob Clark uses the silent unease of the house to great effect.  The phone calls are jarring enough without overcompensating with a score.  The use of the Christmas music sets the tone wonderfully using the serene sound in an unexpectedly haunting way.  Scenes like when our killer is stalking through the house while Christmas carolers sing outside is simply brilliant.  Juxtaposing these angelic voices with a moment of suspense and violence is truly inspired, and is filmed gorgeously.

There are terribly creepy moments all throughout such as seeing just a shadow creeping into the background while Jess is on the phone with the police, or simply anytime the POV shot has our killer spying on these young ladies from upstairs.  And the shot of the eye through the door jam has become iconic and chilling as it sets off the film’s final act.  And the climax is brilliantly crafted with a great use of shadow, misdirection, and taut tension.  Just when you believe all is laid to rest, this ending gives you one final ominous moment of terror.  Wrapping it all up together, you see the brilliant touches that Clark and screenwriter Roy Moore put into this film.  In later years, it likely would’ve been a film of high body count, gratuitous sex, and little character.  However, in the same year that brought us The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, you get a film that is very well written that connects you with these characters, gives you something to care about with them, and then, set them against a very deranged and unseen killer.  It is a film of great suspense and ratcheted up tension that will leave prone audiences choked up in their seats, and wanting to turn all the lights on in the house while checking every room and locking every door when its all over.

From Black Christmas, you can definitely see evocative elements for Halloween and When A Stranger Calls.  This is absolutely one of the most influential slasher films without many people knowing it.  Maybe the influence was a time or two removed, but this was the genesis of that genre in a clearly defined form.  This is a classic that doesn’t get the recognition it so very much deserves.  This was director Bob Clark’s final foray into the horror genre, and it’s odd to see his career veer into comedy in the 1980’s, then very silly and wretchedly received kid’s films in the final years of his life.  Regardless, we will always have this amazingly effective horror and suspense film to scare us on a dark, quiet evening.  As this film’s tagline says, “If this movie doesn’t make your skin crawl… It’s on too tight!”

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The Omen (1976)

The Omen is one of those classic horror films that has received vast amounts of praise over the years.  It was widely heralded upon release, and gained a powerful reputation of horror since then.  It’s also a film that I have never paid much attention to.  I’ve watched it a time or two before, owned the DVD for years, but it’s never really stuck with me.  Six years ago, a remake was released that was almost a carbon copy, but I recall it having some things I liked about it.  Still, I always felt that both versions came off about equal, in their own ways, but that’s an old assessment.  So, on this Halloween, I have decided to take a fair look at both films to judge them apart from and against one another.  Which one do I prefer?  Which one does it better?  I hope I will have an answer at the end of these two reviews.

Robert and Katherine Thorn (Gregory Peck and Lee Remick) seem to have it all.  They are happily married, and he is the US Ambassador to Great Britain, but they want more than to have children.  When Katharine has a stillborn child, Robert is approached by a priest at the hospital who suggests that they take a healthy newborn whose mother has just died in childbirth.  Without telling his wife, he agrees.  Years later, after relocating to London, strange events – and the ominous warnings of a priest – lead Robert Thorn to believe that the child he took from that Italian hospital is evil incarnate.  The Ambassador is approached by photojournalist Keith Jennings (David Warner) with startling evidence that supports the claims of Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton).  From there, both Thorn and Jennings must take a journey to uncover the truth.

After watching this, what I find striking is that, despite all the great talents and potentially ripe subject matter at hand, this film made barely any impact on me at all.  I can tell you that the film starts me off on the wrong foot with a score that is way too overbearing and obvious, but I will get to that, in depth, later on.  It sets the wrong mood for me right out the gate telling me this is not a film of subtlety, but one of shock moments and broad strokes.  Turns out, that’s exactly what I got.

Early on, there is an extreme lack of suspense or setup to dramatic or horrifying moments such as the nanny’s hanging.  It just happens without any buildup of anticipation or tension, and the traumatic potential is barely dealt with in the aftermath.  Events that should have adverse emotional effects on the characters don’t seem to have lasting impacts.  Even before that, there’s a wholly unnecessary scene where the Thorns are just walking along, and then, freak out when they don’t see Damien trailing behind them.  The score goes melodramatic for a few seconds before they find Damien unharmed just standing around.  The moment served no purpose whatsoever, and it was even handled in a very clunky manner.  The film doesn’t take its time to craft suspense to setup an audience for the chilling moments of horror.  It just sort of drops them in front of you like a bag of bricks.

The thing The Omen really seemed to not take advantage of is building a looming aura.  While there are moments which are strongly implied as being supernatural, that feeling is just fleeting.  We are never given a lasting sense that there is a subversive, sinister force weaving its way through the background.  The film also seemed to lack a natural flow of events in its long first act, and partly because of this, it takes nearly forever to build an atmosphere or sense of perceived direction.  It takes nearly half the film until there’s even a sustained sense of dread or momentum for more than one scene.  In the second half, for a very long stretch of time, Damien’s not even present for the threat of what he is to be sustained.  There’s a simple rule in good storytelling which is “show, don’t tell.”  The film takes more time telling us about what Damien is instead of showing us.  Anything we are shown feels too disjointed due to that lack of natural flow in the story.  Also, I certainly have no qualms about a slow burning film, but it takes until almost the one hour mark before anyone gets motivated into the action of the plot.  Until then, it sort of meanders along with mysterious and murderous things happening, but no one really doing anything in light of them.

