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The History of The Grudge: The Beginning of the Curse

31 Days of Horror

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Ju-On, or The Grudge, is an iconic J-horror franchise with some of the most chilling films the genre has to offer. The first entry, Ju-On: The Grudge came out back in 2002, and the series is still going today. With several reboots and a few spinoff films, there is a lot to unpack when digging back through the franchise. As it’s a series that any horror fan should make themselves familiar with, I’ll be putting together a history of The Grudge, from its short beginnings all the way to its possible future, detailing the history of not only the Ju-On films but also the timeline and victims of the curse itself — as well as how it develops as that infinitely dark mark left in that house grows and grows.

Needless to say, spoilers abound.

To set things up, a young and aspiring filmmaker by the name of Takashi Shimizu was attending the Film School of Tokyo in 1998. He studied under one Kiyoshi Kurosawa (a filmmaker with his own fame, but completely unrelated to Akira Kurosawa), who invited him to assist with making a horror anthology. This is where the curse begins…

‘4444444444’ & ‘Katasumi’

The first two shorts in the Ju-On story are around three minutes each, and are more like single concepts backed by the idea of the curse. Originally, Takashi Shimizu had planned on more to contribute to the horror anthology film Gakko no Kaidan G (or, School Ghost Story G), which these two shorts became a part of. It’s possible that some ideas brought forward to the followups of Ju-On: The Curse 1 & 2 were ones he had played around with in the making of “4444444444” and “Katasumi.”

Whilst the two are singular entities that can stand on their own as concept shorts, Takashi Shimizu himself does see these as the beginning of it all, referring to them as “almost like the true prequel of the story.” If you’ve not seen these two before, they’re highly worth the time, and can be tracked down on YouTube easily enough. It’s also really satisfying to go from these to The Curse and see how the narratives fit in together.

The ‘Toshio’ side of the shorts actually showcases some talented control over camera angles and framing.

“4444444444” deals with the technology aspect, with the ringing phone bringing a student riding home to his demise. After finding a strange phone left beside some junk in an alleyway, he sees that it’s getting a call from the number “4444444444.” The number might seem a bit odd to Westerners, but the number 4 is closely associated with death in Japan (due to the similarity between one reading of the number, “Shi,” and the word for death, also “Shi”) and is considered unlucky. Upon answering, he’s met with…

A cat meowing. Somehow, Takashi Shimizu makes a cat meowing creepy, with an odd and almost pained vocalization. Cats making prank calls aside, the student hangs up, a little frustrated, but instantly gets another call. Frustration with the cat prankster turns into unease as he starts to believe whoever is on the other line can see him. After asking as much, a voice replies in the affirmative.

And here’s Toshio! It’s the first appearance of the franchise’s weird naked boy ghost. Whilst the ending of “4444444444” is pretty goofy and smacks of student filmmaker, there are a lot of little elements that would be polished and brought forward through the entire series. We get the technology influence, the pained cat, and Toshio (who appear together most of the time), in addition to some solid camerawork. It’s the weaker of the two shorts, but still has merit.

Takashi Shimizu’s other contribution to the horror anthology, a bit more ambitious in approach.

“Katasumi” also exists within a single space, but this time there are two female student characters tending to the school rabbits after everyone else has gone home. Broadening the static (but well-placed) angles that Takashi Shimizu focused in on in his other short, he he employs voyeuristic handicam shots that break up the simple dialogue. After Kanna, one of the girls, somehow manages to cut her finger on a clipboard by picking it up, the other, Hisayo, goes off to find a bandage. She soon returns to find her friend missing.

Whilst “Katasumi” doesn’t present many iconic elements that would continue on, there’s one major part that went on to be the core of the series. We get our first look at Kayako Saeki (played by Takako Fuji) stalking out from the shadows. The actress played Kayako all the way until Grudge 3, and made the character terrifying. Her unnatural movements, iconic look, and dedication to creating the character carried Kayako Saeki to becoming a genre icon.

