Sinister Summer: Wes Craven’s “New Nightmare”

Before “meta horror” became commonplace, to the point that the once innovative concept has become all too cliche, Wes Craven wrote and directed his triumphant return to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise (although, he did co-write Dream Warriors). Made, not only for horror fans but also for general horror audiences, New Nightmare is a horror film within a horror film that successfully dances the line between reality and fantasy. One can easily liken that to the very character of Freddy Krueger who exists in our dreams but can inflect real pain. A fascinating parallel! Craven’s revolutionary approach to one of the most iconic franchises in horror history begs the question asked of horror filmmakers whether the effects of the diegesis on screen cross over into the real world, affecting the actions and thoughts of people who love to watch horror films. Beyond the meta nature of the plot of New Nightmare, there is also a self-reflexive element to the plot because the story, lore, and movies of Freddy loops back on itself by confronting the creators of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Wes, Robert “Bob” Shaye, Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, and even future horror star Lin Shaye (Robert Shaye’s sister) are all playing themselves, and even referencing the Nightmare movies in the same way we do. Heather even references all the movies in the franchise, not just the one’s she’s in.

While other franchises force a reboot or revival in order to bring back an iconic horror icon–by way of just chalking the return up to being a superhuman, resurrected, or supernatural with little to no reasoning–New Nightmare provides evidence (albeit supernatural) for why more Freddy films need to be made. Therefore, Freddy will appear in one more movie (two more, if you count this one). One more, because we do not count the 2010 remake (it does not exist). While few will dispute that the original A Nightmare on Elm Street is the best, it is quite possible that this self-reflexive entry is the second best. During graduate school, when studying horror films, I used Carol Clover’s pleasurable unpleasure and Freud’s uncanny often when exploring the subtext and themes of horror. Both of these theoretical approaches to reading and understanding horror films are clearly visible in this brilliant story. We get pleasure out of and attracted to that which should repulse us. Therefore, we do not want Freddy to be dead. In many ways, we need Freddy to live, and New Nightmare brings Freddy back for an encore in the present story and Freddy vs Jason. Of course, we’ve had the first appearance of Robert Englund as Freddy in last year’s Halloween episode of The Goldbergs and there is massive social media support for Englund to play Freddy one last time.

It had been ten years since Freddy made his debut in cinemas worldwide! The once near-bankrupt New Line Cinema rose up from the ashes to become a powerhouse of films and distribution. While the first three Nightmare on Elm Street movies are solidly horror, the franchise took a different route than Halloween or Friday the 13th by relying upon comedy to the point that the franchise became a parody of itself. The worst offender being Freddy’s Dead. We watch them because we love Englund as the iconic horror villain, but the movie’s plot and other characters were complete garbage. Fun garbage, but garbage nevertheless. With the downward trajectory of the franchise heading to “direct to TV or DVD” territory, why make another Freddy movie? Simply stated, Bob Shaye said “because the public wants it.” This line is from a Shaye cameo in New Nightmare, referencing the Nightmare movie that is being produced within the film we are watching, but is also very much why New Nightmare was made. Although I have no empirical data to back up this statement, I imagine that Freddy has more fans than Jason or Michael. From his self-deprecating humor, memorable one-liners, and creative kills (despite a low body count), he has found his way into our cinemas, homes, and dreams.

New Nightmare represents a return to true horror for the franchise. Not that Freddy doesn’t have some funny lines, but the focus of the film is on the horror of Freddy manifesting in the real world. Under the direction and writing of the brilliant Wes Craven, the Nightmare franchise was about to get a heaping helping of genuine horror infused back into the series. The strength of this movie is in the script and direction that was about to take horror to new frontiers by pioneering the largely untapped sub-genre of meta-horror. Whereas Craven’s Scream is the definitive meta-horror, he used New Nightmare as the training ground. Therefore, we can consider New Nightmare as the proto-meta-horror film. Upon a close reading of New Nightmare, the groundwork can be witnessed that would support what would become Scream. In addition to exploring a new sub-genre, this film delivers the horrifying, murderous, Freddy that we were first introduced to in 1984 instead of the sinister clown that he became in Freddy’s Dead. Once again, he becomes the centerpiece, only this time his claws are sharper and he’s been given a more sinister makeover. None of this could come together if Englund wasn’t reprising his iconic role. But instead of more blood, Freddy and Craven deliver quality scares, kills, and drama versus shallow kill after kill gore fests.

