Friday, February 28, 2014

February Review

February was off to a great start after I watched about 4 horror movies in 4 days... but then I forgot to blog about them.  And then I didn't watch any more.  Sorry, folks.  Here's to a better March.

For your consideration:

1.  Jaws (1975): A
2.  A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984): A-
3.  A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985): A-/B+

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Jaws (1975)

The movie that made you afraid to go back in the water... or the bath, or the shower, or to sit on the toilet.

Director:  Steven Spielberg
Studios:  Universal Pictures
Starring:  Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw
Tagline:  Don't Go in the Water
MPAA Rating:  PG
Genre:  horror, terror, thriller, suspense, drama, monster
Scare score:  B
Rating:  A

Plot overview:  Just as the summer season is about to hit full swing on the small Amity Island, a terrible and unprovoked shark attack leaves a young woman dead.  While local sheriff yet New York City native Martin Brody (Scheider) wants to close all beaches immediately following the discovery of the girl's mutilated body, Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), other members of the town council, and local business owners refuse to lose their summer customers.  As more attacks threaten the island's safety, fisherman come from far and wide on a shark hunt, but will they be able to outwit the great white monster?

This is not only an excellent movie, it is an important movie.  After all, this was America's first summer blockbuster.  Can you imagine a summer (or a halloween, or a holiday season, or any other sub-season) without its highly anticipated movie releases?

Jaws begins slow, and in fact it very much maintains that pace throughout, giving us one of the finest examples of suspense that we can think of.  I mean, sure, the movie begins with an attack on a really hot hippie, and there are a decent amount of gory attack scenes throughout, but the star of this movie is man and not animal.  Aside from on occasional fin, we don't see much of Jawsy until well into the movie, I think I remember timing it at around an hour or so.  There is really fine work done in this moving as far as plot development goes concerning the time spent on attacks (action) and the time spent on the human response (reaction).

Acting in this movie is both convincing and entertaining.  Leading us bravely through the entire film is Roy Scheider in the role of the out-of-place New Yorker that must learn to maintain his power as police chief while dealing with pressure from the local "islanders."  Brody represents the human conflict in the film, as well as a civilized yet masculine response to the chaos.  Representing science in a somewhat less masculine role is Matt Hooper (Dreyfuss), marine biologist and general shark nerd that lays down the voice of expertise and reason while the islanders panic.  Finally, as the ultimate '70s Ahab we have Quint (Shaw), a man's man (and fisher's man), war vet, probable alcoholic, and cold blooded, ruthless shark killer.  These three actors form the trifecta of manpower that is needed to try and defeat the shark- a seemingly unstoppable, prehistoric, bloodthirsty, and even intelligent creature that will outsmart its way into terrorizing the summer population of Amity Island.

While the first third of the movie is more relaxed while following the internal and legal debates of Brody (as well as his relaxing and even admirable family life- special shout out to Lorraine Gary in the role of spunky and ultimately concerned Ellen Brody, wife of the police chief), it isn't until later on that we move into the monster hunt.  The terror, therefore, much like the famous theme music (which is, perhaps, more well known than the movie itself), begins as something subtle, something we know is present or could present itself at any moment but which chooses to refrain from doing so until the right time.  Jaws is filled with plenty of tease scares, or even attacks we know are happening but with no true fright behind them (the horror, rather, awaits in the reaction upon the discovery of the death.  Take, for example, that mother on the beach when he son doesn't come out of the water).

It is the climax and falling action of the movie that takes us on the hunt, led by the no-nonsense Quint (who I love).  Together with the defensive Hooper (who provides an awful lot of comic relief) and our hero Brody, the team of three men sets off, giving us some back story on each of their lives as well as the realization that this shark is not to be trifled with.  In a series of somewhat repetitive scenes, as well as a not-necessarily-necessary-but-good-for-suspense sequence of Hooper being lowered into the water in a cage, the fight against the great white rages on.


Horror Buff was exposed to this movie at a surprisingly young age.  I have several distinct memories of watching this movie with other young friends while our parents would be in another room doing their adult party thing.  Since those wonder years, my favorite scene - and the scene I consider the scariest in the movie - has been the discovery of Ben Gardner (Craig Kingsbury) in his destroyed boat.  If I could watch that scene over and over again I probably would.  Every time, I know exactly what is coming, and it still always gets me.  I explicitly remember watching this scene as a child, and I was probably as scared then as I am now.  A+ terrifying.  I also remember from this time that my friends (other children) were scared to bathe, shower, swim in the pool, and one girl was even afraid to sit on the toilet after seeing this movie.  Talk about scarring!

