“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” Film Review

The Eyes of Tammy Faye will penetrate to your soul. You may think you know Tammy Faye’s story, but go beyond the tabloids in Michael Showalter’s (The Big Sick) heartfelt, hilarious, honest film that paints a humanizing portrait of the ridiculed and often parodied Tammy Faye Bakker. You will undoubtedly be blown away by Jessica Chastain’s jaw-dropping performance as the “Queen of Eyelashes” in this powerful rise, fall, and redemption story. Tammy’s eyelashes may be fake, but there is nothing fake about this candid portrait of the late television icon. Playing the mastermind of the PTL Network scandal is Andrew Garfield in a showcase performance that will have you despising Jim, but praising the uncanny portrayal. The film highlights Tammy Faye’s genuine love for God and her love for people–everyone! Even in the 1980s, when the LGBT community had little to no voice, especially amongst fundamental evangelicals, she was a loving voice for them. While it would have been so easy for the film to have been devoid of genuine levity, audiences will find there are some hilarious scenes that work as fantastic humanizing elements, especially early on when Jim and Tammy Faye engage their lustful adolescent interests as hormonally charged young adults and newlyweds. Showalter, Chastain, and Garfield deliver a fresh perspective on Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker that depicts human beings, not one-dimensional caricatures of televangelism.

In the 1970s, Tammy Faye Bakker and her husband, Jim, rise from humble beginnings to create the world’s largest religious broadcasting network and theme park. Tammy Faye becomes legendary for her indelible eyelashes, her idiosyncratic singing, and her eagerness to embrace people from all walks of life. However, financial improprieties, scheming rivals and a scandal soon threaten to topple their carefully constructed empire.

I already want to see it again! And it’s definitely becoming an addition to my physical media collection. This narrative film is based on the award-winning documentary by the same name, directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, and I suggest watching it as a companion piece. In many respects, the storytelling structure of The Eyes of Tammy Faye parallels the approach Craig Gillespie took in I, Tonya. In addition to the awards-talk around the performances, I would look to see this film in other conversations such as makeup, screenplay, and perhaps directing and picture. Showalter’s film explores the world of Tammy Faye, as seen through her unmistakable eyes; furthermore, he treats the character (the person) of Tammy Faye with respect as a flawed but loving woman rather than the heavy-makeup-wearing satirical and parodied caricature that many remember from the tabloids. Perhaps the thousands of times she said “God loves you” may have came across as insincere; but the truth is, she wanted the world to know that God and Tammy both love them.

Showalter’s candid picture gives Tammy Faye and Jim the full treatment as he takes audiences on a journey through their story, including the scandal that rocked a nation, whilst treating them with dignity and respect as they are–as we all are–flawed humans. This biographic drama seeks to understand (mostly Tammy Faye, but a little of Jim too) the Bakkers, not mock them or their work. Tammy Faye is a breath of fresh air in an environment polluted by stale, lifeless, and downright rotten individuals. From the beginning of the film, you learn that her faith in God and love of Jesus was not going to be defined by her circumstances or what people thought of her. If you told her she couldn’t, she would prove to you that she could. That is a trait that she could continue through her entire life, even after her scandalous fall from grace. You also learn that while she lived an opulent lifestyle, she was never defined by her material possessions. Oh don’t get me wrong, she loved her signature clothing style and trademark makeup and hair, but those things did not define her or her faith. Well, except for her eyes. She said “if you remove my [fake] eyelashes, I wouldn’t be me.”

While her husband was pulling the strings, she was doing everything she could to reach people for Christ; however, it was also clear that she loved the performance, the camera, and the microphone. If she hadn’t gone into televangelism, she very well could have been a Broadway star with her larger than life showmanship and personality. We also learn that Tammy Faye was likely unaware of the dishonest and illegal dealings of her husband, even though she at times suspected he wasn’t being honest. Chalk it up to extreme naivety. Despite no reports of Jim being physically abusive to Tammy Faye or their two kids, he was shown to be psychologically and emotionally abusive to Tammy Faye. Even to the extent that he used Tammy’s minor indiscretion with a Nashville music producer against her, to humiliate her on international television in an effort to raise more money because of her testimony. Tammy’s flirtation with the an elicit affair goes to show that we are all flawed individuals that toy with or fall victim to the same temptations, in whatever form they take. But we understand how and why Tammy Faye was tempted to search for love elsewhere; she was not appreciated as a person by Jim, but only as a tool to get more money out of PTL’s “partners.” Even when the reality of Jim would peak through, she never let that detour her from spreading the love of God to everyone in her signature style.