The central question in this film is: where does the line between fantasy and reality lie? Moreover, is it a dark, bold line or it is one that is blurred or delineated? The first movie was inspired by the series of real articles in the Los Angeles Times that chronicled people who claimed to have been nearly scared to death in their nightmares, but then they actually died. This film takes the idea of a dream-like killer to the next level by using the past Freddy movies as a springboard, as a source of energy for the idea of Freddy to cross over into our reality. What’s crazy is that we have witnessed this IN real life. Here’s a great example: in Se7en, the film never actually shows Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in the famous box; however, countless people report to have seen her head in the box. It is an idea that is so largely collectively shared that it becomes part of our reality. So, Craven is taking that same idea and applying it to A Nightmare on Elm Street. The fascination I have with this particular installment in the franchise is just how brilliantly Craven dances that line between fantasy and reality; he does it in such a way that it comments on our fascination with horror movies. Much like Craven’s line I referenced earlier is both about the movie within the movie and about us (the audience), Heather Langenkamp questions “don’t you people ever think about the effect your movies have on the people who watch them? A question for (1) Craven and (2) Shaye in the film and (3) by extension, a question to us (the audience). Deep, right?

The concept of Freddy crossing over from the screen to our world is a fascinating approach to take in this film that laid the groundwork for Craven to forever change the landscape of the American horror film just two years later in Scream. Craven’s masterful grasp of horror storytelling is highlighted in his speeches within the film. Furthermore, his years as a humanities professor certainly provided a critical lens through which he analyzed what makes horror special. There are few other writers/directors who understand the genre as well as Craven did. I absolutely love the idea Craven posits in the film that when a horror story dies that an evil force is released upon the world because it needs to live somewhere. And if not in its story, in our world. A terrifying prospect. Furthermore, once can extrapolate from Craven’s monologues in the film that we need horror films to contain as much of the evil in the world as possible. These films keep nightmares from consuming us in real life. He urges us to keep these stories alive because they are how we work through so many of life’s perils, traumas, and conflicts that tap into our most primal fears.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting 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!

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Twitter: RLTerry1

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Sinister Summer: “The Birds” Retrospective Review

“You’ll never look at birds the same way again” (Jurassic Park). Although Dr. Grant was referring to velociraptors, you can say the very same thing about Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Hitchcock directed more than fifty feature length films, only two of which are horror (Psycho and The Birds). However, he is widely credited, and rightly so, as the director who ushered in the modern horror film, with Psycho being regarded as the first modern horror film. On the heels of the success of Psycho, a film that revolutionized so much about the movie-going experience from movie start times to “not spoiling the ending” (now where have we recently heard that???), Hitch set out to deliver another horror film at the height of his powers. But what would it be about? He turned to past collaborator Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca, Hitch’s first American film. Her best-selling novella The Birds had previously been adapted for radio and stage (I’ve actually seen the stage adaptation, and incidentally I prefer the film), but Hitch decided to adapt it (loosely I might add) for the small screen. That’s right, small screen. He originally intended The Birds to be adapted for his wildly popular and successful series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. But like Jordan Peele did with Us, which I am convinced started out as an idea for his Twilight Zone series, Hitch decided to take the idea from TV to the cinema! So with the decision to adapt du Maurier’s novella into a cinematic experience, Hitch made history. Not only is it one of the most famous films in cinematic history, it sowed the birdseed for all the “when nature attacks” movies to follow including Jaws and Jurassic Park. This film was also influential in John Carpenter’s The Fog and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. With the question of why did the birds attack never being answered, it leaves the events of this movie lingering in our minds as a possible reality.

