Cravenous: Scream

I’m going to cheat slightly with this review, denizens. I recently reviewed this film elsewhere online, and rather than reinvent the wheel at this point, I’m going to use a lot of what I wrote in that “other” place, for this review. For posterity, yo.

I guess I also should finally point out that I probably will have a lot of spoilers throughout this and other Cravenous reviews. I don’t know why I never thought of mentioning this before. So, yeah. Spoilers.

So now that Wes Craven was (kind of) able to scratch that itch of wanting to direct anything other than a horror movie and found it to be less than the pleasant break he’d hoped it would be (thanks, Eddie…no, really…thank you), it was time once more to turn to what he knew and did so well. It wasn’t an instantaneous “yes” decision, mind you. It took a bit of pushing from Bob and Harvey Weinstein as well as a few of Craven’s close associates to finally convince him that it would be worth his time to take the reins on what practically everyone in Hollywood was convinced was going to be a huge horror hit. The Weinsteins were so convinced by the end of the day, in fact, that they scheduled a Christmas release for the film. A Christmas release? For a teen slasher flick? In the mid-90s?

God damn it, Gump! You’re a goddamned genius!

Seriously, though, with Craven coming on board as director, this turned out to be the “perfect storm” of a horror film. It was a brilliant script filled with admiration and adoration for a genre that, to tell the truth, had seen better days. Horror was, forgive the pun, nearly dead in the mid-90s. Fans had lost interest in tired sequels and cheesy scripts and horrible plots. It took Williamson to come along to remind us what we fell in love with and to show us that there was still life in the genre yet. His story was clever, his lines were catchy and quotable, and his characters were cliches to a point, but cliches with twists and unexpected complexities.

Combine this with a cast filled with up-and-coming young actors just starting to make an impact on Hollywood as well as a couple of established actors who were either making a successful comeback or who brought a delightful sense of nostalgia with their presence, and like I said: perfect storm.

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Watching Scream again for what truly has to be beyond the 20th time I’ve seen the movie, I made a special effort to focus primarily on the look of the movie—the movement and action and choreography. These were Williamson’s characters and plot, but Craven was the puppet master, pulling the strings and placing all the characters into motion.

In that regard, Craven had an impeccable internal sense of timing and pacing. He was the ultimate horror metronome, never letting the rhythm of the story falter, never letting any member of the band fall out of tune.

Also, this movie is visually elegant. For a man who began his career with some of the most disturbingly raw movies of 70s-era horror (not just visually but also story-wise), Scream might be Craven’s most stylistically polished horror film. One might even argue that this was the beginning of the cinematic apex of his career, from a purely directorial perspective. While I would never argue with the sentiment that his greatest original contribution to the horror genre was Freddy Krueger (a contribution, mind you, that helped inspire this film in the first place), I think that Scream was Craven’s directorial magnum opus. I mean, just look at this screen capture and tell me that’s not a thing of terrifying beauty (and, yes, that’s an actual practical shot and not CGI trickery). Craven could compose a shot like nobody’s business. He knew what worked. He knew what would capture the audience. I think only John Carpenter could stand as Craven’s contemporary match when it came to working a frame for full horror effect.

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From the clear inspiration of German expressionism to the beautifully choreographed murder sequences right down to simple subtle touches like keeping the frenetic pace of the opening sequence with the popping and then burning popcorn, Craven was showing his visual acumen. Even when he chose to use something so visually overplayed as slow motion to emphasize with unflinching brutal clarity the moment the killer plunged that knife into Casey Becker’s chest (Drew Barrymore? Dead before the end of the first reel?!), he knew the perfect way to deliver the message that all that what we thought we knew? We didn’t and all bets were officially off.

Even, and this might be me reading too much into this, the decision to film Sidney and Billy from the side as they started to fool around gave Craven the opportunity to show this moment as Sidney started to fall back onto her bed and her ponytail hung oh so briefly in air, looking like a serrated knife blade, as the soundtrack rolled out the musical cue of “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” Again, I’m probably putting way more faith into that scene than I should, but that was honestly the moment I knew who the killer was (at least one of them). Simple brilliance.

Courtesy of Shadow of Reflection
Courtesy of Shadow of Reflection

I’ve yet to grow tired of watching this film. True, it no longer serves that intrinsic horror purpose—it hasn’t scared me since that first viewing almost 20 years ago—but it still exhilarates me, enthralls me, and, yes, terrifies me on different levels. This is a horror master class, taught by one of the maestros himself. Craven knew that the truest form of fear was the fear of the real. No, a dead child molester isn’t ever going to really kill people in their nightmares. But pack mentality could well and truly lead to group vigilantism such as what the parents of those original Elm Street kids did in the name of protecting their own.

And apathy and desensitization could lead to the moral lassitude that led the likes of Billy and Stu down the path they ultimately traveled in this film. Yes, the exacting of their plan was hyperbolic in its almost supernatural perfection (and later sequels would put a new spin on the actions of the first film that would, in some ways, work well and in others make me want to pummel the ticket taker at the theater), but the essence of their actions was very believable. And that is what continues to root this film strongly in the realm of horror power players.

Craven clearly knew his shtick. Who better, then, to direct a movie all about showing how self-aware a horror movie could be? These characters inhabited a world that not only acknowledged the horror genre but acknowledged Craven as one of the architects of its current existence. In some ways, it was also an indictment against the masters like Craven—look at what you’ve done to us with your pursuit of more realistic, more visceral fear. You have left us bereft of human empathy and motivated by vengeance and mayhem. You have pushed us to reach deeper, into ever-darker corners and pull forward whatever resides therein.

Could you imagine a more appropriate message from or to the creator of horror like The Last House on the Left or The Hills Have Eyes?

Cravenous: Vampire in Brooklyn

After his success with The People Under the Stairs, it was time for Wes to come home. Time for him to reclaim his greatest creation and put the dream demon back into his proper context. And so, in 1994, Wes Craven went back to Elm Street, and he brought several members of the original cast with him. The end result?

Magic.

I’ve already written here about Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, so I don’t necessarily want to make a new post for it. However, I will reiterate that it was a brilliant return to Elm Street for Craven and a beautiful denouement to Freddy Krueger. Yes, I know that they brought him back for his battle with Jason, but I feel as though that’s an incidental addition. An appendix, if you will. This film felt like a solid conclusion to Freddy’s journey as well as Craven’s homecoming and reconciliation with Bob Shaye and New Line Cinema.