Seeing Kayako for the first time is amazing, but the weird noise she makes is somewhat…off. It’s still creepy, but the ragged outtake of breath that went on to be so closely associated with the character lends itself to subtlety a bit more. Not that Kayako doesn’t make a similarly strange moaning sound later on in the series, but the croaking is much more commonplace here. On the topic of sound, we see that Kanna has succumbed to the curse, and is now manipulated by it (another element Shimizu holds onto strongly as the series continues), as she turns and makes some sort of dinosaur-like sound. It’s an odd choice, but these little bits of jank make for a charming start, and set up so much that Shimizu would hone as he developed his vision.

In the end, Gakko no Kaidan G featured four segments, with Shimizu contributing to less than 10% of the runtime, yet it’s his segments that gave birth to greatness.

Ju-On: The Curse 1 & 2

The curse begins, two halves to make a whole as evident by the covers.

The first film in the Ju-On catalogue weaves in the events of “4444444444” and “Katasumi,” rather than simply bouncing off the ideas. Throughout Ju-On: The Curse those two shorts come together as a part of the whole narrative, and things start to make a lot more sense when context is provided. Whilst it jumps around in timeframe, it should first be noted that The Curse 1 & 2 were released to V-cinema (Japan’s straight-to-video catalog) and theaters in the same year, and feel like two halves that make a whole. Hell, even the first thirty minutes or so of The Curse 2 was lifted directly from the ending of the first in order to catch viewers up.

The Curse gets audiences caught up with the events that transpired within the Saeki family home that led to the Grudge forming, though in no clear, direct way. It’s a non-linear experience that expertly moves between characters as we fill in the story, taking place over three distinct time periods. This is truly where the mythos begins, getting into the swing of things with a chaotic but incredible piece of J-Horror cinema that helped define the genre.

Kayako is one of the pillars of that ‘long haired ghost girl’ image so synonymous with J-Horror.

As the film progresses, it is revealed that in a particular house Takeo Saeki was driven into a jealous rage that resulted in him brutally murdering his wife, Kayako, son Toshio, and the family cat, Mar. Only a little bit of backstory of Kayako herself is revealed, and in a subtle way as to never plot-dump. When she was at university, she fell head over heels for a man named Shunsuke Kobayashi; unfortunately, due to being shy and seen as rather creepy by those around her, she couldn’t act on her love before Kobayashi began dating Manami Midorikawa. So instead, Kayako met and married Takeo, who seemed to be the only one who understood her.

Her obsession for Kobayashi only grew over the years, and she journaled her borderline-stalker inner feelings long into her marriage with Takeo. Once Takeo found out, he flipped, and an argument ended with him viciously attacking her. As we get into the remakes later, the origin of the curse is flipped a bit, but in the original it comes from the intense way Takeo sees to the end of Kayako’s life. The actual act isn’t clearly shown throughout these two films — only hinted at — but it appears as if she was stabbed to death. This evolves over time, and her death directly relates to the way in which she manifests, but for the moment all we get is repeated stabbing.

The main thing to take from the The Curse is the forming of the curse itself through this violent act, with Toshio’s fate as of yet unknown, outside of dying around the same time as his mother (the same can be said of Mar, as it’s revealed in a future film exactly what went down with those two). Takeo’s murder spree leaves a dark imprint of tragedy upon the house, and even extends out to Manami and her unborn child as well. This is how the Grudge itself begins, and how the franchise sets off on its path. Two more families eventually occupy the Saeki home over the course of this film — the Murukami family, and the Kitada couple — with the Murukamis meeting quickfire ends through the curse claiming them, whilst there is a glimpse of Kayako possessing Yoshimi Kitada.

The Curse brings forth the very non-supernatural tragedy Takeo inflicts upon his own family as well as the Kobayashis, and that fetus-in-a-bag is a terrifying detail.