While we ostensibly watch the events of the rise and fall of the Bakkers through Tammy Faye’s eyes, in a similar fashion we did in I, Tonya, we also get glimpses of the story through Jim’s perspective when it serves to advance the emotional journey of the characters, especially when it comes to his complicated relationship with the then and now unlikable Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. For example, I did not know that it was Jim and Tammy Faye that started the 700 Club. But when the innovative Christian talk show became a popular program on the fledgling CBN Network, Pat Robertson placed them on a maternity/paternity sabbatical, but was actually steeling their show in a jealous power-grab. The Bakkers then started what would become the TBN Network, but were ran off from there too. Finally, they began the PTL Club (later massive, worldwide PTL Satellite Network), and the success of that venture would eventually spawn a 24-hour network, neighborhoods, and a theme park that would become the third most visited in the country after Disneyland and Disney World.

While PTL was growing by leaps and bounds, Robertson and Falwell were seething with jealously at the success of Jim and Tammy Faye, a motive that comes into play when they discover the payment of PTL funds for the hush-money regarding Jim’s affair. Little did Tammy Faye know that Jim surrounded himself with a conniving mafia-like group of “Christians” that sought to take down the power couple after they departed from the Robertson-Falwell fundamentalist agenda. This mafia-like mentality is most apparent when Tammy Faye televises the emotional interview with a gay AIDS patient, also a Christian pastor, on her show. She ends the interview with reminding the viewers that Christians are called to love as Jesus loved. It was shortly after that, that Robertson and Falwell actively looked for ways to dethrone the king and queen of televangelism. Of all the examples of Christians in the film, amongst the lead and supporting characters, Tammy Faye is the best example of how a Christian should love and act.

Chastain has instantly shot to the front of the Best Actress in a Leading Role category, and Garfield may find himself in the Best Actor conversations as well. Chastain disappears behind the trademark Tammy Faye makeup and delivers a larger than life performance! And since Tammy Faye, herself, was the definition of camp and larger than life, it’s an incredibly authentic, sincere performance. It’s easy to see how the LBGTQ community was drawn to the person of Tammy Faye then and now, because the LGBTQ community often greatly admires women who remain strong in the face of adversity. But Chastain’s performance of the person of Tammy Faye will undoubtedly inspire and win the admiration of all kinds of people from all walks of life. While Chastain is brilliantly portraying the character of Tammy Faye, we learn in the film (and in the documentary, the interviews, and PLT flips that many will undoubtedly pour through after leaving the film) that Tammy Faye wasn’t a character at all but one of the most genuine, sincere loving people that ever walked the planet. Chastain captures every nuance of Tammy Faye with uncanny precision.

Even the indelible Cherry Jones as Tammy Faye’s love-to-hate mother that was so often Tammy Faye’s harshest critic may be in the supporting actress conversations. She’s a scene steeler herself, much like Allison Janney was as LaVona Harding in I, Tonya. All the lead and supporting performances are perfectly executed, and the hair/makeup on everyone leaves an uncanny resemblance between the actors and the real-life people that are being portrayed. If Tammy Faye was still alive, I feel strongly that she would appreciate the film. Her son Jay appears to like the film from what I’ve read of his comments.

I’d be remiss not to mention, what is perhaps the most telling scene of who Tammy Faye was. Months or perhaps years after the collapse of the PTL Empire and all her fine things were sold (and house actually burned to the ground), and she’s driving a crappy Honda Accord and living in a rundown apartment, she pulls into her parking spot one day. And she gets out, she hears a few of the neighborhood punk teens making fun or her. She walks over to them, and graciously says, “if you’re going to talk about me, since I am your neighbor, you should at least shake my hand and meet me first; hi, I’m Tammy Faye” (or something to this effect).

What we have here is a brilliantly produced biographical drama that works as trifecta comprised of a cautionary tale, a redemption story, and film that provides social commentary on topics such as politics, religion, and patriotism as our country is becoming increasingly polarized on these subjects.

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Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

“The Night House” Sheds ‘Light’ on Spectacle Over Narrative

Plot and story take a backseat to the technical and performative elements of the mise-en-scene. The Night House represents a trend in horror that began as an emerging art house cinematic form championed by studios like A24 in the mid 2010s, continuing today. Many of the films that fall into this category are highly stylized through overtly artistic approach (artistic in that the hand of the auteur is clearly visible) or a minimalist approaches. While many of these films DO have a strong story told though established narrative conventions, some of them (and an increasing number) place so much emphasis on the look and feel of the film, that the filmmakers forget that they also need to tell a good story with a beginning, middle, and end that makes sense within the world that has been established on screen.

This house looks gorgeous, but the bones are weak. The Night House certainly delivers a haunting and unnerving atmosphere, excellent production design, fantastic editing, and a tour de force performance by Rebecca Hall, but its labyrinth-like plot and meandering story ultimately lead to “nothing.” If nothing else, this film works as a showcase for Hall in her one-woman show! And no mistaking it, her performance is outstanding–nearly Toni Collette Hereditary levels. Further notable elements in the film are the exquisite editing and cinematography that help to generate the ominous feeling of dread that you will feel the entire time. All of the aforementioned sounds like an incredibly effective mise-en-scene, doesn’t it? The problem with The Night House isn’t in the mise-en-scene as much as it is in the bones of the house itself, or the screenwriting.

