Thursday 8 November 2012

15 Second Review: I am Nancy (2011)

I love A Nightmare on Elm Street. In fact, I’d go so far as to admit that I am a fully fledged Elm Street nerd.

In that sense, I Am Nancy looked like a great proposition to me. Heather Langenkamp investigates the resonances of the ultimate final girl, who she brought to life in the three best Elm Street movies. After the amazing four-hour opus Never Sleep Again, another Elm Street documentary might have been too much for some fans, but not for me. I really wanted to love I Am Nancy. Unfortunately, it fell a little flat. It is not a bad documentary, it just isn’t groundbreaking.

Its shortcomings are amplified by being released so soon after Never Sleep Again, a comparison that is unavoidable given the ten-minute preview of I Am Nancy included as a bonus feature on Never Sleep Again. The two are not directly comparable in terms of content or aims: I Am Nancy is primarily centred on Langenkamp’s and fans’ views. It has a specialised focus, being based on one character. Never Sleep Again, in contrast, is broad. It covers production, development and characterisation from the perspectives of the many writers, directors, and actors that worked on the series. Never Sleep Again is about the professional side of the series. I Am Nancy, in contrast, is personal.

These differences notwithstanding, they are comparable in terms of the information offered. Its sheer scope means that Never Sleep Again provides innumerous insights that are not located on other DVD extras, commentaries, books, interviews, fan-complied rarity collections (such as Le Chiffre’s gob-smacking goldmine), and scholarly analyses that surround the Elm Street franchise. I Am Nancy has a hard time competing. Aside from its illuminating interview with Wes Craven’s daughter, the content mostly covers well-trodden ground.
As such, I Am Nancy finds itself in a very difficult position. Due to its subject-matter, it will only appeal to Elm Street geeks like me. However, those said geeks are unlikely to find that much that they hadn’t already considered or didn’t already know about the franchise in I Am Nancy. I order to get around this shortcoming, the documentary focuses on fans’ own stories: the hardships they have faced and the inspiration they took from the character of Nancy. The problem is that when translating these into the documentary context, the tone becomes schmaltzy. Resultantly, I Am Nancy’s latter third is torn between offering a series of anecdotes that lack purpose, and imposing a narrative (Nancy as inspiration) that feels forced. This issue almost certainly stems from the film’s “audience paradox”. In fact, it seems as if the filmmakers did not have a clear goal in mind when setting out to compile the footage, other than providing Langenkamp with a way to work through this significant aspect of her career.

Had I personally encountered the fans interviewed at conventions, I can imagine that their stories would have greater emotional resonance than they do watching them second-hand. Herein lies the most significant of I Am Nancy‘s missed opportunities. The filmmakers point outward towards the fans but really its subject is Langenkamp herself, who obviously wanted to make a documentary to share her own experiences of visiting expos and hearing fans’ stories. For a documentary entitled I Am Nancy, the leading focal core – Langenkamp herself – is too hidden. She is often present onscreen, but mostly asks questions of others, or makes light of her/Nancy’s second-billing to Robert Englund/Freddy. Had the documentary shifted its focus inward towards Langenkamp, it would have found a depth that the finished film lacks. Frustratingly, the last half hour makes it apparent that the filmmakers knew the film should be aiming for intimacy, but their attempt to do so doesn’t quite come off.

All this said, I Am Nancy is a brave project. I have not encountered another horror actor that has made a documentary of this ilk – i.e. about their character, and that character’s relative failure to become iconic. Perhaps it is apposite that I Am Nancy itself is also unlikely to become iconic in its own right, having been overshadowed by Never Sleep Again. The character Nancy, as the documentary attests, was easily the most gutsy and powerful of the slashers’ final girls. It is befitting then that I Am Nancy – simply by nature of what it is as a horror documentary - is so ballsy. Like Nancy herself, although the film does not always know which way to turn and does not quite “make it” in the end, there is no denying that it is spunky, independent, and unique.