Despite its CG aging and the lower film quality (even for 2000), there’s so much iconic J-horror flavor bursting forth that The Curse is well worth tracking down. Sure, Ringu set the bar for J-horror pretty high, but Shimizu was up to the task at putting forward his own induction to the genre. Having this alongside the two short films creates a fantastic jigsaw that fits together so well (with the children of the Murukami family being the subjects of the two prior shorts), and it’s a joy to piece together as the film goes on. Whilst the series really hits its stride later on, with Ju-On: The Grudge itself, The Curse has that special something that makes this whole series such a satisfying one. Its interconnectedness — those non-linear segments that slowly reveal the big picture as time goes on — is something that sadly is forgotten the further into the series one goes.

Meanwhile, The Curse 2 has a lot more imagery that doesn’t hold up very well, though it maintains that incredible atmosphere for the most part. However, there are some absolutely shining moments that deserve mention, like Kayako standing in the rain in the distance, a few great shots of her moving around almost unnoticeable in the background, and the many Kayakos scratching at the windows.

Most of the more effective imagery comes late in this second film.

The Curse 2 also introduces a new mechanic, as the Grudge grows ever stronger and is now is able to spread through it’s victims, affecting those who haven’t even set foot in the house itself. Tajii and Fumi Suzuki — mother and father of the real estate agent in charge of selling the cursed house, Tatsuya Suzuki — are taken by the lingering spirit infecting their daughter, Kyoko (who did enter the house, though her parents did not).

Another interesting element put into the curse — which is never explored again through this individual — is that of Manami. The woman murdered by Takeo whilst she was heavily pregnant has her own grudge, and curses Nobuyuki Suzuki, the son of Tatsuya, while he lives in her old apartment. Her grudge has the same overbearing presence and deadly end for him as the Saeki family one does, but despite Manami’s curse being on him, he is still haunted and eventually succumbs to Kayako herself.

Manami’s curse is also upon Kyoko, even possessing her, but ultimately the spirit of Kayako overtakes it. It’s possible that Kayako’s curse is just far stronger, and it takes on other ‘Grudge’ scenarios and feeds on them. Throughout these two Curse films, Kayako’s influence and ability only grows stronger and stronger, and she finds she can reach out well beyond the limitations of those who set foot inside the central location of the curse. Whilst the sea of Kayako clones looks pretty goofy (outside of that one amazing shot of them all scratching at the windows), it gets over the cyclical and never-ending nature of the curse, and really hammers home the inevitability of this consuming all around it.

Despite the over the top hammering of spooky imagery the finale of the film presents, there’s some understated but certainly effective shots as well.

These films laid the groundwork for what would become the series, with two solid and memorable J-Horror installments building towards what would be the breakout hit of Ju-On: The Grudge in 2002. Shimizu’s shorts impressed enough that he got a few producers interested in funding a two-part, full length project. Releasing them as V-Cinema minimized the risk, putting them comfortably amongst other lower budget horror flicks whilst having a limited theater showing alongside the release. And hitting audiences almost as hard as Ringu put Shimizu’s name out there, as well as showed his growing prowess at building eerie tension alongside some genuine scares.

Up next we’ll hit the glory years of The Grudge, with the phenomenal success of the next film in the series inspiring not only another sequel, but also an American remake series to explode forth. Stay tuned for the next part in our detailing of the history.

THE CURSE: Victim Timeline

Every victim of the curse, and the events that caused it, in chronological order. MAJOR spoilers follow, but it’s interesting to lay out everything the curse consumes over these films. And, hell, let’s rack up the body count as well.

Kayako & Toshio Saeki, Mar – Kayako is murdered viciously by Takeo, creating the curse. Mar the cat is also murdered. It’s worth noting that Takeo also killed Manami and her unborn child, but they did not figure directly into the curse. On the note of Toshio, however, despite Takeo leaving him in the attic to die (a scene not yet shown, but it’ll come later down the road), it’s Kayako’s spirit that graces him with a quicker death and brings him into the curse.

