Ernest Hemingway once defined cowardice as "the lack of ability to suspend functioning of the imagination." Ernest would have surely made it to the final round of any teenage horror movie, but in two post-modern miracles that came out in 1988, WAXWORK and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER, he would have maybe kicked ass via remembering that little adage. The lynch pin the Nightmare films hinges on the same return of the repressed--the unendurable imagination of what dying or unendurable pain might be like-- that causes cowardice, nightmares, and whether or not you can remain cool and control your reactions to an upsetting dream environment. Even when we 'wake up' inside our nightmare and try to fly or transpose the scene to a sunny beach we're not always successful at escaping our inner demon. It's a matter of admitting, perhaps, that the 'we' who is awake in the dream, the conscious ego, might not be the strongest 'voice' in the whole of our soul, which, after all, encompasses waking, sleeping, even life after death. The real dude/dudette in charge may be someone else, some thing darker.. we may be monsters dreaming we're pretty girls, or alcoholic writers .
The best line in The Dream Master exemplifies this: when Alice tries to deny Freddy is real, telling him defiantly, "I don't believe in you." And Freddie counters, "But I believe in you!" all concerned, like a trusting guidance counselor.
A lot of directors of bad teenage horror films should study the moves and colors and music of the films of Argento, Fulci and Lenzi, i.e. be more Italian. And that's what Renny Harlin clearly does for The Dream Master. It's got grand bold reds, greens and blacks, 'fuck the dots' pacing, an Italian synthesizer Goblin-ish score, endless clever tracking shots that weave in and out of waking and dreams within a single take, hot and cool gel spots, surrealist disregard for gravity and the time/space continuum, a refusal to demarcate the line between the 'reality' of the waking moments and the 'fantasmatic' of their nightmares. -- see my piece on Italian dream logic here)
4 is also the last of the Nightmare films wherein Freddy is still scary, and endeavors to keeps his quips to a minimum, and we're not expected to root for him even a little bit. In future installments he's all self-aware and hammy but for The Dream Master, even though he wears hipster shades when crashing Alice's happy place he has very few lines, and more moments such as the one wherein he turns a girl into a giant roach, trapped face down in a giant glue trap. It's a nightmare that is pretty disturbing, in a good social conscience return-of-the-repressed sort of way. Most all of us have killed roaches, or mice at one time or another, after all, and maybe we had a flash of compassion but shut it out of our conscious in order to get on with our day; suddenly we're seeing ourselves from the glued-down perspective, the terror and horror of being trapped with other dying and dead insect souls all around you, and the callous deformed monster slowly crushing the box down from above you, reminding us that instead of being the good shepherd as Jesus intended, humans are the Freddy Krueger of the animal kingdom.
Alas, hardcore horror fans don't like 4 so much because it sacrifices real bloody, traumatic scares and gore for grotty sci fi special effects but I like that there's a refreshing shortage of trite explanations and females cringing in the underwear and being gutted, and instead there's Sarah Connor / Karate Kid 3 levels of soul energy transference and sudden nunchaku know-how (a precursor of Neo's Kung Fu implants in The Matrix), trigonometry exams with slithering numbers, and Japanese dojos with Freddie attacking and killing most of the kids from Elm Street 3--the original Dream Warriors--and moving onto a girl named Alice (Lisa Wilcox) suffering from a dysfunctional (drunk embittered dad) home life, but supported by some well-etched casual friends: the black girl brainiac asthmatic; the 'only in the 80s' big perm, spandex work-out devotee white chick, and a protective brother who knows karate (his girlfriend is the main 'Dream Warrior' of the previous film). There's none of the usual sleazy snickering of the jocks and backstabbing of the girls and brooding of the Johnny Depps. No time for it, really, so everyone is pretty nice to each other. And how often do you get to see that in a high school film? Peeps is either BFFs or mortal enemies in high school movies, and so I love the ambiguity here... support and kindness without having to sing into hairbrushes.