My problem with films like The Night House, The Lighthouse, (am I sensing a trend here?) and others is the trend to ostensibly convince audiences, through the thoughtful craftsmanship of the mise-en-scene, that the film is more important than it is, that it has something substantive to deliver, or that the filmmaker is elevating horror (a term I despise because horror has always been the most truthful and progressive of all the genres). When this happens, the plotting suffers greatly. Why? Because the filmmaker considers themselves an artist that is above established conventions because there is a clear attempt to be unconventional, to be be a nonconformist, to rage against the system, if you will. So because they do not feel that they should abide by the guidelines or conventions of screenwriting or image montage (montage is French for assembly), they expect audiences to be so impressed by the gorgeous imagery on screen that the story or plot is of little consequence. Or there is the idea that these films aren’t for everyone or they are used as fuel for the pretentious you just don’t get it conversations on #FilmTwitter. Oh, many cinephiles just love that one, because they can elevate themselves.

Now, you are probably wondering if I think all films need to follow conventional filmmaking approaches. And the answer is NO. What?!? Did I just contradict everything I just wrote? Again, no. It’s when the filmmaker crafts a motion picture that they’ve clearly positioned to give the pretense that it’s more important than it actually is and fail to deliver the story that is so clearly attempting to be told. That is where I find fault with the filmmaker or screenwriter. Does that mean narrative/fictional films can’t be poetic in their form? Certainly not. One of my favorite horror films is Dario Argento’s Suspiria. And, even though I include this masterful work of cinema in my World Cinema class, I will also be the first to tell you that the plot is not very good. But, the beauty of Suspiria isn’t in the story, but in the euphoric experience of watching Argento create cinematic art with this violent, technicolor world accompanied by the mesmerizing score. The difference between Suspiria and The Night House is the simple fact that Argento did not create Suspiria to tell an important story. It’s a film that has grown in importance through the decades because we can find meaningful expression in the mise-en-scene. But that film didn’t hit cinemas to tell an important or thoughtful story. It hit cinemas to provide an experience!

What we have here is spectacle vs narrative. A subject I covered in my academic book On the Convergence of Cinema and Theme Parks. In the book, I look at the storytelling approached in themed entertainment when it intersects cinema. Without going too deep into that subject, I explore the idea of cinema of attractions. And films that do not tell a plot-driven story, are more about the attraction or experiential factors, not unlike a theme park attractions. With the increase in IP (intellectual property) based attractions (think: attractions based on movies), attractions have integrated story elements that aim to take the physiological experience and add the dynamic of story to it. A good example of this is found in Universal Orlando’s Hagrid’s Magical Creature Motorbike Adventure in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure. Universal coined the term story-coaster. But I digress. When I evaluate a film, I often look at the implied attempt by the director (and marketing agency or distribution company), and I ask myself questions like: does the film give the impression that it is more important than it actually is? Is there an attempt to have a thoughtful message or some social commentary on dominant or emerging ideologies, and the film form takes precedence over the actual story? Are the films technical elements and acting so impressive that it hopes you don’t notice that the plot or story are weak?

While I have established that there is rightly a place amongst the greats for films that are visually stunning that don’t necessarily follow a traditional story structure (ie. Suspiria), the best films are often those that have a simple plot and complex characters. A simple plot forms the solid foundation and structure of the house (the bones, if you will), while the film form is everything that you see with the naked eye. It starts with the firm foundation and strong structural elements. Everything else is window dressing–important–but ultimately meaningless if the narrative is’t sound. What good is the building material of the walls, the paint, the type of windows, or kitchen cabinetry if the foundation or structure are weak??? I appreciate the intimate feel of the trend to release films that look artful so we can witness the cinema stylo of the auteur, but the filmmakers also need to remember the importance of plotting, pacing, and structure.

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Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

Candyman (2021) Review

Candyman (2021) - IMDb

Sweet on the outside, sour on the inside. A visually impressive attempt to provide a thoughtful exploration on duality and identity, is overshadowed by heavy-handed ideology. Nia DaCosta delivers audiences a spiritual sequel to the cult horror film Candyman (1992) that is grounded in much of the lore of the original, yet forges a new frontier that simultaneously serves as a vehicle for horror legend Tony Todd to pass the hook onto Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. DaCosta is joined by writer-producer Jordan Peele and screenwriter Win Rosenfeld to “tell everyone” who dares to look in a mirror and call out his name five times. Admit it, even in our most rational state, we are still a little apprehensive to stare at our reflection and call out Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Candym–. That’s the power of horror films! These fictional stories on screen have their mystical ways of affecting the collective conscious in such a manner that we change or question our behavior. Another great example of this effect is the iconic highway scene in Final Destination 2. And challenging audiences was certainly what the three screenwriters had in mind when writing the story for Candyman (2021). Unfortunately, the agenda-driven message steels the focus away from the stunning visuals, and ultimately fails to effectively paint a portrait of reality that invites all to engage in the important conversations the film is trying to have, instead, alienating audience members that don’t share the filmmakers’ opinions. Suffice it to say, this film is Peele for the course.

