Sunday, August 30, 2015

Remembering Wes Craven and his Nightmare

As a tribute to horror icon Wes Craven, the master manipulator who scared us silly with the franchise-spawning A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), I am offering the following feature story based on an interview I conducted with the filmmaker at the 1994 Toronto Film Festival in conjunction with the world premiere of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

At the time, I was quite impressed with the movie, which I described in my original Variety review as an ingeniously conceived and devilishly clever film that proved Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) wasn't so aptly named after all. But I was even more impressed by the blunt-spoken, self-deprecating candor displayed by Craven — who passed away Sunday at age 76 – as he discussed his reasons for returning to the franchise, and some of the real-life inspirations for his on-screen horror stories.

Some horror masters look so innocuous, so respectable, so absolutely normal, it's hard to believe they're capable of unleashing blood-and-thunder bogeymen.

Clive Barker, the author and sometime filmmaker who gave us Hellraiser and Night Breed, is a boyishly handsome and cheerful fellow who wouldn't appear out of place as the hero's best friend in some British-produced comedy of manners. David Cronenberg, the eccentric auteur of Scanners, Videodrome and the 1986 remake of The Fly, has the bookish, button-down demeanor of someone who might specialize in quantum physics or international economics.

On the other hand, there's Wes Craven. You take one look at this guy, with his vaguely sinister beard, his mischievously twinkling eyes, his wicked smile of complicity with every dirty trick in the book -- you see all of that, and you figure, ''Yeah, this guy would love to scare the hell out of you.''

And he's the first to admit that, yes, he would. With no apologies whatsoever.

Which was a major part Craven's motivation for returning to the scene of the crime, so to speak, to write and direct a follow-up to his 1984 shocker, A Nightmare on Elm Street. That was the film in which audiences got their first glimpse of Freddy Krueger, the fire-scarred, razor-fingered fiend who, over the course of five sequels, became a perversely popular cult figure.

Three years ago, the character was decisively destroyed in Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare. In Hollywood, however, nothing is ever really final. That's why there now is something called Wes Craven's New Nightmare.

''When they first approached me to do to a new film,'' Craven recalled during an interview at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, ''the initial injunction from New Line Cinema was, 'We were maybe thinking about making one more Freddy film, but we kind of killed him off. Do you have any ideas how we might bring him back?'''

So it was the creative challenge that brought Craven back to the horror series he had abandoned years earlier? ''Well,'' Craven admitted with a chuckle, ''there also were some very tangible business aspects that made it a very sweet proposition…

''But,'' the filmmaker quickly added, ''the problem was — and all of us agreed on this — we didn't want to make one where we just said, 'Oh, (Freddy's Dead ) was only a dream — he's really still alive.' So, the challenge was to figure out how to do a film about Freddy where the audience wouldn't hoot us out of the theater.

''And at first, I didn't have a clue, really, how to do it.''

Craven, a 55-year-old Cleveland, Ohio, native, made his filmmaking debut in 1972 with The Last House on the Left, a blood-soaked exploitation movie that received serious critical attention from, among other people, Roger Ebert. He followed that with an equally violent drama, The Hills Have Eyes (1977), then lightened up a bit with a tongue-in-cheek comic-book adventure, Swamp Thing (1982).

After A Nightmare on Elm Street, he continued to illuminate horror stories with flashes of dark comedy in such films as Deadly Friend (1986), Shocker(1989) and The People Under the Stairs (1991).

In making another sequel to Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven hoped ''to honestly explain to myself why I felt so generally positive about making scary films, and why so much of the audience felt so positive, even while, at the same time, these movies seem to upset so many people.'' As a result, pre-production planning involved a fair amount of self-analysis.

Craven forced himself to consider some traumatic events from his childhood — ''A divorce, an abusive situation in the family, drinking, a scary father, things like that.'' At the same time, he also paid attention to the real-life horrors that are major attractions on TV newscasts.

''And I had this realization that, when I make films, usually, on the floor of the sound stage, we're all laughing. And I'm feeling great. And the audiences that I see coming out of my films often are giggling, or really excited and laughing. I've never seen anybody coming out of one of my films where they've looked beaten down, or really depressed, or like they're going to go out and kill themselves.

''What I think stories like (Nightmare on Elm Street ) do is, they somehow put a shape and face on the things that terrify us. Things from our memories, or simply from real life out there... And this gives us a sense of control about things. It's like, look, here's a story that's being told by another human, about the things that frighten us the most, whatever they are.''

Craven got his latest inspiration for new and improved ways to scare people while lunching with actress Heather Langenkamp, the resourceful heroine of the first Nightmare movie. Langenkamp described her unpleasant experiences involving harassing phone calls from an obsessed fan. Craven sympathized. But he also recognized the dramatic possibilities.

Shortly afterward, Craven said, ''I just had a dream in which Freddy was sort of going through this cocktail party with all these different people that I knew. And he was talking and cracking jokes and everything. And I was thinking, 'See, this is the problem with Freddy — he's become too familiar.'