The first and only time I saw NOES4:TDM before catching it yesterday on Syfy was at a very rainy and near-deserted drive-in on rain-streaked screen in the year of its release, with the soundtrack coming in through weird static on the radio, me terrified leaving the radio would drain the battery and we'd get stuck in this creepy place after dark, getting a jump in the rain from a toothless crank dealer. I was still too young to appreciate the metatextual richness of the wind tearing through the trees around the screen. and through it all I was trying to break up with my clingy girlfriend in between steaming the windows. Nightmare was pretty scary even so, and I had a dream a few months later where I was the girl by the fountain, and Freddy was proving his love as a boyfriend by showing me his manicure --he'd cut the blades down to modest fingernails. I saw their shadow in the fountain waters.
And the first NOES had truly terrified me--in the best of ways--as a teenager when I saw it in the theater with my bros. We were bugging out for weeks! I've only seen it once since then. But now, with teenagerdom far behind me, I can resonate with the buggy horror as someone who's had the DTs, who's lost weekends, who's been terrified to fall asleep and then have the dreams actually roar up and get him. who's suffered from the delusions and lived that weird trippy netherworld where you can no longer get a clear bead on where safe 'reality' ends and the surreal anything-goes realm of dream begins. It's these 'when exactly did we fall asleep?' moments that make the NOES movies ingenious, and there's some OCD madness in lines like Alice telling a friend who says she needs rest, "I can't sleep, someone might die. "
|Long live the new flesh, Boom Boom|
After all, sacrifice of one sort or another is inevitable, and at least if they're killing you that means they're showing you some attention. Too much is fatal but too little is worse. Adults tend to not take kids' concerns at all seriously, at least not in my day... unless we went ahead and committed suicide. Once you commit suicide, apparently, then your parents and the adult world in general are forced to admit that maybe your issue needed to be addressed. The terror associated with not being able to prevent the clock from making you grow up, get a job and becoming a miserable failure (bullied by every boss and interviewer and parent you meet because they can tell how stupid you are) can be so wearying that just bowing out now before you fill out your first temp agency time card can seem like the smart thing to do, like deciding you don't want to go on the trip BEFORE you get on the bus rather than later when it will be much harder to get home... and your fare is always just one way.
That said, the issue of suicide is creepier than most other deaths since it occurs usually alone and with time to think about what you are doing. And what if, for example, most of the deaths by suicide are really dream murders, like the way Johnny Depp was hung in his prison cell while trying to sleep in the first film? Parents have no clue, think everything is your fault anyway, so naturally a dream murderer would escape judgment and you'd be blamed for your own death even though you never considered suicide ever in your life.
And that, my friends, is what Salvia Divinorum feels like.
WAXWORKS is another 'great' teenage horror film from 1988, and like NOES4:TDM it really understands the concept of 'lucid viewing' and 'suspended imagination.'
One day a weird Tudor suburban building in the middle of nowhere suburbia appears with a sign in front: 'Waxworks' - David Warner skulks out by the fence, inviting loitering high schoolers over at midnight for a stroll through the displays. After some routine drinking, smoking, and unrequited romantic longing, the clique heads over to check it out. A midget greets them and offers them drinks which they're dumb enough to refuse. A high school kid passing up a free drink deserves what's coming.
Each wax tableau they pass and occasionally enter into is from some other monster movie: Curse of the Werewolf, with Brian Blessed in the Oliver Reed role; a Romero living dead film in black and white; De Sade with his whip and drunken attendant lords and lashed ladies; and a very Anne Rice-ish bunch of sexy vampires brooding over their strawberry jello...and that's not counting the 'already occupied' displays, including the usual Aurora monster model dozen, but also: Freaks, Little Shop of Horrors, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Jayne Mansfield's car accident, ... I'm sure I'm forgetting some and it's very impressive, a lot more work put into these things than really necessary. Somebody loved them, fed them all but Nightshade (Lambs was still three years on and if it wasn't you can bet there'd be a Lambs exhibit).
