Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Thursday, May 10, 2012


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 by remembering that little adage. The lynch pin the Nightmare films hinge on is the same return of the repressed imagination, the visualization of dying or unendurable pain that our conscious mind shuts out when we need to be brave--that causes cowardice, nightmares--and whether or not you can remain cool and control your reactions to an upsetting dream environment determines your survival. 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 only by facing it, making it conscious. 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 encompasses our waking, sleeping, even life-after-death personas. The real dude/dudette in charge may be someone else, some thing darker. We may be monsters just dreaming we're final 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" he says "But I believe in you," with guidance counselor seriousness. Yeah, maybe he doesn't even have to. Maybe he can just close his eyes and she dissolves.

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. It doesn't cost more than the shitty American style. And that's what Renny Harlin clearly does for The Dream Master -goes Argento with 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, 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. He endeavors to keeps his quips to a minimum, and we're not expected to "kind of" root for him. In all 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 actual lines and more truly disturbing moments like seeing a girl wind up face down in a glue trap next to some dying roaches, with Freddie's face peering in like the cat in Incredible Shrinking Man. 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 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.

Did I just mention Jesus? I'm amazed no teenager thinks to try that approach. Good lord, I have, when fearing the Goatman at Presbyterian Camp in the Maryland Woods circa 1981, we all slept with our bibles like they were lifesavers at sea.

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 unnecessary roughness. Instead: 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 (been there, bro), Freddie attacking and killing most of the B-list survivors from Elm Street 3--the original Dream Warriors--before moving onto a girl named Alice (Lisa Wilcox) suffering from a dysfunctional (drunk embittered dad) home life. I relate, and love it all. Supported by some well-etched casual friends and future Freddy casualties--the black girl brainiac asthmatic; the 'only in the 80s' big perm, spandex work-out queen; a protective brother who knows karate; his "Dream Warrior" girlfriend--there's none of the usual sleazy snickering of the jocks and backstabbing of the girls and brooding of the Depps overshadowing the graceful struggles of dear Alice. No time for it, really, so most everyone is pretty nice to each other. And how often do you get to see that in a high school film? Highlights include Alice going to a near-deserted Rialto and being sucked into a screening of Reefer Madness, where she meets herself if she never gets to leave her waitress job and gets old and cranky there, she watches as Freddie eats her screaming brother who's become a meatball on a screaming pizza and watches as everyone left in the theater applaud her special effect 3-D entrance (Freddie doesn't kill her because she's the conduit who calls in other teenagers for him to devour.

The first and only time I saw Dream Master before catching it yesterday on Syfy was at a very rainy and near-deserted, crumbling drive-in on a rain-streaked screen in the year of its release, with the soundtrack coming in through weird static on the radio (speakerboxes were long gone by then) me terrified leaving the radio on would drain the battery and we'd get stuck in this creepy place after the screen went dark, all while trying to break up with my clingy girlfriend in between steaming the windows, young and dumb enough to think that combo would work, and too young to appreciate the metatextual richness of the wind tearing through the trees, ripping the edges around the screen. I had a dream a few months later where I was a girl by a fountain on a sunny day, 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. I was touched but still scared. I was planning to try and kill him or at least break up with him even so... but this gesture threw me.

And the first NOES had done the same--in the best of ways--my pal Alan, his girlfriend Germaine and I were bugging out for weeks, this being awhile before it became a huge hit. I've only seen it once since then. But now, with teenagerdom far behind me, I have had the DTs and been terrified to fall asleep, staying awake until dreams actually roared up to get me. I've suffered from the delusions and lived that weird trippy netherworld wherein you can no longer distinguish 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 real meth madness in lines like "I can't sleep, someone might die. "