In present day, a decade after the last of the Cabrini towers were torn down, rising star artist Anthony (Abdul-Mateen II) and his partner move into a loft in the now gentrified Cabrini. A chance encounter with an old-timer exposes Anthony to the true story behind Candyman (Todd). Anxious to use these macabre details in his studio as fresh grist for paintings, he unknowingly opens a door to a complex past that unravels his own sanity and unleashes a terrifying wave of violence. (IMDb)

If you’ve never seen the original Candyman, don’t worry. While having seen the original will certainly help audiences to appreciate world-building and backstory elements, there is enough context given to help those that may be unfamiliar. Following the screening I attended, I heard individuals negatively critique the retconning of plot elements in the original; truth is, the parts of the original that were reimagined to fit the backstory of 2021’s Candyman were thoughtfully adapted.

While I have my reservations with the film, I would be remiss to not highlight the excellent direction, cinematography, editing, costuming, production design, and even the performances! Visually, the movie is stunning! All the mise-en-scene elements work together to create a BIG SCREEN experience. And talk about outstanding performances. Back in the heyday of the slashers (late 70s through the 90s), we did not expect to be impressed by the performances of the cast. And while there are notable exceptions of horror films WITH brilliant performances, usually it’s not expected. Over the last 7–10 years, horror films have been stepping up their performance game. The lead and most of the supporting cast will all captivate you. Unfortunately, there are useless characters like Brianna’s (Anthony’s girlfriend’s) brother and his boyfriend. Having no real affect on the plot, this interracial gay couple was little more than a token that could be removed from the movie, and the movie still play out the same way. However, if it weren’t for these two characters, the movie would be lacking ANY humor. So I suppose that was their purpose, to add humor.

There are so many beautifully crafted shots and shot sequences in this film. From juxtapositions of the old meeting with the new to geometric shapes and lines, there are many excellent compositions. The production and set design and lighting, of this film, are used in similar ways that the designs in expressionism are used. Expressionism uses the design of buildings, costumes, lighting, and camera angles to externalize emotions, psycho-social states of being, and ideas. And with expressionism being part of the formula of horror (expressionism+surrealism+Poe+Freud), it makes sense how and why there would be this care shown in the mise-en-scene.

All the backstory elements are communicated through the brilliant use of shadow puppets. The shadow puppet sequences are perhaps my favorite recurring diegetic device used in the film. Not only do these shadow puppets provide exposition, they also move the plot forward in action and subtext.

The idea of shadow puppets as a storytelling device is best explored in Plato’s Cave. French film theorist Jean-Louis Baudry likened the movie theatre to Plato’s famous allegory Plato’s Cave found in Plato’s Republic. But since we’re not all film or philosophy theorists, here is a quick explanation of Plato’s Cave:

The allegory states that there exists prisoners chained together in a cave. Behind the prisoners is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners are people carrying puppets or other objects. This casts a shadow on the other side of the wall. The prisoners watch these shadows, believing them to be real. Essentially, what Plato is exploring is the concept of “belief vs knowledge.” The prisoners (or audience) in this analogy believe the images on the wall as reality; when in actuality, it is only the puppeteers version of reality. The analogy goes on further to describe a prisoner breaking free and venturing from the cave out into the real world. Two things happen (1) the newly freed prisoner completely rejects the imagery in the cave and returns to warn the prisoners of their one-dimensional view of reality, and risk being killed for a radical view, or (2) the freed prisoner fears or cannot reconcile actual reality and retreats back into the cave, where there is comfort in the surroundings, to warn the prisoners not to leave. Therefore, this highlights how a lack of knowledge leads to blind belief.

Despite being centuries old, the allegory is appropriate for filmmaking. After all, the audience watches images on a screen. We’re meant to believe it to be real, but we know it’s false. Only when we step out of the theater back into reality can we take what we’ve learned in the cinema and apply it to our lives. In a literal sense, a movie is just a series of images. But digging deeper, they present unique ideas and themes that we can take with us into the real world. Numerous movies utilize this concept in their plots and themes. You have probably seen films where a character believes one reality and then becomes exposed to another, greater reality and is never the same. In the case of 2021’s Candyman, DaCosta, Peele, and Rosenfeld have metaphorically trapped the audience in an ideological cave to present their versions of our reality that exists outside the cinema’s doors.

