Connect with us

Film

The Trouble with Recreating The Myth and Magic of ‘Star Wars’

Published

on

In the past couple weeks we’ve seen The Last Jedi divide Star Wars fans down bitterly conflicting lines. Slate called it “a film of genuine beauty” while The New Yorker accuses the movie of being “tamped down, boxed in, [and] neatly packaged, to a chilling extreme.”  Twitter is awash with arguments, refutations, and aggressive subjectivity. Our own Goomba Stomp writers have mixed feelings about the movie; equal parts disappointed, entertained, and frustrated.

To understand the diverse reactions to The Last Jedi, it’s important to understand what role Star Wars has played as both a product of and for pop-culture. What began as a passion project that no one believed in has since spawned a multi-billion dollar franchise. Although new movies have released and continue to draw widespread attention, they inevitably draw comparisons to the original trilogy.

The question that people always seem to ask about the newer films is “How do these stack up to the originals?” Rather, the question should be “What stories are they trying to tell?”

Myth and Magic for the Modern Age

The story behind Star Wars is the story of George Lucas. As a young, rebellious film student, Lucas put his vision above all else. His first two films, THX-1138 and American Graffiti, are unique products of his creative insight and personal background. Lucas, however, had quickly come to discover that creativity often came with a price: both of his films had been subjected to studio interference. He would not let the same happen for his next project.

In a bid to free himself of studio meddling, Lucas had unknowingly created a whole host of other problems for himself. Time and budgeting pressure, conflicting personalities, and technical issues plagued his fantasy space opera, Star Wars. It was a film that few people believed in. Harrison Ford would later describe his initial feelings towards the movie as “very, very weird.” He was not alone. Several cast and crew members struggled to take the movie seriously, viewing it as nothing more than a children’s fantasy picture.

“The dashing rogue, the wise old man, the hopeful youth, and the willful princess are all figures that have appeared in stories throughout history.”

But it was Lucas’ undying passion for his vision that kept the project going through trials and hardships. On May 25th, 1977, Star Wars released to widespread critical and popular acclaim. A story of swashbuckling adventure, larger-than-life personalities, and far-off fantastic worlds captured the hearts and minds of people everywhere. Star Wars may have been a movie made with kids in mind, but it wasn’t a child’s movie.

Opening day of George Lucas’ Star Wars at Grauman’s Chinese theater, May 25, 1977 (image taken from nybooks.com)

Star Wars is the product of classical storytelling and modern innovation. Lucas relied upon Joseph Campbell’s theories in lore and classic mythology to construct his story and characters. Campbell’s seminal work on common mythological themes, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, helped create Star Wars‘ easily recognizable and sympathetic characters. The dashing rogue, the wise old man, the hopeful youth, and the willful princess are all figures that have appeared in stories throughout history.

In many ways, Star Wars is not an original story. Yet, it is for that very reason audiences the world over have been able to connect with something so “weird”:

“Every culture has them, and they’re essentially the same story. We immediately recognize them in some way, and we feel the need to have them told. We’re living in such a complex world, with so much confusion each time we turn around, that we want to see something that makes the world more palatable. [Myths] just remind you of those basic pillars of wisdom that everybody should have.” (Liam Neeson, “Move over, Odysseus, here comes Luke Skywalker”)

Star Wars is a fantasy story set in space. Daring heroes, mystical forces, and evil empires emerge against a backdrop of bright laser battles and galactic warfare. Technical innovations and artistic visions gave life and depth to a story deeply embedded in human culture. The themes that George is dealing with are so strong, so primordial,” Harrison Ford once said in an interview. “The conflicts between children and their parents. Luke Skywalker was George growing up, George facing that conflict and the need to prove himself. And he did, powerfully.” (‘Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy’)

With the second installment in the original Star Wars trilogy, Lucas and his teams would take the saga into deeper, darker territory. ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ placed a greater focus on internal character struggles and themes of desperation/despair. The audience followed the continuing development of a core cast of easily recognizable characters.

The movie become an unprecedented box office hit. By fall of 1977, Star Wars was playing in nearly 1,100 theaters across the United States. The movie would continue to generate massive amounts of revenue and allowed Lucas the opportunity to continue his saga for two more movies. While Lucas would not return to the same hands-on role he had in the first movie, his personal vision and passion would continue to fill the rest of the original Star Wars trilogy.

Beyond the Known Galaxy

Lucas had never intended to stop at the first movie. In writing the original draft, he found his ideas evolved into a saga that would easily span multiple films. Following the success of A New Hope, the story of galactic warfare further expanded into uncharted territory. Audiences visited the barren ice-planet Hoth, the teeming swamps of Dagobah, and the glimmering vistas of Cloud City. Although Lucas had stepped back into more of a producer/writer role, his creative influence on the original trilogy was undeniable. In 1983, Return of the Jedi concluded the saga of Luke Skywalker, but the Star Wars epic was far from done.