This happens when Jennings begins to convey the foreboding details behind Damien.  The notes of Father Brennan about the child, and the startling evidence of the photographs are revealed to Robert Thorn.  These are interesting moments which actually do nicely give us insight into the truth of the matter.  Yet, it could have been used to actually create a foreboding atmosphere of terrible dread and urgency, but there’s barely any atmosphere in this film at all.  I never got a sense of impending doom or urgency at any point in time.  The film becomes so focused on the origins of Damien and what needs to be done about him, almost no time it spent exploring what he’s capable of.  While surely the son of Satan shouldn’t be allowed to live, no time is devoted to conveying what he himself will do if not stopped.  There are obviously forces around Damien causing all this death and tragedy, but he’s barely done anything threatening.  All we get are people repeating the Bible passage about “from the eternal sea he rises,” but no one bothers to translate that into terms a regular person can understand.  It is never put into a real world context.

The priest’s death is a tad ridiculous as he just stands there for several long seconds, waiting for the spire to fall and impale him.  There’s more than enough time for him to run away from it, but he just stands there.  If I look up and see something falling from several stories high about to hit me, I lunge out of the way.  This isn’t nitpicky.  This is challenging the intelligence of the filmmaking on display.  There are any number of better ways to have plotted out and edited that scene for more immediate impact.  At times, such as this one, the filmmakers try to overdramatize these death scenes.  Other times, they under dramatize them to where they have almost no impact at all.  If you want a better example of these sorts of deaths done better, just look at the Final Destination films.

I dearly love the work of the late Jerry Goldsmith.  He was a magnificent composer.  However, when it comes to The Omen, I don’t think I’ve heard a score more devoid of subtlety in my life.  Every single music cue is loud, verbose, and melodramatic to the point of it being obtrusive.  It treats nearly every moment as the biggest dramatic, climactic moment in the film.  It’s well composed, powerful music, but it’s just too over-the-top for my tastes.  It just bludgeons your ears with music.  Moments that are shot and executed with a lot of suspenseful tension are ruined by the blunt instrument of the bombastic score.  People have praised this score as having made the film more terrifying for them.  For me, it kills the mood time and time again, and tries to force more drama upon you than the scene calls for.

Gregory Peck was an immensely acclaimed actor, but I’m a little divided on his performance here.  He does have a very good presence conveying a hefty weight of drama.  However, I feel he overacts in a few too many scenes.  He exaggerates the drama or horror of the moment a little too much, pulling the film out of its grounded sensibilities.  It’s another aspect of the film that could’ve used some more subtlety.  Following further down that path, actor Patrick Troughton pushes his performance as Father Brennan way too over the top into bad B-grade movie territory.  It’s a one dimensional crazy man who is very hard to take seriously.

On the other hand, as always, I think David Warner is excellent.  He’s one of the finest character actors around, and he really handles the role of Jennings with grace and urgency.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen David Warner not give a good performance, and here, he really shows the value and quality he’s consistently brought throughout his career.  Also, Billie Whitelaw is exceptionally good as Mrs. Baylock.  She is effectively creepy with a definite psychotic edge, and a pair of fiercely evil, chilling eyes.  I wouldn’t want that woman roaming around my house.

Harvey Stephens does a fine job as Damien giving him a rather exhuberant fascination that implies his evil.  Although, that evil never really manifests in a knowing way.  It’s more of a screenwriting issue that Damien himself isn’t very active in the plot.  Regardless of that, Harvey mixes both the innocence of a child with an underlying, evil nature.  You can tell there is something not right about the child, and that is effective enough for what the filmmakers were going for.

Unfortunately, I was left with a blank impression of Lee Remick.  She has so very little to do as Katherine Thorn that I just have nothing to say about her performance other than it was okay.  Normally, if I have nothing to say, I say nothing, but I thought it was important to mention this as it ties into a lack of emotional depth in the movie.  That is something I will touch on, again, later.

The effects work is a slightly mixed bag.  Most of the death scenes have very impressive and somewhat elaborate effects.  The decapitation was especially well done.  On the bad side, while people were amazed by the shot of Lee Remick’s fall from the balcony at the time of release, today, it looks comical.  It’s more like something from a parody of the movie than an actual effect to take seriously.  It has absolutely no realistic quality or impact at all.  What would’ve improved it is shooting it at a slower frame to generate more motion blur, and thus, creating a sense of velocity and visceral impact.  Richard Donner might’ve been going for a slow motion approach, but it clearly wasn’t shot in slow motion, just performed in slow motion.  Also, the prosthetic make-up on the burned priest is very primitive by even the standards of the day.  It’s terribly unimpressive work.  These are only minor gripes, but the film doesn’t have a lot of make-up or visual effects to comment on.  That’s neither a good or bad thing, just a statement of fact.

Another real problem I have with this film is that no one is scared out of their minds at any point.  I mean, it is the Anti-Christ, the son of Satan they are dealing with, but never did I feel like anyone was in dreadful fear over this reality.  At least in The Exorcist, the characters were petrified by the fact that they were facing down a demon, and their fear really carried the weight of urgency and threat in that film.  Here, the closest we get is our final moments with Jennings as he tries to convince Robert Thorn that Damien is no innocent child, and that he should be destroyed.  Even then, it’s more a matter of conviction than fright  There is such a lack of emotional depth present in this movie which results in a very mild sense of fear.  This is aside from something like the dogs attacking Thorn and Jennings in the cemetery.  I’m referring to people having a deathly serious fear about Damien.  The characters are more afraid of Mrs. Baylock, the psycho nanny, than the actual spawn of the Devil.  To me, that seems really, really backwards.  He might only be a small child, but if the kid is supposed to be perceived as apocalyptically dangerous, I think our fear should be directed towards him, instead.