To hear a conversation with me on the CineMust podcast chatting about the must-see status of The Birds and Jaws, click HERE.

When wealthy well-known socialite Melanie Daniels (Hedron) finds herself to be the brunt of a practical joke played by lawyer Mitch Brenner (Taylor) at a bird shop while searching for a gift, she decides to return the favor by buying a couple of birds and dropping them off at his apartment. Upon finding that he spends the weekends with his younger sister and mother (Jessica Tandy) north of San Francisco in the small community of Bodega Bay, she drives to the remote town in order to deliver the birds. Soon after her unannounced arrival, the birds of the town begin to act incredibly strangely. Following a seagull attacking Melanie, and Mitch’s mother discovering her neighbor dead from an apparent bird attack, the town realizes that the birds are a real threat. Eventually birds, in the thousands are attacking anyone without reason or explanation as to why this is happening. Trapped in the Brenner household, survival becomes the number one priority for not only our central characters but everyone in the town.

At the heart of The Birds is relationships. Relationships ranging from romantic to familial and then between an outsider and the natives of a close knit town. Paranoia is a common theme in this film as well. The characters and their relationships between one another are so incredibly strong and well–developed that you can ostensibly remove the birds from the equation and the movie still works. Now, it doesn’t work as a horror film, but it works as a drama. The strength of this screenplay, written by Evan Hunter, lies in the complex characters and simple plot. Although the plot is largely changed from du Maurier’s novella, the setting, character dynamics, and the idea of the home invasion are extrapolated from the source material. Outside of the terrifying element of the attacking birds, the film’s subplot is about an outsider invading a close knit community and a de facto love quadrangle between Mitch, his mother, his sister, and his ex. Essentially, Melanie upsets the normal order of the town much in the same way that the birds upset the pecking order of humans vs nature. The screenplay also delivers some outstanding tonal shifts that are seamlessly woven together. Way before the first bird attacks, The Birds begins as a screwball comedy right out of the 1930s, then changes into a soap opera, then suspense, followed by horror. Lastly, the movie takes one final tonal shift from horror to apocalyptic, complete with dead bodies, foreboding birds, and a lack of resolution. This movie has legitimately inspired the real fear of birds (ornithophobia) in how the scenes were shot and the lingering possibility that this could happen in your own town.

There is a brilliant lack of explanation of why the birds are attacking not is there any real means of escape for the townsfolk of Bodega Bay, all while chaos reigns supreme in this otherwise innocent seaside landscape. Yet, this cinematic work is a permanent resident of our sociological zeitgeist. Even those who have not seen the film are aware of its existence. And it has gone from screen to live experience at the former Universal Studios Florida attraction Alfred Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies. The reason why we don’t focus on the lack of an explanation for the birds bizarre and violent behavior is for the same reason that we don’t ask why Bruce (Jaws) is attacking people. We accept it because the film is more concerned with its theme than points of origin expositional dumps. We don’t care about why the birds are doing what they are doing–that’s part of the horror. It’s the same reason why it’s important that we don’t know too much about Michael Myers; if we knew too much about him, why he ticks, then he would cease to be the boogeyman. These birds would cease to be terrifying if there was some sort of natural or supernatural explanation. The unknown is frightening. There have been many hypotheses over the years as to what the birds represent. The most popular one is rooted in the red scare or communism. And perhaps that is true, but the real villain (character of opposition) is not the birds but the townsfolk of Bodega Bay. The birds are the personification of the mistreatment of and unwelcoming attitudes of the residents toward Melanie. In a similar fashion, the villain of Jaws is the mayor because he is the personification of the folly of man.