After nearly twenty years, Star Wars returned to the big screen in 1999. The prequel movies — Episode I, II, and III — covered the events leading into the original trilogy. This time, the story would focus on the origins of Darth Vader, the fall of the Jedi, and the galaxy’s descent into tyranny.

Despite rave anticipation, the prequels generated mixed feelings that skewed more towards the negative side. The infamous Mr. Plinkett review of The Phantom Menace gained a reputation for its scathing and well-researched critique of the prequels, giving voice to sentiments that Star Wars fans harbored towards the franchise’s return.

Chief among the criticisms towards the prequels were stilted dialogue, convoluted plotlines, and over-reliance on spectacle and CGI.

The unfortunate reality is that the prequels did not come from a similar environment as the original movies. While Lucas still harbored the same sense of creativity, he no longer worked with the same cast and crew. With a massive budget, vastly improved technology, and the reputation of the original trilogy under his belt, Lucas had trouble reigning in his vision:

“Writing the script was much more enjoyable this time around because I wasn’t constrained by anything. You can’t write one of these movies without knowing how you’re going to accomplish it. With CG at my disposal, I knew I could do whatever I wanted”. (George Lucas, The Making of Star Wars, Episode I – The Phantom Menace)

The common misconception among the cast and crew was that a Star Wars movie was bound to be a success. Gary Kurtz, producer of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, considers one of the problems with Lucas “is the fact that he doesn’t have more people around him who really challenge him.”

“Misplaced priorities and a lack of focus produced a trilogy that was all laser flash and no substance.”

Working on the original trilogy, Lucas ran into various checks and balances that refined his vision. Budgetary restrictions, technical problems, and conflicting opinions allowed the project to be more collaboratively structured while still operating with the scope of Lucas’ vision. When those limits disappeared, the movies suffered as a result.

The prequels are ambitious, almost to a fault. These movies got the fantasy part of Star Wars right; the diversity in worlds and inhabitants gave depth and life to the galaxy. Where it failed was giving its cast of characters that same nuance and attention. Misplaced priorities and a lack of focus produced a trilogy that was all laser flash and no substance.

Passing the Torch

In the ten years between Revenge of the Sith and The Force Awakens, the franchise transferred hands from Lucas to Disney. After the public outcry against the prequels, a new set of movies had to remind the audience what made Star Wars so memorable in the first place. The first of the new sequel trilogy, The Force Awakens, brought back a sense of adventure and fun that felt uniquely like Star Wars.

Having similar story beats to the originals certainly helped: a wistful youth destined for greater things beyond their desert world, a totalitarian monolithic entity looming over the galaxy, and thrilling action sequences filled with daring escapes and explosive dogfights. The Force Awakens effectively eased audiences into a new movie by propping up its new characters against old favorites. While its narrative may not have brought anything new to the table, the first installment in the sequel trilogy reminded people that Star Wars could be fun.

‘The Force Awakens’ brought back a sense of familiarity to the franchise in order to ease wider audiences back into Star Wars.

The sequels, unfortunately, have placed a bit too much reliance on established Star Wars elements. A host of callbacks to the original trilogy peppers both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. We get things like the Millennium Falcon’s holo-chess table, shots that echo scenes like the Mos Eisley reveal and the cave on Dagobah, and the fact that after 40 years, Han Solo still looks and acts like a scruffy nerf-herding smuggler. Granted, many of these aspects are still enjoyable, but as George Lucas puts it, Disney wanted to “make a movie for the fans”.

“The first three movies had all kinds of issues,” [Lucas] said of the original trilogy, which was released between 1977 and 1983. “They looked at the stories and said, ‘We want to make something for the fans.’ All I wanted to do was tell a story of what happened. It started here, and it went there.” “They wanted to do a retro movie,” he continued. “I don’t like that. Every movie, I worked very hard to make them different, make them completely different with different planets, different spaceships, to make it new.” (George Lucas, The New York Times)

Beneath the flashy battles, the witty banter, and glittering, gleaming Star Wars-iness of the sequels, Disney’s influence on the creative process is clear. The studio has created a production pipeline to carefully manufacture their movies to possess a wide swathe of popular appeal:

“Part of what makes Lucasfilm’s new system work is that Kennedy has set up a formidable support structure for her filmmakers. Upon her arrival, she put together a story department at Lucasfilm’s San Francisco headquarters, overseen by Kiri Hart, a development executive and former screenwriter she has long worked with. The story group, which numbers 11 people, maintains the narrative continuity and integrity of all the Star Wars properties that exist across various platforms: animation, video games, novels, comic books, and, most important, movies.” (‘Cover Story: Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the Definitive Preview’, Vanity Fair)

