FIVE FILMS FROM...1994
WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE
(Directed by Wes Craven)
It wouldn't be overstating things to say that this movie was something of a milestone for Craven (you can tell that by the way his name is part of the title). After he successfully launched Freddy Krueger as an iconic horror villain, the director distanced himself from the franchise as it gradually reduced him to a stripey-jumpered punch-liner. He tried to launch another franchise with "Shocker" and had a quirky moment with the playful The People Under the Stairs. But he was drawn back to the "Nightmare" world by the approaching 10th anniversary of the original film, and some ideas that had stuck in his mind. The most important thing was getting Heather Langenkamp in the cast, along with Robert Englund and … Wes Craven? That's right, the bulk of the cast AND crew are back from the franchise and playing themselves (or versions of themselves). Perhaps the only notable exception was the non-appearance from Johnny Depp, who later revealed to Craven that he would have loved to have been in it, if only he had been asked!
The plot itself is an all-original directly from Craven and mashes up fact and fiction to significant effect. Langenkamp plays a close-to-reality version of herself, that has been typecast as Nancy Thompson from the 1984 classic. She's married to an FX-maestro and has a young son called Dylan (Miko Hughes, forever enshrined as creepy Zombie-Gage from the original Pet Sematary). She is being enticed back to repeat her role as Nancy in a new "Nightmare" (Yup, Meta!) for Craven (playing himself). But she is reluctant to do so, due to her family responsibilities… and the stalker that keeps phoning her. Again, the stalker is based on a real-life scenario that happened to the actress. However, in a series of strange events, and a local Earthquake (which genuinely happened as scripted in the plot… actual aftershock footage is used! That is some spooky shit!), a bizarre antagonist emerges. As revealed in a charming monologue by Craven himself, the "Nightmare" films managed to capture a demonic entity within their frames, one who has adopted the persona of Freddy Krueger. When the films finished with "Freddy's Dead", the demon started to manifest in the "real world" and took victims (including Heather's husband). Which is why Wes is making a new movie, and why Dylan has taken to strapping kitchen knives to his widdle fingers and slashing at Mommy…
It's not a perfect film; it's a little too long, the climax is a bit generic, and the body count is surprisingly low. But… it is a great film, and a lot of people number it among their favourites in the franchise, as well as the much-missed Craven's filmography. Undeniably classified as "dry run" for Scream, it is creative, scary, and full of heart. Core to the effectiveness is Langenkamp who excels in her "role" as a typecast tough momma, and her moments with the sadly departed John Saxon, Craven, and others positively glow with genuine affection. In fact, all the members of the cast who "play" themselves are excellent. The director is surprisingly convincing as the haunted "expert" in Freddy lore. The attention to detail (watch who turns up for silent cameos at the funeral) and call-backs to the first film ("Screw your pass!!") are positively inspired. Hughes is an excellent little actor and possessed-kid, and Englund revels in playing Krueger as a devil-incarnate. Has "Miss Me?!" ever sounded more spine-chilling.
It didn't do well at the box-office; however, the original trailers are quite misleading, and perhaps only hardcore horror fans realised what Craven was trying to do. Since then, like The Exorcist III and Halloween III, it has been radically rediscovered as a cult classic. And there's a lot to love and revisit about the film. Englund's strong pun-free and brutal performance as "Freddy" is fantastic. There's a superb scene that "remixes" the first dream-killing in the original to a glorious effect, and the whole "Hansel & Gretel" tone is matched by some nasty images of the demon trying to eat Dylan. This writer's favourite aspect of the entire story is Craven's intentional middle-finger to the "Karens" and critics of horror. Throughout the plot, Langenkamp is criticised by judgmental authority figures for exposing her kid to the genre. But she recognises the pop culture aspects of the character and knows that her son is comfortable with the difference between fact and fiction, and right and wrong. Horror films are shown as being just "fairy-tales for adults", which leads to all the "Hansel and Gretel" references and an emotional balance being achieved in the end. This is underlined by the lovely final scene where Langenkamp reads the "script" of the film you've just seen to her son, just like a bedtime story. Great stuff and well-worth revisiting.