When the true oppositional character in a screenplay is an entity, force, or idea, that component has to be personified in a character(s) because film is a visual storytelling medium, so the outdated, nationalistic attitudes of the locals is personified in the birds. Moreover, the ornithologist in the diner stated that if birds of different species flocked together, then all hope would be lost for humanity as we couldn’t stand a chance against them. That foreboding prediction came to pass as both crows and seagulls (who do not mix together in real life) massed together and terrorized the town and its people. As the birds are the original inhabitants of Bodega Bay, the humans represent the outsiders. This symbolism is also witnessed in how the townsfolk banned together to force Melanie out of the town and in how Mitch’s mother urges him to send Melanie back to San Francisco. All through the movie, there are images and sequences of the way outsiders can be marginalized by the majority of the native inhabitants. Human civilization has long sense been guilty of stigmatizing or marginalizing outsiders. At the root of the symptoms of intolerance is fear. So, Hitchcock took that root cause of unwelcoming attitudes and mistreatment and adapted it into a timeless horror film. It holds up so well because fear is still evident in how certain groups of people treat another in our lives today. Hitchcock used a combination of blue screen and practical effect technologies to bring the terror to life. And of those two approaches, it’s mostly practical-effect driven, all the way down to the real birds that were used during the production (with proper bird trainers/wranglers).

Three scenes that I want to highlight are the birthday party, downtown attack scene, and the upstairs room at the showdown. Nowadays, these scenes would be full of CGI and other post-production work. The actors would be acting with no birds on set, or very few anyway. For authenticity, puppets, mechanical, and real birds were used for these scenes to increase the realness and give the actors something to truly be afraid of. In fact, so many real birds were used that there were multiple large bird enclosures on the set that used as the temporary home of the stars of the film. In addition to bird wranglers, the American Humane Society was on set every day to monitor the treatment of the birds. The birthday party scene was composed of rotoscoping birds, blue screen shots of birds, papier-mache birds, and birds that were tied to actors and even more birds that were freely flying within the enclosure built around the set. Although most of the birds remained in the aviary, a few got out. And to this day, there are decedents of those birds living in the rafters of that sound stage on the Universal lot. In much the same way, the students fleeing the schoolhouse and down the hill to the town center–that scene–was accomplished in very much the same way. However, with this one, the added pyrotechnics were incorporated. The iconic phonebooth was covered in birdseed and shrimp to get the birds to go completely crazy. The upstairs bedroom scene at the end of the movie was completely constructed inside a giant aviary with hundreds of birds. In addition to the birdseed and shrimp that was strewn about the room, real birds were thrown at Hedron. The terror in her eyes that you see in the scene is all too real. No amount of acting can replicate that authentic fear. Despite the very real attack of the birds, Hedron is eternally grateful to have been a part of cinematic history.

The single scene that find is the most fascinating and shows the power of Hitchcock’s innate ability to create suspense with a camera is the scene immediately preceding the schoolhouse evacuation–the scene with Melanie sitting on the park bench with the jungle gym int he background.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting 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!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

Instagram: RL_Terry

Sinister Summer: “Jaws” Retrospective Horror Film Review

The original blockbuster! With The Meg opening tonight, the next article in my Sinister Summer series is a retrospective on Jaws (1975). And, we still “need a bigger boat” after all these years. Beginning with the iconic minimalistic score by John Williams, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is still keeping people out of the water more than forty years later. Beyond the film, you can still face off with the most famous shark in cinema history at Universal Studios Hollywood. A favorite for folks to watch on July 4th each year (as I do), this film became the standard for the modern horror creature feature. And at only four minutes on screen, Bruce (Jaws’ nickname), successfully terrified audiences then and continues to frighten beachgoers today. For all intents and purposes, this iconic film set the bar for and essentially created this subgenre of horror movies featuring man-eating monsters from the natural world that exist in places where we typically find joy and relaxation. The ocean, theme parks, rivers, lakes–these innocent places become the setting for unimaginable terror.

If you are old enough to have watched it in theatres in 1975 or fortunate enough to have attended the special 40th Anniversary screenings back in 2015, then you can attest to the film’s evergreen ability to scare you out of your wits. When I watched it on the big screen in 2015, the auditorium was filled nearly to capacity with kids, teenagers, and adults. To see this iconic film on the big screen was truly a memorable experience. Especially so around where I live, since the gulf beaches are just down the road. The atmosphere was incredibly fun. All of these fans, most of which had likely seen Jaws before, were gathered together to relive the terrifying experience of a man-eating shark terrorizing a small New England town during the July 4th holiday season. But why would so many people pay to see a film that they had seen at no additional cost on TV or watched on DVD/BluRay?

