Wes Craven's New Nightmare

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare was the first meta-horror I had ever seen. My young self found the concept mind-warping. Instead of being a sequel or even a remake, the film had the main actors from the original film, along with New Line Cinema executive/producer Bob Shaye, and Wes Craven all portraying themselves. This movie acknowledged that all of the preceding films in the franchise were fiction, but that somehow Freddy Krueger is now real and is terrorizing his creators. An especially mind-bending moment occurred when Heather Langenkamp meets with Craven to discuss his new film script. At the and of the conversation, a close up of his computer screen reveals that their entire conversation was already part of the script.

Craven’s script is revealed to include the scene we just watched.

I still like this core concept very much, even though it turns out that Lucio Fulci had done something very similar years earlier with Cat In The Brain. There are other good things about New Nightmare. Freddy has a new look and is no longer cracking bad jokes with each kill–something that Craven despised about the other sequels.

Robert Englund appears in full Freddy makeup to please his adoring fans in New Nightmare.

However, in some respects, this movie hasn’t aged well for me. There are many aspects I view very differently now, and maybe adulthood has poisoned my perceptions. I now find the acting cringe-inducing in some scenes. And to some extent, I find the characters less sympathetic, which is especially weird since most of the people involved played themselves. I wonder if Craven made a deliberate decision to troll his own industry by portraying filmmakers as a bit bitchy, superficial, and flakey. Am I projecting my own experiences on to these characters? Most of the filmmakers I know are decent people, but I’ve met all types at this point. Then again, Craven took those stereotypes to an extreme in Scream 3, in which filmmakers were not only overly bitchy, superficial, and flakey, but rapists and murderers to boot. Many of the non-filmmaker/actor characters in New Nightmare were downright awful and creepy, especially the medical personnel who are ostensibly concerned for the welfare of Langenkamp’s son.

Freddy pierces the veil between fiction and reality.

Some aspects of the film are just odd in retrospect because societal attitudes have changed. While rewatching it, I had to remind myself of the stigma horror films carried in the 1990s. As bizarre as it seems now to watch a scene in which a doctor threatens to have child protective services take Langenkamp’s son away because mayyyybe he was exposed to horror films, there was a lot of hand-wringing on the part of so-called “experts” along these lines. As someone who openly liked the horror genre, I felt stigmatized back then too. On one occasion, a virtual stranger scolded me (during a Bible study of all things) that people like me were responsible for the Columbine massacre. Of course, Craven returned to the issue of movies influencing real-life violence in the Scream franchise , but I never hear that issue discussed these days. Thankfully. If there is a moral to this film, it’s the idea that the the act of telling stories can keep real monsters at bay.

Despite my issues with the film, I appreciate the fact that Craven was one of very few directors of that decade who took his subject matter seriously. 

UPDATED: Andrew Divoff debuts new beer, raises funds for MFTAC

Andrew shows off his certificate of appreciation at the 8th Annual Lake Arrowhead Brewfest.

Once again, Wishmaster star Andrew Divoff poured his Djinn’s Hellabrew (read about last year’s pour here), and debuted a new beer, MYSTIC, which is a stout subtly flavored with Caribbean spices.

In the video below, Andrew and other brewers receive awards and special recognition for their participation in the Brewfest. Andrew also talks about his charity fundraiser, the Mountain Film and Theater Arts Committee, which provides scholarships to individuals who wish to pursue a career in the performing arts. Andrew’s work for charity over the years has been inspiring, with 100% of the proceeds from his beer and event merchandise supporting non-profits such as Smile Train and Operation Provider. We are happy to announce that Andrew met his fundraising goal for MFTAC this year!

From the archive: Targets

targetsposter

For this last day of November, it seems fitting to wrap up Boris Karloff Month by discussing Karloff’s last great film, Targets (1968), directed by Peter Bogdanovich.

Targets follows the story of two very different characters whose lives intersect by chance. The hero is Byron Orlok, portrayed by Karloff and clearly based on Karloff’s real-life persona. Orlok is an elderly horror star who is on the verge of retirement because he feels his brand of gothic horror is outdated, being replaced by the all-too-real horror of serial killers and mass murderers.

karloff-targets

The other is Bobby Thompson, a young Vietnam veteran who superficially appears to be a clean-cut, productive suburban citizen (portrayed by Tim O’Kelly). Modeled after real-life University of Texas sniper Charles Whitman, Thompson buys several guns and large quantities of ammunition, murders his wife and mother, and then kills several strangers in sniper attacks. Thompson’s final shooting spree takes place at a drive-in theater where Byron Orlok is scheduled to give a final public appearance before retiring from acting.

targets-titlecard-388x220

The final confrontation between Orlok and Thompson is satisfying on a number of levels (beware of spoilers in this paragraph), beyond the simple enjoyment of seeing Karloff bitch-slap the young villain until he’s reduced to sniveling in fetal position. An optical illusion in which Thompson cannot differentiate between the two-dimensional screen image of Orlok and the real man advancing to disarm him may symbolize Thompson’s inability to differentiate his own twisted fantasies from reality. Orlok’s triumph may also signify that fictional horrors can serve as a protective factor against real-life horrors by exposing them for what they are. Having subdued Thompson, Orlok muses, “Is this what I was afraid of?”