(Directed by Alex Proyas)
Like Highlander and Jaws, The Crow is an excellent original, that spawned an awful lot of old tosh that has since disappeared from most people's memories. However, this supernatural revenge thriller will never suffer that fate, which is sadly mostly due to the tragic death of its lead actor. Due to an awful set of mistakes made with props, Brandon Lee (Son of Bruce Lee) was shot and fatally wounded by "blank" ammunition during the latter stages of filming. It's a horrible accident that can never be separated from its making and subsequent release. Lee was a rising action star and could have become something of an icon in future projects that he had lined up for himself, but that was fated never to happen. The film was completed and released with the blessing of the Lee family and supporters alike. This tragic element was mirrored by the origins of the story itself, which was a character created by multi-talented comic-book writer and artist James O'Barr. The Crow first appeared in Caliber Comics in the late 80s and developed a cult following. In actuality, it was a creative way for O'Barr to deal with the senseless death of his girlfriend due to a drunk driver, and the rage and frustration that came with it. The film was directed by Proyas who would go on to make (the brilliant and underrated) "Dark City" and has a definite touch of Goth and (Tim Burton's) Gotham about it.
The film opens with the aftermath of a grotesque crime on Devil's Night (30th October) in the scummy suburbia of Detroit. A young couple (Lee as Eric Draven and Sofia Shinas as Shelly Webster) have been brutalised and left for dead. Eric is DOA, and Shelly doesn't last much longer. They turn out to be victims of a low-level street gang, who are collectively led by Top Dollar (a lovely deranged but layered performance by Michael Wincott). Exactly one year later, Eric is resurrected from his grave by (apparently) divine intervention in the shape of a crow. He finds himself indestructible and driven to avenge his death, as well as the suffering endured by Shelly. It's an atypical and moody "Superhero Movie" before they became synonymous with Marvel Studios, and is a slick and violent treat, with Eric using guns more than backflips (although there's quite a lot of that as well).
With the lead role initially turned down by River Phoenix and Christian Slater, Lee turns out to be a perfect choice. Charismatic and surprisingly eloquent, he pours a lot into the character, and it's occasionally heart-breaking to see his emotions overflow as he interacts with the ghost of Shelly or relives his torment. Luckily, he's also a dab hand at killing LOADS of bad guys, with the scene where confronts a literal room of gangsters ("You're all going to die") being a great highlight. Lee plays Eric like a part-Joker, part-Punisher, and part-Neo amalgam and it's fun to see him mow down the thugs whilst juddering under the impact of bullets. Proyas also gives the film a distinct sheen that consists of dark colours (it was nearly filmed in black & white) and constant rain or storms. It also contains a lot of pathos, with Eric's main objective merely to avenge and then return to the afterlife to be reunited with his true love. There's some excellent support from the 4th Ghostbuster Ernie Hudson, and the whole thing feels dark and gritty, but still oddly (and refreshingly) romantic at its core. A few minor scenes were manipulated with effects (CGI in its early days) to add Lee's image posthumously. But it's important to know that the film never feels in bad taste or exploitative and remains a beautiful memorial to Lee's memory and talent.
Three sequels were made, with such notables as Kirsten Dunst, Iggy Pop (?!?), and Edward Furlong appearing as characters in unrelated stories, but having new leads being resurrected by similar avian avengers. There was even a TV reboot series with Mark Dacascos playing Eric Draven (The Crow: Stairway to Heaven), But none of them has had the same impact or invoked the same fondness as the original does. Fun Fact: Not a single crow appears in The Crow. They're all ravens.