As for the cast, Zach Galligan as the lead isn't my type of guy--he's where Joe Danted and I parted company-- but there's an aristo nympho (Michelle Johnson) and a virginal one (Deborah Foreman) who gets her first orgasm from being flogged in the De Sade exhibit, and right there I would have loved this film as a kid who was cultivating a chaste S/M philosophy (see my McSweeny's high school memoir piece on the Velvet Underground's "Venus in Furs" here). So Galligan's punchable face aside, the Waxwork kids are pretty cool. Most of them smoke and don't give a shit about your petty morality (there was no minimum age for smoking back then and most high schools had smoking areas) and neither does the cop who winds up entombed in the mummy exhibit. Ooops! But I guess telling you counts as a spoiler but not really, since the whole film is about the joys of the spoiler process, like an early predecessor, along with the Nightmare series, of the Scream films, wherein the terror isn't abated but actually enhanced by the characters already knowing the plot, and aware they're stuck inside the simulacrum (see my piece exploring similar 'through the TV screen looking glass films, Mecha-Medusa and the Otherless Child)
It turns out Waxworks functions as a nonspecific dream Star Trek-style alien library, a repository for monsters from other films past and future. Some of them are just campy (the werewolf beginning makes you think we're headed in a goofball Monster Squad direction) but there's a scene of eating flesh and drinking blood under the rule of a brooding vampire who looks eerily like Tom Cruise as Lestat and another dashing hunk-type could be the Gerard Butler Phantom of the Opera! In other words, the waxworks hold future horror icons as well as past (though Anne Rice's original book was big at the time, and the Broadway Phantom also debuted in '88). In the big climax Zach duels with the pleasantly jaded marquis like he's Robin Hood, tosses the midget from Freaks into the Audrey from Little Shop of Horrors; encounters a vague version of H.R. Geiger's Alien and a pod person coming out of their pod, and a black voodoo guy right out of Banana Splits' Danger Island comes roaring up for a fistfight. Dirty Harry shoots off the head of a bat.
The trick to survival inside any film is to realize that you're just a character, an archetype inside the bigger picture, so play your part well and if you die, deliver a first class death scene (see my piece on Scream 4 here). We all have the ability to be cool in a crisis; as Tura Santana as Varla once quipped "you don't have to believe it, just act it!" But if you keep doing that for too long you become like the kid who can't uncross his eyes. Suddenly the script is flipped and you can no longer return to the safety of the seats because there's no longer a 'real' you at all, and so the tabloids denounce you as a sell-out, a has-been / never was. You disappear back behind the veil of the image, but now doubled - the image within the image - you become just a sad clown poster in the dorm room of a college kid in a movie being watched on tape by a dude being filmed for a reality show that will one day wind up on the internet, and used in a multimedia collage, seen later by you, clown. A clown on a post-modern hamster wheel, that's you! Run clown! Run on zee hamster wheel!
Though there's no escape you can still make a move to escape the abstract distance you've set up in yourself, to suspend imagination and shuffle off the mortal coil of fear, and come to grasp your true power as one who has seen these movies before and knows how to anticipate danger and make sure that at the very least you're not a sitting duck. Deborah Johnson's masochistic awakening at the hands of the marquis in Waxworks shows she's got a fine grasp of this idea, for the S/M pleasure is derived from complete surrender, and surrender comes with many bonuses, not least the ability to transmute pain and fear into ecstasy and submission (the other ladies in attendance can only wince in jealousy). She knows where her desire is leading her, and it's a trap built just for herself, so why shouldn't she dive right in? It's Stockholm syndrome writ so large upon the soul it becomes a perverse new kind of spiritual transcendence (the Japanese and Batailles are all up into that kind of thing). Each lash cuts through the veils and layers of image until the whip comes right out of the screen and kisses your soul. Run, sad clown, run! Your ass is as red as your nose!