Wednesday 7 November 2012

15 Second Review: 11-11-11 (2011)

11-11-11 is a film based around prophecy and uncertainty. Unfortunately, it transpires that the film’s central mystery is how it can be so profoundly unengaging. Frustratingly, it looks like it should work. It has the hallmarks of horror aesthetics – minor key musical stabs and drones accompany points of suspense and punctuate the moments that are meant to make the audience jump… Sadly, it just all falls flat.
Since there was little in the plot to distract me, I was eventually able to pinpoint some of the numerous reasons the film fails as a fright-piece. Some of the burden lies with the editor. Timing is crucial for fear-flicks, and it doesn’t come off in 11-11-11. Since Martin Hunter is experienced having edited films such as Full Metal Jacket and Event Horizon, I can only assume he either realised that the film was a write-off, faced pressure/interference from studio execs, or simply had poor footage to work with.
There are several indications that the footage captured was less than stellar. The climax graveyard sequence is crassly chopped together from a mangled series of close-ups. While I could ascertain what was happening, the sequence failed to adequately establish the space, meaning I had no idea how far apart the characters were from one another. Such issues are not only distracting, but also impinge on the film’s ability to build excitement. The car crash early in the film is equally flawed. Joseph drives out of frame, and the camera follows Sadie, who then hears a crash and runs to the car, which is revealed to have flipped over. The problem is that it never feels like the crashed car had ever been moving because the framing and pacing are off. The combination of (a) how little distance the car covers, and (b) the length of time it is off-camera means the car cannot have picked up enough speed to overturn so violently. The ADR sound effect is limp, and Sadie’s reaction shot needs to be much stronger to pull off the sleight-of-hand.
The reason I labour this point is that it is representative: the entire film is off-rhythm. That the film has no opening credits wrong-foots the pacing from the outset. For the first ten minutes, I expected a natural break that would establish the prologue, but it never came. This feeling persisted because the film lacked evenly spaced structure points more generally. There is nothing wrong with being unconventional, but when the plot and aesthetics are as utterly generic as they are in 11-11-11, I’d expect the structure to follow suit.
The film maintains its ‘all slow, no burn’ approach for the first hour, so when something finally happens I thought I’d be pleased. Instead I was wrong-footed again. When the narrative kicks into gear, too much happens. The last half hour contains most of the film’s action. Hell, it also boasts most of the film’s ideas. By that point, any interest in those events had been quashed by the sterility that precedes them. To top it off, Bousman treats us to a recap of “significant” pieces of dialogue, explaining a twist that didn’t need explication. Such recaps worked in the Saw movies because it was one of the franchise’s defining traits, and befitted the  Saw series' playful uses of time/space and flashback. To export and appropriate the technique here feels forced and out of character.
I will give Bousman this: at least it didn’t turn out that Joseph died in the film’s early car crash. There were hints that it might have gone that way, and the production was sloppy enough that it could have had that limp an ending. After all, the script left a lot to be d esired. Some of the dialogue is downright laughable. Take, for example, the risible line ‘I am not Kathy Bates but I will call misery on you if you are not up in two seconds’. Pathetic. At least this line didn’t make it into the denouement’s flashback montage, unlike the references to Joesph’s ’legion’ of fans. What could this mean in a film that was re-titled 666: The Prophecy for its UK DVD release?
It is also beyond me why Bousman felt the need to keep repeating Joseph’s exasperation that Samuel believes in God, and yet does not believe in 11-11s significance. One mention would be plenty. More than just exposes how silly the comparison is: if one believes in the Christian God, should they also believe in every intangible entity anyone mentions? Krishna? The tooth fairy? Wendy Glenn’s acting ability?
The premise itself is just as flawed. Like Michael Bafaro’s film 11:11 (2004) before it, the apparently scary 11-11 phenomenon is lost 11-11-11‘s fictionality. Recurring references to 11-11 could be eerie if they really happened in someone’s life. However, when intentionally constructed in drama, they fall flat. When synchronous events occur, they are potent because they have coincided, and the person who notices the pattern contributes to that meaning. When a scriptwriter artificially fashions events, that quality is lost because there is no room for chance here: everything is fated because the scriptwriter deems it so. I understand that the 11-11 phenomenon has a background, but had Bousman opted for 9-11 instead, the film would have had an extra dimension and some sass. The narrative’s paranoid conspiracy plot would have taken on explicitly political overtones, and Bousman could have made interesting meta-commentary on his own filmic reputation given that Saw has been commonly interpreted as 9/11 allegory.
What I will say is that the set designers had some fun with the 11-11 premise. Plenty of “11 shapes pop up in the background; take the windows in Samuel’s study, for example…
11-11-11!! This is far and away the smartest aspect of the film. Enough of these are included throughout that, like the obsessive ‘eleveners’ in the film, I started seeing ”11 shape almost everywhere in the film’s sets. Obviously it helps that the narrative is so dull that I was primed to look for something of interest, but it became quite a fun game. A couple of pillars: 11! A pair of trees: 11! A shelf of books – 111111111!
As someone who loved Saw 2-4, I am reluctant to say this… but I am finding hard to deny that Bousman has no idea what he is doing. His Mother’s Day had too many characters and consequently Bousman could not sustain their arcs. With Repo! he just plain tried too hard, and the film felt forced as a result. It is beginning to look like Burg, Koules, Greutert and co. really carried Bousman through the Saw films, which is fine considering Bousman’s inexperience at the time. However, now that he is flying solo, I expected Bousman to grow rather than regress.
Unfortunately for him and for the audience, 11-11-11 feels like his most naive film to date.