Much in the same way Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is often credited, and rightly so, for being the first modern horror film and forerunner to the classic slasher; likewise, Spielberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws is credited as the first modern creature feature horror film and forerunner to the blockbuster (or event movie). I am not negating King Kong, Creature from the Black Lagoon, or other predecessors; it’s important to take note of the word modern. Aside from excellent, visionary direction, both Psycho and Jaws have three important elements in common (1) powerhouse cast (2) strategic suspense and (3) a brilliant, oft-parodied, burned in your mind musical score.

It probably seems like you were born with John William’s two-note Jaws theme in your head, much like Bernard Hermann’s Psycho screeches. The terrifying suspense of Jaws comes in the form of a PG movie. That’s right, Jaws is rated PG. But this film delivers a bigger and more memorable punch than any gory torture porn horror film ever could. The groundbreaking structure of both these legendary films are the prototypes from which their respective branches of horror films are derived. They are the blueprint, if you will, for suspense and horror. The manner in which the suspense is drawn out for most of the movie assists in the ability to enjoy it over and over again, without it ever feeling like a B movie. The drawn out suspense engages you emotionally and psychologically. The feeling of dread lingers and lingers. In fact, you don’t truly see Bruce until the third act of the film when he jumps out of the water in an attempt to bite off the arm of Chief Brody. This intentional drawing out of suspense makes the delivery of that moment pack a powerful punch, an assault on the eyes and mind. Both Psycho and Jaws benefit from an excellent cast. The respective casts could not have been any better. Interestingly, in order to not allow the cast to overpower the story or shark, Spielberg didn’t choose actors with an instant command presence. But they displayed a strong presence nevertheless. It never feels as if they are acting, but truly become the characters they are portraying. The relatability of the characters is partly due to the screenplays, but it takes phenomenal actors to successfully bring these characters to life. Spielberg would repeat this same successful approach to creating blockbusters E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and Jurassic Park.

For more on suspense, checkout this video featuring Hitchcock himself.

When Jaws is referred to as the original blockbuster, it’s not simply due to being the first film to break the $100mil box office sales mark, toppling the records previously set and held by The Exorcist and The Godfather. That is a valid observation, but is ultimately incidental. Reasoning behind this thriller’s ability to create the concept of a blockbuster movie is the fact Jaws was seen as an event not to be missed. Looking back at the original crowds of 1975, you’d think the movie was a one-night-only big event. Hence the term blockbuster. The common adjective attributed to big summer movies literally derives from the fact that queues for the box office wrapped around city blocks. It busted the block, so to speak. And the rest is history! Coupled with the summer release date and ticket sales, the allure of Jaws generated levels of enthusiasm and interest never seen before. The film took in so much money at its opening, that it nearly made up the entire production budget by the end of the first week. Furthermore, distribution and marketing companies began to use Jaws as a model for future marketing efforts in order to attempt to generate another blockbuster effect. After Jaws in 1975, the next big blockbuster would be George Lucas’ Star Wars IV: A New Hope in 1977. All these factors contribute to the iconic status of Jaws in terms of its contribution to film business.

Instead of building a thriller on shock value, disturbing imagery, or jump scares, author Peter Benchley’s screenplay for Jaws focussed on crafting a cinematic atmosphere that had an intimate, claustrophobic feel built upon well-crafted drama through character development and conflict, at the center of which is a little heart. Different from contemporary creature features, Jaws picks off swimmers in the single digits and those attacks all happen at a single beach on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. And instead of an entire agency hunting down the man-killer shark, three unlikely men are forcibly thrown together in order to track down and eliminate the terror from the waters off Amity Island. Keeping the principle cast and environment small, enabled the drama to perform strongly. Big things do come in small packages. Coupled with the strong performances from the entire leading cast, this brilliant combination of cinematic elements works together to give us some of the most memorable lines, scenes, and cinematography in movie history. Furthermore, real people swept up into an impossible situation and foolish decisions enable the audience to identify with the characters and the setting in ways that make the terror feel all the more real and close to home–or the beach.