While the film does have its potentially shocking moments of brutality and death, I think the scary qualities are entirely religious based, and I have no such beliefs.  I watched this film waiting for it to give me something to be scared or tense about, but nothing ever came.  Even the climax, aside from the violent confrontation with Mrs. Baylock, lacks a driving sense of dramatic intensity.  It would seem that the subject matter is what scared audiences, not so much the execution of the ideas.  I don’t think the style of filmmaking holds up thirty-six years later.  While it’s rather well shot and edited, which I give much credit for to Gilbert Taylor and Stuart Baird, respectively, there’s just a lack of plot cohesion and momentum in The Omen.  This film had talents who were masters at their crafts from Taylor and Baird to Goldsmith, Peck, and Donner, but maybe, this wasn’t the right material for some of them to tackle.  Richard Donner tried to convince himself he was making a psychological suspense thriller instead of a horror movie, apparently because thinking of it as a horror movie made it uninteresting to him.  Obviously, I can’t help but take a serious issue with that point of view.  Yet, what he was trying to make was indeed a horror movie, and I don’t think it’s really his forte as a director.  He knew how to shock an audience, but demonstrated no ability to even attempt to craft suspense.  I think it just comes down to subtlety.  It takes no skill to shock an audience.  To genuinely scare them through atmosphere and suspense requires quite a lot.

Honestly, I didn’t expect The Omen to hit me as this blunt and shallow of a film, and I know there are going to be people reading this shocked at this severe criticism considering the film’s status as a “classic.”  However, no art should ever stand on reputation alone.  Time is not kind to all movies, and some do not stand that test of it.  Not to mention, for someone who has no religious beliefs, I need more than just the ideas this film presents to scare me.  You’ve got to work at it.  You’ve got to earn it, and this film didn’t try hard enough.  The only thing that did stick with me over the years about the movie were my issues with the score, and so, I did go into the film bracing myself for that.  Still, I was willing to give the score a chance to showcase some subtlety, some grace, but there was next to none where it counted.  I really wanted this film to give me something impressive, something that really grabbed me, but it gave me nothing.  I was almost wholly underwhelmed by the 1976 version of The Omen.  At this point, I cannot fathom why I even own this movie beyond the fact that I have it in a beautiful steelbook DVD case.  The creepiest thing in the movie is the last shot of the movie, and I do mean by a very wide margin.


When A Stranger Calls (1979)

I really believe When A Stranger Calls has gotten an inaccurate reputation for being some terrifying classic of horror cinema.  That reputation merely applies to only part of the whole film – the opening and ending.  Suffice it to say, this thriller starring Carol Kane as your average neighborhood baby-sitter, Charles Durning as a determined, heavy-set detective, and Tony Beckley as the chilling voice over the phone, is not what one would hope for.  Even by the standards of a psychological thriller, this doesn’t offer you much to engage you outside of its opening and ending.

Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) is hired by the Mandrakis’ to babysit their children while they go out for dinner and a movie.  It seems innocent enough, but sometime after the parents leave, Jill starts getting unsettling phone calls from a man simply stating, “Have you checked the children?”  This goes on for hours, and terrifies her more and more.  She eventually works with the phone company until they reveal the startling truth that there is a killer inside the house with her.  Curt Duncan(Tony Beckley) is soon arrested for the murder of the children, and he remains committed to a mental institution for seven years until he escapes.  He is soon pursued by Detective John Clifford (Charles Durning) through an urban setting until everything comes full circle in the finale.

The first fifteen minutes of this film are what earned this movie its reputation.  Despite knowing the full story, as it is a common urban legend, the entire sequence still came off as effectively suspenseful.  The whole film really comes together here from the great performances of Carol Kane and Tony Beckley to the direction to the musical score and more.  It is a simple, terrifying concept that was executed very well, and would’ve made for an excellent short film, which is exactly what When A Stranger Calls originally was.  However, the success of Halloween motivated director Fred Walton to expand the story into a feature.  So, he had to find a way to fill up a feature length runtime, and I think the lack of compelling ideas and disjointed tone blatantly show through.

When the film jumps ahead seven years is where the film takes a very lethargic and bland turn.  The hunt for the escaped Curt Duncan ultimately turns into a bad episode of Cannon.  Charles Durning is a very accomplished and acclaimed actor due to great work done throughout his career, but there’s really nothing exceptional for him to do in this film.  There is a decent chase scene between Clifford and Duncan through the urban streets and alleyways, but it is very far from being a highly dramatic sequence.  The film loses all strength of suspense and tension that it opened with when it switches gears in style and story focus.  Only when we return to Carol Kane’s character at the end, who is now married with two small children, does this film get anywhere near the level of tension demonstrated in the opening sequence.