The movie has some great kills! But it highlights a moral problem plaguing this movie. From the art gallery to the critic to the girls at the prep school, the only victims, to meet their gruesome demise ON screen, are white characters. While there are a couple of off-screen deaths of black characters, the only ones in the visible mise-en-scene to meet with Candyman’s iconic hook are white. Had this movie been directed and/or written by a white writer-director and only killed and disparaged black characters, there would already be a #cancel campaign on Twitter. In my five years as a film professor and seven years as an active critic, I cannot ever recall a horror movie (in particular, a slasher movie) that ONLY killed black characters and disparaged the black community in virtually every scene from the opening to the closing. So if that would not be tolerated by the public–and for good reason, a movie released like that in 2021 (or ever) would be in incredibly poor, despicable, disrespectful taste–then the inverse should not be acceptable here.

I get what DaCosta, Peele, and Rosenfeld are trying to do with this horror movie. From the time of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, horror has been used to comment on societal observations to either warn of an impending dangerous ideology, to provide allegorical material that can be used as a framework to better understand marginalized groups, or even to challenge systems or institutions. Which is why horror is often far more truthful than a straight drama. Of course, one can make the argument that this is a fictional film in a fictional Chicago, which is not untrue; however, the problem therein is that little (if anything) in this fictional Chicago sets it apart from the real world, except for the supernatural character of Candyman, because these filmmakers have a point to make. But the problem here is that the very people that these writers want to challenge are the very people that are being unfairly represented in the movie. How is any of that constructive to the conversations of race relations and policing??? Short answer: it’s not.

The symbolism I did appreciate in the film are the moments that we explore the duality in ourselves and our environments. This is represented through literal and metaphoric reflection. Mirrors (or reflections) are regularly used to communicate duality. One of the best examples in recent years, in how mirrors are an effective cinematic device, is the mirror scene in I, Tonya. Just before her final competition in the film, as Tonya is applying her high contrast makeup, we witness in the mirror the internal struggle. On the outside, she is this accomplished figure skater (probably the best athlete the sport has ever seen) but on the inside she is tormented by her mother, her abusive marriage, and what she did or didn’t know about the incident. Likewise, in Candyman we explore the history and identity of Anthony and his neighborhood. Anthony has a secret in his past that has been painted over, that is trying to resurface, and his neighborhood of Cabrini Green has a sordid history that it has tried to cover and hide behind a fresh coat of paint. History is always there. It cannot be erased. And if it’s not dealt with, it can become a specter and haunt you and your environment. The mirrors and other reflective surfaces of Candyman are brilliantly used to communicate this idea of duality.

It is clear that DaCosta is a gifted director, but I hope that she works with different writers in the future that can find that balance of commenting on or raising awareness of something important, but also finding the ways to bring everyone to the table for a thoughtful discussion. The power of cinema, and in particular horror films, is that it can bring diverse groups of people together from all walks of life to both be entertained and challenged through screams, jumps, and laughter.

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Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

The Protégé (2021)

Nonstop action, perfectly punctuated with humor and thrills! Don’t miss The Protege as it blasts its way into cinemas this week from the director that brought us Casino Royale. THE most summer movie of 2021!

Everything about this explosive action thriller works brilliantly, and it truly is the don’t miss movie of the summer. From beginning to end, you will be glued to your seat as the story unfolds. The Protégé takes the action plot of a 1980s action movie and combines it with contemporary characters to deliver a movie that is simultaneously both familiar and fresh. This movie is the whole package: high flying action, killer fight sequences with outstanding choreography, and a well-developed lead cast that you will love to see on screen.

Rescued as a child by the legendary assassin Moody, Anna is the world’s most skilled contract killer. However, when Moody is brutally killed, she vows revenge for the man who taught her everything she knows. As Anna becomes entangled with an enigmatic killer, their confrontation turns deadly, and the loose ends of a life spent killing weave themselves ever tighter.

Where so many action movies suffer is in the screenwriting. Not so with this one. The dialogue snaps, crackles, and pops, and there is plenty of humor to break up the darker elements of the film. Even with its 2hr runtime, you will never feel restless or bored because the pacing and plotting are both on point! Audiences will be delighted at the ideal balance in both violence and humor. But when you have Samuel L and Michael Keaton, both known for their action and comedic chops, you know you’re guaranteed to be highly entertained! Rounding out the lead cast is Maggie Q, and she is a force to be reckoned with as a ruthless assassin that is also a delight to watch as she kicks ass. Where these characters stand out compared to comparable ones in contemporary action movies is remembering that these same strong characters also need to be vulnerable, relatable, and appropriately funny. Never once does this movie falter in taking its high concept seriously, but it knows when to interject comedic lines and kills that help to break up the more violent elements in order to help the senses reset. Crafting moments that are strategically used for emotional resets (even brief ones) allows the filmmaker to keep the audience engaged without ever feeling bored or exhausted.

