A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

One of those films that just got past me, I’d never seen A Nightmare on Elm Street until picking up the original VHS online recently.  I went with the VHS as this original pre-cert version is apparently the only uncut UK release.  I had seen the second sequel A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (which I remember liking) on its original cinema release but that remained my only exposure to the series.  Nowadays of course the first film is considered a horror classic, Freddie Krueger is an icon (though he’s just “Fred” Krueger in the titles here) and writer/director Wes Craven is considered one of the masters of the genre.  Let’s say I had high expectations.

Sadly, if this ever really did seem like a great movie, the years haven’t been kind.  That’s not to say it doesn’t have its moments and in places it shows signs of real horror movie class but even at its strongest it goes back and forth between creepy and inept.  The concept is a great one, a variation on the usual “teens in danger” slasher flick.  A group of kids from the same neighbourhood start having nightmares in which they’re being stalked by the same monster, a freakshow-faced hat-wearing razor-clawed psychopath.  Turns out their dreams are haunted by the demonic ghost of a dead serial killer.  That villain too – the aforementioned Freddie Krueger , as played by Robert Englund – is an undeniably great movie monster but here just too often comes across as a bloke in a lame Halloween costume.

Talking of Halloween, there’s obviously a John Carpenter influence here, which can only be a good thing.  It’s most apparent in Charles Bernstein’s synth soundtrack, which although not in Carpenter’s league at least helps establish an atmosphere (end title song Nightmare by 213, however, sounds like a bad demo that can only have been included by accident).

The biggest downside is the acting which, including that of a young Johnny Depp, is ropey throughout despite the best efforts of Englund and Hollywood stalwart John Saxon.  The writing doesn’t help, with Craven’s awful dialogue leading to some truly cringe-worthy mother/daughter interactions.  There’s also an odd moment with a talking digital watch which is worth looking out for (as if Craven had thought “There’s bound to be talking watches by the time this is released.  I mean, come on, they’ve got calculators on them now.  Calculators!“).

Of course, the film looks good and there are great scenes.  In particular the two iconic bedroom “kills” – one Exorcist-like sequence has a character being thrown about the ceiling, another ends with a bed erupting in a fountain of blood.  By the final act though, it’s all definitely falling apart.  A montage which is supposed to take place over just twenty minutes sees the heroine expertly carrying out about a day’s worth of DIY (part of a sequence which has gained in unintentional humour by having become the apparent inspiration for much of Home Alone) and the actual denouement is just silly.

As a piece of pop culture history, A Nightmare on Elm Street is definitely worth checking out.  You might, like me, want to see what all the fuss was about – just go in with your expectations suitably tempered.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

A Nightmare on Elm Street: original pre-cert ex-rental VHS, picked up online for £8.00 in decent playable condition.

 

They Live (1988)

Unemployed builder Nada (professional wrestling legend Roddy Piper) goes to LA looking for work and ends up staying in a shanty town where he begins to suspect that something Just Isn’t Right.  There’s a weird preacher, television hackers and Strange Goings On at the local church before things take a sinister turn when The Man raids the shanty town, leaving it in ruins.  Nada makes off with a box of contraband, finding that it’s full of gnarly looking sunglasses.  Then he puts a pair on and the film goes mental with ensuing skull-faced aliens, epic fisticuffs, a heavy dose of satire and Meg Foster out of Cagney and Lacey.

Although They Live features one of John Carpenter’s least effective self-composed (with Alan Howarth) scores, his direction remains masterful.  The film is first and foremost a science fiction thriller but serves just as effectively as action movie and satire. Carpenter’s patented nods to other filmmakers are in full effect here too, with a ’50s B-movie vibe to the sci-fi elements and a fight scene which pays tribute to the epic punch-up between John Wayne and Victor McLaglin (also an ex-wrestler) in John Ford’s The Quiet Man.  Interestingly, the VHS’ 4:3 cropping seems to have done no harm.  The framing looks fine for most of the movie including the action scenes, so it seems likely Carpenter was working with the two aspect ratios in mind.  Of course, it does looks great in widescreen too.

That fight, between Piper and Keith David, is a classic – one of the great onscreen brawls and not a stunt double in sight.  A straight five minutes of wince-inducing punishment via old school brawling and some pro wrestling moves (stunt coordinator Jeff Imada would go on to handle the celebrated fight choreography for the second two Bourne movies), it’s made all the more enjoyable by the ridiculousness of the situation; the fight is all over a pair of sunglasses.    

The sunglasses are the McGuffin which leads us squarely into satire-heavy sci-fi territory, setting the pace for the rest of the film.  If you haven’t seen the movie, skip this paragraph as it’s entirely spoilery.  The glasses in question have been developed by a rebel underground to expose a surreptitious alien invasion of Earth.  Put the shades on and you can see not only the real, skull-like faces of the aliens among us, but the true nature of the society they have built and influenced.  Consumer advertising reads: “OBEY”, “STAY ASLEEP”, “CONFORM” and “NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT”.  Paper money bears only the legend “THIS IS YOUR GOD”.  The truth is exposed in monochrome (as in “it’s all right there in black and white”).  It’s all kind of brilliant.

I was prompted to revisit this one after Roddy Piper’s death last month at the way-too-young age of 61. Here, at the height of his wrestling career, he turns in a solid, likeable performance which should have seen him go on to actual movie stardom, although he did amass quite a catalogue of B-movie credits over the years.  He even improvised the film’s most quotable line: “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass.  And I’m all out of bubblegum.”

They Live was a modest, low budget box office success on its release.  Given its premise it seems inevitable that it would go on to develop a strong cult reputation – and not just in the world of film fans.  A cursory YouTube search will show that conspiracy theorists and such-like – David Icke amongst them – have long adopted it as proof of a reptile illuminati alien shadow government, or whatever.  In any case, They Live is one of John Carpenter’s best, and I don’t say that lightly.

TAPES FOR MY VCR THEY LIVE

Big box ex-rental, online purchase @ £3.00.

TAPES FOR MY VCR THEY LIVE ALT COVER

Feel that ’80s marketing! Flip the cover for an alternative version, to suit the schlock-levels of your video store.