Some praise this film, others say it’s only worth a few minutes of tension and suspense.  I say that anything that this film did with tension was done immensely better in the original Black Christmas.  In that film, the caller is exponentially more disturbing as there is no method to his madness.  The killer is deranged, and has completely broken from reality.  Of course, in actuality, Black Christmas and When a Stranger Calls are two different styles of film.  The first is a bonafide horror flick.  It is the prototypical slasher film, the one that inspired HalloweenWhen a Stranger Calls is simply a thriller, and isn’t really horror.  So, partially why it’s featured during this month devoted to horror, both good and bad, is to correct a misconception about this movie.  It certainly had the base elements for a solid horror film with a psychologically disturbed killer on the loose after having terrorized a young woman and murdered two children.  Yet, when there are merely only two, justifiably, off-screen kills, a group of mildly disturbing phone calls, and basically, everything sandwiched in between is like some low grade, boring cue out of a second rate, dull crime thriller, you’re not gonna reach the level of a Halloween, Black Christmas, or Friday the 13th.

We follow the killer, Curt Duncan, around so much that, aside from one, late moment inside an apartment, he doesn’t seem very dangerous or disturbing.  Mostly, he’s just wandering the streets looking for food, money, and shelter.  Simply put, it’s boring.  There’s nearly no deep exploration of his character or psyche, as one would expect from a psychological crime thriller.  It really is a failure of the screenwriters and director that this lacks so much interesting material.  This film was certainly made long before we had multi-layered serial killers populating cinema such as Hannibal Lecter to inspire more fascinating mentally disturbing characters.  Still, I could imagine Alfred Hitchcock making this into a masterpiece of suspense with a better script and his remarkable direction.  It’s all about substance and context, both of which this film gets wrong for the bulk of its runtime.

The old VHS box cover for When A Stranger Calls once labeled it as “The Terrifying Classic”, but I certainly don’t agree.  Again, the first fifteen minutes or so of the film are suspenseful, but the concept had already been done immensely better in other films.  When a Stranger Calls just doesn’t cut it for me. You sit around, waiting for this film to pick up for so long that you may lose interest.  The ending is even shorter than the beginning, and isn’t quite as well done.  Basically, if Carol Kane isn’t involved in the scene, the film doesn’t work.  It’s not about her, it’s just the simple dynamic of the storytelling.  Curt Duncan has almost no one to prey on outside of her scenes, which obviously makes for a markedly dull thriller.  There was a cable television sequel made fourteen years later, and I do believe I saw it at one time.  However, that was certainly a very long time ago, and I don’t recall much of anything from it.  I’ve never seen the remake, and I don’t intend to.  I just don’t think this narrow concept has enough juice to sustain a full feature film without more substance added in, or given more variation from an unseen killer tormenting a babysitter by phone.


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.


Fright Night (1985)

In 2011, they remade this movie.  I have not seen it, and I don’t need to.  The original Fright Night from director Tom Holland needed no improvement or reinvention.  It’s an excellent and immensely entertaining vampire film that mixes enough horror with humor.  It has a wonderfully seductive vampire in Chris Sarandon and a wonderful lead in William Ragsdale.  As many of the best 1980s vampire films did, it delivers on both solid horror and fun humor in a well balanced blend.

For young Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), nothing could be better than an old horror movie late at night.  However, when he sees the new neighbors bringing a coffin into the house next door, Charley starts to believe his handsome and charming neighbor Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) is a vampire.  Unfortunately, Dandridge knows that Charley is aware of his secret, and attempts to kill him.  Charley then becomes deadest to destroy the monster,  Of course, nobody believes his wild claims – not the police, not his weird friend “Evil” Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), and not his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse).  Ultimately, Charley turns to his beloved horror television show host and cinematic vampire killer Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) who is also skeptical, but as the terrifying events unfold, he and Charley must stand side-by-side to battle the fanged undead for their own survival.

Fright Night is such a strong movie.  Every artistic element really forges together solidly.  Most importantly, the cast is brilliantly put together.  Writer / director Tom Holland really grabbed up some amazing talents.  Firstly, William Ragsdale has so much enthusiasm for the role of Charley Brewster.  He really sells every passionate, manic, and heartfelt aspect of the character.  Right from the start, he’s purely relatable as this loveable, scared teenager.  While playing Charley as an entirely straight, panicked character, Ragsdale is able to illicit so much humor amongst his co-stars.  His intensely fearful behavior purely feeds into Ed & Amy’s perspective that he’s gone right out of his mind, and makes for a wonderfully funny juxtaposition.  Anyone going to see this movie could easily put themselves in Charley’s place, and that’s really the perfection of this movie.  Anyone else in Charley’s position would likely be frightened out of their mind, and look for desperate solutions to this lethal supernatural threat.  Still, it’s Ragsdale’s sweetness, heart, and innocent charm that really drive home the likeability of Charley.

The late and very great Roddy McDowall clearly was having major amounts of fun on this movie.  His performance as Peter Vincent is greatly charismatic and smart.  He brings such jovial, witty quality that required a charming sweetness.  The moments where he plays up the corny aspects of the character are very entertaining and brilliant.  McDowall also adds subtle touches of depth to this lowly washed up horror legend of Peter Vincent, respectfully named after horror greats Peter Cushing and Vincent Price.  As Peter Vincent becomes aware of the horrifying reality at hand, McDowall richly portrays the character’s shaken, fearful state of mind.  One of the film’s most intense scenes is after Peter Vincent violently slays a creature of the night, and he witnesses the tragic, nightmarish reversion he takes from wolf back to human form.  McDowall gives the scenes such emotional substance with an amazingly deep expression of humanity and sympathy.  Most other horror films wouldn’t think to incorporate such a powerful moment, but it deeply motivates Peter Vincent to confront Dandridge once again into the film’s climax.  It gives him the strength of will and faith to combat this powerful enemy.  It’s a great piece of acting by Roddy, and a brilliant piece of screenwriting and directing by Tom Holland.