Thursday 11 October 2012

15 Second Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

I came to terms with remake culture some time ago. After a four hour rant following a first viewing of the Hills Have Eyes remake, I concluded that remakes are not the originals, and neither are they trying to be. After all, when treated as the covert sequels that they are, they fare much better. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) was far better than Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. Friday the 13th (2009) kicked Jason Takes Manhattan‘s ass. The Hills Have Eyes (2005) cooked, killed and served up Hills Have Eyes part II (1985) to its inbred offspring faster than I could say ‘Reaper no dumb like papa Jupe’.

By the time A Nightmare on Elm Street was slated for remake, I was in the right frame of mind. ”How can it possibly be worse than Freddy’s Dead?”, I thought. Nay, I even scoffed at the idea that it could be worse than Freddy’s Dead. In fact, I began to regard the idea of a remake with some hope. The new Elm Street presented a good opportunity - a return to the dark Freddy, real creepiness, no jokes. That is exactly what Bayer & Co promised – so far so good…

Two unprecedented events followed: (a) I went to the cinema to see it after vowing to never set foot in a multiplex again (long, grumpy story), and (b) I walked out mid-way through the film. I have subsequently sat through the full film twice on DVD. It does not get any more tolerable with repeated viewing.

What went wrong? I’ve seen a lot of bad films over the last decade, surely this cannot have been that bad? Surely… it must have been… better … better than Freddy’s Dead…?
Well, that depends on how much tolerance you can muster for 95 minutes of gaping plot holes, implausible decisions, and illogical events (even accounting for the supernatural nature of the plot). The script is awful, and the CG effects are so bad that they make the 1984 original look cutting edge. The acting isn’t much better. Rooney Mara is a vacant mannequin drifting through what can only be described as the most limp and pathetic final girl performances that has ever (dis)graced the genre. That she later disavowed the film is only to be expected: she should be embarrassed.

Freddy is put on display too openly from the outset. He isn’t scary because he is always just there, shouting at the protagonists, mimicking Heath Ledger’s Joker, or exclaiming ‘MAAAAHHH’ to-camera to signal the end of each nightmare. What is scary about that? The original worked because Freddy was rarely displayed in full – he was present in fragments, back-lit to obscure his visage. Freddy didn’t need to shout. Englund was physically small, but the character was powerful because he was genuinely creepy. Bayer has obviously decided that characterisation is all a bit unnecessary since he has a ‘loud noise=big jump’ button. Our respective ideas about what constitutes fear-inducing differ greatly.

Nancy is fluffed then, but so too is her counterpoint. Without the bedrock Freddy/Nancy relationship, the film has no centre to speak of. We had better hope the peripheral ideas are creative… In fact, they are, but it only makes matters worse. The film offers glimmers of hope in the form of nascent ideas – micronaps, a computer entering sleep mode, a reference to the pied piper of Hamlyn – which never come into fruition. The filmmakers present these various elements as ‘interesting’, but there is no substance and no follow-through. If they are interesting ideas, they need to be nurtured rather than presented as self-evident.

This problem infects the film at all levels. Nightmare (2010) is all surface, and no depth. Aside from the well edited pharmacy sequence, this is a rag-bag collection of missed opportunities and lessons in generic, sterile film-making. At least Freddy’s Dead had personality. Granted, it was the personality of an obnoxious 13-year old, but at least it wasn’t soulless. Amanda Kruger is spinning in her grave, along with Bob Shaye’s vision of New Line’s bright future (circa 1985). As a way to flip the bird to its founder and the flagship series that made the company name, the remake is fitting, not least since it replicates the facelessness of New Line’s new owners. The dream is over and the nightmare has begun.


Thursday 4 October 2012

15 Second Review: Satsu Satsu (Ayame) (1999)

This is a difficult movie to discuss. It is very cheaply made. In fact, it looks like it’s been shot on the type of standard tape-based video camera that was de rigueur in the last days of the 20th Century. Direction and create an uncomfortable, realistic atmosphere. I’m yet to find a subtitled version of the film, I am also shut out of the dialogue. Granted, this makes the film more challenging for those of us who are language-impaired. However, these technical aspects mean that I come to the films disarmed of the central critical tools I would usually utilise. I confess, I must be a cultural masochist because…*I like it*.

The other difficulty is that reviewing this unreviewable film means essentially describing what happens, and I’d hate to give anything away. Suffice it to say that film is divided into four vignettes (3 live action, the last “puppetry” (to some extent)). Those chapters - as the international title may have given away – revolve around the theme/motif of suicide. The first story is long, and very slow. Yet, that mood reflects the boredom and isolation felt by the protagonist. The film prompts that feeling of tedium and repetition for the viewer too. Since the protagonist is driven to suicide by her isolation, inducing that same feeling for the viewer is unnerving. It also makes the film strangely compelling.