Manami Kobayashi & her unborn daughter – The heavily pregnant and soon expecting Manami is killed by Takeo, along with her unborn daughter.

Shunsuke Kobayashi – The object of Kayako’s secret affections, a school teacher who comes to the house in order to check up on Toshio, as he’s been absent for some time. Kobayashi is the first victim of the curse, not counting the murder commited by Takeo before becoming a spirit. Kayako and Toshio show their Onryo side, and Kayako, in a very rare moment, actually speaks and calls his name. It’s right before killing him, but still, a nice final gesture.

Takeo Saeki – Kayako takes final vengeance on her murderer, though vengeance is not enough to quell the incredible power of the curse itself.

Yuki – Tutor and friend of the Murukami daughter, Kanna. With the Murakami’s being the new owners of the Saeki house, she unfortunately finds herself alone for a few moments inside. Investigating that iconic croaking sound, Yuki comes face to face with Kayako in the attic.

Kanna Murakami & Hisayo Yoshida & Noriko Murakami – Kanna forgets that she needs to go to school to feed the rabbits, and leaves her tutor, Yuki at her house whilst she goes to do it. These events are detailed in the short film “Katasumi,” as Kayako finds her and her school friend, Hisayo Yoshida, meeting their gruesome end. It could be argued that Kanna, as she appears bloody and missing a jaw later on, survived for longer than the next two victims. However, what is much more likely is that this severely abused form was her body piloted by The Grudge itself, rather than her surviving to stumble home. Seeing as her mother, Noriko — the one that finds her — also disappears, it’s safe to say the curse claimed her through Kanna.

Tsuyoshi Murakami – Not knowing what has happened just one room over from his own, the Murukami’s son, Tsuyoshi, decides to go to school to meet his girlfriend. Along the way the events of “4444444444” happen, with him finding a phone ringing. Toshio is the spirit that appears before him, and is implied to be the one claiming him for the curse.

Mizuho Tamura – Tsuyoshi’s girlfriend, searching for him at school. A teacher tells her that no one is left, despite his bike being there. Whilst the teacher searches the school once more, Mizuho gets a call from the same number, and once again Toshio is there to collect.

Kyoko Suzuki & Yoshimi Kitada – Kyoko is the sister of the real estate agent in charge of selling the Saeki house, and is also conveniently sensitive to spirits. An odd one to place on a timeline, but she — as well as the newest resident in the Saeki home, Yoshimi Kitada — is possessed by Manami and Kayako, respectively (though Kayako overtakes Kyoko’s possession as well). As soon as the possession takes hold, there’s no real hope for either of them, so they’ll be placed as victims here.

Hiroshi Kitada – Victim of frying pan to the head from his wife. Yoshimi was possessed by Kayako, however, so she racks up that point.

Tatsuya Suzuki – The real estate agent, checking up on the new residents. Once again, the possessed Yoshimi Kitada kills him, and once again the point going to Kayako.

Tajii & Fumi Suzuki – Briefly seen parents of Kyoko and Tatsuya. The curse emanates from the possessed Kyoko, and presumably it is Kayako’s presence that appears to frighten them to death.

Yoshikawa & his wife & Kamio – Detective Yoshikawa is in charge of working out all the murders linked to the house, and is seemingly driven mad by his investigation. He and his wife are taken out by Kayako, who then moves on to another investigator, Kamio, whom she brazenly attacks right in the police station, showing that there is no safe place from her curse.

Noboyuki Suzuki – The final member of the Suzuki family — and final body count for these two films — is ruthlessly pursued through school and claimed by Kayako. Potentially due to his similar appearance to Toshio, Kayako holds him like a child, and his skin goes the same pale color as Toshio’s is.