I absolutely love Chris Sarandon’s work.  I think he is a remarkable actor able to bring a unique and entertaining quality to everything he does.  He can do great, straight dramatic acting, or as in The Princess Bride, can play a truly despicable villain while still making him deeply comedic.  As Jerry Dandridge, Sarandon oozes seductive sexuality which saturates the screen.  He has a hypnotic allure that leaves no doubt in his ability to sway Amy’s desires.  Sarandon always brings an elegant sophistication to his performances that really penetrates and creates a very theatrical quality.  That is vibrantly on display with Jerry Dandridge.  He can be nicely charming as the friendly neighbor, but then, turn on the imposing, frightening qualities which electrifies the screen.  In the dance club scene, he completely captivates and enthralls with sensual, erotic physicality in conjunction with Amanda Bearse.  It’s a great dynamic that Dandridge is both deeply seductive and romantic as well as fiercely violent.  Dandridge is very full of life and compelling charisma that would be a chore for most any other actor, but for Sarandon, it seems to come very naturally.

The supporting cast is just as solid and enjoyable.  Jonathan Stark does a very intriguing job as Billy Cole.  When things get weird, the character just gets weirder.  What sort of creature he is, I’m still uncertain about, but that’s good.  It shows that there are things that not even all of the horror movie knowledge in the world can explain in this film.  Most would know Amanda Bearse from her years on Married With Children, but she shows a whole different side of her talent here.  She demonstrates an impressive range starting out as the wholesome, sweet girlfriend Amy who gradually succumbs to Dandridge’s seduction to become an alluring vixen.  It’s quite amazing how sexy and attractive she is late in the film.  She plays off of Ragsdale very well with both comedic and heartfelt moments, and later, is very in sync with Chris Sarandon’s sensual vibe.  It’s solid work.  Stephen Geoffreys is great as the quirky, nutty “Evil” Ed.  He’s so much the comic life of the film, and it’s not one of those instances where he’s the lone character off-setting the tone.  He entirely fits into the tone and style Tom Holland sets with this film, and Ed just pushes the crazy, hyperactive aspect of it all.  He’s the clown of the group, and Geoffreys just goes full boar in the latter half of the film.  It’s immensely entertaining and well-rounded, as are all of the performances.

Fright Night is amazingly well shot and edited.  Pacing is very tight and consistent.  There never feels to be a lull as the momentum constantly builds as the plot progresses and the horror intensifies.  Mood and atmosphere are smartly maintained through very good, realistic lighting and strategically used haze.  The aforementioned club scene is very 80s with vibrant colors and a lively visual style.  There’s nothing low grade in this film.  The production values are consistently very high.  Sets are perfectly realized, and the effects are flat out excellent.  Instead of straining the budget with another series of optical composites or wire work, the filmmakers chose some great camera work to avoid showing Jerry Dandridge flying around early on.  This adds to the film, oddly.  Fright Night is subtle in what it does early on only giving you a taste of who and what Jerry Dandridge is.  It’s not gratuitous or flaunting his abilities.  It’s saving that for much later when it has more impact.  Of course, the special make-up effects are absolutely phenomenal, and on fully ghastly display.  The vampire make-up has multiple phases that all work to striking effect, and there is no shortage of genuine, strong scares or vampire gore.  We get a couple of chilling, unsettling sights in this film which proves that Fright Night truly lives up to its title by giving the audience a gruesome, frightening thrill ride.  In that final act, Charley and Peter aren’t just dealing with Jerry Dandridge, they have multiple fearsome adversaries to battle through in order to survive.

Tom Holland wrote a very smart, clever, and sharp screenplay.  It’s a great premise in which one moment Charley’s watching corny old vampire movies on late night television, and the next he finds a vampire living next door to him.  Every element of plot and character is interwoven very tightly to allow for that consistent pace and flow I mentioned before.  The comedy in the film dynamically fits in very well with the startling horror aspects.  When the horror kicks in, it’s high gear all the way, and done with immense talent and skill.  He brings out amazing performances and chemistry amongst his actors to create a richly cohesive piece of cinema.  Holland really knew how to build suspense and tension to give the terror a strong pay-off.  Even the seductive, sexual aspects are given their due build-up to pay them off for the characters and audience.  I can’t comment much on Tom Holland’s filmography, but between Fright Night and Child’s Play, he has more than sold me on his talent for horror.

Overall, the original Fright Night is extremely hard to beat.  I’m not opposed to ever watching the remake, but I also have no desire to go out of my way to do so.  Tom Holland made a purely fun and excellent horror film here that is rich with character, style, terror, and a smart story.  Even the 1989 sequel Fright Night, Part II could not rival this film’s innovation and intelligence.  You surely cannot go wrong with this delightfully scary film.  The performances are amazing all around giving you several wonderfully conceived and executed characters to invest yourself in, and a marvelously realized vampire villain that will surely satisfy on multiple levels.  Fright Night is a bonafide classic of the genre in my eyes, and I am surely not alone in that sentiment.  If you’ve never seen the original, you will be doing yourself a great favor by doing so.  I’ll also clue you in on the two pirate audio commentaries that were recorded by Icons of Fright featuring, among others, Tom Holland, William Ragsdale, Stephen Geoffreys, Chris Sarandon, and Jonathan Stark.  They are great insightful listens, and they’re FREE to download!


