Sunday, July 20, 2008

A Mellow Mass Hysteria

I have fond memories of seeing A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS and FRIGHT NIGHT in the theater, both coming pretty early in my own interest in horror films. WARRIORS was the first ELM STREET I saw theatrically—I suspect that my have been the case for a lot of kids at the time—and I wouldn’t have seen FRIGHT NIGHT at all if it hadn’t been for my dad, of all people, recommending it after going himself. Having grown up in the 80s, there are plenty of movies from that decade which make me want to jump out the nearest window if I catch twenty seconds on TBS but these two have held up pretty well and my fondness for them remains. I guess Diablo Cody likes them too since she programmed the pair for her series at the New Beverly and with a few very special guests announced, there was no way I was going to miss it. THE DARK KNIGHT could wait. Both films were preceded by various trailers for horror films from back in the day, some that I never need to remember (that would be DR. GIGGLES) but fortunately we were also shown that great MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE trailer featuring director Stephen King pointing at us saying, “I’m gonna scare the hell out of you!” And we all know how that turned out.

DREAM WARRIORS was of course the movie that burst the NIGHTMARE series into the mainstream, moving away from the hard-nosed scares of the first film, justly forgetting the second movie entirely and bringing in a more fantastical approach to the nightmares. This isn’t a bad thing, but sometimes you revisit an older film you remember and are surprised at how slow it sometimes moves. That is very much the case here. Fortunately, this does allow us to get to know some of the characters more than we otherwise would. It’s hard to imagine that a genre film would ever allow a plot point like teen suicide, even if it is minor, to be used today. And even though the teen characters are all obvious Freddy fodder, the sensitive way they are presented, comic relief aside, makes them more likable than the cardboard caricatures who populate the later sequels and it’s still kind of a bummer when a few of them are killed off. If the film has a flaw it’s that the script can’t seem to make up its mind if the lead character is Patricia Arquette’s Kristen, Craig Wasson’s sympathetic doctor or the returning Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy. It’s not a deal breaker but it does make it feel like finished film isn’t as tight and focused as it could be. Wasson, who doesn’t seem at all different from his BODY DOUBLE character—not that it bothers me and more on that in a minute—is immediately likable while Langenkamp, it has to be said, isn’t much of an actress and the wardrobe she’s given to presumably make her look older than she really is just comes off as awkward. Fortunately, the kids (some of whom she’s probably the same age as) pick up some of the slack, especially Arquette in her first film and Jennifer Rubin, who I’ve always had a fondness for, also in her debut as tough chick Taryn. Laurence Fishburne, still credited as ‘Larry’ and billed third, manages to make something out of his nothing role as Max the orderly and John Saxon, reprising his role as Nancy’s father in an extended cameo, pretty much kills in his brief screen time. And yeah, there’s the Dokken song over the end credits and I could hear people singing along with the lyrics. At least, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t just me.

The post-film Q&A was with co-writer Frank Darabont and, unannounced but very welcome, co-writer and director Chuck Russell. The two men, laughing as in disbelief about being asked about this movie but clearly loving every minute of it, talked about how they rewrote the script together up in Big Bear in eleven days, with Russell suffering from a 104 degree temperature part of the time. Apparently during this fever Russell came up with the famous line, “The bastard son of a hundred maniacs,” with Darabont figuring that it was either the best or worst line anybody had ever written. Of course, it was a little of both. Russell also seemed to agree with the slow pace, saying he felt he could easily cut it down to eighty minutes. He may be right but even if the film may not be the best of the series, for me it’s the most endearing. Easily the best part of the session was the revelation that the Edgar Allen Poe quote which opens the film—“Sleep. Those little slices of death. How I loathe them.”—is complete bullshit. Chuck Russell made it up. Sadly, I didn’t get to ask my own question about the movie, which was the story behind Craig Wasson briefly being buried alive, an odd little BODY DOUBLE homage which happens during the climax.

FRIGHT NIGHT may be a slick studio film in comparison, but it’s a pretty modest studio film, with much of it taking place on a street that is an obvious backlot with a cast that consists of a mere handful of characters. Maybe it’s part of this modest, yet focused, scope that allows it to hold up extremely well, with a tight script and the line between comedy and horror correctly balanced. William Ragsdale and Amanda Bearse are sort of the Zach Galligan-Phoebe Cates equivalents, both likable while letting the others have the showier roles. Chris Sarandon is so good as Jerry Dandridge that it’s surprising that he didn’t appear in more things even at the time. When he offers to give Ragsdale “something I don’t have—a choice” it’s a nice inkling of depth which automatically keeps him from being just a one-note bad guy. Maybe this was just the great role in the 80s he was meant to have. Roddy McDowall and Stephen Geoffreys are both extremely memorable in their roles which seem designed to be scene-stealers and the movie fortunately never lets them be simply comic relief. I suppose I’m thinking of the one big scene the two have together late in the film and it’s that sort of odd emotional touch which is probably one of the reasons the film has always resonated for some people, making it more than just a horror-comedy. And the exciting climax, from the fantastic effects work to moments like McDowall expectantly proclaiming “You’re out of time,” seems to do everything right which is refreshing after seeing so many finales that make me want to zone out. It’s a terrific movie.

As a contrast to Russell & Darabont, who remembered their film as a total blast, Tom Holland earnestly expressed how he always regarded FRIGHT NIGHT as an expression of his own love for the genre. The genesis of the film came from his own script for the 1984 CLOAK & DAGGER, a remake of THE WINDOW. Thinking about its relation to Cornell Woolrich’s REAR WINDOW Holland tried to develop a similar idea about someone living next door to a serial killer, but couldn’t crack the idea (“And then last year they made DISTUBIA,” he added. Good to know I’m not the only one who saw the FRIGHT NIGHT resemblance) until he hit upon the notion of instead doing it with a vampire—a story idea he still couldn’t solve, until he hit upon the concept of the Peter Vincent character. He was fortunate to have very little interference from Columbia, since they were mostly preoccupied with what was expected to be their big summer movie, PERFECT. When asked about Sarandon’s habit of eating apples in scenes, Holland said that it was a touch Sarandon came up with, also offering the rationale that the character was “cleaning his fangs”. As for Geoffreys, Holland said that all the lines were on the page, but everything Geoffreys did with them was the actor. Holland revealed that the late screenwriter Colin Higgins took part in a surprisingly long two-week rehearsal period (“We could have done it as a play,” said Holland) and tried to convince him to reign Geoffreys in. Happily, the director didn’t listen to that piece of advice. Holland stressed that he was constantly trying to add subtext to every scene, whether it be losing one’s virginity or the homoeroticism element and while it could be argued that trying to toss anything into the mix makes the movie feel a little all over the place, it does give it a lot of the meat that it has, one of the reasons it still plays pretty damn good today.

Only one of these two films, FRIGHT NIGHT, actually played during the summer, but the double bill was a nice reminder when summer movies seemed more fun and less like, well, ordeals. It’s a credit to the people involved that they are still so enjoyable. And it’s great that Diablo Cody recognizes this in them and was able to engineer such a terrific night. Maybe if I go again I’ll have to tell her this.

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