So what could possibly be next for Craven now that he had come back into his own as a “Master of Horror” and taken back his dream demon?

A comedy, of course.

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Well. Kind of. A comedic horror? A horrific comedy?

Truthfully, the only thing horrifying about 1995’s Vampire in Brooklyn is how it both failed at horror and funny. Based on a story idea from Eddie Murphy and producer friend Vernon Lynch, and a script written by Murphy’s brother Charlie (along with the guys who wrote Mulan II), the movie tells the story of Maximillian, the sole-surviving Caribbean vampire, who comes to Brooklyn to find the half-vampire mate who will help him keep his line from ending.

I know what you’re thinking: Don’t vampires just make more vampires by biting someone and turning them into a vampire? That’s kind of what I thought. I also stand by my theory that vampires can’t procreate the way humans can. It’s the whole freaking point (pardon the pun) of why they have to penetrate their victims with their teeth after roofying them with their sexeh stares.

I know what else you’re thinking: Half-vampire? What the hell is that (besides Blade or Vampire Hunter D)? I’ve always questioned the idea of “half-vampire” because I question the procreation efforts of vampires. Also, it’s always sounded a bit silly to me (even though I do enjoy some of the genre stories that use such a creature). Do they only burn really badly in sunlight? Have slightly pointy teeth? Do they have a translucent reflection? Whatever it’s supposed to be, Angela Bassett plays the half-vampire, so I’m okay with letting some of those questions go.

Really, it’s Murphy who is the problem for me with this movie. I’ve never really enjoyed him as an actor. I loved his time on Saturday Night Live and I respect what he did during his stand-up days. However, most of his movie career has left me utterly cold. This movie wasn’t an exception.

Plus there is the fact that you can tell that Murphy is not really all that interested in giving a compelling performance in this role. He later stated that the only reason he agreed to this movie in the first place was because Paramount agreed to release their hold on the rights to The Nutty Professor to Murphy if he finished his contract with them. He also had the audacity to blame the wig he wore in the movie for why people didn’t like it. I totally disagree. That wig worked for Eriq La Salle in Coming to America! You just didn’t try hard enough, Eddie.

Problems compounded with the fact that Craven was excited to finally have a shot at directing a straight comedy only to find out that Murphy wanted him on board because he wanted to do something other than comedy and thought taking a crack at horror would be fun. And when your leading man is also one of the producers on a movie he came up with the story for and his brother wrote the script? There’s not a whole lot you can do besides say, “Good idea, Mr. Murphy.”

They did try to meet in the middle, and there are a lot of comedic moments to the film. We also get Murphy doing his shtick of putting on a lot of make-up and playing other characters. This time, he played a perpetually perspiring preacher and a failed Wise Guy. They were kind of funny, but also kind of stereotypical and cringe-worthy. I’ve always had a problem with a lot of the dress-up roles that Murphy did. If he were punching up with the joke, as he did on SNL, then it might be different. However, most of the time, he was only playing up stereotypes for comedic effect. That’s kind lazy comedy for no real effect other than to make fun of groups of people for assumed shared behavior. But whatever.

It was lovely getting to see Angela Bassett in this film. Craven must have appreciated her participation in his short-lived television series Nightmare Cafe (and by “short-lived,” I mean it lasted six episodes…but they featured actors from Craven’s many films, including Bassett, Brandon Adams, and Robert Englund. Oh, and Trinity, Cigarette Smoking Man, and Ishara Yar show up as well, for you genre fans). Bassett’s career at this point was starting to really pick up, with her Oscar nod securely in place for her turn (heh) as Tina Turner and Strange Days helping to secure her as a player in the genre fiction realm.

[Loba Tangent: Sad trivia, really. Sonja Davis, the stunt woman who doubled Bassett on Strange Days, followed her to this film only to die during a failed stunt that put her in a coma for almost 2 weeks before she passed.]

Her performance as Detective Rita Veder in this film was absolutely one of the standouts. She clearly was willing to embrace the ludicrous lunacy of the story and her role, and she played every moment with a refreshing dedication that I’m sure pleased Craven, particularly on this film. Other than Bassett, I’d have to say that Kadeem Hardison was probably the best part of this movie. Playing Julius Jones, the Maximillian equivalent of Dracula’s Renfield, Hardison brought a zeal to his role that was (sadly) unmatched by his main foil. Also, he did quite well in a role that was both a throwback to and departure from his most iconic role, Dwayne Wayne.

In addition, we see several actors who played parts in previous Craven films, including Wendy Robie, fresh from playing Mommy in The People Under the Stairs; Mitch Pileggi, who was Horace Pinker in Shocker; Zakes Mokae, who played Dr. Zeko in The Serpent and the Rainbow; Nick Corri, Rod from A Nightmare on Elm Street; and, even all the way back to Joanna Cassidy from Invitation to Hell!

Remember, I did say that when an actor impressed Craven, he made sure to be loyal to that actor. Just ask W. Earl Brown, who appeared in this film and may or may not appear later on in this blog series. Isn’t that right, Kenny? Now get off my windshield.

Even though it wasn’t the complete break from horror that Craven had longed for, this still was probably the first of his films to integrate other-than-horror elements into the story blatantly (rather than subtly, as Craven had often tried to do with other films) without getting blow-back from producers or the movie company in charge. Of course, the movie didn’t even make back what it cost to make it, so I’m sure that wasn’t the resounding success that Craven had hoped for with his first non-horror horror movie.

Guess there was really only one way to go at this point. Back to horror…

Cravenous: The People Under the Stairs

Remember the time that Wes Craven decided to make the most absurdist, Lynchian, unhinged, over-the-top, satirical, this-is-your-acid-on-acid social commentary in the guise of horror movie? No? Clearly, then, you have not seen his 1991 classic magnum opus to all things WTF, The People Under the Stairs.

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Oh, yes. I have been waiting to reach this film in Craven’s oeuvre. And while a couple of films that I held in fond remembrance didn’t really survive the light of reality that my re-watching shone upon them (sorry, Kristy, Bill, and Mitch, but your movies did not hold up well at all), revisiting the Robesons and their freakish clan beneath the stairs did not disappoint.