While Bruce is often thought to be the villain of Jaws–and no mistaking it, he is definitely an antagonist–I argue that the true opposition to the goal in the plot is Amity’s mayor. If we accept the goal is to apprehend or kill the man-eating shark, then Vaughn serves as opposing that action. Perhaps you’ve never though of the true villain of Jaws being Mayor Larry Vaughn. A close analysis of the plot reveals that Jaws (Bruce) functions more as a catalyst for the principle conflict between Chief Brody and Vaughn. Other than the death at the beginning of the film, the Mayor is indirectly responsible for the remaining deaths. After all, it’s due to his utter complacency, negligence, and classic greed that led to the other deaths. For most of the film, we spend far more time with Chief Brody’s continued conflict dealing with the social pressures, desires, and ill-fated decisions of his boss than we do with shark attacks. Mayor Vaughn fails to acknowledge the sheer gravity of the dangerous situation, and close Amity’s beaches in order to keep his citizens safe. In effect, he fed them to the shark. Seems like a villainous action to me. Bruce was being a shark, Vaughn was the villain.

Often the central character’s development hinges on the direct and indirect conflict with the opposition to the goal of the plot. In this scenario, Mayor Vaughn stands between Brody and Bruce. The moments in which Brody demonstrates measurable growth in his character arc are when he attempts to stand up to the Mayor showcasing a contrast between public safety and a combination of politics and economics. Unfortunately, we never witness Brody truly standing up to the Mayor to enact measurable change per se; however, it isn’t needed because we witness several moments of Brody shouldering the responsibility of protecting the citizens of Amity as a civil servant. By contrast, Vaughn is more preoccupied with a warped view of  civic responsibility that places more importance on increasing the bottom line of the local businesses than public safety. He rationalizes his position opposing the advice of Brody by engaging in classic psychological defense mechanisms such as denial, displacement, and projection. Vaughn’s actions throughout the film depict an elected leader with misplaced priorities in order to better his own career.

The success of Jaws and reasons why it continues to stand the test of time has more to do with the beauty in simplicity and strategic marketing than Spielberg’s filmmaking. Don’t get me wrong, Spielberg is an excellent storyteller and directed many of our favorite films such as this one, Jurassic ParkE.T.Poltergeist (with Tobe Hooper), and more, but it’s the strong screenplay and innovative marketing efforts that give Jaws the chutzpah it has. Jaws quite literally changed the way studios market “blockbuster” films. Prior to Jaws‘ release, the only films to get wide, general releases were B-movies and exploitation films, but Universal Pictures took the chance at cramming Jaws into as many screens as possible, and it paid off in spades! Jaws wasn’t the first film to book theatres in this was, but it was the first to be well-received by by critics and fans. The film was an instant success!

Even if you trust the statistics that you are more likely to be injured or die in a car accident than be attacked by a shark, Jaws still leaves you wondering what may lurk in the depths of the ocean, and by extension lakes and rivers (thanks in part to Animal Planet’s River Monsters). There is a lingering feeling, even if in the back of your mind, that a man-eating shark could live in our oceans. That is the power of this film and why it has continued to pervade popular culture for more than 40 years. Its influence on popular culture is certainly not limited to the dozens or imitations such as Lake PlacidPiranha, Deep Blue Sea, or parodies like Sharknado, but it serves as the inspiration for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, the Monster Jam monster truck Megalodon, theme park attractions, and the music is often used in unrelated TV shows and movies. Lines, imagery, music, and characters are permanently embedded in the psyche of the general public.

