A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Nightmare on Elm Street.jpg

“Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep.”

I was so impressed with Scream that I decided to follow it up with Wes Craven’s most acclaimed movie. Nightmare on Elm Street has always been clumped with a handful of other movies as one of the classics, one of the horror movies that “defined a genre” or “really gets it right.” While I think those things are true, I think it also helped me gain some perspective on slasher or nightmare horror and appreciate how far we’ve come, while also acknowledging the really cool movies that helped us get there. Even if they’re a little cheesy.

Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) is a serial killer (and burn victim) that can enter the dreams of his victims, causing them pain that bleeds through to the real world. His latest target is Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), a pure-hearted final girl who must uncover and exploit Freddy’s weaknesses to put an end to his ruthless pursuit of her dreams.

The villain is the clear centerpiece of a movie like this one, and Freddy Krueger serves as a fittingly twisted antagonist for this first film of the franchise. As I hinted, I think he doesn’t hold up so well today, and his appearance and catchphrases sometimes paint him as a bland sort of nightmare instead of a complex foe. Regardless, though, Craven sprinkles him throughout the film masterfully, jumping into the nightmare from the get-go with a satisfying series of kills rising to a fitting climax, although it’s rather familiar in 2018.

While I think Craven has made smarter movies, I think Nightmare works best when it gets actual nightmares just right. There’s a familiarity to Krueger’s attacks, as if we’ve seen this villain in our own nightmares. Details like Nancy’s feet being stuck in goop as she runs up the stairs or being disoriented as Krueger appears from different directions ring really true to how our own dreams play out, demonstrating that Craven has gone beyond the standard scare sequences. The “what happens in dreams happens in real life” gimmick actually grew on me as the movie went on, and it’s a fun phenomenon that makes you curious as to how this Freddy nightmare stuff actually works and how he got his powers to begin with.

Nightmare on Elm Street is a really fun addition to Wes Craven’s canon, although it’s far from his best movie. Regardless, Craven proves once again his mastery of horrific creativity with this beautifully paced work of nightmares.


Films Left to Watch: 851

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Seven Samurai (1954)

seven samurai

“Listen, I’m not a man with any special skill, but I’ve had plenty of experience in battles; losing battles, all of them. In short, that’s all I am.”

I think a great movie should leave me with a lot to say, but I often find that my favorite movies leave me speechless. Nonetheless, I find myself grinning from ear to ear. Such is the case with Seven Samurai, a movie that really trampled on the more focused, personal films I’ve been seeking out lately. I knew this movie would be an epic, but my lack of attention given to Kurosawa-type movies and the breathtaking storytelling driving this film really hit me in a surprising way, and I had an absolute blast with Seven Samurai.

A poor farming community is on the brink of extinction, recently devastated by the pillaging of a nearby group of bandits who plan to strike again for their latest crop. In desperation, the farmers seek out a group of samurai to protect them from the bandits. The first act of the film concerns the seeking out, testing, convincing, and uniting of these samurai for a cause that will yield no glory. The second act is a strategically fought battle between the samurai and the bandits, culminating in a bloody showdown for the future of the village.

I’ve always been wary of longer run times, but this movie was easily the briskest 3+ hour movie I’ve ever seen, and it made me want to watch another Kurosawa film right away. The cut to intermission was probably the most striking bit in the entire film, and I found myself marinating in the first act far more than I expected. Kurosawa builds an epic not with set pieces but with a sense of community, and it nestles you into an experience that understands what scale actually means: substance over stuffing. Seven Samurai reminded me of a fine Netflix series, rounding out different characters and scenarios for the purpose of a greater thematic whole.

I believe a great film should have something to say, but Kurosawa seems to glide past theme and move straight into the “human experience” level of depth. There’s romance, philosophy, action, friendship, and many other plot pieces that only feel like an extension of a musing on the human experience. Everything in the story serves this idea, particularly its characters. The wise and aging Kembei is the tragic hero who seems ready for death, only to watch so many brave, younger men die in the same pursuit. Kikuchiyo is his younger, hot-headed foil who brings humor and courage in a way that no longer resonates with Kembei and the other more elitist samurai.