While we can gain some insight into Charles Whitman’s motives through his journals, Thompson is a frustrating character because his motives are never explained. However, the contrast between Orlok and Thompson can also be examined in light of psychological theories of the time. In The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues about the So-Called Psychopathic Personality (1941) and its subsequent editions, Harvey M. Checkley argues that whereas many openly neurotic people are deeply good and loving at their core, psychopaths cause tremendous harm because they are able to effectively fit into societal norms. This argument perfectly parallels these characters. Orlok has made a career by nurturing the appearance of evil, albeit on a superficial level. In his personal life, he’s plagued by insecurity. Yet, at his core, he’s a kind and heroic person. In contrast, Thompson has only the appearance of goodness, trustworthiness, and normalcy masking terrifying schemes of destruction.

targets-1968-villain
The young villain and his sterile surroundings.

Erich Fromm’s theory of the necrophilous personality, first introduced in The Heart of Man: its Genius for Good and Evil (1964) and further detailed later in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness , is also pertinent in explaining Thompson’s character. Fromm’s definition of necrophilia is not simply a sexual attraction to corpses, but an attraction to death and destruction for their own sake. Some of the features of character-rooted necrophilia include authoritarianism, the desire to tear apart living things, and fascination with all things mechanical (in this film evidenced by Thompson’s fetishization of guns). As with his inability to differentiate the two-dimensional screen image of Orlok with the man himself, it seems that Thompson doesn’t view his victims as real, or at least not as human. At one point he tells the gun store clerk that he’s going to “hunt some pigs.” Thompson’s use of firearms to dispatch his victims is cold, distant, clinical, and impersonal. This is visually represented by the icy hues and sterile surroundings in Thompson’s scenes. In contrast,  Orlok fits within Fromm’s description of the biophilous (life-loving) personality, reflected by the warm, earthy hues in his scenes. Orlok’s home is a bit more ornate, messy, and flawed…as he is. Extrapolate Orlok’s characteristics to the genre he represents, and again, there is an indication that the horror genre is on the side of life.

Review: How to Make a Monster (1958)

While many people credit Wes Craven with inventing the meta-horror film, it’s been around for quite some time. In some cases, the meta elements of early films were cut or rewritten, likely because they were too confusing. For example, the original ending of The Black Cat (1934) depicted the “final couple” meeting the film’s director, who tells them he spent the last week filming  (As described by Jon Towlson in his excellent book, The Turn to Gruesomeness in American Horror Films, 1931-1936.)

In 1958, American International Pictures decided to satirize its own image and reputation. AIP had attempted to put its own unique spin on Universal-style monsters by making them into teenage monsters. It’s debatable as to how successful it was. How to Make a Monster was certainly the best of this cycle, precisely because of its penchant for self-mockery.

The villain is Pete Drummond, an FX makeup artist who will soon be fired because studio executives have decided that teen monster movies are waning in popularity and are a black mark on the reputation of the studio. Instead, they want to be known for rock and roll musicals.

So Drummond decides to teach the studio executives a lesson in fear. With the help of a mind control drug and a lot of bullshit philosophizing, Drummond uses his FX skills to transform two teenage actors into teen monsters and have them kill the studio head and others who threaten his livelihood. In an especially nice meta touch, Gary Conway, the actor from I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, portrays the young man whom Drummond transforms into the teenage Frankenstein monster. After the mind control drug wears off, the young men have no recollection that they committed murder.

in the final scenes, the film shifts from black-and-white to full color, as Drummond invites the teen actors into his private shrine where he introduces them to his “children,” the wax busts of movie monsters used in previous AIP films. At this point we find out that Drummond doesn’t view these horror films as a mere means to a paycheck, but as an actual religion.

The films is available for purchase as the double feature,  How to Make a Monster/Blood of Dracula, but is also currently available to watch on Youtube.

The King In Yellow and other meta origins

Image from tvtropes.org

Metafiction is nothing new. Some scholars argue that even ancient texts such as The Odyssey have meta elements. I noticed meta elements in other classic works such as Tom Jones and Tristam Shandy.

In what will be the first and probably last time I mention Jane Austen in this blog, it should be noted that her first novel, Northanger Abbey, was a metafiction satire of horror’s ancestor, the gothic novel. Within the first page, Austen tells us that the protagonist, Catherine, is a fictional character, and that she is determined to be the heroine of her own gothic fiction story. Catherine spends her free time reading books such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, and all of her decisions are made through the lens of genre convention.

I’m always discovering new things, so there may be other precedents in horror fiction proper, but the first metafiction horror novel I discovered was The King in Yellow. Prompted by reference to the book in Lovecraft’s essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, I hunted down a pricey copy in the 1990’s, and it was quite a challenge. Now, The King in Yellow is readily available in both print and ebook editions, and has inspired tribute anthologies such as A Season in Carcosa. Perhaps you can thank the popularity of True Detective for bringing it into more mainstream popularity.

Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow was published in 1895 and borrowed concepts from Ambrose Bierce’s Can Such Things Be?: An Inhabitant of Carcosa & Other Stories. In turn, it influenced Lovecraft’s own mythos and films such as John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of MadnessThe King in Yellow is a collection of interconnected short stories about a book called The King in Yellow which is a best-seller that spreads “like an infectious disease” across Europe. People who read the book go insane, believe that they are characters within the book, and in some cases are driven to acts of extreme violence. Although the final stories in the collection lose their way, the first few are effective and disturbing, making this a worthwhile read for fans of horror and weird fiction.

Review: The Dark Tower

First, let me confirm that the new film The Dark Tower differs significantly with the sprawling series written by Stephen King. Major plot points are truncated, and key characters are left out entirely. Rolan’s ka-tet doesn’t exist. The story is told primarily from Jake’s perspective, not Roland’s. Purists may be driven crazy by these omissions and changes. As someone who has read the entire series, I think that aspects of the film adaptation may not be friendly to outsiders, perhaps not relatable.

That said, I don’t understand the negative reviews this film is getting.  Again, I’m glad that I don’t allow such reviews to influence my decision to see movies. The Dark Tower has a mere 18% positive meta-critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes, yet has a 63% positive rating from audience members. This is a big discrepancy. But more importantly, Stephen King liked the adaptation. Keep in mind that King disliked the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of The Shining, which earned near-universal praise from critics. The Dark Tower is true to the spirit of King’s work while The Shining was not.

In the linked article above, King also discusses his approval of casting Idris Elba as Roland. predictably, some fans in the dark corners of the internet disapproved of casting a black actor as a character who is understood to be white. In the book illustrations, Roland is portrayed as white, and this is further reinforced in dialogue in which Detta Walker calls Roland a “honky” and other racist slurs (The Drawing of the Three). However, Roland’s race really isn’t an important factor. The fact is that Idris Elba did a phenomenal job in this film, and I hope he will be in the TV series as rumored.

Roland as portrayed in The Dark Tower III: The Wastelands

Matthew McConaughey is also terrific as the Man in Black. I remember when McConaughey used to be considered conventionally sexy, but gradually transitioned into creepy. I like it.  He’s perfectly cruel in this role.

Matthew McConaughey torments Roland as the Man in Black

Although I had hoped that there would be a film adaptation for each novel, similar to the Harry Potter film series, The Dark Tower included the most essential concepts from the series. If there is to be a TV series, I hope it includes Eddie Dean and Susannah (a.k.a. Detta/Odetta Walker), because the the relationship between Roland and his ka-tet really is the soul of the series.

So yes, I do recommend the movie to anyone with an open mind.

And since we are reviewing “meta” works this month, I have to recommend the Dark Tower novels as well. The film adaptation is not truly meta (although it does give a nod to Pennywise from IT), but the books became increasingly so. In The Dark Tower III: The Wastelands,  we learn that fictional works are windows into very real worlds. One such work is an unsettling children’s book called Charlie the Choo Choo by Beryl Evans, featuring nightmare-fuel illustrations and a story about a sentient train. The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah takes things further by having Roland as his friends meet Stephen King himself. In an especially self-deprecating touch, King gives Roland a copy of his novel Insomnia and Roland promptly throws it in the trash.

Until next time, long days and pleasant nights…

The Final Girls (2015)

Today we wrap up Final Girls Week with my favorite meta-horror film about the subject, Todd Strauss-Schulson’s The Final Girls, starring Taissa Farmiga, Malin Ackerman, and Adam DeVine. I had the pleasure of seeing this movie in early 2015 at the Stanley Film Festival, where it won the audience choice award for best film. The Final Girls surprised the audience because it was so unexpectedly funny and sweet, and actually left many viewers openly weepy.

The film is about Max Cartwright, a young woman who lost her mother, Amanda, in a car accident. Amanda Cartwright was an actress best known for her appearance in a Friday the 13th-style slasher film called Camp Bloodbath. As bad as that film was, it’s a primary way for Max to feel connected to to her late mother. When Max agrees to be the guest of honor at a Camp Bloodbath screening, a strange turn of events causes Max and her school friends to be sucked into the film itself. Max relives her grief when she meets the doomed character played by her mother. Other tear-jerking moments occur when that character realizes she is a fictional character and that she will never accomplish her dreams because she will be “written out.”

Another commendable thing about The Final Girls is that it acknowledges the inherent awfulness of 1980’s slasher films without displaying the typical snarky contempt common of most meta-horror films, which tend to show disgust for both the films they parody and for the fans who watch them. Instead, the filmmakers of The Final Girls just get it. As a good friend of mine observed, some films (especially campy horror films) are so bad that they transcend their badness and become something else entirely. In The Final Girls, fans are portrayed as intelligent cinephiles, and the bad writing and acting in Camp Bloodbath are simply more reasons to love it.