Despite possession playing a large part in the second film, the first doesn’t make any real allusion to it, and thus Kanna still gets her point, as it appears that her spirit was drawn into the curse, and lashed out on its own. So, there we have it: 23 victims down, and pulled into the grudge. Here’s a quick scorecard, to see the exact weight of murder throughout the series at this point.

Kanna – 1
Toshio – 2
Takeo – 4
Kayako – 16

Shane Dover is a Melbourne, Australia based freelance writer contributing to Japanese punk news site Punx Save The Earth, punk publication Dying Scene, Diabolique Magazine and Goomba Stomp. Not just a fan of punk music, he's spent most of his life obsessed with the horror genre across all media, Japanese cinema, as well as pop culture in general. He plays music and writes fiction, check out his Twitter (https://twitter.com/Karzid) for updates on those projects. Follow him on Twitter, and check out his work every Wednesday on Dying Scene.

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‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood

A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.

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Ford v Ferrari

Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.

When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.

Ford v Ferrari

Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.

Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.

Ford v Ferrari

Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.

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History of ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ – the Movie that Made me a Movie Buff

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Wes Craven intended Nightmare to be an exploration of surreal horror as opposed to just another stalk-and-slash horror movie, and not only did Nightmare offer a wildly imaginative, inspired concept, but it was a solid commercial genre entry for the dating crowd. Elm Street was New Line’s first genuine mainstream cinematic venture (after Alone In The Dark), and made the company a huge pile of money. The film was shot in 30 days at a cost of roughly $1.8 million, but it made back its figure and then some on opening weekend. New Line Cinema was saved from bankruptcy by the success of the film, and was jokingly nicknamed “the house that Freddy built.”

Perhaps the most influential horror film of the ’80s, Craven’s 1984 slasher about a quartet of high school kids terrorized in their dreams by a torched boogeyman in a fedora hat and dusty pullovers spawned countless sequels and even a TV series.

Nightmare On Elm Street 1984

One great thing Nightmare offered, perhaps more than anything else, was a new horror star in Robert Englund. Englund based the physicality of Freddy on Klaus Kinski’s performance in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979), making Freddy one of the most recognizable modern horror villains: vicious, but with a sense of humour as sharp as the blades on his gloves. The horribly barbequed man with the ragged slouch hat, dusty red-and-green striped sweater, and metal gloves with knives at the tip of each finger, had not yet become the ridiculous wisecracking clown of the sequels. Here he says very little, and when he does speak, his words are powerful for its brevity – and oh those infamous razor gloves scraping against metal is enough to send shivers down your spine.

The inspiration for the character of Freddy came from several sources in Wes Craven’s childhood. The name, Fred Krueger, came from a schoolmate of Craven who had bullied him for several years and Freddy’s appearance was inspired by a hobo lurking around Craven’s house, who Craven spotted from his bedroom window one night at the age of ten. But the basis of the film was inspired by several newspaper articles printed in the LA Times on a group of Khmer refugees, who were suffering disturbing nightmares, and refused to sleep – with the most extreme cases leading to actual death in the throes of horrific nightmares. Medical authorities called the phenomenon Asian Death Syndrome.

“I don’t know who he is, but he’s burned and he wears a weird hat and a red and green sweater, really dirty. And he uses these knives, like giant fingernails… “

Nightmare On Elm Street 1984

This was the film that introduced the world to Freddy Krueger, a monster who exists in his victims’ dreams and preys on them in the vulnerability of sleep. The idea behind the glove was a practical one on Wes Craven’s part, as he wanted to give the character a unique weapon, but also something that could be made cheaply and wouldn’t be difficult to transport. The end result brings a macabre ghostly figure throughout – indeed, precisely what nightmares are made of.