(Directed by John Waters)
You could never really class any project from the kitsch-king Waters to be wholesome or "family entertainment", but this surprisingly engaging spoof from the director is probably one of his most mainstream offerings. Nevertheless, it is sprinkled with loads of foul language and oodles of bad-taste gags. More than anything though it has a stellar central performance from Kathleen Turner, who looks like she was having a ball with the nutty character she was born to play. Allegedly Meryl Streep, Julie Andrews, and Glenn Close were originally up for the role, but luckily Turner went all in for the part. Like so many cult films that deserve praise, it bombed at the box-office but later got the recognition it deserved on home media. The whole thing is a dark comedy and a partial spoof on the proliferation of slushy true-crime movies that turned up on US TV in the 90s. Not the compelling Netflix docs that we get now of course. More the sort of scrappily written drama that has a jobbing actress playing a husband-killer, but you sort of side with her because her old man was a philandering douche bag and left the toilet seat up…
Anyway… Meet Beverly Sutphin (Turner), and her excruciatingly perfect family (including Matthew Lillard in his first screen role after Ghoulies 3!) Beverly is basically a psychopath who is triggered by minor neighbourhood slights or misdemeanours. Fail to recycle, block her car space, or wear the wrong-coloured shoes… and you're on her hit list. After killing teachers and the ex-boyfriend of her daughter, she takes very great pleasure in tormenting neighbours with sweary prank phone-calls. She eventually gets nabbed, and the court trial predictably turns into a media circus with suitable outrageous results. This latter part of the film remains surprisingly predictive of modern times. If it were made today, it would probably be called "#SerialMom", and Bev would be a hit on social media.
What makes it unique and stands out from some of Water's other films that need an acquired taste, is the vitality and gameness that Turner shows. Whether she's a swearing down the phone ("Hello! Is that the Cocksucker residence?"), beating someone to death with a leg of lamb, or doing a "Sharon-Stone" and flashing her under-carriage to a witness… the actress nails it with a sly wink to the audience and a whole lot of energy. Some great visual gags are worthy of an "Eew", such as the sneezing onto a baby's face, or the teen caught by police as he … erm … "enjoys" some adult material. Sure, it's over-the-top and silly, and most of the cartoon violence is offscreen, but it's still an enjoyable dark romp that wags a finger at the excess of society. Special marks also go to Waters for incorporating US celebrity Suzanne Sommers into the final stages, playing herself and researching Bev so she can portray her in an upcoming movie.
The film even opens with a "based on a true story" and ends with the disclaimer that the "real" Beverly Sutphin refused to take part. It's not "Fargo", but where else can you see someone being beaten to death to the soundtrack of "Annie"?
(Directed by Michel Soave)
It's fair to say that the early to mid 90's was not the most prolific era when it comes to quality horror films. After the heyday of the 80's, the drop is perhaps even more pronounced and this period is known for being a rather barren one. Slashers had run their course by then (although a certain Wes Craven film changed all that in 96') and the industry struggled to find any clear definable trend or voice. However, even during this trauma, there were still a handful of really interesting and impressive films being made. One of the benefits of there not being a particular sub-genre that was in fashion was that some of the shackles were off and we ended up with some features that feel quite unlike anything that came before – or indeed since. One of these films is Michelle Soavi's Cemetery Man (Or Dellamorte Dellamore) – probably the last great Italian horror movie ever made.
Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) is the custodian of a cemetery in the small town of Buffalora. However, something is causing the recently deceased to return from the grave (usually within seven days of burial) and Francesco has to take on the extra work of killing the undead before they escape and wreak havoc in town (and the wider world). He's aided in his efforts by his mentally handicapped assistant Gnaghi. His already chaotic life is turned upside down when he meets the beautiful young widow who is attending her elderly husband's funeral. The two fall for each other but with tragic and far reaching repercussions. There is an awful lot more to Cemetery Man but to go any further with the plot would ruin it for those who haven't seen it.
Zombies, guns, and sex, oh my!!