It saddens me to see that the review embargo for The Protege was until the early screenings on Thursday, because this is a movie that needs to be seen on the BIG SCREEN! While there is some thoughtful social commentary on strong, leading women that can still be incredibly sexy (on that note: Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman has been proving that since 1992), non-traditional families (otherwise known as found families), and toxic parenting, this movie never forgets that it is an entertainment piece that can be both exciting and thoughtful. It never sacrifices thrilling storytelling for an agenda. Furthermore, it boasts a diverse cast that is also never made into the center piece. The film isn’t saying “look at our diverse cast.” No, it is saying “look at our outstanding characters” that happen to look like the people you and I interact with on a weekly basis. That is how you promote representation in cinema in movies that twenty years ago would’ve been filled with predominantly white characters.

As I was watching this, I kept thinking of Die Hard. Not that it’s a similar plot. It isn’t. But it does deliver a similar story in terms of tone and action. And there is probably no better action film to emulate in some cinematic form or fashion. What makes Die Hard the best action movie of all time, in my opinion, is the characters and dialogue. Sure the action is great, but we remember the characters themselves, the things they said, and how they reacted to emotionally charged situations the most. While The Protégé may not be on the same level as Die Hard (hard to meet or beat), it is striving for that level of excellence in terms of storytelling and audience experience.

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Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

Sinister Summer: Dream Warriors

“Welcome to prime time” in the final article of my 2021 Sinister Summer series. This month’s article is covering the much lauded tertiary installment in the A Nightmare on Elm Street (ANOES) franchise Dream Warriors written by Wes Craven & Bruce Wagner (Maps to the Stars) and directed by Chuck Russell (The Blob, 1988), with returning ANOES stars Heather Langenkamp reprising her iconic role as the (in my opinion) definitive final girl Nancy Thompson, John Saxon as her father and the now disgraced former police Detective Thompson, Patricia Arquette in her breakout role, Laurence (credited as Larry) Fishburne, and of course Robert Englund as the terrifying and hilarious nightmare-inducing Freddy Krueger! Talk about a powerhouse cast! It’s not often that a sequel can rival the original installment in a horror franchise, much less the third installment. But A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (from hereon out Dream Warriors), is a heavy hitter that some even argue is better than the first one (a sentiment that I don’t share); however, it is certainly on par with the original, and that is largely due to the outstanding writing of Wes Craven. Dream Warriors is not simply a great horror film, it’s a great film period! And it’s Craven screenplays like the original, Dream Warriors, and New Nightmare that cement him as one of the great horror screenwriters of all time, not to mention his brilliant direction in the SCREAM franchise (particularly the original and SCRE4M). While cinema academics and critics can argue all day long which is better (I or III), what both camps of subject matter experts can agree on is that THIS is the film that transformed Freddy from great horror villain to the revered, timeless icon of the horror genre that he is!

For those of you who haven’t seen this excellent work of horror cinema (what are you waiting for?!?). Expanding the story universe, the action takes place outside of the titular address 1428 Elm Street this time around; and instead focuses on a bunch of Springfield teens who occupy the local psychiatric institute. These teens are the last of the Elm Street children, and all suffer from various sleep disorders. The clinic’s answer: keep them doped up on dream blocking drugs (hypnocil). Nancy Thompson is now a graduate student at the institution whom specializes in sleep disorders. Through a series of accidents, she realizes that the patients are being hunted by Freddy Krueger in their dreams. Over the years, the stories of Freddy and the kills from seven years prior are all but the stuff of legend, and so Freddy has lost much of his power because no one remembers (or fears) him. That is all about to change when he figures out how to gain his former strength. Nancy becomes a de facto general as she leads her Dream Warriors into battle against the malevolent Freddy IN the dream realm.

The Dream Master is back, and with all the one-liners and signature kills that are on brand for him! Having seen his beloved character completely misinterpreted in the first sequel (Freddy’s Revenge, which was panned by critics but has sense seen a cult following within the gay community because of the homoeroticism in it), it was completely understandable that he wanted to return as the Godfather of Freddy this time around. He took on both co-writer and executive producer duties. Sharing story by and screenwriting credits with Bruce Wagner. The film’s director Chuck Russell also contributed to the script but only officially holds the director credit–not a bad deal. Before the first draft of Dream Warriors was written by Wes Craven, he conceived of an idea that the film’s characters be self-aware and the plot would play around with the idea of knowing what the horror tropes are and play it to both dark comedy and tragedy. New Line did not go for the idea, and said it wouldn’t work. Gee, a Craven-helmed self-aware horror movie that plays around with horror tropes to create a meta horror movie? Nah, that’ll never work. It would be another seven years before we would get meta horror in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and nine years before SCREAM.