Long live the new flesh, Boom Boom
Consider in comparison, wanting to see someone actually die, going to the the movies for that expressed purpose. Consider the South Park episode called "Britney's New Look" wherein poor Ms. Spears is hounded to death by the paparazzi, and the medical establishment keep her alive even after she shoots off the top of her head, all just so they cam gleefully point out the breast augmentation scars visible in the hospital photos. The end reveals all of humanity is a variation on the enclosed communities of Dark Secret of Harvest Home and The Wicker Man. Each year a beautiful blonde girl is showered in jewels and affection that increases exponentially until she is sacrificed on the bloody altar, and her blood spilled in the fields to ensure a good corn harvest, and photo souvenirs.  These suicides of bullied kids across the nation carry a similar resonance (a sacrificial offering archetype), as if no legislation granting equality can move forward unless blood is spilled in its name. With recent anti-gay marriage vote in North Carolina a sad sign on just how close we always are to devolving into fear and suspicion-based group activity, i.e. sacrificing to ensure good corn harvests. Murderous social rituals like those in the Hunger Games or Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" or what happened to some of my relatives in Salem in 1698 (1)  can't be far behind. (See also my piece on Dogville Vs. Monster from Acidemic #2!)

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. Better the kind of obsessive building desire that leads to the Ancient Rite of Sparagmos, than them leaving you alone to languish in the isolation of your upstairs bedroom and has-been stack of glossies. Adults tend to not take kids' concerns at all seriously, at least not in my day... unless we went ahead and (successfully) committed suicide. Only after you committed suicide (if you just attempted they'd only think you were trying to get attention) would your parents consider maybe sending you to a shrink. Psychiatry implied failure as parents up until the 90s and the arrival of SSRIs into the mainstream. But suicide is a way to avoid having to ask for help. The terror associated with not being able to prevent the clock from ticking, from mom forcing you to wake up and fill out your resume, making you get a job against your will --as a young turk afraid of your own shadow it can be so wearying that just bowing out early, before you fill out your first temp agency time card, seems 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.

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. BUT what if, for example, most of the deaths attributed to suicide are really dream murders, like the way Johnny Depp wind up hung in his prison cell while asleep in the first film? Parents have no clue. They 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. You can finally hear your death in the creaking of the floorboards.

WAXWORK is another 'great' teenage horror film from 1988 that, like Dream Master, understands the concept of 'lucid viewing' and the way courage hinges on 'suspended imagination.'

One day a weird Tudor suburban building in upscale suburbia appears with a sign on the lawn: 'Waxworks.' David Warner skulks by the sidewalk, 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 little person greets them and offers them drinks which they're dumb enough to refuse.

Any high school kid passing up a free drink deserves what's coming.

They're each sucked into a separate tableaux adventure, often from familiar 'barely concealed for trademark reasons' monster movies, including: Curse of the Werewolf with Raiders of the Lost Ark-fan favorite John Rhys-Davies in the Oliver Reed role (and the human visitor looking up when he's first thrown into the world and saying, good-naturedly, "all right, who put acid in my drink... again?!"); there's a Night of the Living Dead adventure, in black and white; De Sade with his whip and drunken attendant lords and lashed ladies (a composite of Jess Franco movies?); and a very Anne Rice-ish bunch of sexy vampires brooding over their strawberry jello. The unentered displays include the usual Aurora monster model dozen, but also: Freaks, Little Shop of Horrors, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Jayne Mansfield's car accident, a guy in bandages forcing a tube of gasoline into a girl's mouth in a very unsettlingly sexual/misogynist manner.. 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 nightshade... (Silence of the Lambs was still three years on and if it wasn't you can bet there'd be a waxwork). 

As for the cast, Zach Galligan as the lead isn't my type (I can't stand that type of upturned little pisher nose job that my fist just longs to flatten, here exacerbated by oily hair and a paunchy beer drinking bloat) but there's an aristo nympho (Michelle Johnson) and a virginal one (Deborah Foreman) who gets her first orgasm being flogged in the De Sade exhibit, and right there I would have loved this film as a kid who was cultivating an S/M philosophy (see my McSweeny's high school memoir piece on the Velvet Underground's "Venus in Furs" here). So, Galligan's punchable nose aside, the Waxwork kids are pretty cool (including future Twin Peaks star Dana Ashbrook --he draws the werewolf episode). 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 junior 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 a simulacrum (see Mecha-Medusa and the Otherless Child)