Star Wars (1977)

In 1977, an extraordinary motion picture was released that changed filmmaking forever.  It captured the imagination of millions across the world, and has remained a magical and beloved treasure of cinema for more than three decades.  That film was Star Wars, and I am going to share my love and admiration for this film as it was originally released.  Before a mess of mixed quality digital effects were inserted, and other arguable changes were incorporated into the context of this masterpiece, there was the film I grew up with in the age of VHS and cable television.  This film was a major part of my childhood, and I could not even estimate how many times I have watched it.  This was the first program recorded onto my family’s first VHS tape from when it aired on ShowTime.  So, is it any surprise that this is one of the most important films of my life?

In a galaxy far, far away, a brave rebellion fights against a tyrannical Galactic Empire.  When the ship of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is attacked and boarded by Imperials troops, she hides secret plans to the Empire’s planet destroying space station – the Death Star – into the memory banks of an Astrodroid – R2-D2.  Along with his fellow droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), the two escape to the barren desert planet of Tatoonie where they come under the ownership of Owen & Beru Lars and their farm boy nephew Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).  Luke yearns for a life away from this dead end planet, but soon, he finds adventure when R2-D2 seeks out Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi (Alec Guiness).  Princess Leia recorded a holographic message for the former Jedi Knight and General of the Old Republic to help her in delivering the Death Star plans safely into the hands of the rebellion.  After securing passage aboard the smuggling freighter the Millennium Falcon by way of the cavalier rogue Han Solo and his wooly alien co-pilot Chewbacca, Luke, Ben, and the droids must evade Imperial troops and starships to rescue the Princess before she is executed by the vile Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) and the powerful Lord Darth Vader.  Along this journey, Kenobi begins to teach Luke the ways of The Force, a mystical energy field that surrounds all living things, binding the galaxy together, and may hold the power to defeating the Empire.

I believe what captured my young mind with this film is the level of wonder and fun.  Having being born in 1980, I only lived in the era following the innovations of Star Wars, but that doesn’t lessen the amazing cinematic visual brilliance of this film.  I didn’t see a widescreen version until the films started airing on the SciFi Channel in the mid-1990s.  So, that’s saying something special about Star Wars.  The quality of everything is so great with dramatic angles, dynamic special effects, and fascinating locations that even only having half the frame still brought massive impact to my eyes.  Just based on nostalgia alone, I can still watch those old grainy VHS tapes in pan-and-scan for that youthful feeling of watching these films on some quiet afternoon in the 1980s.  Of course, no presentation rivals that of the full widescreen aspect ratio.  The compositions are immensely intelligent and rock solid presenting a film that shows it has a solid foundation in the technical qualities of smart filmmaking.

Simply everything about this film inspired my creativity throughout the years.  George Lucas was an ambitious visionary who knew what he wanted to achieve, but had to do some building to make it happen.  Industrial Light & Magic was created with a slew of young and passionate people who wanted to create innovative special effects.  They had to build the equipment with some of the first computer controlled cameras to do the blue screen visual effects shots, and basically, they had to invent new ways of doing this type of work.  Watching documentary footage of them doing all of this is immensely historic, and it looks like the pioneers of the industry taking those first major steps forward into a grander future.  Every ounce of sweat, hard work, and long hours paid off.  This is one of the absolute finest special effects pictures ever made.  While there had been other films that had done amazing outer space-based visual effects prior to this, they had never done anything as exciting or dynamic as was done here.  The fast paced motion of ships flying by in dogfights had never been seen before, and made this an intense feast for the eyes.  The scope of these effects were awe-inspiring such as the opening shot of the Rebel Blockade Runner being pursued by the relatively massive Star Destroyer, or the Millennium Falcon’s approach to the gigantic Death Star.  These filmmakers knew how to convey size, weight, and scope with these shots to give them a believable reality.  The laser blasts throughout the film, accompanied by the amazing sound design, are vibrant and intense.  They always convey power and danger.  Of course, while the lightsaber rotoscope effects were still a little rough, one could not help but be fascinated and enthralled by their appearance.

In the late 1970s, films were rarely using traditional orchestral scores since disco and synthesizers were so popular.  However, George Lucas knew that something big, epic, and rich was needed to make this a timeless adventure film.  John Williams had already worked with George’s friend Steven Spielberg on the brilliant blockbuster Jaws, and it was Steven’s suggestion to employ Williams for this task.  In retrospect, there surely was no other way to go.  Star Wars is filled with iconic elements, but those gorgeous, masterful themes of John Williams go above and beyond anything else.  Williams has since defined what a rousing adventurous film score is, and that began here.  He captured every single emotion in this film from big and exciting to low and menacing to quiet and meaningful to magical and mysterious to deeply touching.  Star Wars itself does touch on a wide range of emotions and dramatic tones, and every single one is given such depth and soaring richness with this score.  The iconic scene of Luke peering out at the twin suns of Tatoonie yearning for something greater than himself is wonderfully punctuated with a powerful rendition of the main theme.  The flourishes Williams adds throughout just bring such beautiful life to every moment striking the perfect chords every time.  The musical brilliance of John Williams is lushly on display here, and he more than earned the Academy Award for Best Original Score here.  It’s one of the finest achievements of musical art ever committed to film, and he would still be able to build upon and surpass himself later on in this trilogy.