For those needing a refresher: We start by meeting our protagonist, Poindexter “Fool” Williams, who lives in the L.A. projects with his mom and sister and his sister’s kids. His mother has cancer but barely enough money to pay their rent…which doesn’t matter at this point anyway, because the landlord of Fool’s building has evicted them. Fool’s sister’s boyfriend decides to draft Fool on a…fool’s errand to rob the landlord of a rumored coin collection as a means of helping Fool and taking back some of what the landlord has been taking from the tenants he is summarily evicting from all his properties.

Once Fool is inside that house, though. Oh, that’s when Craven just lets it all go. The shit? It gets supremely real.

I feel as though this film was Craven finally returning to and accepting the fact that, for better or for worse, he was a master of the horror genre…while also introducing into his regimen even more of his sublime gallows humor as well as some incredible allegorical outlook on the state of affairs. Craven, who had made a career of examining the most uncomfortable truths about humanity, clearly decided to do this once more. However, the horror scene had shifted its dynamic away from the intense and inescapable realism of those late 70s films that Craven and his counterparts had made. As I wrote in my review of Shocker, shock had given way to schlock by this point. Making a film akin to Craven’s early offerings would have been a death knell to a story that Craven obviously felt was important enough to get out there. So, rather than fire his missive directly at viewers, Craven took it over the top.

WAY over the top.

He also had a great deal to say about the state of affairs at that moment in our history. We were coming out of the era of divided decadence known as the 80s, where the Haves ruled the realm while the Have Nots slipped further and further into the class chasm that Reaganomics helped excavate. We’d just gone through the Persian Gulf War at the beginning of the year this movie released. In fact, if you check out the televisions running throughout the house that Fool breaks into, you’ll notice they’re showing footage from that war. Oh, and did I mention that the house belonged to two supremely demented and disturbingly inbred people who are hoarding loads of money and harboring even more secrets within the confines of their home? But we’ll get further into that in a moment.

Oh, and clearly Craven found the public’s televised participation in warfare horrific in its own right. This was the second movie in a row into which he integrated televised images of war and destruction. Whereas this film made it part of the background motif, Shocker brought it well and truly to the forefront, with Craven having his protagonist and antagonist fight each other while running through some of the more infamous images broadcast from war zones. I’ve talked about this before in various places, but the televised impact of the brutality of war helped to shift the focus of horror in many ways. While for some horror makers, the actual participation in war was what shaped their ideas, others like Craven only witnessed what was shown to them via news reports from the front lines. And that was more than enough.

Now, back to our review, already in progress.

Yes, there are elements of class warfare and racial warfare. The Robesons are White while the majority of their tenants are…not. The Robesons are extremely wealthy. The kind of wealthy that exists for those privileged enough to be born into the (debatably) right family. They inherited wealth and property and the ability to abuse those with less than them because of this privilege. They also inherited some supremely deteriorated genes thanks to the family clearly not allowing outside guests into their gene pool.

Yeah, the Robesons, who refer to each other as “Mommy” and “Daddy” are actually siblings. And apparently years (decades?) of inbreeding have left them unable to have their own kids (evidence that there might actually be a deity out there, balancing out the universe), so they steal children and try to mold them into suitable heirs. Unfortunately, that obstinate vein of free will that humans possess and cherish so deeply leads to inevitable failure with nearly all the kidnapped kids. So what do the Robesons do? First, they eradicate the “problem” areas (Have a habit of talking back? We’ll just lop off that pesky tongue!). Next, they lock the children up.

Under. The. Stairs.

This ain’t no Harry Potter fairy tale, kiddies. And this ain’t no drill. There are literally people under the stairs. Placed there by this dynamic duo of debauchery:

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Genre fans will instantly recognize these two as Ed and Nadine Hurley, those crazy kids-in-love from Twin Peaks. Well, maybe not instantly…unless Nadine were wearing her eye patch and working on her completely silent drape-runners.

[Loba Tangent: Damn, I need to re-watch that show.]

Craven specifically sought out actors Everett McGill and Wendy Robie to play Daddy and Mommy. He could not have been more on-point, as both McGill and Robie brought with them the quirky chemistry they had developed together during their tenure in Twin Peaks as well as a frenetic, unstable energy and an ability to devour the scenery around them in massive, heaving gulps. Simply put, it’s primarily because of McGill and Robie that Craven’s story played with the level of success that it did. Not to say, of course, that the rest of the cast didn’t bring their A games as well. Brandon Adams was wonderfully cast as Fool, it was great getting to see an early era Ving Rhames, A.J. Langer brought a certain degree if discomfiting fragility to her role as Alice, Sean Whalen amused as Roach (although I wonder how this would have played out had Hilary Swank won the role instead), and it was fun to see Craven pilfer from an NOES sequel for Kelly Jo Minter.

Still, McGill and Robie. Those two relinquished all pretense for their roles in this movie and the end result was magic. In fact, I would rank The People Under the Stairs as one of Craven’s best offerings to the horror altar, thanks in large part to their delivery of his story to audiences. Solid insanity, every step of the way. May they burn in hell. Forever and ever in hell.

And while their performances are almost beyond absurdist, there always is a level of fear and danger to their characters’ actions that keep them rooted to the truth that these two are the villains of the day for more than just horror-related reasons. They are what is wrong, not just with the deteriorating neighborhoods surrounding their gated, secured home, but with everywhere and everything. Craven’s commentary? IMHO, it’s that the greed and deranged decadence of the preceding decade had deepened the class and race divides to an unbelievable level. No, the wealthy were not eating their victims or getting away with debaucheries that would make Buffalo Bill blush, but they were getting away with a certain degree of disconnectedness to what the rest of the nation was enduring. Craven’s Mommy and Daddy epitomized the dearth of sympathy that swelled within the hearts of those who had no idea what it was like outside their enclave of entitlement.

Sadly, this all still sounds disturbingly familiar…perhaps even more so now.

Mommy and Daddy might have been satirically unhinged, but not by much. Neither possessed compassion for those with lesser means. They instead viewed them as threats to be contained or eliminated. Out of sight, out of mind. They hoarded their wealth and cared only about acquiring more…simply for the purpose of having it. Not spending it. Not sharing it. Just keeping it locked away. They behaved with utter assumed impunity, which local police reinforced simply by reason that these were well-established, upstanding (read: wealthy and White) members of the community; and don’t forget that Daddy oozed a sexual predatory nature that left no doubt that young Alice was most assuredly not safe in Wonderland.