This disquieting atmosphere is prevalent. The second story is predictably gloomy, and pretty short. The title notwithstanding, the first chapter established that there is only one possible conclusion for each vignette. The events that lead to suicide are imbued with ominous inevitability. The third story is, not to undersell it, pretty gory. It may be a bit too much for some viewers, as the protagonist’s death is filmed in graphic detail. It is nothing that hasn’t already been done in countless other splatter films, but its juxtaposition with the previous downbeat sections renders this tale somewhat sensational. As a stand-alone piece, the gore would be nowhere near as affecting. The pacing across the film is what makes this so impactful.

Rounding off this arc is a bizarre final section, featuring plastic dolls and some distorted hardcore/extreme techno. I liked it, some will hate it. And who can blame them? As a conclusion, it makes little sense. It doesn’t even involve suicide, just murder…if you can call “doll death” murder. Given the thoughtful way the previous sections were established, paced, and placed, it may be that I am entirely missing some ominous political subtext. Perhaps there is a running theme that I am missing out on, not least since I am unable to translate any of the dialogue. Maybe there is some ‘chant[ing] in the darkness’ that I am not hearing. Make of it what you will.

Initially, I was disappointed by Satsu Satsu (ayame). It is not quite the extreme cinema it is hyped to be, or that anyone familiar with Psycho: Tumbling Doll of Flesh might expect. However, it has forced itself under my skin. Seven years after I first saw the film, my mind is still trying to decide if it is filmic genius or exploitative trash. Yet, I have responded to it rather more positively on a visceral and subconscious level…or i wouldn’t be writing this review. Anyone expecting another sick-fest from Anaru will probably be disappointed (especially during the first half). Unlike most other straight-to-VHS J-sploitation films I have seen, this one has left me thinking…and that can be no bad thing.

This is a hard film to get hold of, but, with prior warning, is worth checking out. Let it bury into you.



Monday 1 October 2012

15 Second Review: Girl Model (2011)

A couple of weeks ago, I would have pegged Into the Abyss as my strongest contender for ”creepy documentary of the year”. However, that was until I saw the innocuous sounding Girl Model.
Anyone horrified by the infantilisation of women in contemporary culture, the prevalence of eating disorders, pedophilia or child sexualisation will be disturbed from the outset. The first shots are of what seems to be hundreds of scrawny, half-naked,
barely pubescent girls being critiqued by agents at a model casting. This is an environment in which the young women are spoken about as if they are not present, and so have to stand by while their appearances are judged. One girl is rejected for having hips that are too big, for example. This wouldn’t be so bad if she had hips. What the talent scouts mean is that her pelvis is the wrong shape.
The system of beauty they herald exposes how flawed the idea of “natural beauty” is. The agents reject the model on the basis of her natural attributes – her bone-structure - which she is unable to amend. Simultaneously, this regime version of beauty is a highly artificial construction. The models edit their own bodies in the sense that they must remain thin. Those boundaries are stringently enforced. Once signed, the models are contractually obliged to regulate their vital statistics, ensuring that they do not gain a centimetre on any of those dimensions. The agents also construct beauty by imposing their own aesthetic criteria, and by editing the field: a very particular look is opted for. Documentary is the perfect medium via which to expose such tensions since its method of relaying these themes inherently entails selection and juxtaposition.
A model called Nadya is “lucky” enough to triumph over her fellow teens this bastard version of Siberia’s Next Top Model. To say she ‘wins’ a modelling contract is like painting a trip to Abu Ghraib as a romantic weekend getaway. The 13 year old, who speaks only her native tongue, is sent to Japan…alone. From that point on, the film implicitly challenges the viewer to pick out their most disturbing moment, which is no easy matter. Each incident that unfolds seems to actively vie for that title. For me, the pinnacle was when Nadya was filmed by her Japanese agent and told to say to camera that she was 15. Presumably the footage would be stored as evidence against future legal recourse, but she naively complies. The punchline is that from that point on, she simply is 15 according to the agency. Their control over what Nadya represents is all-encompassing. This minor decision resonates in her first contracted photoshoot for the company in which her face is entirely covered, and for which she is not paid.
To make matters worse, Ashley, the talent scout that selected Nadya, supplies a running commentary regarding her own experiences as a teen model, which is intercut with self-shot footage from that point in her life. At first I thought this might humanise Ashley, who is essentially a professional human trafficker. Yet her understanding of the girls’ plights only augments Ashley’s monstrousness. The sequences come off not as vindication, but as confession. In one sense, it is tragic that her experiences have deadened her empathy. In another, her comments make it seem as if she is taking her own hideous experiences out on a generation of teens who share the ambitions she once had. The propagatory nature of Ashley’s path is echoed in the film’s final shot of a new model being selected.
That inexorability is the film’s rub. The teens are never physically abused, but that does not make the systemic violence the documentarians capture any less pernicious. As the film explicitly states, no one person in the chain can ultimately be blamed for what occurs: the whole structure is an injurious, yet apparently ceaseless cycle of decay. One of the most disturbing aspects of the documentary then, is that seemingly nothing can be done to hinder the machine: the film is upsetting, but the shock it inspires is encoded as being futile. This is not a campaign-piece that asks the audience to protest the models’ plights. Instead, it reflects the powerlessness felt by girls trapped within that system.

