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‘Red Letter Day’ Offers Some Violent, Fun Satire

31 Days of Horror

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A cross between the citizen-on-citizen violence of The Purge and some twisted morality test that The Dark Knight‘s Joker might have dreamed up, Cameron MacGowan’s Red Letter Day offers a bloody and sometimes bitingly funny look what animosity and paranoia could be hidden below the surface of a civilized society. The pat interactions of the family at its center often come across as awkward, and there is a sense of those behind the scenes trying too hard to showcase some horror street-cred, but when the film settles into its violent satire, there is some good fun to be had.

Red Letter Day Tim

The mayhem and dark comedy start early, as a barefoot, bath-robed man desperately tries to collect mysterious red envelopes from the mailboxes of a quiet, suburban development community called Aspen Ridge. This is a place where neighbors wave hello, that’s advertised via an all-too-realistic infomercial as somewhere safe to raise a family. But do those neatly sided homes and meticulously manicured lawns hide something more sinister, something not so easily washed away by a garden hose?

It’s in this situation that Red Letter Day finds single mother Melanie and her teenage children, Maddie and Tim. The trio has recently moved in, and while they find their new surroundings to be a little on the tame side, perhaps the wholesome stability isn’t such a bad thing after what appears to have been a not-so-amicable divorce. However, the appearance of three of those aforementioned red envelopes causes some unease; each letter contains a photo of a neighbor that the recipient has been matched with, as well as an assignment: kill that person before they kill you.

Perhaps this is all merely a sick prank pulled by some young punks, or perhaps there’s some anarchic plot afoot. Whatever the case, the seeds of suspicion have been planted, and wary eyes begin sizing up those around them. While some of the early verbal cat-and-mouse play as neighbors feel out each other’s survival instincts provides decent tension, Red Letter Day is at its best once the overlong, forced character development gets out of the way. The actors do their best in trying to create naturalistic banter from lightweight sentences, but the script (also by MacGowan) tends to thinks it’s more clever than it really is. Early dialogue crams both too much and too little into interactions, often leaning heavily on gentle ribbing and pop culture asides before remembering that there was some exposition to convey.

But does the audience really need to know that Hailey is into Goth culture? Or that Tim reads horror movie magazines and thinks his mom’s friend is cute? Numerous references are made to traits that don’t really contribute any understanding of these people, nor do they ever pay off in any way, so it may have been better to jump right into blood and guts of this allegory.

Red Letter Day Melanie

Thankfully, once that premise is finally capitalized on, Red Letter Day feels much more comfortable in its sopping, stained shoes. As the veneer of this mundane community begins to slip, these yuppies and retirees hunt each other with utter ruthlessness, exposing rifts between different societal groups. As one aging Gen-Xer stands over a sobbing teen with his already sullied sledgehammer, the young man pleads “You don’t have to do this!” The elder man replies with a sly grin at his millennial victim, “No. But I want to.” Similarly, two women display the mistrust between political opposites purporting to be close friends; their strained niceties don’t last long when push comes to shove.

During such moments, Red Letter Day displays a wicked gleam in its bloodied eye, as chaos breaks loose while civility starts to crumble. Along the way there are some other nice touches, such as a surprising encounter with a religious woman that doesn’t play into typical genre depictions, and a devilishly satisfying broken jaw that earns the special effects and makeup departments a good deal of credit.

Though it never dives deep enough into its subject matter to have any lasting impact, the lean, 76-minute runtime makes for a refreshingly quick romp that doesn’t overstays its welcome. Red Letter Day might not be as memorable as many of the movies it makes casual reference to, but it’s a mildly entertaining way to pass the time.

Patrick Murphy grew up in the hearty Midwest, where he spent many winter hours watching movies and playing video games while waiting for baseball season to start again. When not thinking of his next Nintendo post or writing screenplays to satisfy his film school training, he’s getting his cinema fix as the Editor of Sordid Cinema, Goomba Stomp's Film and TV section.

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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).

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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.

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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).

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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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With ‘Scream 5’ Announced, Let’s Look Back at ‘Scream 4’

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Scream 4 Scream 4

‘Scream 4′ is Bloodier, Smarter, Better and Just Plain Scarier Than all Three Before It

This isn’t a comedy, this is a horror movie. People live, People die, people run, but more importantly people scream in Wes Craven’s fourth installment. In horror’s most self-reflexive and in some ways most successful horror franchise, Scream 4 is bloodier, smarter, better and just plain scarier than all three before it. In an era of reboots and remakes, Scream 4 treats its fans with an entry as salient as the original. More importantly, Scream 4 obeys the number one rule: “Don’t fuck with the original.”