With this film, Craven was castigating the upper classes for their lack of compassion while reminding the rest of us that things would only change if we became more aware, stopped turning a blind eye to one group or judging another because of appearances and assumptions. Neither is a true bellwether. Craven’s talent in getting this message across with these characters was in being able to make us laugh at their behaviors up front, but to cringe as the reality of their existence and actions settled into our brains. These were deplorable monsters, made that much worse by their attempts to hide their insatiable deviance from an outside world that, honestly, wasn’t really trying all that hard to spot it because of their assumed upstanding positions in the community.

Conversely, young Fool proved his merit by returning to the house he barely escaped, to save Alice and the other children hidden within, thus tipping all assumptions right on their ass. And that moment when Mommy gets ready to launch a racially explicit invective against Fool’s family, who have come to find him and help him, and is instead forced to face the residents she and Daddy were summarily sticking it to on a regular basis? That’s such the perfect encapsulation of Craven’s wish to force a similar face-to-face between the wealthy and those they have disenfranchised. And her subsequent “eat the rich” moment would have made Steven Tyler so very proud.

It had been a slow slope downward in Craven’s oeuvre since A Nightmare on Elm Street, with Craven wanting to explore other cinematic genres and fighting unsuccessfully against a tide of consensus from critics, production companies, and fans alike to keep him locked into horror. However, I truly believe that this film was a successful return for him to that insightful prowess into the human condition that put him down the horror path in the first place. I’ve also realized that I don’t yet own this film. Thank you, Cravenous, for bringing this to my attention so that I can rectify it post-haste.

Cravenous: Night Visions

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[Loba Apology: I nearly left this movie out of my Cravenous reviews. I honestly don’t know what happened. I guess I got so excited about getting closer to The People Under the Stairs that I lost my focus. Oversight rectified. You’re welcome.]

Sorry for the miniature nature of the poster art for this film, but this was all I could find. With as misogynistic as the imagery is on the artwork, though, I’m kind of okay with this being the largest version I could find. Also, that’s pretty risque for a made-for-television film, eh?

That’s right, after the three-in-a-row lackluster performance of Wes Craven’s theatrical offerings, he decided to head back to television. Maybe he thought he could find his mojo there. Maybe he enjoyed working on those Twilight Zone episodes so much that he wanted to recapture some of that. Or maybe he just wanted a break from being bullied and berated by critics, producers, and fans. He wanted something easy. A palate cleanser, so to speak.

Whatever the reason, we ended up with 1990’s MFTV movie Night Visions. I almost didn’t end up reviewing this film, as it’s unavailable for rent anywhere I looked. However, as luck would have it, someone has posted it to YouTube. Oh the lengths I’m willing to go for a review series.

The bonus we get with this film is that not only did Craven direct and produce it, he also co-wrote it with Thomas Baum. Baum, by the way, was quite prevalent as a screenplay writer back in the day, writing The Manhattan Project, several episodes of Deadly Nightmares (originally called The Hitchhiker), and Nightmare Cafe for Craven. My OMG moment from his credits is that he wrote the screenplay for The Haunting of Sarah Hardy, which is one of my favorite Sela Ward movies and also can be found in its entirety, much to my girlish delight, on YouTube. Prophets bless YouTube.

But I digress. What else is new, right?

The most telling thing about this movie is that you instantly know two things: Who the killer is and what the purpose of the movie is. The former was painfully obvious to me and led me to believe that it was secondary to and in support of the primary purpose: This was meant to be an introduction to a television series. Given that Craven would try again in a couple of years to launch a different series with Nightmare Cafe, I think it’s safe to assume that he really was growing weary of making movies. He wanted to do something different. Maybe just produce for a little while, with the option of writing and/or directing if he chose to.

Unfortunately, this was not going to be the E-ticket that he wanted it to be. There were simply too many questions unanswered and not enough fresh intrigue about either of the main characters for this to incite the interest needed to convey it from MFTV movie to series. Even Craven’s directing was on-point but mostly predictable with this film. It just felt like a paint-by-numbers effort on his part and another indication that this was definitely a point in his career when he was struggling with what he wanted next.

That being said, this was still better than Chiller. I’m telling you, Chiller is going to end up being my least favorite of all his films, denizens. I can feel it.

Seriously, Night Visions was a good enough effort from everyone involved that I didn’t mind watching this film. I wouldn’t seek it out again, but I’m not going to slam people for the attempt. Especially James Remar, who seemed to be giving his all to what was unfortunately a predictable cop character. Loryn Locklin did her best, but her character was the less interesting of the two (which was strange since hers was the more damaged and more complex of the two leads; Craven again was showing his interest both in strong female characters and in the complex dynamics of mental turmoil). Also, it was great seeing Penny Johnson in another Craven film (remember, we haven’t seen her since her stint as Sue in The Hills Have Eyes Part 2) as well as Horace Pinker Mitch Pileggi, working on perfecting his hard-ass law enforcement official in charge of two rogue agents. Gee, wonder when that kind of expertise would ever work in his favor…

Cravenous: Shocker

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Oh. Oh, Wes. You just…you made…it’s all jumbled…and there’s so much going on…and there’s dreams and death and sorcery and puns…and…oh.

Oh, Wes.

I feel like this was a crossroads moment in Wes Craven’s career. He was now into the double digits for horror movies he’d directed. He was a viable name in a genre he knew nothing about when he first started, but that now held him tightly within a death grip that he couldn’t shake. He’d written into existence one of the most memorable horror villains of modern cinema, and had subsequently lost all control of said villain to a slew of sequels that he continued to view as chipping away the validity of that villain. He kept trying to do different things, but there is little opportunity for movement once you’ve found yourself stuck in a niche. Craven was a master of horror, whether he liked it or not.

Shocker definitely makes me think that at this point, he did not like it. At all.

I honestly believe that Craven didn’t intentionally set out to make a laughable movie with this one. I know from interviews he gave later that he wanted to create a new horror villain that would sort of be the antithesis to what Freddy Krueger had become in the NOES sequels. Craven was quite displeased with how his child murdering dream demon had become a vaudevillain, to coin a phrase, cracking puns as he killed and playing up a level of likability among his fans that Craven found perverse.