15 Second Review: Das Komabrutale Duell

Where to begin… Legend has it that Das Komabrutale Duell is the product of several short films stitched together. Well doesn’t it just feel like that is the case. Much like Spookies(1986) – again the product of splicing together existent material – the result is incomprehensible. I don’t always take it as a good sign when I come away from a film thinking “what exactly was that supposed to be about?”. I could lay out the plot here, but I would only be regurgitating those after-the-fact rationalisations that I have read elsewhere. In my experience of watching it, the synopsis goes a little like this:

People attack one another. I’m not sure if they die or not. One of the “characters” keeps a mini chainsaw in his car in case of emergencies, and as luck would have it, it comes in handy. Someone else gets their crotch kicked repeatedly (and that is undoubtedly more times than you are imagining). People keep attacking each other. Eventually the film ends.

Das Komabrutale Duell has gained something of a reputation among indie-horror fans for being “THE GORIEST FILM EVER!!!!” It is certainly gory. However, there are four immediate problems with that label:
1) When the viscera is this cheap-looking, it is not so much ‘hard to stomach’ as it is hard to engage with. For instance, someone is crucified and nails are hammered into their hands. Their “hands” look like stuffed latex gloves rather than flesh. What exactly is horrific about seeing someone nail a glove to a 2×4? Gore should be kin to a good magic trick. This is like a child showing off their new clumsily-executed sleight-of-hand illusion. It is sweet for what it is, but it is doomed not to dazzle
2) Playing the “GORIEST FILM EVER!!!!” game is risky. Given that Andreas Schnass was on the third entry in his similarly vibed Violent Shit series by the time Das Komabrutale Duell was made, Fipper’s project cannot claim an originality crown. Schnass’s Violent Shit was – for my money – just as incomprehensible, and its 3) Without context, the gore doesn’t mean anything. It is simply splatter. In that case, the viscera had better be damned good -or highly unusual – if it is going to constitute entertainment. Das Komabrutale Duell doesn’t manage that.

4) The absence of narrative movement stifles other forms of engagement. I doubt I am alone in assuming that Fipper did not intend the film to have any symbolic or political subtext. That is not to say that the film does not mean anything politically. My reading certainly is not based on intent. However, my assumption stems from what appears to be Fipper’s lack of filmmaking ability. The film does not prompt me to seriously engage with the ideas presented onscreen, because it does not appear that Fipper seriously engaged with the ideas he was offering.

I’m not sure whether Fipper encouraged people to recieve Das Komabrutale Duell as “THE GORIEST FILM EVER!!!!”, or if its reputation is entirely fan-imposed. Either way, the hype doesn’t pay-off. The remaining film has to stand on its own merits. Unfortunately, Das Komabrutale Duell has few merits to speak of. My advice for anyone intending on watching it is to do so on double-speed. One thing I will say in its defence – I liked it more than Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010).


15 Second Review: Damages Season 5

Not too long ago I posted a capsule review regarding Damages season 4. In that review I bemoaned the series’ decline, and expressed my hope that the writing would return to form Having just finished watching the final season, several clear reasons for that decline shot into focus. Seasons 3 and 4 were so (comparatively) unengaging because the focus was primarily placed on cases and corruption. Despite John Goodman’s best attempts, his storyline could not match that given over to Ted Danson’s Frobisher n seasons 1 and 2 – Season 2 wisely followed Frobisher’s re-invention and that gave his character much greater depth. What the series really missed in focusing on the cases is the Ellen versus Patty dynamic. In other words, by focusing on new characters and legal action rather than on its arch rival protagonists, seasons 3 and 4 neglected the show’s core strength.
Only a few episodes into season 5, it became apparent that season 4 neglected the Patty/Ellen dynamic because Kessler et al were reserving their storylines for a magnificent swan song. Season 5 is not only a return to form, it is possibly the most interesting season in the show’s all-too-brief history. The interplay is so rich and nuanced that it makes season 4 look positively one-dimensional by comparison. Season 5s case – loosely based on the wikileaks scandal – is a vehicle and nothing else. Indeed, Ellen and Patty uncover virtually no evidence, and both refer to the case as a battleground. Consequently, their interactions – even when sitting silently apart in an airport lounge – are seething, allowing Close and Byrne to really shine.