In addition to offering the visceral thrills that are necessary in a genre entry, Craven’s screenplay works on several levels. Here the idea of sleep as the ultimate threat is ingenious and incredibly insidious. Craven masterfully disguises dreams as reality and vice versa, and the idea that injuries sustained in dreams also exist outside helps to further blur the already murky distinction between the two. The primary element that elevates A Nightmare on Elm Street above many other slasher films is that the storyline invites intellectual observation: At times, we’re aware that the characters are trapped in a dreamscape, but there are times when we are not, and there are occasions when we suspect they’re awake and they are actually asleep – as if the children are in a never-ending state of hypnagogia.

The ultimate revelation however is that Freddy is really the byproduct of parental vigilantism. The teenagers in the film are paying for the sins of their parents —and thus the brute is determined to exact revenge in using their children as his victims. Nightmare has been described as a reaction to the perceived innocence of American suburbs: parents in the film’s fictional suburb dispose of Krueger and hide any form of his existence in an attempt to build a safe environment for their children. There’s a clear generational divide in A Nightmare on Elm Street, with the children trying to stay awake both figuratively and literally and the parents continuing to ignore the situation, utterly avoiding taking responsibility for their hideous actions. They instead bury their memories of the crime they once commuted so deep down inside, it remains lodged in the far reaches of their brain, where we can also find their declarative memories. As a result, the sins-of-the-father biblical warning (in a slasher-movie setting) have allowed Krueger to amass incredible power in his nightmare world – power he uses to exact his revenge. More so, Freddy’s actions have been interpreted as symbolic of the often traumatic experiences of adolescence. Sexuality is ever present in Freudian images and is almost exclusively displayed in a threatening and mysterious context (i.e. Tina’s death visually evokes a rape, Freddy’s glove emerges between Nancy’s legs in the bath, a centipede crawls out of the mouth of one of the victims and finally a mattress swallows up Johnny Depp only to ejaculate him immediately after). The original script actually called for Krueger to be a child molester, rather than a child killer, but somehow the idea was lost in the process of shooting.

Nightmare On Elm Street 1984

Craven claimed he wanted someone very “non-Hollywood” for the role of Nancy, and he believed Langenkamp met this quality. Depp was another unknown when he was cast; and initially never intending on auditioning. Instead he was only tagging along with friend Jackie Earle Haley (who went on to play Freddy in the 2010 remake), yet it was Depp who got the part of Glen instead. Nightmare was both the feature debut and breakthrough for Depp and a stepping stone to bigger things to come.

Nightmare is the story of the courage and resourcefulness of one extraordinary girl. At the age of 19, Langekamp portrays one of the most perfectly realized and well-expressed teenagers/heroines of the 1980s. The best slasher films all have realistic heroines, and Langenkamp ranks as close to the top as Janet Leigh or Jamie Lee Curtis. As Nancy, Heather Langenkamp is closer to Alien’s Sigourney Weaver than to Halloween’s Jamie Lee Curtis: quick-witted, adventurous and courageous, and willing to enter into Freddy’s realm even when she knows he has the upper glove. Nancy and Freddy are incredibly well-matched: during the climax, she even uses a few survivalist techniques to turn the tables on Freddy. Her character is one of the greatest “final girls” in the history of slasher films, and goes on to reappear throughout the franchise in the only two solid sequels (A Nightmare On Elm Street 3, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare).

scarynoes

Visually, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a real treat hovering somewhere between gothic, supernatural imagery and the typical 80’s slasher fare. Cinematographer Jacques Haitkin’s work here is innovative and atmospheric, capturing a malevolent mood with light and shadow, most notably in the surrealistic basement scenes set around the furnace. Like so many films of this genre, its artistic ingenuity is intensified with various bloody set-pieces and visual effects. A Nightmare on Elm Street boasts several impressively conceived and well executed dream/kill sequences. During production, over 500 gallons of fake blood were used for the special effects production. The special effects, most of which are low-tech, are surprisingly effective, and this was the first film to use a breakaway mirror.