With his new villain, Craven wanted to return to that raw, unfiltered fear that he conjured at the beginning of his career. There was to be nothing likable or kind or appealing within the heart of Horace Pinker. He was meant to be a cold-blooded bastard whose only sense of joy came from the lives he stole in murderous, violent fashion.

Instead, Craven clearly took a wrong turn back at Albuquerque.

Again, this movie screams of external meddling. As evidenced with his early films and with the original Freddy (as well as the original script that Craven wrote for the third NOES movie), Craven had no problem entering the darkest depths of horror and mining from it what he knew he would need to truly frighten and unsettle his viewers. Left to his own devices, I have a feeling that Horace Pinker would have been the second successful original villain of Craven’s creating.

Instead, TPTB interjected with what I’m sure they viewed as “helpful” or “useful” recommendations, which were far, far, far from helpful. “Hey, Pinker is kind of a jerk. Make him funny. You know, like Freddy.” “Hey, make him get his powers through some kind of voodoo. You know, like from your last movie.” “Hey, remember how you had that girl able to enter her dreams to seek out Freddy, and pull things out of her dreams? Why don’t you make the football player in this movie have the same ability? You know, because it worked in that other movie that everyone loves.”

Yeah. Hot, jumbled mess this turned out to be by the time everyone was finished. Simply put, there are so many things going on simultaneously throughout this movie that it feels discordant and discombobulated the whole time you’re watching it. What Craven needed to do was streamline the ideas…leave out what he had already used and stick with what he wanted to use for this film. It would have made for a far better film instead of the mismatched jumble that this movie ended up being. Plus, the era of true shock horror had turned into the era of schlock horror by this point, and not even Craven was safe from the cheese of the times. I guess that’s the best way to describe some of the elements of this film, like the horrible jokes or having Timothy Leary play a televangelist or having a little girl use profanity while possessed by foul-mouthed Pinker. Seriously, the man who gave us (The Last House on the Left spoilers whited out now) a woman seducing a man into letting her give him a blow job so that she could bite off his penis after she realized that he was one of the men who raped and killed her daughter trying to shock us with a little girl dropping the F bomb? Puhlease.

[Loba Tangent: Also, make note of this filmmakers: Never use a little kid using profanity in your movie or show as a way of being controversial. It’s not shocking. It’s a transparent plea for someone to think you’re shocking.]

Craven had hoped to turn Horace Pinker’s exploits into a series of at least three films. However, the general response to the mucky mess of Pinker’s world was so subdued that future plans were abandoned. It’s probably for the best. Mitch Pileggi would soon have his hands full with keeping two FBI agents in check. He didn’t have time for this! And, yes, no matter how many roles Mitch Pileggi has played and no matter that he was ADA Skinner on The X-Files, I always call him Horace Pinker.

Cravenous: The Serpent and the Rainbow

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[Loba Tangent: I’ve skipped a couple of things from Wes Craven’s career that occurred between Deadly Friend and this film. First was the fact that New Line Cinema CEO Bob Shaye came to Craven and asked if he would come back to the Nightmare franchise for the third film, both to write and direct. Craven was still working on Deadly Friend, but was intrigued by the possibility of going back and redirecting the path of Freddy Krueger. He pitched the overarching idea of the “Dream Warriors,” stating in later interviews that he believed that a group would have been needed to defeat Krueger by that point because the dream demon’s strength had grown stronger from the souls he’d taken. Shaye and New Line liked that idea, and so Craven and Bruce Wagner wrote a script for the third film, which Shaye and New Line immediately put through a massive rewrite process with Chuck Russell (who was hired to direct the film) and Frank Darabonte. Russell and Darabonte rewrote probably 70 percent of the script that Craven and Wagner had penned (and which was, according to Russell, far darker and far more profane than either the original movie or the third film that ended up going to print), and Craven once more ended up on the outside looking in for his most famous original creation. Nightmare On Elm Street Films.com has more on this as well as Craven and Wagner’s original script plus the final version, if you’re interested.

Also during this time, Craven directed a few episodes of the rebooted Twilight Zone. I’ve probably seen them since I did watch the reboot of the series, but I honestly don’t remember anything from that series. Perhaps this will be something to look up for a future entry…]

There seems to be a theme starting at this point in Wes Craven’s career, and not the expected theme. Instead, we find ourselves faced with another movie that Craven didn’t set out to make as a straightforward horror movie. Instead, he wanted his 1988 film The Serpent and the Rainbow to be based more closely on the same-titled book on which Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman based their screenplay. The book, written by Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis, details Davis’s experiences in Haiti while investigating the poisons used in making “zombies” during voodoo ceremonies. The book is far less titillating than the movie that ended up getting studio approval, playing out more like an academic journal piece than a horror movie (probably because it was more of an academic work than a gore fest).

Craven’s desire was to make a thoughtful drama/thriller with this film, something that I’m sure Davis wanted as well (he originally tried to sell the rights to his book with the caveat that it could only be turned into a movie if Peter Weir directed and Mel Gibson starred). Again, though, Craven was a gore master. Gore masters don’t get to choose “thoughtful” for their next project. We need scares, Craven! SCARES! Just look at the poster art for this film if you don’t believe me. Does this scream thoughtful to you? So scares arrived in the shooting schedule, appearing in somewhat discordant ways throughout what ended up being a stuttering, clumsily timed film. Oftentimes the more horror-heavy moments come across as shoe-horned in rather than organically planned, but they at least looked solid in comparison with the gore of Deadly Friend. Still, it’s depressing to realize that here was yet another film that Craven had such a different vision for but felt compelled to capitulate to the demands of those financing the film. I’m pretty sure by this point he must have been tempted to return to his more guerrilla early days as a filmmaker, scraping together funds in any way he could.

Don’t get me wrong: This is not a terrible film in its final form. It’s just not a great film. I hadn’t seen this movie in nearly 20 years, so my recent re-watch was a bit eye-opening as to how poorly paced the movie is, but also how great it could have been. It’s an interesting story in its own right, without all the forced, fake gore and scares. Also, I had forgotten that Bill Pullman sometimes fancies himself a serious actor. I’m so used to seeing him in silly or comedic roles; it was nice to be reminded that he also does drama and horror rather well.

I wish that Craven could have made the more serious film he initially intended to make with The Serpent and the Rainbow. Even more than Deadly Friend, which still holds pride of place as one of those fantastic horror movies that are fun to watch because of how bad/silly they are, I feel as though Craven could have made an exceptional thought piece with this film had he been given the chance.