I think it might be my lack of experience with Kurosawa and Japense cinema, but there was a freshness to my viewing – a feeling like when I watched movies as a kid. I hear a lot of people say that they don’t want to study films because they “don’t want to hate movies” and still want the feel the magic of it all. I think this is valid, but my experience with Seven Samurai re-affirms that we can keep that magic present if we continue to challenge and indulge ourselves in cinema we’ve never seen before. I felt overjoyed with the movie in ways I can’t describe, and this sounds cliché but it speaks to how much I have to learn and the power of cinematic techniques in the hand of someone who understands their effect. If I saw Seven Samurai a few more times along with other Kurosawa movies, I could probably crack a few codes and piece together formal techniques, but I’ll never forget this viewing and the surprise and sheer delight of being in the dark in a way that any movie at my local theater won’t provide right now (but did when I was a kid).

Seven Samurai is worth more substantive study than I could provide right now, and that study has surely been done to death given its Holy Grail status to a lot of cinephiles and its prominent influence, so I’ll say I’m happy I saw it. I’ll say I feel inspired to see more Japanese cinema but also just to see more cinema. I’ve been watching a lot of mainstream horror this month, and for lack of a less pretentious phrase, I get conventional American horror. I didn’t get Seven Samurai, but I hope to get it soon. And I hope to discover movies I didn’t know existed that make me feel the same sense of awe and wonder about film as an art, and I hope to get those movies too. And I hope to repeat that process over and over until I die with a blade in my hand.


Films Left to Watch: 852

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Freaks (1932)

Freaks

“You laughed at them, shuddered at them. And, yet, but for the accident of birth, you might be one as they are. They did not ask to be brought into the world. But, into the world they came. Their code is a law unto themselves: offend one and you offend them all.”

Freaks is a strange Pre-Code horror movie that defies a lot of what you’d expect from a 30s horror movie or really any horror movie. Or really any movie. It’s a surprisingly tame feature with a disturbing ending cranking the film straight to eleven in its last five minutes. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding Freaks, particularly the scenes that were apparently chopped off and never seen again for fear of unsettling audiences. The film we ended up with, although only about an hour, is still a fun movie with a lot of neat choices to chew on.

The movie concerns a troupe of circus performers with physical deformities, portrayed by actors with the same conditions. There are a few subplots, but the main concern of the movie is Hans (Harry Earles), a dwarf performer who is engaged to Frieda (Daisy Earles) but is bewitched by the beautiful Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), who is only after Hans’s money. At the climax of the film, when Cleopatra’s sinister nature comes to light, the “freaks” band together to take revenge on the “normal” performers who have mistreated and mocked them.

There’s really not any horror until the final act of the film, which leaves the majority of the movie as a strange collection of slice-of-life cinema depicting the lives of the deformed performers. There’s a lot of heart to these scenes, and I think the film has the best of intentions in its depiction of the titular performers. Great horror has often been a tool for minority groups to reclaim power through depiction and through telling their stories, and I think Freaks gets a lot of that across, even if the performers are often just played for spectacle.

I’m fascinated by the chopped footage that reduced the movie to such a meager run time. I can only assume a lot of content had to be cut and that a huge chunk of the movie was devoted to horror, because we’re left with a lot of first act material that a horror movie would typically just use to set up thrills. The pacing is definitely awkward, but I actually think it’s fun in a twisted sort of way, as if the film is playing with expectations for an entire hour before finally delivering. And when it delivers, dealing just desserts to the movie’s villain, it feels oh so satisfying.

Freaks is a fun piece of horror history, and you can definitely feel the influence of Tod Browning in the bits we’re still allowed to enjoy. I’d love to see the original cut someday, but it’s been destroyed to my understanding, so I guess we’ll just have to imagine.


Films Left to Watch: 853

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Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003)

Aileen

“I’m so fuckin’ mad I can’t see straight. And they’re just daring me to kill again.”

I could watch documentaries for days on end, and Netflix seems to have taken to the real crime drama with its selections, likely following the success of Making a Murderer. I was certainly curious about the inclusion of Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer into the 1001 Movies list. It’s strange, and Jay Schneider is clearly one for strangeness. Maybe it’s included for inclusion’s sake: hitting a real crime documentary seems fitting for a list of important movies, but I feel like bases are covered with the more conventional and important Thin Blue Line. This movie is an enigma, but then again, so is its titular serial killer.

Aileen is actually a followup to filmmaker Nick Broomfield’s 1992 film Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer in which it is implied that notorious “serial killer” Aileen Wuornos is given an unfair trial. Aileen was a sex worker who murdered johns, claiming in the trial that she did so in self defense. She admits in this film, however, that there was no self defense and that she was merely trying to dodge the law. This very confession may prove unreliable, however, as the documentary demonstrates constant shifts in Aileen’s story due to her declining mental state leading up to her execution.