The shark itself is an impressive beast.  I've read a lot about the different models they used and the ones that broke and the ones that didn't, and it's truly an endeavor of movie magic.  Sharks fascinate me.  And is it just me, or is the scariest thing about them their perfectly black eyes?  Gives me the creeps.  I read a lot of shark attack statistics following this movie, and it's true that Jaws has directly led to them being both hunted and smeared as human hunters- which, according to science, they really aren't.  Just curious little fellas willing to take a bite out of anything.  In many cases, after tasting bony humans, sharks decide they don't like the flavor and are on their way.  As a New Jersey native, I've also done some reading in my time regarding the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 (which are cited as *true inspiration* behind Jaws... ugh), so I mean, sure, they're not entirely innocent either.  I suggest you watch Jaws and make your own educated opinion.

Huge question: HOW is the movie only PG?  While it isn't exactly dirty (some nudity at the beginning... gotta' love the '70s), it is disturbing and filled with human parts in and around a giant shark's mouth.  Like this is at least a PG-13.  I wonder what was going on with the MPAA while rating this blockbuster.

Fun fact: Horror Buff has both dove with sharks in the Bahamas near filming locations from Jaws: The Revenge and has also enjoyed some really tasty burgers in Menemsha on the Vineyard, the other principle filming location of movies from the Jaws 'series.'  Really I suppose I'm a secret Jaws enthusiast.

Final critique:  Everyone should see this movie.  Even the American government considers it culturally important.  Not convincing enough for you?  Consider this: we know more about outer space than we do about the oceans on our planet... and what lurks in them.  Jaws brings to the surface (ha. ha.) one of these mysterious and perhaps one of the most notorious hunters on our planet: the great white shark.  As this movie is equally as much about human drama as it is about shark hunting, there is drama, suspense, thrill, and even some comic relief, which means that most audiences will find something to love about this staple of the horror genre.

Friday, February 7, 2014

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985)

Director:  Jack Sholder
Studios:  Heron Communications, Smart Egg Pictures, New Line Cinema
Starring:  Mark Patton, Kim Myers, Robert Rusler, Robert Englund
Tagline:  The Man of Your Dreams is Back.
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre:  horror, terror, thriller, slasher, teen
Scare score:  C+
Rating:  A-/B+

Plot overview:  A few years after the events of the first film, a new family has moved into 1428 Elm Street, and the teenage son Jesse (Patton) is already having terrifyingly realistic nightmares.  These nightmares largely revolve around a terribly scarred murderer, Fred Krueger (Englund).  This time around, he doesn't just want to kill teenagers, he wants to use Jesse's body to do so.  Worried that he is losing his mind, Jesse depends on the support of his [it's complicated with] girlfriend Lisa (Myers) and new friend Ron Grady (Rusler).  Will the help of his friends and family be enough to combat Freddy from taking over his mind and body?

The saga continues with this sequel, released only a year after the original movie (love a good horror franchise).  One of the best things this movie does, quite unlike other franchises at the time, is (almost) totally switch up the plot.  If this were your standard horror sequel, Freddy would merely be haunting Jesse in the same way that he haunted Nancy in the last film, simultaneously moving on to his friends.  This clever sequel, however, turns the protagonist's battle with Krueger into something not only mental but also physical, a haunting equally as diurnal as nocturnal.  Perhaps the greatest change we are given here is the fact that the protagonist and main victim of the horror is a teenage boy and not a girl.

While this isn't completely groundbreaking (in The Evil Dead our main protagonist is a college-aged male), it is certainly different than our typical damsel in distress in the horror genre.  Furthermore, unlike films such as The Evil Dead where the male protagonist largely fights against the given terrors, in this Elm Street installment, our protagonist is much more of a victim than he is a hero.  In fact, his debated saving comes at the hands of a girl.

Is that what's groundbreaking about this movie?  A debatably homosexual protagonist in a mainstream horror movie?  Truth be told, Horror Buff doesn't buy that theory.  If you watch this movie convinced that Jesse is straight, it still makes complete sense.  The boy is going crazy (like the last movie, we may very well debate that the horror sequences only take place in a fantasy world created by Jesse).  While Jesse's sexuality may or may not be in question, one thing that's certain is that he doesn't fulfill every standard male/ macho stereotype usually attributed to masculine characters such as Ash in The Evil Dead.  We see Jesse nervous from nightmares and social pressure, we see Jesse dancing (including some butt gyrating) while cleaning his bedroom, we hear Jesse's ear-piercing screams - true screams, not yells - several times throughout the movie.  Jesse is sexualized, often shown in his underwear, and at one point almost made to be the victim of sexual assault.  Forget final girls and forget jock boys that get killed off oh-so-close to the finale: here we have a masculine boy victim.