Cravenous: Deadly Friend

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As if we (and Craven) didn’t learn this lesson with Deadly Blessing, here comes another example of how outside involvement in one’s creative process is bad, mmmkay?

Funny that it would be with the second movie Craven directed with the word “Deadly” in the title (although the title was originally the same as the book on which the story is tenuously based). I speak, of course, of 1986’s Deadly Friend. Based on Diana Henstell’s novel Friend, Bruce Joel Rubin wrote the screenplay for this story about teenaged computer genius Paul and his robot BB, and how they moved to a new town, where Paul fell in love with pretty blonde Buffy the Vampire Slayer Sam, who ends up dead at the hands of her abusive father around the same time that Paul loses BB to a blast of rifle shot from the neighborhood hermit who was just trying to be hermit-y. So what does Paul do? Implants BB’s A.I. chip into Sam’s brain, of course. Hilarity…didn’t ensue. Just a whole lot of WTFery.

Oh, also, Rubin’s most famous other contributions to Hollywood are that he wrote Jacob’s Ladder and Ghost. That kind of lessens the sting of this train wreck. Although, again, this is all about the damage of outside demands.

So what happened with this movie? A whole lot of wrong. See, Warner Bros. was delighted to have snagged the director who had been riling up the horror crowd for more than a decade at this point and had just dropped Freddy Krueger on audiences to continuing success for New Line Cinema. They wanted to channel that power into their own pockets, which translated to they wanted Craven to deliver something as horrific or worse than A Nightmare on Elm Street into their movie collection (see the movie’s poster above, which claims that this movie was Craven’s “most horrifying creation,” which was kind of right, but for all the wrong reasons).

Craven, however, had a completely different idea. He was tiring already of being known only as a horror director. With this film, he was hoping to do something more like a sci-fi thriller/love story. Something sweet and intriguing, not disgusting and unsettling like most of his other movies. Neither Warner Bros. nor his devoted fans were feeling this. When he finished the first cut of this movie, which went through title changes from Friend to Artificial Intelligence to A.I. and finally to Deadly Friend, everyone but Craven was disappointed. Fans wanted gore. Warner Bros. wanted gore. Also, WB VP Mark Canton wanted an ending that makes absolutely zero sense but that ended up being the new ending because no one tells the emperor that he looks stupid naked.

Craven ended up going back in and adding a bunch of gore and a few minuscule scares throughout the film to satisfy the fan demand, and re-shot the ending to match the upper echelon request…and what we ended up with was what I would now categorize as the kind of movie that is enjoyable when you’re young, but that contains far too many plot holes and questionable decisions to continue to be enjoyable to an adult with a hyper-critical mind.

It actually surprised me in all the bad ways how much I couldn’t enjoy this movie anymore. Not really scary, not really sci-fi, extremely dated, and with tons of questionable choices, I at least can say that Deadly Friend is still fun to watch for two reasons: catching all the anachronisms and poor choices; and one of the greatest horror death scenes ever. Think basketball versus head.

Oh yeah.

Otherwise, I spent much of the movie, including the increasingly more ridiculous end half, asking all kinds of questions that detracted from the story immensely. Questions like why did Sam have to look like a raccoon after she died? Was there no budget for a decent make-up artist? Couldn’t Craven bring some of his crew from NOES to help him out on this film? After being spoiled by the makeup for Freddy Krueger, going to this movie’s idea of “dead” makeup was more than jarring. It was just silly. See Exhibit A:

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Seriously, I could come up with a better corpse makeup than this. Then again, was she a corpse? Was the A.I. processor taking over the functions of a living entity? Or was it merely animating dead flesh. That was never really addressed, but something needed to be touched upon to explain this ridiculous makeup.

Then there is the question of Sam’s robotic movements. BB’s A.I. processor was having difficulty integrating into her brain. He wanted to keep moving the way he remembered moving. However, he had no trouble integrating enough to use her legs to walk even though he shouldn’t have known how to use legs. Why, then, couldn’t he just as quickly figure out how to use her hands the way they were meant to be used? Because the pincer hands were a little distracting. See Exhibit B:

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She just walked around like that for most of the time that the character was “BB/Sam,” until it was no longer convenient but literally made no sense that she started to function normally toward the end only to…well, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Back up to the fact that, in addition to moving like BB, Sam also sounded like BB. Which meant that Sam sounded like a demented Roger Rabbit, because Charles Fleischer made the annoying noises attributed to the robot. Why? She only possessed BB’s A.I. processor. Not his vocal chords. Of course, they never really specified how BB made any noise in the first place. Still, there should have been no way that his voice could have come from her larynx. That was just silly, and made all the sillier when she then started to sound like herself at the end.

Even sillier than this? The ending. Ugh, the ending. So Sam meets her second ending from a bullet from a deputy’s gun after causing a whole bunch of death and destruction. Paul, still unwilling to let go of probably the only girl to ever show any interest in him (and for some reason not in a cell of his own for stealing a dead body and re-animating it for this death trek through this once-quiet town), breaks into the morgue to steal Sam again, only to find that somehow a robot has grown beneath Sam’s human skin, breaking through at just the right moment to start choking Paul before the film mercifully finally fades to black. Oh, but not before we hear that Sam once more sounds like BB.

W.T.A.F.

This seriously was one of the worst endings possible for this movie. I don’t care if Canton was one of Warner Bros.’ VPs at the time. This ending makes NO SENSE. How would a robot grow? And what happened to Sam’s bones and organs and blood? Paul stole her body from the hospital before she could be embalmed or prepped in any way for burial. Everything was still there. Only now it transformed into robot parts. Never mind the fact that, right before Sam is killed again, she’s starting to show signs of returning to a more normally functioning human, with normal human movement and normal human speech (or that, when she’s shot, she bleeds and we don’t hear any tin ricochet noise or something equally ridiculous). What was that all about? How could she be going full human only to then turn into a robot at the end?

Logic, you are completely MIA from this film.

Still, with all the terrible, I’d still rather watch this than Chiller ever again. I’m not sure that’s saying much, but it’s all I’ve got at this point.