Yet the trump card comes in the form of the season’s thematic structure, which lends a so much depth to the proceedings. Season 4 was preoccupied with torture as a metaphor for corruption and powered exploitation, using Erickson’s family life as a counterpoint only to highlight the path of cruelty deceit and betrayal his greed takes him on. Season 5 pounces on parent/child relationships in various guises to illuminate what is at stake for both Patty and Ellen. Be it via the ongoing custody battle between Patty and her son, revelations about Patty’s relationship with her father, the disturbances that unhinge Ellen’s parent’s marriage and another relationship (which I won’t spoil), familial relations are characterised as power-struggles. Each of those , of course, parallel Patty and Ellen’s metaphoric mother-daughter relationship. Those tensions have been present since seasons 1 and 2, where Patty’s attempt to have Ellen killed was paralleled directly with the revelation of Patty’s stillbirth.
The writers resist the temptation to detonate the charges they set in place, opting for a poignant, satisfying finale that is utterly devastating. The closing shot of Close resonates with all of the bitterness, hatred, and sadness that made the character so compelling in the first instance. After five seasons, the show closes by assessing Patty and Ellen’s choices, and finally by tallying the damages.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

15 Second Review: Freddy’s Nightmares (1988-90)

It is easy to forget just how phenomenal New Line’s Nightmare franchise was at the peak of its economic success. Freddy’s Nightmares is certainly representative of that boom: it is an extended excuse to cameo Freddy that rivals Robert Englund’s in-character turn presenting MTV as a feat of shameless franchise-promotion.

Many have written off Freddy’s Nightmares, and not only on the grounds that it is something of a cash-in. The series’ awkward attempts at comedy, super low budget, and fleeting violence make for often uncomfortable, sometimes tedious viewing across its 40+ episodes. As the writers, directors and cast have commonly admitted, the series’ quality nose-dived as it progressed, and the series failed to live up to the expectations of all involved.

Viewers too would be forgiven for being disappointed with the series’ relative Freddy-lessness. Aside from a couple of episodes that involve Freddy directly, Kruger usually just pops up in between story segments to impart a cringe-worthy pun before the ad break. The series’ episodes are divorced from one another, usually being based around stories of poetic justice or fated misfortune. As such, Freddy’s Nightmares follows a path already well trodden by Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962), The Twilight Zone (1959-64),Tales from the Darkside (1983-88), and subsequently by Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996), each of which arguably out-shine Kruger and co. Beyond the first handful of episodes it was apparent to audience and makers alike that Freddy’s Nightmares was the ‘bastard son of a hundred’ hopes.

These limitations notwithstanding, there is a certain amount of freedom that stems from the realisation that a product is maligned by audience and producers alike (i.e. that no one gives a s**t). Each Freddy’s Nightmares vignette follows a standard enough plot, yet the episodes customarily come-off as bizarre because the two parts of each episode are tangentially related. Some of the characters carry over from the first to the second story, although the source of horror is rarely consistent. Herein lies the most intriguing aspect of Freddy’s Nightmares, and one that frequently salvages the series.

For example, the first half of “Rebel Without a Car” is focused on Alex, a high-school drop-out who dreams of leaving Springwood. Finding and fixing up an abandoned car, Alex becomes a rebel and plans to leave town, with or without his college-bound girlfriend Connie. Eventually it is revealed that the majority of these events were ‘just a dream’: Alex (and his dreams) were crushed by the car as he was working on it. The episode’s first half closes with Alex eternally driving, trying to escape Springwood. The episode’s second half follows Connie after Alex’s death as she goes to college. Connie is motivated by her desire to belong to a sorority. Initially rejected by the snobs who occupy her sorority of choice, Connie is eventually and begrudgingly taken in by the hideous sorority girls who abuse her. To give a flavour of what follows, their hazing includes goading Connie into prostitution. Connie then flips out and kills them all. The irony is that because she survives, she will never be “one of them” (i.e. dead).

In one sense, there is no need to link the two stories. Each episode of Freddy’s Nightmares is its own beast, so dividing the halves would be perfectly acceptable. Yet interlinking changes the second story: her trauma over Alex’s death provides motivation that explains Connie’s breakdown, even if it is not explicitly mentioned in the script. There are a couple of dialogic references to Alex and what Connie has ‘been through’ in the second half, but mainly the connection is tonal. The running story is related to Connie (Alex’s death sets up her character trajectory), so although one might assume that the episode-title (“Rebel Without a Car”) refers to Alex because he is the show’s point-of-entry, it more accurately refers to Connie. She, after all, is the one that genuinely rebels and is ’without a car’. The set-up is geared in one direction, and the events swerve in another, which is unsettling. Isolated from each other, the stories would be standard fare. As a chain, they become unpredictable.