Craven’s probing of the waking/dreaming barrier results in some memorable kill sequences. Tina’s (Amanda Wyss) death scene, which featured her trashing across the ceiling, was partly inspired by the movie Royal Wedding (1951), which was the first movie to use a rotating set. The set here slowly spun to allow her to roll into position, with a camera bolted to the wall and a cameraman strapped into a chair beside it, which turned in tandem with the room. It’s important to remember that this was a low budget film shot in 30 days. For the two shots where Rod (Jsu Garcia) and Tina reach out for one another, Tina is actually lying on the floor and Garcia is hanging upside down with his hair pasted to stay flat.

Johnny-A-Nightmare-on-Elm-Street-johnny-depp

FX man Jim Doyle was responsible for designing and constructing the ingenious full-scale gyro rotating room which was again used for Johnny Depp’s kill. For the famous blood geyser sequence, the furniture, cameraman, director and actor were fixed in place, and the room would spin upside down, thus allowing the rigged room to appear right side up while thousands of gallons of fake blood would seem to gush, erupt and ejaculate from the bed. On the DVD commentary, Wes Craven remarks that the room spinning the wrong way was like a “Ferris Wheel from hell.” This scene was partly inspired by the elevator scene in The Shining. Particularly effective is the scene where Nancy is attacked by Krueger in her bathtub and pulled under the water into a pitch-black pool leading to a back alley chase where Freddy stalks her. To achieve this effect, the tub was put in a bathroom set that was built over a swimming pool. During this underwater sequence Heather Langenkamp was replaced with a stuntwoman. Also worth noting is the “melting staircase” as seen in Nancy’s dream, which was created using pancake mix and directed by Friday the 13th director Sean S. Cunningham (who is uncredited). Finally, the sequence in which Freddy is set on fire, shot in one long take (with several cameramen), featured one hell of an elaborate and dangerous stunt by stuntman Anthony Cecere (who won best stunt of the year for it).

a_nightmare_on_elm_street_review

Finally I just couldn’t end without mentioning Charles Bernstein’s spare score, the musical cues, synthesizers, creepy sound effects and the film’s unforgettable children’s rhyme – which is all perfect for the material – eerie but never overwhelming.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is tailor made for those who like their scares evened with thought-provoking ideas – something that is a rarity in this genre. Yes, there are plenty of shocks, but there’s something much more: a psychological fantasy thriller that tears away at the barrier of dreams and reality, making us think twice before settling in for a good night’s sleep. The film may be a bit rough around the edges for the new generation, and multiple viewings do tend to expose its low-budget origins, but Nightmare is still to this day dark and forbidding, chilling and incredibly unnerving – a near masterpiece of independent genre filmmaking.

Ricky D

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35 Years Later: ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ is an Important, Dark Dream

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A Nightmare on Elm Street

It’s hard to believe that Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is still relevant horror. Sure, it was a foundational film for its time, and spawned a massive-yet-under-performing franchise, but modern horror is almost an entirely different type of genre, and Craven’s nightmare can tend to feel a bit dated and powerless.

However, that doesn’t mean that A Nightmare on Elm Street isn’t important. At the time of its release, the entire slasher genre was slowly breathing it’s last, dying breath. Box office numbers were low, and studio interest was waning, primarily because of market saturation and media hysteria.

On the surface, Craven’s film seems like an average, schlocky horror flick. On sleepy Elm St., Boogeyman Freddy Krueger exacts his revenge on a group of young teenagers; by entering their dreams, the monster picks them off one-by-one in gruesome and suggestive fashion.

But there’s so much more to it than “bad guy chops up kiddies in their dreams.” Many years down the line, A Nightmare on Elm Street is still an important piece of cinema that opened doors for personality-driven slashers like Child’s Play and Scream. In doing so, Craven’s vision blends genres to bring new life to the psychological horror genre of the 80s.

Breaking the slasher formula

It’s no secret that A Nightmare on Elm Street is absolutely oozing sexual transgression, but it does so in interesting ways. Like many slasher films of the era, it plays upon the societal fears of promiscuity amongst the youth, and offers thrilling retribution for their actions. This is solidified very early in the film when Linda and Rod (the first to die) hook up during a sleepover and are punished by death at the hands of the dream killer.