I believe the casting of Alec Guiness was an invaluable one.  He instilled such a wonderful depth of wisdom, warmth, wit, and world weariness to Ben Kenobi.  Guiness carries a sense of history about him that makes Kenobi fascinating and intriguing.  When Ben speaks of the Old Republic, there’s a heartbreaking weight behind it.  You feel the burden of history upon Kenobi’s heart and mind.  While Lucas had not yet concretely decided upon the back story of Star Wars as we’ve come to know it, you can surely read all that we do know into Guiness’ subtle, intelligent, and emotional performance.  His is one of the most powerful and textured performances of the entire saga.  He easily endears himself to an audience with his compassion and good nature.  It doesn’t take long for Ben’s wisdom and caring manner to influence Luke.  While the young Skywalker could still be a little brash, the trust is built right from the start, and it’s very much the tempered wisdom of Obi-Wan Kenobi that guides Luke down the right path.

Now, I have a lot of respect for Mark Hamill as an actor.  Seeing how he grew with the character of Luke Skywalker is a remarkable achievement that I don’t think enough people give him credit for.  Here, he starts out as an eager young man who is in awe of the wide, adventurous galaxy out there, and frustrated with being stuck on this barren world on the outer rim of that galaxy.  Through Luke, an audience is introduced to and experiences the excitement, danger, and wonder of this galaxy far, far away.  Mark Hamill brings that fresh faced youthful energy and desire to the role.  He feels natural and authentic in everything he puts into the role.  He embodies the wide-eyed and open minded innocence of Luke Skywalker perfectly.  Some have called Hamill whiny as Luke.  They’re not looking close enough at what he’s doing opposite such great talents as Alec Guiness and Harrison Ford.  I like the banter between Luke and Han.  The eager, young kid creating friction with the weathered ego of Solo results in some great funny moments that work very well.  Luke has no problem challenging Han’s ego, and eventually, I think Han comes to respect that spirit in him.

Of course, no one else could’ve portrayed Han Solo as well as Harrison Ford.  He brought a cool swagger and sex appeal which really popped off the screen.  The laid back confidence and charisma made the character feel seedy and dangerous.  He’s a guy who could casually fry an alien bounty hunter in a shady cantina without hesitation or breaking a sweat.  He doesn’t wait for Greedo to make a move.  He intends on shooting him right from the start, and only strings Greedo along until the moment is right.  He’s a definite rogue out for himself only, along with his loyal Wookie friend Chewbacca, but I love seeing how that loner attitude slowly softens as he starts to care for Luke.  Ford nicely shows that transition from rugged, egotistical outlaw to reliable, hopeful friend.  I find it sly and clever how Harrison Ford worked off of Peter Mayhew’s Chewbacca.  How Ford leans up against his seven foot tall, lanky frame in certain scenes reinforces that casual swagger of Solo.  These two really felt like two old buddies who had seen it all and been through it all.  They’ll back one another up every step of the way, and aren’t afraid to rush into danger, whether it’s wise or not.

Princess Leia is a great change of pace.  She’s not a helpless damsel in distress.  She can easily handle herself in tough situations whether it’s trading stinging words with the icy Grand Moff Tarkin, or grabbing up a blaster and fending off Stormtroopers in a firefight.  She has solid, inspiring leadership qualities mixed with a sense of warmth and compassion that are strongly brought to life by Carrie Fisher.  It’s great seeing that this young woman can be a very diplomatic, even tempered person in addition to being sternly intelligent and aggressive.  She is not intimidated by Vader or Tarkin, but when others are threatened, you clearly see the humanity that is her core.  It’s also a great dynamic between Leia and Han Solo.  She’s not going to take any of his ego or machismo, and he clearly doesn’t want to suffer any of her insults.  It’s a beautiful piece of writing and chemistry that both Fisher and Ford play up well to comedic effect.  It’s a very nice building block for where the following film would take their characters.

The cast overall is great.  The characters are very distinct and diverse ranging all the way from Anthony Daniels’ sophisticated, yet cowardly droid C-3PO to the amazing Peter Cushing’s razor sharp, authoritative, cold-blooded Tarkin.  It’s interesting that Darth Vader is handled as a secondary villain under Tarkin’s command.  Vader has an undoubtedly powerful, imposing presence that makes him more mysterious and intriguing than Tarkin.  He’s truly a definite dark opposite to Ben Kenobi, but I take nothing away from Peter Cushing’s chillingly theatrical performance.  Having the voice of Vader being provided by the exceptional James Earl Jones was a stroke of genius.  Along with that brilliant respirator sound effect, Jones was integral in making the character as powerful and commanding as he has become.  While he looked immensely awesome and striking, with the wrong voice it never would have worked.

Now, there are people that regard the lightsaber duel between Vader and Kenobi here as the most boring.  I greatly disagree.  It’s actually one of my favorites.  It has a great sense of two old Samurai from a war long ago meeting again to close out unfinished business.  They are not the vigorous young men they once were, but there’s a matter of honor or revenge to settle that neither can deny.  There’s something to prove in one way or another for them both, and it is that aura which elevates the sequence for me.  Their words hold great weight on a very deep personal level, but for Kenobi, there’s something greater at stake than himself.

I believe the writing of humor here is very smart.  It’s always a natural product of the situation or contrasting personalities.  R2-D2 is kind of spunky, and C-3PO is certainly a little uppity.  So, there’s some magical comedic gold which extends from that, but never hijacks the tone of the film.  It adds to the fun and entertainment value.  It accentuates the personalities of the characters, and builds relationships.  The humor is used as an excellent tool to bond these characters together.  They might irritate one another, but eventually, they build a mutual respect through all the shared emotions in these intense life-or-death situations.