This doesn’t mean that the sequels aren’t fun or entertaining; far from it. Rather, when you have multiple people working on a single project and they each have equal say, you end up with a more homogenized product. Sure, the director will have some say on what makes the cut, but when the idea emerges from a confined scope you can’t really branch out of your comfort zone. This is clear from how the writing team approached putting together the story for The Force Awakens

“On the first day, I said, ‘look, delight, that’s the word. In every scene, that should be the criteria we’re using. Does it delight? Is it fun?’ I look at the movie now, and I’m feeling very good about that. What J.J. did with it is so great. You take all of J.J.’s gifts, the dynamism of his camera and his sense of humor and feeling of momentum, his ideas of story, and I feel like we were able to achieve that delight. It’s an unusual feeling even for me. When I look at the movie, I can’t resist it. It just tickles me.” (Lawrence Kasdan, Interview with Collider)

The sequel movies suffer from what can be called “Disneyfication.” As Goomba Stomp editor Patrick Murphy puts it, their focus is more on “[an] irreverent, quippy sense of humor, [embracing] meta, and … the colorful fireworks display of action than to character development (the former is much easier to quickly assemble than the latter, which often requires an undefined gestation period and a deeper level of thinking).” This problem extends to both The Force Awakens and the newest addition, The Last Jedi

The lack of a singular visions prevents these wonderful bits of story and character from tying to each other into a larger narrative. They make the mistake of adhering to the preconceived notions of what a Star Wars story is, rather than what it could be. Critics of The Force Awakens readily point out that the movie’s plot is simply a rehashing of A New Hope‘s. More concerning, however, is just how disjointed the transition was from The Force Awakens to The Last Jedi.

“Johnson told me he was surprised at how much leeway he was given to cook up the action of Episode VIII from scratch. “The pre-set was Episode VII, and that was kind of it,” he said. If anything, Johnson wanted more give-and-take with the Lucasfilm team, so he moved up to San Francisco for about six weeks during his writing process, taking an office two doors down from Hart’s and meeting with the full group twice a week.” (‘Cover Story: Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the Definitive Preview’, Vanity Fair)

Even though Rian Johnson is credited as having written and directed TLJ, he’s still had to work with a team of roughly a dozen writers to flesh out the movie. The original trilogy and the prequels set their narratives against a backdrop of a living, breathing galaxy. The sequels so far have only used the galaxy as a setting, rather than a “character” in its own right.

George Lucas had penned a rough outline of the original trilogy and prequels when working on the first film. Long before Episode I had even begun production, these six movies belonged to a universe with shared narrative ties. Lucas had a story he wanted to tell that could not be confined to a single movie. The success of the franchise allowed him to explore that story and bring it to life. While each of the installments experienced varying degrees of success, they all spoke to a larger, overarching story. “[Star Wars] isn’t about spaceships,” Lucas once said in an interview,” It’s a soap opera, it’s all about family problems.”

“Star Wars is a passion project that became a franchise.”

The sequels certainly touch upon those themes, though perhaps not as deeply as Lucas or some fans may like. Much of this comes back to the sequels’ lack of focus on a larger narrative. Many aspects get glossed over or barely touched: the Knights of Ren, the establishment of the New Republic (which promptly gets destroyed with little narrative setup), and, most glaringly, characters like Captain Phasma. Because each movie is the result of multiple writers working together, there’s little guarantee that every narrative thread ties well into each other in a movie, let alone between them.

A New Galaxy

The original Star Wars movies gained immense popularity by appealing to its audience on a fundamental level. Its origins reach deeply into the collective human consciousness; tales of heroes, villains, and far-flung adventures have passed through history in countless forms. Lucas tugged on these unseen threads that have bound humanity across cultures and time.

The prequels expanded that universe but neglected the characters. Audiences glimpsed a wide, weird galaxy populated by forgettable characters, convoluted plots, and hamfisted dialogue. Nearly a decade later, the sequels revisited the Star Wars galaxy with a cast of memorable characters, new and old.

Among the cast and crew of the sequel movies, many of them are self-proclaimed ‘Star Wars’ fans. What was once an experimental independent movie has since transformed into a global pop-culture phenomenon. The expectations for what a ‘Star Wars’ movie is and should be continue to generate noticeable controversy.

As entertaining as these new movies might be, they are made in a wholly different environment than either the originals or the prequels. Disney has broken down film production to an exact science. Individual artists may bring their own personal spin and story to the movie, but they are ultimately working within the confines of the studio.