The final product of Dream Warriors differs greatly from Craven’s original ideas and screenplay for the film, which was much darker in tone (even darker than Freddy’s Revenge). In fact, the characters themselves were quite different in Craven’s original script. For example, Freddy does not have his trademark one-liners, so yes that means no “welcome to prime time, bitch!” (arguably his most Freddy line out of the whole series). Instead, he was much more brutal and violent, and even more graphic in how he taunted and terrorized the teens. The two elements that all, involved in the writing of this film, agreed on was that the teens would have special powers when in the Dream World with Freddy and the plot should include Nancy Thompson. When it was conceived to bring the teens into Freddy’s dream world, Craven questioned “why would Freddy be the only one to have powers here?” So the Dream Warriors were born. New Line eventually ordered a rewrite of the script to increase Freddy’s memorable, twisted sense of humor and witty one-liners and to transform the screenplay from an action-driven plot to a character-driven one. And it’s that character-driven nature of Dream Warriors that gives it the high level of quality that it has. It’s not just about Freddy or his kills, but it’s about the emotional hero journey of these vulnerable teens.

Responsible for the rewrites were Russell and Wagner. Analyzing the screenplay itself, it is clear that both Russell and Wagner were knowledgable in not only the previous two ANOES movies, but the nuance of the horror genre itself. Much more than in the original film, the rewrites also show a penchant for integrating pop culture influences into the dream-state personalities of the characters; and it’s the obsession with pop culture that ultimately contributes to their demise. Among other narrative elements, Russell and Wagner are particularly responsible for the demographic makeup of the teens that we get in the final product by changing many of the ages, sexes, and ethnicities of them. And talk about diversity in ethnicity, physical ability, intelligence, and gender! Jennifer, the young girl obsessed with TV and becoming an actress in Hollywood. Will, the young man confined to a wheelchair who is a huge nerd Dungeons and Dragons geek. Phillip, a young man who loves to create marionette puppets. Taryn, a former heroin addict looking to stay clean and sober. Joey, the quieter one in the group but incredibly horny for the ladies. Kristen (Arquette), who dreams of being an olympic gymnast and has a special kind of ESP that connects her with others. And Kincaid, a tough, short-tempered, and at times violent teen with a sarcastic sense of humor. Outside of Nancy, the other important adults include the often misinterpreted Nurse Ratched-like Dr. Simms, whom really is doing what she thinks is medically best for the teens to help them recover. And Max (Fishburne), the brave orderly.

Dream Warriors‘ screenplay is incredibly lean, and wastes no time in establishing the world of the disturbed teens before launching the audience, full-throttle, into the action plot. For starters, the opening scene of Dream Warriors is fantastic! I would put it up there with the opening to SCREAM, although SCREAM is at the top of my list of best openings–not just in horror-but in all of cinema. The opening to Dream Warriors is perfect because it re-introduces us to Freddy, including his grisly past and insight into the epic, terrifying dream world he creates for his victims. Furthermore, we get an elaboration on his backstory, including more insight into his fiery earthly death and his origin as “the bastard son of a hundred maniacs.” Adding to his intriguing, horrific origin is the idea that his mother was a nun, which is a terrifying idea that this horrific figure could have been spawned by any number of madmen raping a nun. All this adds to Freddy’s mythos and is perfectly accompanied by the iconic ANOES score. All these storytelling elements work together to set the tone for a masterful work of horror cinema. One that is more concerned with the characters, themes, and social commentary than merely the elaborate, entertaining, showman-like kills and memorable one-liners.

Showing the depth and complexity of the American horror film, this film tackles the tough, taboo subject of teen suicide. While teen suicide remains an issue today, it was more pronounce in the 1980s. Beyond after-school-specials and PSAs, this was a difficult subject for films (certainly at that time) to tackle. But when there is a tough subject to tackle, leave it to the American horror film to provide insight into and comment on it in unique ways. Much like Nancy and the Dream Warriors face their worst nightmares, the horror battles tough subjects face on! Not only does Dream Warriors tackle teen suicide, it also tackles drug addiction, broken families, self-esteem, and identity issues. A close reading of the imagery associated with the trauma experienced by the teens can be read as a metaphor of adolescence, transitioning from childhood into adulthood. Whether experiencing direct or implied trauma from Freddy, their family, friends, or the hospital staff, the teens endure gaslighting, imprisonment, mental rape, and attempted murder (and times, murder itself) all within the confines and intimacy of the mind. One can easily make the argument that Dream Warriors is a clever PSA on these subjects masquerading around as a horror movie.

Langenkamp’s Nancy’s return to the series showed us more mature side of Nancy. Gone was the shy girl turned bad ass from the original; now she truly was a survivor! And in Dream Warriors, she is the only adult authority figure that actually takes the time to listen to the teens, which is what ultimately points her in the direction of Freddy. Interestingly, her care for these teens evolves into a sort of maternal role in this film. Throughout this film (and franchise) there are images of mothers (and parental figures) that are explored through the conflicts, kills, and dreams. We know that Nancy had an absent mother before she got fired, so Nancy is striving to be the mother to these teens that she never had. While Detective Thompson is washed up at the beginning of this film, and took him a while to come around to Nancy’s plight in the original, he is actually one of the better parents (and fathers) we have in horror. And this film gives him a sort of redemption arc that I greatly appreciate.