Cravenous: The Hills Have Eyes Part 2

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I’m honestly surprised that Wes Craven agreed to tackle a sequel to his 1977 movie The Hills Have Eyes, especially considering how adamantly against an open ending he was for A Nightmare on Elm Street. Then again, even though The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 came out after Nightmare, Craven started working on it before that film released. Perhaps his experience with this film was partially what drove his disinterest in leading another of his films down the franchise route.

There’s not really a whole lot to say about this sequel. True to most 80s horror sequels, it takes the original idea, guts it of value and back-fills it instead with more gore and more gratuitous nudity. That’s pretty much this film in a nutshell. The only original characters to return for this film are Michael Berryman’s Pluto (who gets royally shafted in this film), Robert Houston’s Bobby, and Janus Blythe’s hill girl Ruby, who now goes by Rachel. Oh and Beast, the German shepherd, who is probably the most interesting character from the entire film.

The premise is that Bobby is still severely traumatized by the events of the first film and when he learns that the motocross team he trains and has developed a high-octane fuel for is going to compete in the desert near where those events happened, he freaks and can’t go. So his wife, Rachel/Ruby, takes his place and leads his unknowing team of dirtbiking dudes (and their girlfriends) off into the empty terrain of her former home. Of course, they break down and the remaining cannibal clan find them. You’d think the clan would be led by Pluto (who, by the by, shouldn’t have made it to the sequel since it seemed pretty clear from the first film that Beast killed Pluto, but whatever). Instead, the leader is the Reaper, the brother of Jupiter, the leader from the first movie.

Now, that’s where the plot really falls apart for me. This introduction of the Reaper is painfully convenient, especially considering how important it was to stress how horrible Jupiter was in the first film—so horrible that his own father abandoned him alone in the desert to fend for himself. No mention there of a brother. And yet for the sequel, we get a brother who is supposedly even worse than the first guy? Perhaps they were only supposed to be brothers in name only, but if that was the case, then they needed to stress this a bit more. Otherwise, it just feels like a flimsy plot contrivance.

I would have much rather seen Pluto as the big bad of this film. Craven could have made him a proper badass to better explain how he survived the first film. Instead, he turned Pluto into a bumbling, skittering Falstaff to the Reaper’s terror. And, spoilers ahoy, he bites it well before the end of the film. A shame, really.

The returning character who doesn’t bite it but instead bites others? Beast. Most badass dog on the block, yo. So badass that he has flashbacks. I kid you not, denizens. Beast has a flashback to the events of the original movie, and it might possibly be one of the greatest moments in film history. Dog flashback. Thank you, Wes Craven. Also, thank you for letting the dog survive this time. And kill Pluto. Again.

Spoilers.

Craven does introduce an intriguing plot element by having one of the characters, Tamara Stafford’s Cass, be blind. I liked the utilization her other senses to figure out what was happening around her. Kane Hodder appears in the movie as a stuntman. Guess it was in between Friday the 13th films for him. Peter Frechette’s in it, for you two Profiler fans out there. Oh, and Penny Johnson plays Sue. It’s not until many, many moons later that she lands her job as Kassidy Yates on Deep Space Nine.

Not much else to say about this movie. It’s an okay sequel, but not really necessary. However, I’m glad that Craven took the reins on the sequel rather than let others tamper with his original creation. Wonder what might have happened with the Nightmare franchise had he held on to those reins as well…

Cravenous: Chiller

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I know I’m calling this one early, but I’m going to have to say that Chiller is probably going to be my least favorite film from Craven’s directorial oeuvre.

It’s not that Craven did a terrible job on directing. It was a nice, solid, middle-of-the-road effort for a movie that was…meh. Not the worst made-for-television movie. Not the best. Just meh.

The story, written by J.D. Feigelson (who apparently had a very brief career as a screenwriter of other equally unmemorable-sounding horror scripts), contemplates what might happen if someone was revived from cryogenic suspension without their soul. He doesn’t have a very positive outlook for such a person.

Very existential-sounding plot, right? Of course, it requires that one believes that behavior is dictated by a “soul” rather than something less ethereal like personality, genetics, upbringing, etc. I’m not really all that keen on believing that who I am is contingent upon what my soul is like, or that missing my soul would turn me into a cold, calculating jerk with serpent eyes.

Really, really cheesy serpent eyes, mind you.

I don’t really have a whole lot else to say about this movie. It was rather dull, with no real standout directing or acting. Paul Sorvino is probably the most recognizable name. Beatrice Straight played the mother; horror fans will recognize her as Dr. Lesh from Poltergeist. Dick O’Neill was in it for a hot minute, for all you Cagney and Lacey fans.

I kind of feel as though this was an immense step backward for Craven after he dropped the magnificence that is Nightmare on Elm Street on us all. Then again, people might not have yet twigged to how amazing that movie was and how wondrous Craven could be when given control of his films. He was probably still just that guy who made horror movies to them. A shame, really, that he had to waste time on something like this when he clearly could do far better.

Cravenous: A Nightmare on Elm Street

If ever the hashtag #SorryNotSorry were applicable to anything I have done here at the lair, this is the time. I stated in my initial Cravenous post that I wanted to examine Wes Craven’s lesser-acknowledged films…the ones that didn’t include “Nightmare” or “Scream” in their titles. However, I simply couldn’t skip this film, denizens. My horror-loving heart is so full with joy and exuberance for this particular movie that the thought of not taking full advantage to re-watch and re-examine it filled me with an aching sadness. Besides, I’ve actually never written specifically about the film. I’ve done a Poster Pick examination of the film’s poster (ah, Poster Picks, I miss you so). I’ve also written about Nancy Thompson as a Lady of Horror May-hem.

Now is the time on Sprockets when I finally write about the actual film, and the most significant solo contribution that Wes Craven made to the horror genre: A Nightmare on Elm Street.

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Die-hard horror fans will already know how Craven found real-world inspiration for this script within several news articles that detailed the mysterious sleep-induced deaths of Laotian refugees who had recently immigrated to the United States. They claimed that something was trying to kill them in their dreams. No one believed them; in one instance, a young Laotian man struggled to stay awake for several days before his family finally got him to sleep. I’m sure you know what fate he met.