“You’re addressing a generation of young fans, but also a generation that has gone with you for three, as well as a decade worth of other films. You have to be as good as, or better than those films.” – Wes Craven

Much like Scream, Scream 4 is a rarity and more than a simple winking nod to films from the past. The secret ingredient is effortlessly merging humour with genuine scares around a story taken seriously. Unlike most slasher films, characters are fleshed out, and you care who lives and dies, so the tension is high throughout, and the fate of the characters actually matters.

Scream 4 may not feature a scene that matches the masterfully conceived and terrifying stand-alone opening sequence featuring Drew Barrymore from the original, but what it does offer is one hundred and eleven minutes of nail-biting suspense. While the first entry spent too much time with characters cocking guns and spraying bullets, in what is supposed to be a slasher film, the fourth installment paints the screen red with gallons of blood. Scream 4 earns its R rating since the film’s many stabbings don’t cut away from showing the penetrating blade. It cuts and it cuts deep.

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Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson worked hard to re-imagine familiar territory and do a superb job in bringing the franchise up to date. Scream 4 boasts a witty script, one that kills off the genre’s clichés with panache. And while it displays some of the same attributes present in its predecessors, the film’s references to social networking sites, it’s use of mobile phones, portable digital cameras, live internet feeds not only help in making it more current but for once these tools are used in intelligent and constructive ways to actually help move the story along. After all, the best horror films have always reflected the times in which they were made.

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Scream 4 isn’t just a horror movie about horror movies, but a commentary on how they’ve changed since the first Scream was released. As the tagline reads, “New Decade, New Rules.” Sex doesn’t necessarily equal death; ‘I’ll be right back” can mean you most likely will return; the unexpected is the new cliché; everyone is expendable — including victim royalty — and running up the stairs might be your best option this time around.

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Much like the original, the plot manages to cast suspicion on a barrage of characters and there are enough red herrings for five more movies. Craven reunites the lead trio (Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, David Arquette), and introduces a new cast whose stellar efforts carry a critical role in securing the film’s success. Eric Knudsen and Rory Culkin star as the most technologically savvy of Scream’s teens; the duo rightfully replaces the much beloved and missed Jamie Kennedy as the prototypical film-geeks. Rounding out the rest of the teen cast is newcomer Marielle Jaffe, Lucy Hale, Shenae Grimes, Nico Tortorella, Alison Brie, Emma Roberts, and Hayden Panettiere. And that’s just the start: Adam Brody, Mary Shelton, and Anthony Anderson all play deputies and two-time Academy Award nominee Mary McDonnell stars as Aunt Kate. Of course, Scream 4 wouldn’t be proper without cameos so look out for Kristen Bell, Anna Paquin, and some ghosts from the past.

Kickstarting with a movie within a movie within a movie within a movie and so on, the film piles through a dozen set pieces, heavy doses of blood, and a sweaty workout of self-references. Once the frenzy of artifice and self-congratulatory winks are all said and done, the climax shifts into auto-drive relying on the basic genre tropes to unveil “the big reveal” that Ghostface is in fact … (insert your own speculation as to who the killer or killers are here). For some, the ending may disappoint, but in my opinion, it perfectly reflects the past ten years of the genre.

Scream 4

Scream was a box office success, grossing $173 million internationally but it actually only made $6.3-million over its opening weekend, a disappointing figure for a film whose budget hovered around $15 million. It was word of mouth that made Scream a cultural cinematic phenomenon, selling out theaters three weeks after its initial release. Scream arrived at the perfect moment. Slasher films were no longer commercially viable. The first film was released in a decade that offered some of the worst horror films ever made. Creativity was at an all-time low. Fans were sick of seeing the same story featuring a killer chasing down a group of good looking teens in either the suburbs or a cabin in the woods. Scream took those very ideas and twisted it in such a clever way that even though we were watching the very same slasher film we’d seen hundreds of times before, audiences didn’t care. Fans appreciated how the film commented on such a fixed genre while operating as a sharp example of what a slasher film is. And like Scream, Scream 4 also came at the right moment. With the sudden and unwelcome rise of torture porn in the ’00s, audiences were craving some good old-fashioned Craven.

For genre enthusiasts, Scream 4 is a hard left lead followed by a right cross, a horror movie that slices its way through expectations and, a sequel that takes a stab at altering the shape of horror films for another decade.

Ricky D

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