Nancy also demonstrates the ability to be in a constant state of learning, even though she is a subject matter expert graduate student in this film. But Nancy is not without her own vulnerabilities. She may have exchanged her pink rose pajamas for 80s power suits, but she is still the same Nancy. Despite her more mature, calm, collected exterior, she is still haunted by her former Freddy nightmares and the ordeal from seven years prior. This makes her character incredibly relatable because she isn’t (and neither is anyone else in the movie) a superhero, she isn’t morally/ethically perfect, she is a flawed person like you and me. But she is harnessing the energy of these fears and flaws, and channeling them into making a difference in the lives (and dreams) of these teens.

The film is called Dream Warriors for a reason, and that reason is because each of the tormented teens gains supernatural power in Freddy’s dream world. And it’s not some arbitrary super power–no–it’s a power that is an answer to their vices and weaknesses. One of the common themes of horror is perceived powerlessness. And there is no better franchise for exploring powerlessness than ANOES because Freddy attacks you when you are your most vulnerable–when you’re sleeping. And we must all sleep at some point–it is unavoidable. Except in this film, his victims band together to battle Freddy on his own turf. While most of them wind up dead–after all, we are usually left with the final girl in slashers–they do not go down without a valiant fight! Through their nightmares, they show that they can overcome that which torments them. On the surface, they are fighting Freddy, but really, they are fighting their own personal demons that have traumatized them.

Now, it wouldn’t be ANOES movie without Freddy’s magnificently creative kills and catchy one-liners. And Dream Warriors has some of the best kills in the entire franchise! I do not have time to go through each of them, but I just have to highlight my absolute favorite Freddy kill and one-liner of all time. Not only is it mine, but this kill and accompanying one-liners are often in the Top 5 and even Top 3 from fans, critics, and scholars alike. And it’s Jennifer’s Welcome to Primetime kill!

The beauty of this particular kill lies not only in its simplicity, but in this scenes’s energy and showmanship that is 100% trademark Freddy from beginning to end! Jennifer is trying to stay awake by watching television in the TV room. Max comes in to escort her to bed because it’s late, but she begs him to let her stay up a little while longer. Reluctantly, he agrees to let her stay up and watch TV but he warns her that if she’s caught that he won’t help her out. She agrees and Max leaves. Thinking that the TV alone may not be enough to keep her awake, she burns herself with a cigarette. While much of this film could very well happen today, we get a totally 80s moment here with Jennifer watching the Dick Cavett Show featuring an interview with (and cameo by) the legendary Zsa Zsa Gabor! During the interview, Dick turns into Freddy and slashes at Ms. Gabor! Then the TV turns to that static screen that we don’t get anymore. Confused by what is happening and at the sounds of those all-too-familiar Freddy victim screams, Jennifer gets up and turns the channel knob, but it does seem to fix the problem. Angry at the TV, Jennifer smacks it and suddenly two razor-clawed mechanical arms burst out of the side and pick up Jennifer. Then Freddy’s TV antennae-wearing head emerges from the top of the TV and makes cinema history by saying, “this is it Jennifer, your big break…welcome to primetime, bitch!” Then smashes Jennifer’s head into the TV. And it is likely due to that kill and line that Freddy continued to develop more of a twisted sense of humor throughout the series. Of course, too much of a good thing is a bad thing, which we also see in the subsequent installments.

If Welcome to Primetime is the film’s (and possibly series’) best kill, this next kill is the most shocking out of the series. And it’s the death of final girl Nancy Thompson. Even though Nancy goes out as a ballsy warrior, it was completely unexpected that she would die. But that death made her return in New Nightmare all the better! In dying, Nancy successfully passes on the torch of the Elm Street protector to Kristen. While Freddy’s motivation for killing the other Elm Street teens in this movie is an extension of what drove him to murder the teens in the previous installments, his motivation for killing Nancy was more than revenge brought on by his death at the hands of the Elm Street parents; it was revenge for doing the impossible–defeating him by taking away the source of his strength: her fear. While it was “nothing personal” in the other murders, his desire to kill Nancy was very personal.

Dream Warriors was a hit with both critics and fans! How often do you hear that with horror movies, much less sequels. In fact, in my opinion as a film professor specializing in the American horror film, I argue that the best films in the ANOES franchise are: A Nightmare on Elm Street, Dream Warriors, New Nightmare, and Freddy vs Jason. The final script was praised highly for its pacing, thoughtful commentary, character development, and imagery. With a higher budget thanks to the successes of the original and Freddy’s Revenge, the special effects and set design were cutting edge! This is especially true of the scenes in Freddy’s Hell. Is the film flawless? No. However the few flaws the film does have in no way detract from the cinematic experience of the story. More than 30 years old, this film is widely considered to be among the best horror films of all time, and will continue to be the stuff of nightmares for decades to come.

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Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

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