That's the strapline of the film and it pretty much sums the film up quite neatly. Made a few year's after director Michelle Soavi's most notable genre features (The Sect, The Church), it retains some of the sensibilities and style you'd expect from an (part) Italian horror flick. The dreamy aesthetic, the gore, the oddball sense of humour (and logic) but it dares to go deeper than most of its peers in terms of drama. Part of this is down to a brilliant performance by Rupert Everett who plays the conflicted Francesco. The story doesn't necessarily always make complete sense but Everett gives us something of an anchor to cling to whilst things begin to fall apart around him. The film also looks beautiful too. Soave manages to make the daytime scenes lush and green but it's the night time shenanigans at the cemetery that really look the biz. There's a hazy, heady sense of romance running through Cemetery Man too. Part of that is down to Everett and Anna Falchi, but it manages to feel heartfelt and philosophical, despite almost constant pitch black comedy and wonderfully gross practical effects. It sort of feels like a mash up of Lynch and Raimi and that can only be a good thing.
Cemetery Man is also one of those films that seems to only get better on repeat viewing, when you begin to pick up on the finer details and nuance a bit more than the first wide-eyed watch. If you haven't seen it – then watch it! If you have only seen it once and wasn't mad on it, it's definitely worth a revisit.
IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS
(Directed by John Carpenter)
When you hear the name John Carpenter, what film comes to mind? Halloween I'm guessing. Or maybe The Thing. If it's not either of those then it's probably The Fog. A few might even mention Assault on Precinct 13. He of course made a whole host of brilliant movies (as well as a handful of not-so-good ones) but there are a few features that are often overlooked. They Live and Starman are both fantastic films but they were made in the 80s, when Carpenter was producing his best stuff. When we enter the 90s, things are a bit more hit and miss. However in 94, he made a film that's definitely worth a little more love. That film is In the Mouth of Madness.
The film opens with a psychiatrist interviewing a patient called John Trent (Sam Neill) who recounts the story of how he ended up in the psychiatric hospital. Trent was a freelance insurance investigator, and a cocky one at that. Trent is hired by Arcane Publishing to investigate the disappearance of superstar horror novelist, Sutter Cane – who has mysteriously vanished along with the manuscript for his new (and final) novel. Trent is skeptical, he believes the whole thing is a big publicity stunt. However after examining the covers of Sutter's previous works he becomes convinced that they form a map with a potential place that Cane may be holed up. Arcane agree it's an interesting lead and assign Cane's editor, Linda Styles, to accompany Trent on a trip to find their client. It's a trip that Trent will never forget...
In the Mouth of Madness was considered a flop at the time. It barely made it's money back at the box office and received quite mixed reviews from critics and audiences. One critic said that the film was 'confusing, weird and not very involving'. Well, we agree with the first two claims. But quite how you can be bored by any of it is a mystery. If Cemetery Man feels a bit Raimi-Lynch, In the Mouth of Madness feels very much King-Lynch-Lovecraft and if that concept doesn't excite (and unsettle) you then not much will. The further we delve into the story, the more we lose our grip on reality and Carpenter conjures up an increasingly unsettling atmosphere which is occasionally punctuated with moments that feel like they've been ripped right out of one of your nightmares. Just thinking about that old bloke on the bike makes me shudder. The practical effects also look really good too, even by today's standards.
This feels like a bit of an odd career move for Sam Neill, hot off the success of Jurassic Park but he's undoubtedly part of why the film works so well. Like the plot itself, you can never fully put your finger on the cynical, brash John Trent and Neill seems to relish the role. Carpenter obviously didn't mind letting him slip in and out of his native Kiwi accent either which only adds to the sense of everything feeling a little off.
Part of the joy of In the Mouth of Madness is that it is every bit as trippy as it promises to be. It's got an unreliable narrator trying to navigate a world that never quite feels real and by the final scenes you begin to wonder if you're starting to lose your mind as well. However it all makes sense. It's not one of those films where you have no idea what happened. Although there are indeed a few scenes that will leave you scratching your head, when you begin to put the pieces together, the conclusion is devastatingly clear.