What's good about this movie?  As mentioned, the total change in plot is refreshing.  It also adds a level of psychological depth to the film as the main character has to truly debate whether or not he is going insane.  While there is plenty of time dedicated to plot development, when the scares come they're certainly fun, providing small thrills here and there.


The best scene of the movie, or at least one of them, has to be the pool party at Lisa's house.  When Freddy breaks loose here, he shows no mercy, and a TBP or teen booze party turns into an absolute bloodbath.  Seriously though, this scene is great.  I love when chaos breaks loose.  It's reminiscent of Carrie and the final prom scene, except with a creepy pedophile slashing students while fire seems to burst forth from everything.  Then, towards the end of the film we have a pretty gross burn sequence which alludes to Freddy's human demise and perhaps Jesse's mortal end.  This features some disturbing makeup and another Jesse being sort of born forth from the ashes aka burnt, charred skin.

Another favorite scene?  Shortly before Grady's death, we see Freddy literally bursting forth from Jesse's body.  I love the special effects here: a disturbing, Alien-esque birth of evil from a human character.  Gross and so smart.

The worst scene?  This probably has to be when the family bird goes crazy, kills it's companion, and then we literally have an unnecessarily extensive scene that can at best make us think of The Birds and at worst make us want to stop watching.

While our main characters all deliver some good or decent acting, my favorite has to be Kim Myers in the role of Lisa.  Does she not look exactly like Meryl Streep?  Also her acting is a breath of fresh air.

Final critique:  I'm keeping this review short because I watched this movie over a week ago and have sort of forgotten about other major points that I think I might have wanted to have touched upon.  Regardless, this is a truly well-done sequel, and while its scares don't necessarily surpass those of the first movie, the new cast and new plot keeps this franchise upbeat and interesting.  Stayed tuned as I review more Nightmare on Elm Street-s to see whether Freddy sinks or swims.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

The film that gave every Elm Street in America a bad reputation...

Director:  Wes Craven
Studios:  Media Home Entertainment, Smart Egg Pictures, New Line Cinema
Starring:  Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, Ronee Blakley, Robert Englund
Tagline:  If Nancy Doesn't Wake Up Screaming, She Won't Wake Up At All...
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre:  horror, terror, thriller, slasher, teen
Scare score:  C+
Rating:  A-

Plot overview:  A group of friends begins to be haunted by a terrible figure in their nightmares, but soon their nightmares become reality.

I guess it was only a matter of time until we got to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, one of horror's most visibly recognizable and well known titles, series, and villains - and for a good reason.  Much like Michael and Jason, Freddy and his numerous films have left a marked impact upon popular culture as well as the entire horror genre, heavily influencing what people think of, remember, and fear when they go to watch a scary movie.

This movie is the epitome of '80s horror, often drifting into the now passé tropes created by earlier films (and contemporary franchises) like Halloween and Friday the 13th.  If the viewer goes into the film expecting and accepting corny lines, acting that is only so so, and a handful of predictable moments, then he or she is in for a treat.  There's a reason that this film has remained relevant for *gulp* 30 years: an intriguing plot mixed with an original villain plus plenty of that '80s teen raciness.  That is to say, cardinal rule number 2 is exploited and broken.  Naughty teens and an even naughtier killer?  What's not to enjoy?

In the role of our heroine Nancy Thompson we have Langenkamp, who plays the courageous and virtuous, normal teenager with heart although I don't think she always stayed completely within her role.  After all, there's only so many times an actress can play an awkwardly elongated scene merely expressing frustration (it happens a lot here).  Some interactions between Heather and friends Glen (Depp), Rod (Nick Corri), and Tina (Amanda Wyss) also feel a little stiff, and throughout the movie each of these four teens has his or her fair share of poor reactions as far as acting goes.  Then again, when limited by the script itself, I guess there's not much they could do.

In one of the more bizarre roles of horror we have Nancy's mom, Marge (Blakley).  First of all, isn't Blakley oddly striking?  Or is it just a combination of her hair, makeup, and tan?  Aside from her excessive outward appearance, we quickly learn that as a mother Marge is pretty thick (although concerned), but as a lush she's right on par.  Regardless, she is one of the more interesting and entertaining characters in the film, complete with her own dark secrets, and she goes on to deliver one of my favorite lines in the movie when telling Nancy that she's going to be safe.