I kept trying to imagine what would happen if Johnson's character, post-orgasm, was summoned from the Waxwork tableaux and across the multiplex and into the dreams of Elm Street 4. What if she submitted to Freddy's claws the way she submits to De Sade's lash, with open arms and heroic disregard for her own life and death? Would that destroy him? Would he get that manicure I dreamt about? Isn't that the only way to really ensure you don't get reincarnated, in the Buddhist sense, to not tremble or wince or waver from your loving and selfless attentiveness, to love your demons even as they rend you limb from limb, until all that remains is just the witness, the viewer, the mad I AM at the center of all centerlessness?
The masochistic response is an innate part of horror film viewing (you are strapped into your chair and powerless to change the events unfolding before you), as discussed in the works of Steven Shaviro (see his awesome book The Cinematic Body for a deep discussion of the 'drome in this context), so you might as well roll with it and, like Slim Pickens on an A-Bomb, shout "Yee-Haw!" in Dr. Strangelove and live it up, stop worrying and love the bomb, rather than cowering at the threat of humanity's extinction until you drop a bomb on Manhattan like sweaty Dan O'Herlihy in Fail Safe. The whole idea of 'control' is an illusion anyway, so why not embrace the inevitable and dive into the abyss that yawns for thee? When all the rats are swarming into the lifeboats, jump out of one instead, just to spend a few more moments with Leo Di Caprio. Ride out to meet Blue Nose to offer him life or death with perfect cool like you're The Outlaw Josey Wales. Move towards death, unafraid, and death shall be shocked and take a step back, and maybe realize he's at last found a partner in the darkness, someone to make the blood brothers' peace with, to race with purple lips towards icy kiss finish lines, like Frederic March and Evelyn Venable in Death Takes a Holiday (1934).
|Others in Death Takes a Holiday disapprove of Evelyn's choice of lovers|
Until that rare mental state manifests, kids will be afraid of the dark, of someone infiltrating their frail suburban home, of finding themselves stuck inside a slasher movie unable to wake up or get out of their contract. It's one thing to be master of your mise en scene--like Sherlock Jr. or the girls in Daisies-- it's another to not have any control over it even as you realize it's not real, and that's what these two dream horror films from 1988 are all about.
As a teen even if you smoke like a chimney, your soul is still tasty and uncrushed by adulthood's Phantasm-dense gravity so it's still in high demonic demand; these kids haven't even fathomed the full depth of their nougat centers, they haven't yet ripped their wrapper; their dark chocolate unconscious is still largely undiscovered and therefore powerful. Inside their little 80s hair-bedecked noggins lurks a dangerous and disturbing world. There's no telling who these kids really are going to grow up to be --masochists, drug addicts, lawyers-- the future is wide open, but closing fast and just as you have to fall asleep sooner or later, regardless of who may die, the jagged edges of the end credits wait, ready to rip any tender reality's flesh to gentle scrolling ribbons.
And if you have to die sooner or later, why put it off, why postpone and postpone like you do your overdue check-up at the dentist or jury duty or going down to the mall and filling out job applications? Is life like a reverse race, where the person who takes the longest wins? If you finish early, do you really have to stick around til everyone else has crossed the line?
And suicide need only be symbolic to serve its purpose of liberation from the bondage of self: a gesture like Britney's head shaving (a popular one with monks and army recruits, after all, w/ good reason) or meditation, fasting, drugs and dancing, whatever it takes to quiet that monkey mind chatter, is all that suicide really is usually intended to do (it's just the ego would rather see the whole mind-body-spirit destroyed than surrender its grip, like the Republicans!) Egocide is the key element that separates real artists from the hacks and a new feeling of calm will be yours once that motormouth ego is toned down. After all aren't movies so much better when you just surrender and enjoy them fully, regardless of whether the audience around you is whispering and texting, or worrying if they're any good?
And so what if your friends will scoff if you say you liked it? What do those dumb snack treats sing in the promo? "No talking during the movie, and turn off your cell phone?" Indeed. It's only when we can do those things that our life will even begin to have meaning... so next time someone's texting in your peripheral vision, don't be afraid to strike, dear mistress. Just make sure you know which side of the screen you're on, while it's still possible to tell.