Inconsistency and explosiveness are calling-cards of the Freddy’s Nightmare’s formula. That advert breaks stunt the narrative flow as soon as any action begins only amplifies the disturbing arc, giving each episode a jagged quality. Every minor movement that contributes to the story is quickly extinguished by an ad-break intersection. The scripts are loose, the acting is stilted, and the effects and sets look artificial. Everything in the diegesis attains an unreal quality, and the 45 minute juttering narratives verge on the incomprehensible. Where it looks like an episode makes sense, it is mostly because its cliches provide some sense of predictability. The form, however, constantly undermines that impression. There is an overarching structure that provides meaning, but it does not quite belong to the events depicted. Logical grounding is always slightly out of reach. In short, the byproduct of the series’ rather shoddy production is that the semi-related vignettes become perfect dream narratives.

It is unsurprising that one of the most popular episodes, “Sister’s Keeper”, deviates from the general formula in two key respects: first, it is a Freddy-based episode; second, it follows a continuous 44 minute storyline. In these senses, it is closer to the Elm Street film-canon than the non-Freddy episodes in terms of both content and plot-structure: i.e. it follows two of the Elm Street children having nightmares and finding a way of defending themselves against Freddy.

Yet the comparison with the film series highlights the episode’s shortcomings. The series was famed for its remarkable, elaborate dream-kill set-pieces. Here, the nightmares go a little like this:

  • A red and green blanket encroaches on someone’s face — [cut to ad break] — they are awake and describe their dream to a peer 
  • Freddy goofs around with an electric guitar — [cut to ad break] — the dreamer is awake and on their way to school

…Sheer, unrelenting terror is not the episode’s strong suit.

The episode’s strengths stem from what it retains of the usual Freddy’s Nightmares formula, and thus only goes to further exonerate the series on its own merits. “Sister’s Keeper” is based around twin sisters Merit and Lisa, the central idea being that when one is attacked by Freddy, the other is harmed. In the quest to fill out the segments between each ad-break, the twins are set on various mini-arcs, each of which confuse their relationship. In one, the twins swap identities: the popular Lisa spends a school day in Merit’s unstable, bullied shoes and vice versa. In another, their identities collapse: only one twin is present, and their mother denies the existence of the other. Lisa is referred to as Merit, and Merit claims to be Lisa, resulting in Lisa being locked away in an asylum in Merit’s place. Whether this occurs or whether it was a nightmare is ill-explained in the narrative. What is more, it doesn’t really matter which twin is present onscreen beyond that point, because their names have become arbitrary signifiers. They are, as their algebra teacher has it, two balancing halves of an identity equation. The twins need to become one to fight Freddy.

The off-kilter, fluid story-telling suits that tale of identity collapse. By the time the twins begin pulling one another into their respective dreams, “Sister’s Keeper” has made a better case for dream powers than A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors does. By beating the viewer into submission with drifting logic, cul-de-sac dream sequences, and false starts, the idea that Merit and Lisa share an internal psychic bond is about all the viewer has left to cling to in order to make sense of the story. That they can occupy the same dreamspace is about the most explicable of the narrative’s shifts.

Although it does not share Freddy’s Nightmares’ typical two-part structure then, “Sister’s Keeper” does follow a similar logic by placing so much weight on the twins’ bond. They are two halves of a singular story: they look like separate entities, but they are always-already intertwined. Just like Connie and Alex’s stories in “Rebel Without a Car”, it is only when Lisa and Merit are joined that they gain an overall, unexpected coherence. Even when Freddy’s Nightmares appears to be acting as a counter-part to the film franchise, its strengths are to be found in the television series’ unique identity, which is more interesting and unsettling than it may first appear to be.

Moreover then, we can think of the film series and the TV series as two parts of the same continuum. Without the film series, Freddy’s Nightmares’ dream-logic would make little sense: it is ill explained and taken for granted in Freddy’s Nightmares, because 22 minutes is too short a space for a set of characters to unpick the metaphysical complexities of a dream world encroaching on their waking reality. The film series is akin to Connie in “Rebel Without a Car”, or Merit in “Sister’s Keeper” then: it is the major driving force, the surviving protagonist in the story of the Nightmare on Elm Street phenomenon. Although Alex, Lisa, and Freddy’s Nightmares all died before their counterparts, that is not to say that their contribution to the others’ trajectory is not significant.

15 Second Review: Cheerleader Massacre (2003)

There are very few things you need to know about Cheerleader Massacre. Luckily for anyone who hasn’t seen it, I am here to supply those details.

1) The film is very loosely attached to the Slumber Party Massacre series. Brinke Stevens from Slumber Party Massacre cameos in Cheerleader Massacre, and footage from Slumber Party Massacre is included in Cheerleader Massacre. This inclusion appears to have inspired much disagreement among fan forum members as to whether it belongs to the series or not. I’m not sure I care either way.

2) The clip from Slumber Party Massacre stands out like a sore thumb, much like explosion footage taken from Humanoids From the Deep (1980). The latter two were filmed on celluloid, so splicing them into a DV shot movie does not work especially well. It is quite endearing that the filmmakers tried to get away with it though.