The plot and bad guy were the real gold mines for this film.  Freddy Krueger (Englund) is a conglomerate of all these terrible ideas, created from various things we both generally hate and fear in society: a pedophile/ child killer; a kidnapper; he is disfigured and disgusting; at times he shows himself to be filled with pus, maggots, and other bugs; he is the manifestation of a nightmare.  He furthermore represents the return of a bad guy, thus making him a criminal who begins claiming new victories long after the original heroes thought they had assured his defeat.  Fred Krueger is a complex figure, the combination of a killer, the undead, and monsters, who bends the line between fiction and reality.  Not only does Freddy haunt and then hunt his victims, he possesses his victims by entering their minds and taking them from their safe reality into his reality: a special sort of hell.  When it comes to Michael Myers, you can either not cross his path, or you can run from him (for a time).  When it comes to Jason, just stay out of Crystal Lake.  But Freddy?  He crosses your path, he comes into your space - your most personal space (the mind) - and then he makes it (and you) his own.  It's one thing not wanting to sleep in case some killer is coming after you - but to not want to sleep because that's where the killer is waiting for you?  It's no wonder that the first few kids merely try ignoring their nightmares, because otherwise there is no escape - which is what Nancy realizes quickly, causing her to take drastic measures such as hiding coffee makers in her bedroom and popping Stay Awake pills.

In this first installment, Freddy is truly a scary and innovative character.  From one of the first chase scenes in the film when we see him appearing and disappearing (decent special effects, 1984), his clawed arms expanding and retracting at will, to his skin being cut, pulled, and burned off, and not to mention the general scraping of his knifed-hand against metal (who doesn't hate that sound?), we learn quickly that this is a force to be reckoned with (for veteran viewers, remember, this is before Freddy adapted a more comical [read: corny] persona).  With complete power in his dream/ nightmare world and a pretty considerable amount of influence on the real world as well (or at least on the fringe between the two) - what can't Fred do?


Finally, the entire concept of dreams vs. reality is still hard for audiences to wrap their heads around today.  How much of this film takes place in reality and how much of it does not is really in the eye of the beholder.  I've read a bunch of theories and I don't exactly know where I fall.  For the most part, I think the movie takes place in a balanced mix of reality and the dreams of the various teens, although sometimes Freddy only kills in pure 'dreamland' where as in some cases his workings from his own realm have direct physical manifestations in the real world (think Rod's death).  At the end of the day I think we can't just limit Fred to dreams alone, and we can't say that fantastic things won't happen in reality (assuming Marge's death scene takes place in reality, then both Nancy and her laid-back-at-all-the-wrong-times father, police Lieutenant Donald Thompson (John Saxon), both see an inexplicable and even impossible (and over the top, Craven) death.  What irks me more than the shotty 'special effects' involved here is the other character's simple willingness to accept what they have just seen).  Lastly, I think that the final seen should not be overly interpreted as a confusing and mysterious mix of reality and dream, but rather as a last-minute, half-assed attempt at a scare in the final seconds of the film.  There, I said it.

I have to quickly complain about the movie poster because Nancy looks like an angry pig.  What is with that face?  That is all.

As a bit of social commentary, isn't it interesting that we never see into either of the boy's (Glen and Rod) dreams?  Following a firm history of final girls and scream queens, A Nightmare on Elm Street in many ways upholds the male bad guy kills female victims plot.  While male victims are killed (and often), we are never shown how scared they are in the moments before their deaths, where as in comparison these movies are filmed with, well, girls screaming, crying, running, and hiding (and a few girls fighting back).  In this first installment, we are given the fairly shallow Rod and the almost deep Glen, with their equally as shallow and equally not-as-deep-as-we-would-like female counterparts in Tina and Nancy, respectively.  While we get to experience loads of funs and frights in the girls' nightmares, we are never invited into the heads of the boys; we are only allowed to watch them suddenly, unknowingly, and emotionlessly die in the real world.  Sure, the boys are victims, but are they victimized like the girls (and one woman) are?  Perhaps this is what will make the sequel so much more culturally shocking.

Favorite line:  [overly dramatic] "Screw sleep!"- Nancy Thompson

Final critique:  Is this movie actually scary?  Not like the scary we're used to today.  But with the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, Horror Buff will go so far as to say that it's not all about the scares so much as it's about the plots and the characters - especially Freddy - themselves.  That being said, there are definitely a few good scares hidden among the sometimes compelling, sometimes ridiculous storyline here.  Again, if the audience is willing to accept a script that often drifts into the realm of dull as well as acting that sometimes touches on not-believable, then they can sit back and enjoy a film that is truly important to the horror genre.