''But then I saw this very shadowy, very dark Freddy shape in the back, behind the curtains. And I was aware that this was something quite separate from Robert (Englund, the actor who played Freddy). Yet it was in the same general shape. That's when I realized in the dream that this was the original thing that had inspired me to construct Freddy as a character in the first place.''

The next day, Craven started working on his screenplay for New Nightmare, a devilishly clever and amusingly self-referential thriller.

Craven's audacious conceit is that his first Nightmare on Elm Street and the five sequels made by other directors were works of fiction that inadvertently summoned, and briefly contained, a real supernaturally evil force. Unfortunately, after Freddy was killed off in 1991's Final Nightmare, the evil force was freed to wreak havoc — while still in the form of Freddy — on an unsuspecting world.

And that, Craven explains while playing himself in the movie's funniest sequence, is why he simply must make another Nightmare movie. It's the only way he can save humanity. Really.

Craven isn't the only returnee from the first film. Heather Langenkamp also is on hand, typecast to perfection as Heather Langenkamp, an actress with a cult following for her performance in Nightmare on Elm Street.

Ten years later, Langenkamp still is on good terms with her Nightmare co-stars (including Robert Englund and John Saxon, also cast as themselves). But she's reluctant to appear in a brand-new Nightmare sequel.

Unfortunately, even though she wants no part of another Freddy flick, Freddy Krueger — or, to be more precise, the real-life monster who has assumed Freddy's form — just won't stay out of her life. And her dreams.

''Right from the start,'' Craven said, ''I gave myself a warning that this film had to be a stand-alone thing. I couldn't imagine anyone who would end up going to see it who wasn't aware of the whole phenomenon of Freddy Krueger, and the whole Nightmare series. But nothing absolutely essential is lost if you haven't seen any of the earlier films.

“'On the other hand, if you have seen the first one — especially if you've seen it recently — you get a lot of the references. And you get the whole idea that (Langenkamp) is slipping into the world of that first film, whether she likes it or not.''

And that is something Wes Craven likes very, very much.

Friday, August 28, 2015

A deeply affecting film about a remarkable Houstonian who's also a proud New Orleanian

My student has become my teacher. Darius Clark Monroe, the young filmmaker I first met when he was enrolled in my class at University of Houston, and who went on to study with Spike Lee at NYU, demonstrated great promise with his acclaimed autobiographical documentary Evolution of a Criminal. Now he has taken the first step toward fulfilling that promise with this deeply affecting 13-minute portrait of Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika, a remarkable Houstonian who also happens to be a proud New Orleanian. Titled Two Cities, it's part of a six-part Time Inc. documentary series -- New Orleans, Here & Now -- that celebrates different facets of my hometown 10 years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. After seeing Monroe's contribution, I'm eager to view the entire omnibus -- and, yes, maybe take another look at another amazing film directed by one of Monroe's other proud teachers.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Houston's International House of Cinema

Consider this: On Friday, the AMC Studio 30 megaplex here in H-Town will be showing, in addition to mainstream and much-hyped Hollywood studio fare, Assassination, a terrifically entertaining South Korean action-adventure that I viewed and reviewed for Variety; Go Away Mr. Tumor, a Chinese romantic comedy that was a smash hit in its country of origin; The Love Affair, a romantic drama from The Philippines; and no fewer than four features -- Baahubali, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Brothers: Blood Against Blood and Drishyam -- from India. (Also on tap: Two English-language, VOD-ready  indie features -- After Words and Some Kind of Beautiful -- each screening only twice daily.)

Now, mind you, we're not talking about a gone-to-seed theater in a fallen-from-grace shopping theater. We're not even talking about a theater in a neighborhood where any single immigrant group traditionally dominates. Rather, we're talking about a megaplex in the most racially and ethnically diverse large metropolitan area in the United States. Leading me to wonder: Is this situation unique to Houston, or increasingly commonplace? That is: Have we already reached and actually gone past the point where it is standard operational procedure for theater chains to program in big-city megaplexes scads of movies that require English subtitles but aren't, strictly speaking, "art-house movies" -- that are, you know, just movies?

Friday, August 14, 2015

Austin. Sunday. Miracle Mile. Be there, or be square.

Great news: Miracle Mile, writer-director Steve De Jarnatt's classic 1989 thriller, will be screened at 7:20 pm Sunday at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz in Austin. But wait, there's more: It's my great pleasure and privilege to announce that I'll be serving as host (or facilitator, or whatever the hell they call it) for an on-stage Q&A with De Jarnatt after the screening.

I am especially geeked about the occasion because... well, this isn't the first time I'll be involved with a public showing of De Jarnatt's devastating flick. Back in 1989, I introduced it as my critic's choice at the WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival (then known simply as the Houston International Film Festival), where it wound up rocking the house and winning best of fest honors. 

A few weeks later, during a Cannes Film Festival reception, I was told by one of the muckety-mucks at Hemdale -- the outfit that had originally bankrolled the film -- that because of the enthusiastic response at the H-Town fest, his company was giving Miracle Mile a wider theatrical release than originally planned. He also said my rave review -- blurbed in all the original advertising and, later, on the homevideo packaging -- was another factor considered when the Hemdale brass made their decision. 