Star Wars is a passion project that became a franchise. Its scope has increased in the forty years since the first movie’s release; shifting and changing to fit different times and audiences. Whatever has been arguably lost or gained, there is no denying that audiences everywhere have continued to be captivated by a galaxy far, far away.

Kyle grew up with a controller in one hand and a book in the other. He would've put something else in a third hand, but science isn't quite there yet. In the meantime, he makes do with watching things like television, film, and anime. He can be found posting ramblings on liketherogue.tumblr.com or trying to hop on the social media bandwagon @LikeTheRogue

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. James Baker

    January 3, 2018 at 7:14 am

    Good article, naturally I never shy away from reading a Star Wars article because I’m fascinated by the hype that I never understood. Disney films always have a standard formula that they very rarely digress from. I don’t like Star Wars as it was, but even I could tell Disney wouldn’t be the best fit for it. The biggest problem now is they’re making it up as they go along – similar to Star Trek – so a lot of things that were previously canon will be forgotten and become obsolete, something the fanatics won’t accept. It’s why as fantasy films go, LOTR were some of the best, the literature was there before they made the films. Disney casts a big net to grab as many people as possible, and sadly for Star Wars fans, that means simplifying the original formula.

    • Izsak “Khane” Barnette

      January 3, 2018 at 2:03 pm

      Overall, I like the direction that the series is going. However, I will agree with you that LOTR is dramatically more consistent in its tone because of how consistently it was handled (e.g. same director, filmed at the same time.)

      • Patrick

        January 3, 2018 at 7:53 pm

        That recipe didn’t quite work for The Hobbit, but I don’t think Jackson’s passion was there. It was a blatant cash grab that Jackson did his best with, but you could tell his heart really wasn’t in it. It’s the same vibe I get from the new Star Wars movies.

        • Izsak “Khane” Barnette

          January 3, 2018 at 9:24 pm

          If I remember correctly, Jackson had to take over for another director on the Hobbit and, when he arrived, the project was in terrible disarray.

          I don’t get the same feeling from the new Star Wars films. They don’t feel as cash-grabbing in their scope as the Hobbit was. Only occasionally, such as with Porgs, do we see that Disney considers Star Wars a business venture.

          • Patrick

            January 4, 2018 at 7:53 pm

            Yeah, he took over for Guillermo del Toro, but really it’s something that shouldn’t have been made. I actually feel the same way about the new Star Wars movies. Though I had a better time with TLJ, I see signs of corporate interference everywhere, and storytelling passion nowhere. They’re theme park rides now, which are fine. The fun may be fleeting, but it’s still fun.

          • Izsak “Khane” Barnette

            January 4, 2018 at 8:14 pm

            Besides the first one, which was a passion project, were they ever anything else? Lol.

          • Patrick

            January 4, 2018 at 11:59 pm

            Absolutely! They were Lucas’ babies, not a commodity. Disney paid for a name and assets so that they could make money; Lucas created that name and assets because he wanted to tell a mythic story, one that includes Empire and Return of the Jedi.

          • James Baker

            January 6, 2018 at 8:19 am

            The Hobbit’s problem was spreading a tiny book over three movies, should have been one movie.

            Disney has never been creative, always relying on the work of others to make money. Star Wars fans were doomed the moment Disney bought the franchise.

          • Izsak “Khane” Barnette

            January 6, 2018 at 10:36 pm

            I think The Last Jedi was very creative, to be honest. However, with Episode IX, I’m expecting more of what we saw in The Force Awakens.

    • Kyle Rogacion

      January 6, 2018 at 10:29 pm

      Thanks James! Glad you enjoyed. Star Wars’ franchise history is a weirdly deep rabbit hole to dive into. I absolutely understand both sides as far as feelings towards the sequels go. I’m personally glad that we’re getting a Star Wars on the big-screen that’s fun, but there’s always going to be the nagging feeling that it could have been so much more.

      • Izsak “Khane” Barnette

        January 6, 2018 at 10:41 pm

        Especially since some of Expanded Universe stuff (while equal parts great and not-so-great) was quite interesting.

  2. Izsak “Khane” Barnette

    January 3, 2018 at 2:02 pm

    Well-researched and interesting write-up, Kyle. I liked both “The Last Jedi” and “The Force Awakens,” but feel that the disconnect between JJ Abrams view of the series and Rian Johnson’s is bound to create retcons aplenty.

    • Kyle Rogacion

      January 6, 2018 at 10:28 pm

      Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. This was something I really wanted to write, since the sequel trilogy has been equal parts entertaining and frustrating. I don’t claim to be a fanboy, but Star Wars has always been pretty important to me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Advertisement

TIFF

‘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.

Published

on

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.

Continue Reading

Film

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

Published

on

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

Continue Reading

Film

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

Published

on

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.

Continue Reading

Trending