I think the primary appeal of the movie is Aileen herself. She confides in Broomfield, who seems genuinely concerned for her well being. He interviews other figures in Aileen’s life, but the film’s major set piece is Aileen’s press conference before her execution. She berates the system at large and even criticizes Broomfield, implying he only used her for his film, an accusation which clearly strikes Broomfield in a personal way. It’s a passionate spectacle that seems to justify the duller, more repetitive parts of the film.

I also admire how effortlessly Aileen seems to be humanized. She speaks bluntly and carries a certain charm about her, even if she comes across as rude and very potentially guilty of being a remorseless serial killer. Broomfield is the perfect storyteller as well, bringing dry British humor to a very low-brow, American situation with which he seems completely entranced.

I wouldn’t say that Aileen is among the great documentaries or even among the great true crime documentaries, but there’s clear quality in the film’s direction, and it was a worthwhile viewing nonetheless.


Films Left to Watch: 854

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Sherman’s March (1986)

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“This isn’t art. This is life.”

I was really on board with Sherman’s March from its premise. The first I read of the film was that it was a man’s attempt to make a Civil War documentary, but he ended up getting distracted and making it about his personal relationships. The longer the documentary went on and the more I learned about filmmaker Ross McElwee, the more dubious I am that there was ever a genuine attempt at a documentary about the Civil War. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting, vulnerable movie that never amazed me but was still a refreshing change of pace from what I’ve been watching lately.

Sherman’s March is a work of video journaling by McElwee during a strange, transitional period of his life as he attempts to follow Union general William T. Sherman’s path through the American South. He seems most interested, though, in the women he meets along the way, building relationships and moving from one woman to the next in hopes of finding true love. McElwee also conveys his nightmares of atomic war and his fascination with General Sherman’s scorched earth campaign over a hundred years ago.

I’m not sure I was totally on board with McElwee himself, and I think I liked what he was going for a lot more than what the film ended up being. His deep-voiced narration is often poetic and beautiful, such as when he discusses his dreams, the land, or his experiences as a Southerner. But the movie is about McElwee finding love, and it comes across as a desperate loneliness in a lot of ways. There’s enough self-deprecation and wit to keep it from being creepy, although it definitely toes the line at several points.

McElwee organizes the film by the different women he meets with interludes of foreboding between each relationship. Some sections are definitely more interesting than others, and I was really fascinated by the period where McElwee’s mother is trying to set him up with various women, desperate for him to settle down and marry in a very socially conservative sense. The total runtime nears three hours, which makes me think that some trimming could have occurred. It never really starts to drag, but it definitely gets repetitive towards the end. It seems like the only reason the movie ever ends is because McElwee ran out of film as he seems to suggest in one confessional towards the end, and I think this indicates how “on the fly” this movie really was. While there’s a cool quality to that, it’s also let down by a lack of formal structure.

On the whole, I was engaged with Sherman’s March long enough to keep me entertained, although a lot of it was riding the high of a premise that I really admired. I love documentaries that are personal and reflective, and I hope to seek out more of this type of work in the future.


Films Left to Watch: 853

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Scream (1996)

Scream.png

“Now Sid, don’t you blame the movies. Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative!”

Meta horror seems to get more acclaim than any pure scary movie these days, and I think a lot of critics might see Scream or Cabin in the Woods as the only way to intelligently make a horror movie: by toying with genre tropes. But what these movies get right about meta horror, and something that Scary Movie gets wrong, is a love of horror. Wes Craven couldn’t have made such a special movie as this one without an unrelenting love of horror, and it comes through in every second of this brilliant movie.

Scream tells of a town in paranoia as a masked killer, Ghostface, starts killing off teenagers. Our heroine is Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), a smart high school student who has become the latest target of Ghostface nearing the one-year anniversary of her mother’s unsolved murder. Throughout the story, we receive countless parallels to the typical horror movie formula, with a number of characters seemingly motivated by their belief that life is just like a horror movie.

Scream was not only a brilliant concept in 1996, but it was spearheaded by Wes Craven, one of the biggest names in horror’s history. (One joke in the movie even references Craven in a self-deprecating way.) What astonishes me every time I watch this movie is how straight they play it. Scream isn’t just meta for the sake of being familiar and making us think about genre tropes, but like Cabin in the Woods, it stands alone as a masterfully directed story. It’s goal isn’t just terror, but it’s still terrifying at times while also drawing its hilarity from the fact that it never shows all its cards. It keeps you guessing how “meta” or how straight-laced the movie is going to be from scene to scene.