Craven, of course, being fascinated already by the historical terror and power of dreams (he had trained himself since college to dream lucidly and to keep a dream journal), instantly knew that he wanted to come up with a movie that centered on a powerful dream demon who would take out his victims when they were most vulnerable. He also knew, thanks to his daughter Jessica’s influence, that he wanted a strong heroine to lead his story. Remember how I wrote in my review of Swamp Thing that Jessica was disappointed in her father’s use of the cliched “Tripping Heroine” trope? With Nancy Thompson, Craven set out to undo that disappointment tenfold.

What Craven did was create one of the most significant (though ultimately too revisited) villains of modern horror as well as one of the fiercest horror heroines. We’ll get back to Nancy in a moment, though. Now, rather than simply regurgitating to you all the fun factoids that I have learned about this film throughout the years of my obsession, I’m instead going to encourage you to seek out the InfiniFilm version of the movie. It’s chock-full of special features, including two full-length “commentaries” (I feel as though one of the commentaries was more of a pieced together selection of interview bits from various players in the film and crew rather than a legitimate commentary session). Pay special attention during the commentary with Craven, Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, and cinematographer Jacques Haitkin to hear mention to how this was for the laser disc release of the movie. Good times.

A couple of intriguing moments from the commentaries that I would like to focus on came from two of the lovely ladies to star in this film. First was from Amanda Wyss, who played Tina Gray. She referred to the teens in this film as “shelterless.” I think is a brutally beautiful way to describe Freddy’s teen victims. They had no consistently protective force in their lives (with possibly the exception of Glen). Even Nancy with her stalwart police officer father couldn’t completely depend on him. Having divorced parents meant that she only had access to him in a limited capacity. Instead, she was living with her mother, who chose to deal with the secret that the Elm Street parents were keeping from their children by disappearing into alcoholic fugues as often as possible. That takes us to the deeper truth of this “shelterless” existence. Nancy and her friends were being taken out by this dream demon because of the sin of their parents. What began as these parents taking the hard-line final choice when it came to protecting their children from the neighborhood child molester and murderer ultimately led not only to their inability to protect their children but their culpability in their children’s murders at the hands of the man they killed. It’s quite the perverse circle jerk, if you think about it.

Conversely, I suppose that you could argue that the parents provided the wrong sheltering. Nancy’s mother sheltered her from the truth of who Fred Krueger had been. All the parents sheltered their children from this truth, and that cost them all dearly.

The second moment was hearing Wes Craven and Heather Langenkamp refer the character of Nancy Thompson as a “warrior woman.” It really struck a chord with me and made me re-evaluate my use of a more accepted term when it comes to the surviving females in horror movies: the Final Girl.

I’ve always taken issue with the use of “girl” in the comics world. Whereas the use of “boy” for the male superheroes is rare (and usually refers to an actual young character), there are several instances of “girl” in the names of female superheroes, including those who are clearly not les petites filles. I can’t help but wonder whether the absence of “boy” isn’t in part because of the negative connotations this term carries in reference to a grown man. One need only look to segregation-era America to understand the dismissive, offensive implications of using a child identifier for an adult man. While not on the same derogatory level as “boy” is in this context, I would argue that “girl” in reference to a grown woman, or even a woman on the precipice of adulthood, is similarly dismissive. Additionally, it’s infantilizing the character in question—locking her in at a certain age and never allowing her to reach full maturity. The implication is that this character must look eternally young (a brutally pervasive mindset that drives far too many women into the mutilating “care” of plastic surgeons) and be in constant need of supervisory assistance, care, or rescue.

Similarly, the term “Final Girl” carries with it a pejorative air, especially when you take into consideration that: A) there is no male counterpart term—no “Final Boy”; and B) any male character who survives such a trial would most assuredly be viewed as a fully tested man by the end of said events.

So why not the same for the female characters?

With Nancy Thompson, the term “warrior woman” resonates so wonderfully and so vividly with her approach to defeating the dream demon she and her friends are encountering. At no point does Nancy ever view herself as Freddy’s victim. Instead, she goes about trying to figure out what’s happening to her friends and her; once she gets the full story, she goes into survival mode and begins planning how to defeat Krueger rather than sitting by, idly awaiting her turn as his next kill. Additionally, she must contend with the doubt of all the adults around her and the continued murder of her peer group. She accepts her fate and her need to complete this journey, with or without the benefit of external support. In her final showdown with Freddy is where Nancy proves her mettle most eloquently. She is in such control of that moment that never once have I doubted that her strength could have defeated this nightmarish stalker. It’s such a fantastically powerful moment and one of my all-time favorites from any genre.

I wish that Craven had gotten his wish to end this movie on a more final note. While I have often stated that I first discovered Freddy Krueger through the campier, sillier Elm Street sequels, once I learned the origin of this monster, I understood the dilution of his power that the sequels had upon him. It also made me appreciate all the more Craven’s efforts with New Nightmare.

In addition to getting an amazing script from Craven, we also get a top-notch technical crew who pull off some incredibly progressive practical work. Of course, there’s the rotating room that allows for the memorable deaths of Tina and Glenn (spoilers). Again, seek out the InfiniFilm version of the movie for some great stories from Craven about this room. There’s Haitkin’s gorgeously atmospheric cinematography and lighting. Speaking of lighting and ingenuity, I do want to touch upon one particular technical moment from this film for its simple yet highly effective brilliance. While there are many moments of technical merit throughout this film, I’ve chosen this one for how it reminds me of an equally effective simple trick from John Carpenter’s Halloween. In that film, we see the slow emergence of Michael Myers from the shadows with the use of a blue light bulb slowly illuminated beneath his iconic mask.

For this movie, we see the emergence of Freddy Krueger from the solid wall behind Nancy as she sleeps. As it goes in cinematic lore, they achieved this by stretching a panel of white spandex behind the bed and having special effects technician Jim Doyle push against the spandex while lit from underneath. The end result of Freddy hovering over Nancy’s prone form is visually stunning and disturbing.

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Add to all this an amazing cast, including Langenkamp, Saxon, Wyss, Johnny Depp in his first film appearance ever, Ronnie Blakely, Roger Rabbit as the sleep disorder researcher with the weirdest taste in posters…

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Seriously, what’s up with that poster next to Fleischer’s character? And who else has ever noticed it before?

Oh, and Robert Englund. I give Craven so much credit for the script and the directing, but choosing Englund to play Freddy Krueger was key. Had he not selected the right actor for this role, this could have just been another cheesy 80s slasher flick. The stars aligned so magically for this film, however, and we the horror faithful are that much better off for the fact.