The film really does have a wonderful story structure.  We follow these two lowly droids firstly who constantly push the story towards introducing Luke, then Ben Kenobi.  Their actions initiate this slow assembling of an unlikely heroic team built through unexpected situations.  The story nicely transitions into Luke Skywalker being the audience’s guide through this world, allowing us to feel his plight, and incorporating his journey with that of the overall plot.  Ultimately, it comes down to an ensemble piece where each character has a purpose and opportunity to be heroic.  They all have their threads, either plot or character based, that carry them through this adventure, and that’s a clever achievement.  No one’s ever just tagging along without something to contribute or gain from this experience.

The Empire is firmly established right from the start as a dominant, oppressive entity in opposition of the smaller rebel forces.  It’s also a nice juxtaposition where the Imperial Stormtroopers are fully armored, masking their human features while the rebel troopers are clearly human.  It shows that the Empire is rather cold and lacking in humanity while the rebellion is very much about people.  This is a motif carried through the whole film.  Even the TIE Fighter pilots have full respirator gear on while the X-Wing pilots can clearly be seen to the audience.  It’s a very smart visual idea that is realized strongest in Darth Vader.

I also love the seedy parts of the Mos Eisley Cantina sequence.  Touching upon Han Solo’s shady world of smuggling, bounty hunters, and gangsters gives even more flavor and depth to this universe.  It adds an extra layer of danger and treachery to this greater galaxy that we are being introduced to.  The alien designs, while rough with limited rubber masks, still remain effective today.  I can see and understand what George Lucas’ frustrations were with this sequence as he hoped for much higher quality masks and such, it’s still an iconic scene that really captured the imagination of audiences.

While Star Wars is generally a fun, rousing adventure film, it doesn’t shy away from the darker dramatic beats.  The death of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru is a very striking moment that penetrates deep inside Luke’s heart and soul, as it does for the audience.  It’s an unsettling, grim scene followed directly after by Darth Vader about to implement a very foreboding interrogation upon Princess Leia.  These setup the dangers our heroes have to face that will motivate them forward.  However, it’s great seeing that Luke never goes down the path of vengeance.  He remains true to who he is and to his friends.  He also knows there’s a greater good to fight for, and he is fully committed to that.  These heavier dramatic beats throughout the film create emotional obstacles for Luke.  The loss of family and friends test his strength of spirit, and pushes him further towards believing in The Force.

The idea of The Force is an excellent one that plays into the mystical, spiritual, and magical.  Luke must believe in something beyond himself to tap into this power.  He learns to trust in himself by way of The Force to accomplish great things.  We are gradually shown the extent of The Force with subtle feelings and tricks at first, but it all builds up to and pays off largely in the climax as Luke lets go of the cold technology to embrace The Force to defeat the cold, oppressive Galactic Empire.  Kenobi becoming “More powerful than you can possibly imagine” to guide Luke in this assault on the Death Star enhances the depth of The Force overall.  It’s something greater than any one person or thing, but if you trust in it fully, it can be yours to command to achieve the incredible.

Speaking of which, Star Wars is filled with incredible action that brings back that swashbuckling mentality of those old serials George Lucas grew up loving.  Backed by that thrilling John Williams score, these are sequence that satisfy in a big way.  In an era of film where things had gotten mostly dark, gritty, and explicitly violent, Star Wars made action fun again without sacrificing suspense, tension, or danger.  The heroes keep getting into increasingly more perilous scenarios where they have to be smart and innovative to escape and survive.  It’s one bad turn after another, which brings the film some humor and excitement, but these situations are never played lightly.  There’s always a real, imminent threat.  This maintains a tight, solid pace.  The film simply has exceptional editing along with superb cinematography.  George Lucas had a great approach to the editing in having the edits dictate the rhythm and pace of scenes instead of the performances.  This ultimately created a much sharper and snappier pace.

The entire climactic assault on the Death Star is one of the best space battle sequences ever.  The amazing, dynamic visual effects cinematography creates an exhilarating cinematic experience.  George Lucas has always been fascinated by speed, and he accentuates that with this sequence.  The fighters are always in motion with an environment that blurs by at a breakneck speed.  The dogfights are nothing short of amazing.  It all builds to a nerve racking apex, and how it ends must have had audiences on their feet cheering back in 1977.

Star Wars remains a triumphant motion picture that should stand and be preserved for all time.  It’s a massive part of cinematic history which revolutionized filmmaking in every aspect.  It was innovative and marvelous on a technical level.  Still, despite all these awe-inspiring visual effects and technical achievements, this is a story that is all about its characters.  It never loses sight of the human aspect, and that is what drives this film into excellence.  George Lucas once said that special effects are just a means of telling a story, and that without a story, they mean nothing.  At this point in time, he showed us exactly what that meant.  He crafted a wondrous, exciting, adventurous, and emotional story first, and then, incorporated those groundbreaking special effects to tell that story in the most original and powerful way possible.  For the last thirty-five years, this film has excited audiences like few other films can.  Lucas took classic archetypes of literature and the classic hero’s journey, and molded and melded them into one of the best adventure films of all time.  Audiences at the time had never seen anything like this before, and could never imagine that another Star Wars film could equal, let alone surpass this one.  It would not be an easy feat, but in the right hands, it would become possible.