Lots of the humor comes at face value. Stu, Randy, and Billy provide direct commentary about the “horror formula” laying out now-classic ideas about the virgin final girl, the trope of purity as a means to survival, and a run-down of familiar horror plot structure. There are also the sight gags. Ghostface himself is a fun mockery of villains like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, but again, he is played straight enough to still work as a villain. Scream is one of the funniest horror movies ever written, but it refuses to let itself slip as a comedy, existing in a strange but wildly effective middle ground of bone dry meta humor.

I also appreciate that Scream doesn’t always cast a wide net. It slips in horror details for the biggest genre fans in the audience, with the opening phone call to Drew Barrymore’s character being a great example. Not just the trivia about horror movies, but I love when Ghostface asks whether he’s at the front door or at the patio door, really grilling the audience on their knowledge of typical scene construction in home invasion horror. But even if you don’t care about any of those things, it works as a thrilling story and the genre tropes are played so that you can find the humor even if you aren’t a big horror fan. (The obsession with Jamie Lynn Curtis as the Scream Queen comes to mind.)

I’m infatuated with Scream. It’s an idea that could have been butchered, and has been butchered over the past couple decades, but Wes Craven set the bar for this kind of movie incredibly high. Every second is brilliantly planned out, and it’s an obvious labor of love. It’s horror making fun of horror while also adoring horror, which is really where the magic lies with this movie. It’s never once condescending, only relishing in deep admiration of the horror classics of old, so it’s the kind of scary where you can only help but smile.


Films Left to Watch: 854

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Toy Story 2 (1999)

Toy Story 2

“You never forget kids like Emily, or Andy, but they forget you.”

Toy Story 2 was the first Pixar movie I remember seeing as a kid. I had the video game and the toy Buzz Lightyear. It’s always been a testament to Pixar’s storytelling that they can make movies just as enjoyable for the child as for the adult, and I thought it was fun while watching this movie again to try and think about what I appreciated more as a kid in comparison to what I enjoyed now. Pixar would make a neat study in film literacy and how some movies can transcend this somewhat elitist concept by covering all bases of entertainment.

The movie is the followup to Pixar’s kickoff film, and as Pixar does, it raises production value without diminishing in story quality. While the first film explored the nature of being a toy, what it’s like to be accepted and needed, this movie takes a darker spin on the subject (a spin that only continues in the final movie). Toy Story 2 offers Woody the option of being preserved in a museum: never forgotten and placed on a pedestal of glory with the caveat that he will never be played with and will never see his owner Andy again.

I really enjoyed all the set pieces that Pixar included to flex their animation muscles. The opening battle with Emperor Zurg sets the tone of the movie well while also establishing that Pixar has gotten a lot better at scaling their designs for the big screen. The clunkiness of the original Toy Story is still present but rapidly disappearing as each scene races fluidly from one to another in a flurry of fun, colorful visuals. The toy store scene, in particular, is the money shot for the whole movie with its impressive renderings while keeping true to the conventions of a fast action-comedy.

Sequels are always tricky for a myriad of reasons, but Toy Story 2 seems to strike the right balance across the board. It brings in new characters for the Woody plotline, and they are sufficiently charming, but it also relishes in the characters of the past with their own adventure that is easily the most entertaining part of the movie. The Woody/Jess/Prospector bits are the thematic soul of the movie, while Buzz and the gang bring the zany adventure, keeping true to the promise of the original movie.

I also like how the ideas explored in the movie seem to pick up right where Toy Story ended, pushing the central question further: “What does it mean to be a play thing for a kid?” The movie sets up the third installment by foreshadowing a time when toys are broken and forgotten: left in trash bags. The trilogy’s hero, Woody, is given a pivotal choice to leave that pain behind, but he ends up the eventual pain in an act of true friendship, convincing others to choose the same. Most animation doesn’t even come close to this contemplation of ideas, let alone doing so in such a fun, digestible way.

The Toy Story trilogy is one of Pixar’s highest achievements, with the second film being a worthy addition to the lineup. It does all the things a good Pixar sequel should do: expanding on themes, upping the visual scale, and keeping true to the heart of the original. They’ve tried a number of sequels before, but I think Toy Story 2 is the only one that gets it right. Except Toy Story 3, but I’ll get to that one.


Films Left to Watch: 855

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