3) In the same vein, the film’s trailer features a number of shots that do not appear in Cheerleader Massacre. Again, some of these appear to be shot on film stock rather than DV. Is this a glaring admission that the film is not very good? The distributors could not find enough footage to fill even a text-heavy one minute trailer.

4) The film’s director Jim “why not?” Wynorski also directed Ghoulies IV (1994), the Shannon Tweed vehicle Body Chemistry IV (1995), and more recently the barely passable softcore porn films The Da Vinci Co-ed (2007), Cleavagefield (2009), and The Hills Have Thighs (2010). So, puns are not his strong point. Neither is quality control.

5) The Film 2000 release of Cheerleader Massacre features a four-star review as its box blurb, which is cited to ’Biggora’. From what I have been able to gather, ‘Biggora’ is just someone who bought the DVD and reviewed it on Amazon. Alarm bells should ring, especially given that Film 2000 reproduce Biggora’s incorrect spelling of ‘definitely’ (‘definately’) on the box cover.

6) As for content, there is little footage that strays from a well-mapped cliche-ridden path. The film does feature a scene in which the three eponymous cheerleaders strip off and share a “romantic” interlude in a hot-tub (this seems to be enough to please some punters - see: Biggora’s four star review). What makes this sequence notable is that the cheerleaders smear chocolate syrup on each other during the sequence. I can’t wrap my head around the thought-process. Hot-tub … chocolate syrup. Hot-tub……………. chocolate syrup.

…I just don’t get it.

Friday 1 June 2012

15 Second Review: Saw - The Videogame

While drafting Torture Porn, I felt compelled to consume as much of the material associated with ”torture porn” as possible. Consequently, I played Saw: The Videogame through to completion. Had it not have been for my research, I would have probably quit after the first hour or so. The plot (such as it is) ties vaguely into the series in some senses, featuring several characters from the films. The game’s lead protagonist is Saw’s Detective Tapp, for example. It is clear from the outset that the game is creating its own version of the Saw-niverse since Tapp is younger and considerably more svelte than Danny Glover. Konami have, however, managed to capture the nuances of his performance: the Tapp that the player helms is every bit as stilted and uncontrolled as Glover was in the original film.
I can live with that. I can also cope with how tame Saw: The Videogame’s violence is, since I was never principally attracted to the Saw franchise by its gore. Less forgivable is that the entire project is such a missed opportunity. Beyond Saw II, the films themselves followed a gaming logic: characters moved through maze-like structures, completing tasks. The violent set-piece traps escalated across each film, giving each entry a level-like structure. The move from film to game should have been natural. However, Konami had other plans. In the game, Tapp roams around, avoiding awkwardly placed trip-wires and dealing with tedious challenges. These include fitting gear-wheels together (shock!), and moving tiles around to create a picture of the Billy puppet (terror!). I remember encountering such puzzles in my childhood. They were dull then. They are not much better in HD using an XBox controller. Ah, the wonders of the digital age (“Wonders, Lisa…or blunders?”).

The end-of-level set-pieces are not much better. Most are extended versions of the same gear-placing games encountered throughout, except they feature jutting cut-aways to the entrapped victim (“help me…HURRY!”) that are plainly irritating. More often than not during these moments I ended up shouting ‘shut up!’ or ‘how am I supposed to help you if you keep interrupting me?’ at the screen. Obviously I was nowhere near that reserved, but you get the idea. Frustration and expletives do not foster tension. Moreover, Konami have missed the point. When the film’s protagonists engage with other people in traps, they are faced with moral dilemmas. I don’t remember a Saw film in which the protagonist encounters a trivial connect-the-dot challenge. Prompting the player to make decisions about secondary characters’ fates would have been much more absorbing, especially if those decisions altered Tapp’s path through the game.
Also on the unforgivable scale, accordingly, is the game’s lack of plot. There are some rudiments of a story here, but narrative is mostly avoided so as to not severely disrupt the series’ canon events. Had Konami instead opted for an entirely new set of characters - or even explored one of the series’ existent dead-ends - they may have been able to integrate the game as a peripheral narrative that added to the series’ chronology, maybe even offering flashbacks to the series’ events. The game may have attained much more of a Saw-like atmosphere, or offered some twist reveals to keep the player engaged. This, after all, was one of Saw’s distinctive selling points.
In sum, the game is not as grim, claustrophobic or morally troubling as it should be. Jill Tuck scarier than anything found in this game. A sequel (Saw II: Flesh and Blood) was released less than a year later. I won’t be shelling out for it, even out of professional curiosity. Sadly, the game series had the potential to continue beyond the seven-film run. Even as a cash-in then, Saw: The Videogame is a failure. The tagline asks “Do you want to play a game?” Yes, but not this one.