Maybe he was telling me the truth, maybe he was stoking my ego. But consider: De Jarnatt recently thanked me in a Facebook post for being an early supporter of his film. So I can only assume that I played some role, however small, in getting Miracle Mile out into the world. And that makes me very happy.

So what's it all about? As I wrote in my 1989 review:

Miracle Mile is an audacious doomsday thriller with a 20-megaton impact. Deceptively simple and relentlessly gripping, it represents American independent moviemaking at its most exciting and accessible for mainstream audiences. Be prepared to be blown through the back of the theater...

Anthony Edwards (Revenge of the Nerds) and Mare Winningham (St. Elmo’s Fire) are the lead players, and they are exceptionally well-cast. Edwards is excellent as Harry, a soft-spoken, sweet-natured would-be jazz musician who moves to Los Angeles in search of a musical career and, perhaps, romance. Like most newcomers to Los Angeles, he checks out the sights on the Miracle Mile, the long stretch of Wilshire Boulevard that runs from the towering skyscrapers of Century City to the edge of the La Brea Tar Pits. On a museum tour near the pits, Harry meets Julie (Winningham), a lovely waitress who just happens to be fond of jazz. Love blooms, instantly.

Unfortunately, Harry oversleeps, and arrives at the diner where Julie works three hours late for their midnight date. He tries to call her from a pay phone, but she doesn’t respond -- she has taken a sleeping pill, turned on her answering machine, and dozed off. Harry is depressed. Worse, he doesn’t know exactly where Julie lives, so he can’t drop by to apologize.

Then the pay phone rings, and Harry picks up the receiver. On the other end is an anxious young man calling from a missile base somewhere in North Dakota. It’s a wrong number -- the caller was trying to reach his father in another area code, to warn him that World War III is about to begin, that nuclear missiles will likely hit Los Angeles in 70 minutes.

Harry thinks the caller is a practical joker. But then he hears gunshots. And then he hears a stern voice on the line, warning him to “forget everything you’ve just heard, and go back to sleep.” 

This is not a dream. This is not a test. This is an actual alert.

And that is all the detailed plot synopsis you will get from me. Suffice it to say that Harry moves heaven and earth to get to Julie, so she can join him for a last-chance flight to safety. Naturally, several obstacles, and not a few people, get in his way. And even when the lovers are reunited, they have to contend with the panicky mobs who have been tipped off about the approaching apocalypse.

Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt draws you slowly, steadily into his frightfully plausible plot before he yanks you by the lapels and drags you onto a high-velocity roller coaster. Better still, even while he skillfully, even mercilessly, escalates the suspense, he develops a credible, compelling love story. Edwards makes a strong impression as an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation, while Winningham is attractive, persuasive and, particularly in the final scenes, achingly poignant. The supporting players are strong, and the dialogue, often darkly comical, rings true.

Miracle Mile flies economy class, with more emphasis on human drama than special effects, but it never looks or sounds cheap. The first-rate cinematography is by Theo Van de Sande, and the ominous musical score is by Tangerine Dream.

And if all of that is not enough for you, take note: Cherry 2000, De Jarnatt's only other feature, a 1987 sci-fi action-adventure in which a badass Melanie Griffith makes things blow up real good, also will be screened Sunday at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz. And, yes, De Jarnatt will be answering questions about that one, too.  

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Trailer Park: Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight

How much badassery can a single motion picture contain? That burning question likely will be answered by Quentin Tarantino's eagerly awaited The Hateful Eight, the upcoming Western action-thriller starring Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Demian Bichir, Channing Tatum (allegedly) -- and Mr. Samuel L. Jackson, who has, hands down, the best line in this trailer: "Move a little strange -- you're gonna get a bullet. Not a warning. Not a question. A bullet."

Get ready to mount up and ride hard when The Hateful Eight hits theaters -- in "glorious 70mm Ultra Panavision" -- on Christmas Day.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Trailer Park: Vin Diesel (and Michael Caine) in The Last Witch Hunter

"Know what I'm afraid of? Nothing." Vin Diesel probably could have delivered that line in any movie he's ever made. (Well, maybe not The Pacifier -- but almost every movie he's ever made.) Yet he has waited until The Last Witch Hunter to utter this particular announcement of his badassery. 

As you can see in the trailer, Diesel's character matches words with deeds while fearlessly demolishing all manner of supernatural foes. (Gee, I wonder if the movie is intended as the kickoff for a new franchise?) But I must admit: Since I'm kinda-sorta a Michael Caine completist, the primary appeal this movie has for me is the opportunity to see Sir Michael playing a priest. I could be mistaken -- and I'm sure I'll be corrected if I am -- but I think this may be the very first time in his 50-plus-year career that Caine has played a man of the cloth.

The Last Witch Hunter opens Oct. 23 at theaters and drive-ins everywhere.