What’s a monster movie without a monster? Granted, a defined monster is not essential for an excellent horror movie, but it is an element for many of the most popular horror movies. In my last post I mentioned the Saw franchise, which tried to create a boogeyman out of the perversely moralistic Jigsaw, who, if I’m not mistaken, actually died in the third movie but left behind dozens of acolytes to carry out his well plotted death traps. Villains are very important to a movie, especially in defining the hero–the interesting thing about horror movie villains is that they don’t typically define a hero at all, they’re the main attraction.
One of the best boogeymen is the original boogeyman of modern horror movie history: Michael Myers. He is “The Shape”, an indiscriminate killing machine that just walked out of the insane institution after 15 years of inactivity and returned to Haddonfield to kill a bunch of people. He was large and slow and had the most undistinguished distinguishing mask of horror movie boogeyman, a misshapen face with only darkness where the eyes should be peering through the eyeholes. Of course that mask was a rubber Captain Kirk mask found at a general store in 1977, but with some white paint it could suddenly be anyone and that was why it was so terrifying. He was an absence–no dialogue, no personality, nothing for you to relate to or empathize with. His entire history, save a moment from his perspective at the beginning of the film where, dressed as a clown, he kills his babysitter as a child, is filled in by his longtime therapist, Dr. Sam Loomis (the wonderful Donald Pleasence) who becomes his hunter.
It isn’t until the sequel that they begin giving him motivation, identifying Laurie Strode as his half-sister and then in the fourth movie giving him a cousin that he is stalking/ connected to in some bizarre way (the third movie takes a break from Michael Myers as John Carpenter who is responsible for this series tried to turn it into an anthology series with a different horror movie under the Halloween banner every year, similar to what the Masters of Horror series did on cable–needless to say, the strange story about evil masks and ancient druid magic didn’t take off … well, not entirely). In the sixth movie in the exhausted franchise, the filmmaker tried to very messily give Michael Myers a supernatural explanation, an evil druid cult in Haddonfield creating and controlling him, sorta. The movie dispels with the cousin right away, recasting the actress and then sending her through a thresher. The new lead is one of the kids that Laurie was babysitting in the first movie, now played by a young Paul Rudd. Donald Pleasence makes his final appearance as Loomis in this film, severely underused by the director Joe Chapelle, because he found him “boring” (even as sick as he was, he owned the scenes he was in). All this is to set up Halloween H2O, which I watched this month (Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers was viewed in September, ahead of this blogging series).
Halloween: H2O was an attempt to both continue and reboot the franchise in the post-Scream years. Jamie Lee Curtis returned as Laurie Strode, hiding out under a pseudonym at a posh private school, where she was the headmistress/ english teacher and where her newly 17 year old son (Josh Harnett, being “introduced” in the same year he appeared in The Virgin Suicides and The Faculty) was a student. In private, they acknowledge their fucked up past, which has created a deep disfunction for both of them. She has become a paranoid alcoholic and he is desperate to get past the shit his mom went through with his uncle before he was born (this movie ignores all of the sequels after Halloween 2). Of course, as Laurie was newly 17 on the Halloween night that Michael came home, Uncle Michael tracks the Strodes down right after young John’s birthday, finding their whereabouts via Dr. Loomis’s former nurse, who was killed at the beginning of the movie.
Michael makes fairly quick work of John’s friends and the assorted other poor souls that didn’t make it to that random Halloween trip to Yosemite. The interesting thing about this movie is that it’s really good. It’s about that boogeyman that is out to get you, but it’s also about getting over the past and moving forward. (Of course, this theme is ruined in the misguided Halloween: Resurrection, where Michael Myers returns after getting his head cut off because he slyly stuffed a paramedic into the body bag in his mask after duct taping his mouth and then snuck off without anyone knowing only to come back and kill off the cast of a reality show that was spending the night in his old house and oh my god was this movie terrible and it actually killed off Jamie Lee Curtis in a cameo performance that I hope she got a shit ton of money for because she was so poorly used and then the franchise died only to almost be rebooted in two terrible movies directed by the otherwise fairly impressive Rob Zombie).
