The end is nigh! There are five films to go and I feel the need to slow down just a touch more so I can discuss them in greater detail. Honestly, I could talk about the three films listed below for hours and would happily write a novel on each. But this is the internet so I’ll keep things as short as I can. If you’re too busy to read but eager to guess what my next three selections are (as if the picture above didn’t give one of them away already), I offer these brief hints: one film is about the power of stories, another is about the fragility of the human mind, and the third is my choice for the best vampire film of all time.
5. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
The Elm Street series has always been a personal favorite of mine. I ranked them a couple of Halloweens ago and it was hard for me to say bad things about any of them, even the worst ones. I can’t help it. I find the idea of Freddy Krueger so ingenious and frightening that I’m willing to forgive a lot of baffling choices on the part of the producers. It was also the first horror film series I ever became deeply obsessed with. Anyone remember the covers on the VHS boxes? They were terrifying. I used to stroll past them in the video store and gaze at them with a mix of fear and wonder. When I was finally old enough to start watching them (or clever enough to hide them from my parents), they did not disappoint. Even the weakest films in the series are wildly imaginative, but none more so than the seventh and final film (Freddy Vs. Jason does not count), Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.
It was a shock to many that Craven returned after ten years to a franchise that he had presumably written off. He had never intended for the original film to have a sequel and felt he had not been given a fair shake by producer Robert Shaye. After supposedly killing Freddy off once and for all, Shaye decided it might be time to see if Craven wanted to come back and tell just one more story. Craven accepted, looked at the other sequels, and realized there was no possible way to connect a new film to them. The ‘mythology’ had become far too convoluted by that point. So, he decided to set Freddy against a new set of victims: his creators.
This is a concept that could have easily been handled rather poorly. To many, I’m sure it looked like nothing more than desperate attempt to squeeze just a little more cash out of the long suffering cow. But Craven is smarter than that. One of his wisest moves was to point the finger right at himself and the other producers of the series. This isn’t some trite, knowing satire on Hollywood culture but an honest examination of how a story can become bigger than its creators and take on a life of its own. Craven and Shaye started a train with no idea where it was going and it ran off the rails with far more ferocity than either of them expected. New Nightmare takes the criticisms lobbied against both of them over the years and stares them right in the face. It doesn’t let us off the hook either. We’re as much to blame for how larger than life Freddy became. We kept buying the tickets after all and the fact that we rooted for him rather than against him is what allowed the character to become such a bizarre icon. One of the most chilling scenes in New Nightmare has nothing to do with the supernatural. After lead actress Heather Langenkamp appears on a talk show to discuss the series, Robert Englund jumps out in full Freddy make-up and gets the crowd riled up. He waves his arms back and forth and they cheer for him like he’s a demi-god. This is a monster who murders children in their sleep and people want to worship at his feet.
It’s the story of Heather Langenkamp’s life that she’s never gotten enough credit for the success of the series, highlighted here in a hilarious moment where she stands backstage waiting for Englund while fans surround him and ignore her entirely. She doesn’t get enough credit for this film either despite being key to its success. A lot of actors play themselves here, but she is the one who opens herself up the most. She did have a young son at the time, was married to a special effects technician, and had dealt with a stalker. It was brave of her to allow Craven to portray these things on the screen and braver still for her to fully embrace the role. She’s never given a better performance. She carries the film’s in-depth ideas on her shoulders, processing them in palatable way for the audience while navigating the full range of human emotions and being a kick ass hero. She’s marvelous.
The most intriguing idea that Craven comes up with is the suggestion that Freddy Krueger is a far older entity than anyone thought. He’s the monster from every fairy tale and the thing that hides under every bed. The only way to stop such a beast is to trap him in a story. This speaks to the innate power of stories and the people who tell them. To point the finger at himself and Hollywood and then turn it back around to highlight how important and eternal these stories are is clever and profound. Scary stories have been with us since the dawn of time. Telling and sharing them allows us to channel our fears and achieve a catharsis. They’re more than just a way for us to spook each other. They’re a way to deal with the world around us and this is something that Craven has always understood, but never with a keener eye than in New Nightmare. It’s a film that entertains, frightens, thrills, and delivers more and more richness each time you watch it.
Depicting mental illness onscreen has always been a challenge. It’s a slippery slope. Go too far in one direction and you’ve got an incoherent, self-indulgent mess like Eraserhead. Go to far in the other direction and you’ve got pandering, whimsical tripe like Benny and Joon. If you’re going to make a film about a mental disorder, you have to get it just right. And that’s exactly what Roman Polanski did with Repulsion.