The looser vignettes can fall on the confused side of campy (the werewolf beginning with its Cushing-esque hunter 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--though that movie was six years away--and another dashing hunk-type could be the Gerard Butler Phantom of the Opera--so the waxworks hold future horror icons as well as past. A major highlight is that the big climax is an all-out brawl between the locals and all the released monsters: Zach duels with the pleasantly jaded marquis like he's Robin Hood, tosses the midget from Freaks into 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. Those are just the ones I wrote down!

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 once said, "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 seat to come back to; the tabloids denounce you as a sell-out, a has-been / never was. You disappear back behind the veil of the image within the image, 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, where it will be used in a multimedia collage, seen later by you, clown. Zap! A clown on a post-modern mirrored hamster wheel, that's you! Dance, clown, dance through your tears!

Suspended imagination is not just the key to courage, then, but to immortality!

Though there's no escape you can still make a move to escape the abstract distance you've set up in yourself, to 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 dying without a close-up and a farewell monologue to have them weeping in the aisles. 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 die right in? It's Stockholm syndrome writ so large upon the soul it becomes a perverse new kind of spiritual transcendence. Each lash cuts through the veils and layers of image until the whip comes right out of the screen like a newborn baby.

This De Sade thing is clearly my favorite part. I love his good sportsmanship in the final duel, letting Zach pick up his sword rather than kill him when the moment arises; his casual mention that he's given Deborah her first orgasm, and his departing line--"don't look so smug, boy!"--would have been a good note for Zach to take home with him after the shoot wrapped. Deborah Johnson gives it her all in these scenes, and her subsequent transformation from virgin to orgasmic submissive and struggle back from the dark side to 'normal' teen reality is richly felt and makes her a true 'lived-in' heroine, from a stereotype in bad 80s hair to a more fully-developed character... with sexy wet hair.

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? 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 rending, to love your demons even as they tear you limb from limb, until all that remains is just the witness, the viewer, the mad I AM at the center of the void?

A similar transfiguration occurs with Debby Harry in Videodrome (1983), where she's drawn into the simulacrum by the promise of masochistic sensation and desire, and ends up incorporated into the media itself. What a fine double bill it would make with Waxwork! 

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) so you might as well roll with it like Slim Pickens on an A-Bomb rather than Dan O'Herlihy in Fail Safe. 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 if 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 like Frederic March and Evelyn Venable in Death Takes a Holiday (1934), or Kristen Stewart in Twilight.

Until that rare love manifests, kids will be afraid of the dark, even as they rush backwards towards it. They're terrified of someone infiltrating their frail suburban home, of finding themselves stuck inside a slasher movie unable to wake up or get out of their blood-signed contract, even as they long for escape. 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 just a movie. So next time someone's texting in your peripheral vision, don't be afraid to strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart. Just make sure you know which side of the screen you're on, while it's still possible to tell.


  1. You mention that DreamMaster was the last film in which Freddy was scary, but to me that was the turning point, to me that film was where it all changed. Freddy is spewing one liners left and right, suddenly he is a comedian, and eating meat balls with his victimes faces on them, we get dogs pissing fire...Freddy on the beach wearing shades.

    Not that I dont like NOES 4, I do, in fact, it's one of my favorites, but I think it's the one where Freddy stopped being scary and started to turn into a joke spewing, one line hurling comic book character.

    I liked your analysis of both of these films, Waxworks is a cool little horror film from the 80s, it has a cool concept, I just didnt like the ending which feels kind of rushed and cheap and silly.

    That scene with Sade is a good one, I like the one with the vampires better, it's a blood bath! And the werewolf they have on this film looks pretty cool as well. The second Waxwork film isnt as good,but it does star Bruce Campbell, so it has that going for it.

  2. Depp's character Glen died in the infamous scene where a stream of blood gushed from his bed to the ceiling. Rod died in a prison cell.


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