The same night that I watched H2O, with my good friend Katie, we also watched one of my favorite boogeymen in A Nightmare on Elm Street (her first time viewing). I love Freddy Krueger, even though he is best in this film and in Wes Craven’s dry run at a self-aware meta-horror movie, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (rewatched on Monday night). The thing about Freddy Krueger is that it really is almost impossible to get away from him–he attacks in your dreams, an area that you really don’t have a helluva lot of control over, and feeds on your fear. In the original film, he hauntingly and brutally dispatches Nancy’s friend, kids on Elm Street, as punishment for being set on fire years before by their parents in retribution for being a child murderer. Nancy unravels the mystery and after several attempts to kill him, tries robbing him of power by turning her back on him, which seemed to work until the strange twist ending. I just rewatched A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge on Sunday night, a misguided sequel that didn’t seem to know what to do with the character. The attempt was made to connect Freddy to the new characters through Nancy’s house, the last time filmmakers tried to use the building as a through line. In the first sequel, Freddy really only terrorizes one person through their dreams, the new resident of Nancy’s room, a young man named Jesse. Jesse has been plagued by nightmares of Freddy and the house is always unusually hot. Jesse’s friend, and potential girlfriend, Lisa tries to help him figure it out, while Jesse also deals with a enemy/ friend Rod and a sadistic gym teacher with the amazing ability to overreach his authority and all of the stereotypes of a gay man in the 80s (in one scene, as Freddy is exerting his control over Jesse, Jesse appears to sleepwalk to a gay bar that the gym teacher is at. The gym teacher then takes Jesse back to school, makes him run around the gym and then hit the showers, while still in his leather bondage getup, until he is attacked by various sports balls, and then dragged down to the showers by jump ropes where he is strung up, stripped and slapped across the ass with wet towels until he is killed by Freddy/ Jesse). So, Freddy is trying to manifest through Jesse and kill off a bunch of random people. The good in this movie is that Freddy is pretty creepy and, if it wasn’t Freddy related, the basic story beats would be an excellent horror movie.
The rest of the sequels what works best in the Elm Street movies, and that is Freddy in the dreams. The deaths become more elaborate and Freddy gets more chatty and comical, which works to a certain degree. Of course, there is sequel attrition and despite a stupid amount of talent involved both in front and behind the cameras, they develop a ridiculous amount of backstory for the marquee attraction: Freddy Krueger. It bogs the series down and then finally, they kill him off in Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, the sixth installment. Freddy is a much bigger boogeyman than that. Wes Craven returns to write and direct a new variation in New Nightmare that examined Freddy from inside and out, what makes a boogeyman a boogeyman. In the film the actress that played Nancy returns to play a version of herself, Wes plays himself, Robert Englund plays himself and as a newer and more frightening version of Freddy–an old entity that has been around forever, always after the murder of innocence. As “Wes Craven” says to “Heather” in the movie, the entity has gotten used to being Freddy after being trapped as him in the movies for 15 years, but since the movie starts, it wants to be free, as Freddy. The catch is, it has to get past a gatekeeper, “Heather” herself. The film overlays the story of Hansel and Gretel, which “Heather” reads to Dylan in the movie, (and really all of the terrifying fairy tales) onto it and Freddy becomes every evil witch and he comes after “Heather’s” son Dylan (the creepy kid from Pet Semetary who kept asking Arnold if he had a tumor in Kindergarten Cop) to get to “Heather”. Freddy has developed such a following that he is becoming real, a fictional creation that has become willed into existence because of the movies, and “Heather” has to save her son and kill Freddy off once and for all.
Of course, Freddy hasn’t died. He’s done battle with another 80’s boogeyman, Jason Voorhees (from a franchise I never really got into, Friday the 13th). And there have been attempts to reboot both franchises with different actors–Jackie Earle Haley does a magnificent job playing a terrifying boogeyman and the dream sequences are creepy and surreal, but it isn’t the same, Robert Englund really did embody the character in a way that makes it almost impossible for anyone else to step into the role. He was covered with makeup burn scars, but in a way, he was never in a mask the way that Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees were, and as such the actors underneath weren’t interchangeable.
Boogeymen are an embodiment of fear. In a sense, all monsters are boogeymen in some respect–Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, Jekyll and Hyde … metaphorically standing in for different fears or vices or sins. Some of our modern boogeymen aren’t as vague or specific as these classic monsters–I mean, metaphorically vampires and werewolves have been used in so many different ways–AIDS, addiction, sexuality both rampant and repressed, curses, disease … but these modern boogeymen, while they have specific names and character traits, they are far more indiscriminate in what fears they represent. They all attack in fairly mundane places, Haddonfield and Springwood are average small town/ suburban places. The families are average (though we see our share of the distracted single parents, alcoholics, etc, which is very average) and with the Friday the 13th movies, the setting is summer camp, a normal experience for many kids. In these average settings, terrifying things attack from out of nowhere and they are unrelenting. But the things we’re afraid of now are unrelenting and they appear out of nowhere. In the 1980s a nuclear missile might have been launched from the USSR at a moments notice, now, with the 24 hour news cycle bombarding us with fear, we could be killed by a dirty bomb. But that’s irrational. The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.
More later …