As Carol, the mentally unstable, sexually frustrated main character, Catherine Deneuve is mesmerizing. And yet she betrays very little. A simpleton would look at the film and declare her a victim of sexual abuse–the final shot all but confirms this–as if that’s an explanation for her tormented mind and the vicious murders she commits. That’s undeniably a part of what’s going on with her but to say that her ‘repulsion’ is entirely focused on sex is to dismiss the film’s psychological power and cheapen its portrayal of madness.
Take a close look at her situation. She’s a pretty woman overshadowed by her sister. She doesn’t know how to talk to people and the world around her makes her nervous. She can’t focus on work and is frequently sent home early. When she’s on her own, she has no idea how to fend for herself. Why? Is it entirely due to a horrendous act that occurred in her childhood? Saying so would be taking the easy way out. This is a person who lives in a world that has ONE use for her. To everyone around her, she is an object of attraction and nothing more. She cannot fend for herself because no one has ever let her try. She can’t talk to people because they’ve never given her a chance to speak. Her reality is entirely defined by what she is to others. Is it any wonder she’s so unhinged?
The hands coming out of the walls and the cracks in the interior of her apartment are manifestations of a prevailing sense that everyone is out to get her. Is this unfounded on her part? Isn’t everyone around her out to get her in some way? The landlord wants his rent money but he wants her body too. The would-be suitor sees something pretty he can attach to his hip. Her sister sees a burden to bear. Carol is trapped from every possible angle. It’s a wonder she didn’t snap sooner.
The way Polanski shows her mind crumbling is never less than riveting and acutely terrifying. Anyone who has ever felt anxiety, depression, despair, or loneliness will find something here they can connect to. Repulsion is a horror film of the mind, a place far more dangerous that any haunted house or dreamscape. The fear it evokes is based around the idea that this could easily happen to you. If you can’t take control of your own life, if you can’t assert your own identity, and if you can’t connect with anyone, the walls are going to close in and swallow you up.
3. Let the Right One In
As I’ve said, the most effective vampire stories reflect on the solitary existence of these creatures. Imagine what it would be like to live forever, to watch everyone around you pass away, to be frozen in time, and to be utterly consumed by a taste for blood that can never be fulfilled. To say that living like that would be torturous is a grotesque understatement. Now imagine you became a vampire when you were a child; unable to fend for yourself, your mind advancing while your body stays as it is. Such is the case for poor Eli, a centuries old being in the body of a little girl. She’s able to find people to care for her but they can’t live forever, which keeps her in a permanent state of solitude and despair.
Now take young Oskar, a boy ignored by his parents and bullied by his peers. He’s intelligent and resourceful but the wounds inflicted upon him have created a deep well of violent inner rage. The film opens with him stabbing a knife repeatedly into a tree, imaging that the tree is the bullies who torment him. Everyone has imagined taking revenge on someone who wronged them but Oskar’s actions are disturbing. This is a child who will do something very dangerous one day.
When he meets Eli in the jungle gym outside his apartment, things begin to change for both of them. They strike up a conversation and find they have more in common than meets the eye. They’re both outsiders in desperate need of a real connection. Their relationship is the heart of Thomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In. Strip everything else away, including the vampire angle, and you’ve got a wonderfully observed portrait of two children who need each other. It’s rare for any movie to portray child characters with such honesty. They’re both smart, petty, violent, confused, and frightened, like most real children are. The film has no need to make them cute. These are well-written, fully fleshed out characters that anyone who had a childhood can relate to.
Alfredson takes the time to build their relationship steadily while still crafting an absorbing and scary narrative. The bleak, desolate landscape surrounding the characters adds to the melancholy feeling present throughout most of the film. Unlike Nosferatu though, this is not a beautifully tragic chronicle of despair and pain. Those emotions are present but hope is there too. It arrives during the most unexpected moments, such as when Oskar subjects Eli to a cruel test and holds onto her for dear life after realizing what he’s done. Or how bout the quiet way Eli wraps her arms around him after they’ve both committed a deadly crime? And what about the final shot? It consists of two quiet knocks that speak volumes about who these two people have become and where they’re going.
Besides the rich emotional payoffs, this is a gorgeous, haunting film. The shot composition is stellar. Every angle is from the perspective of a child, putting us firmly in their mindset and allowing us to see the terrifying world around them the same way they do. The scenes of violence are horrific but never without their purpose. The film does not shy away from Eli’s nature or attempt to make her overly sympathetic. At the end of the day, she is a monster but does that mean she should be denied companionship? Do Oskar’s disturbing character traits make him worthy of the cruelty he endures? This is a horror film that believes empathy to be most noble of human emotions. I believe it too. Let the Right One In understands vampires like no other movie but it also understands childhood like no other. Anne Rice always insisted her novels were not about vampires but about us. She’s right but there is no better execution of that concept than Let the Right One In. And that’s what makes it the greatest vampire movie ever made.
The list concludes tomorrow as I reveal my top two choices!