But A Nightmare on Elm Street breaks from tradition to create something a little more frightening. Although Glen makes the mistake of advancing on Nancy, she turns him down. In fact, their relationship is a shining example of a caring and respectful teen couple. Contrary to the slasher formula, Glen is still brutally murdered by Freddy, even though he broke no boundaries, leaving Nancy alone as the chaste final girl.

It’s this fact that makes the film not about punishment for the transgressions of youth, but retribution for the actions of their parents. Sure, A Nightmare on Elm Street feels like a very slasher-esque and retains a lot of the genre’s hallmarks, but there are the darker elements of inherited sin and pedophilia that lurk underneath.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

It’s this notion of the “something” the parents have “done” to their children that creates the film’s unique nightmarish quality. Either naïve, absent, or alcoholic, the parents open the door for a horror to steal the innocence of their youth.  That, combined with Freddy’s overt sexual advances on Nancy, make for the darkest piece of all.

Adding a dash of fantasy

A crucial development by A Nightmare on Elm Street is its blending of the fantasy and slasher genres. While previous horror films tended to keep the narrative grounded in reality, Craven’s work uses fantastical imagery to provide an otherworldly quality.

While there had always been slight supernatural elements to genre staples like Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street uses dreams to open up new vistas for the genre and new dreamscapes to explore. This provided an entirely new playground for Craven to bend the laws of cinema and create interesting twists that keeps audiences guessing.

In doing so, Craven places a much heavier focus on using a special effects team to create inventive uses of set. While borrowing much of these images from sci-fi and fantasy films, the director still brings a greater usage of these stunts into a genre normally known for its portrayal of stark reality.

A little humor in horror

A Nightmare on Elm Street is also notable for its interesting use of comedy to punctuate the darker subject elements. Although not an overtly funny film, the sinister playfulness of Freddy’s character comes across as almost slapstick at times. While probably not intentional, it’s the cat-and-mouse game that Freddy plays with Nancy that is disgustingly humorous, and Englund’s movements and facial expressions somehow blend horror and farce together to disorient the audience.

It honestly feels like Craven may have taken some inspiration from a film that makes brief cameo in A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Evil Dead. While not intentionally funny, Raimi’s low-budget work married humor and the grotesque in interesting ways, and Campbell’s portrayal of Ash borrowed much from his comedic background.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

It’s this new personality-infused villain that offered such a breath of fresh air to the genre at the time. By making Freddy a fleshed-out personality instead of a silent, hulking behemoth, Craven reached the psyche of audience in new ways. This personality-driven horror eventually became an important part of the genre in the late 80s, opening new avenues for writers to expand the slasher concept with characters like Chucky and Pennywise.

Future of the franchise

Unfortunately for Freddy’s personality, later entries into the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise have transformed his character from a cold-blooded killer into an murderous jester, offering goofy one-liners and wisecracks while butchering teenagers in ridiculous ways. It all started when Craven lost control of his character by turning down a sequel, and the horror icon began spiraling down from a nightmarish villain into a parody of the genre itself.

It’s interesting how the later films in the franchise actually make the original A Nightmare on Elm Street feel more comedic than intended. There is an almost diluting  factor to Freddy’s character  that has happened over time that makes him seem less like the stuff of nightmares and more like a Scary Movie stand-in.

That being said, the 2019 franchise reboot does a spectacular job of blending these two realms together, making Freddy back into a frightening force that occasionally still drops a horrifying one-liner here and there. By replacing Englund and taking a new direction, the film offers a glimpse of the gritty, realistic horror that the franchise still has the capacity to offer. Although Freddy might take breaks from stalking teens, the time is always ripe for another Nightmare on Elm Street film. There are still plenty of dark dreams on the horizon.

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