Sinister Summer: Kubrick’s “The Shining” film review

“Here’s Johnny!” Arguably one of the most quoted lines in, not only the horror genre, but in all of cinema! Widely considered one of the greatest horror films of all time, it stands as a testament to what an innovative, pioneering director can do with the genre. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining based upon the best-selling novel by Stephen King is a cinematic masterpiece that continues to be studied and terrify audiences today. You’ll find TV shows and even movies paying homage to it through clever references to famous scenes in the film. The Shining is an incredible source of inspiration for visual storytelling and the horror genre. Much like Hitchcock radically altered the landscape of suspense and horror, Kubrick is regarded as a director who also dramatically changed filmmaking and broke ground for directing, cinematography, editing, and more! He took the medium of film to new levels that are still studied today. He is infamous for his acute perfectionism that often required dozens of retakes for the same scene, which made him a terror to work with. He was giving his best, so he demanded that you give your best in turn. It’s this approach that has made his films withstand the test of time. Beyond the silver screen, last year Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights made it possible for you to check into the infamous Overlook to face your fears as you meander the corridors lined with the famous carpet that leads to bloody elevators, terrifying twins, and Jack Torrance wielding his fire axe (although it’s supposed to be a croquet mallet). As part of my Sinister Summer series, this article explores just what makes The Shining such a timeless horror film and example of excellence in the art and science of motion pictures.

With the recent news regarding the casting and upcoming production of the sequel to The Shining titled Doctor Sleep, I thought that an analysis of this iconic film was appropriate! Although the 1997 3-part mini-series was a closer screen interpretation of the novel and took place in the very hotel (The Stanley in Estes Park, CO) that inspired Kubrick to write the terrifying tale, it’s the Kubrick film that continues to be the favorite among cinephiles and horror fans. Furthermore, it’s the film that is a testament to the power of visual storytelling and ability to evoke strong emotion, and is simply more memorable because of the depth and complexity of the film that begs for analysis. As a member of the audience, you are forcibly pulled into the story; you can feel the trauma, tension, and emotion of the characters. While Kubrick’s The Shining is one of the greatest horror films of all time, it is not and should not be thought of one of the scariest movies of all time. For one, Kubrick never stated that The Shining was a scary movie nor did he, through his control of the public relations and marketing material, imply that it was a scary movie. However, he did imply that it was more of a conventional horror film in order to capitalize on the popularity of the genre; but initial responses to the film were not overly positive because some interpreted the publicity as a bait’n switch. It does a lot of things, but “scaring” the audience is not one of them.

As I’ve written before, horror films are not synonymous with scary movies. Are many, if not most, horror films also scary? Yes. But some of the best ones focus more on the drama, themes, and subtext. That focus gives the film depth. And through the drama and cinematography, tension is built, suspense is drawn out, and strategically placed glimpses of visceral horror, nightmare-inducing imagery, and uncanny moments are revealed that generate terror in the mind that evokes a physiological response to the motion picture. Beyond the physiological realm, The Shining also taps into the psychology of the audience as the events unfold through the various traumas on screen. In retrospect, The Shining is a dark, traumatic family drama disguised as a horror film. The action sequences in the film certainly lend themselves to the horror genre, but the family drama paired with the brilliant cinematography and editing is what gives the film critical value. On the surface, it is very much a horror film, but beneath beats the heart of a dark melodrama with terrifying glimpses into psychotic breakdowns and schizophrenic delusions.

The Shining is one of those films that has been and continues to be analyzed to discern the meaning behind the images and writing. In addition to directing, Kubrick also co-wrote the screenplay with Diane Johnson. As one of the writers, he was often asked about the meaning of the various sequences or moment in the film, and in mysterious fashion, he was reluctant to clarify the meaning. Instead, he preferred to leave it up to the individual audience members to decide. If you’ve read the novel, you’ll note that there are many differences between the Kubrick film and book. Most notably the weapon of choice for Jack. A axe in the movie and a croquet mallet in the novel. There are also character traits that were lost in translation. In the book, Wendy is a strong female whereas in the film she is incredibly mousey. And the hotel itself. The hotel described in the novel is clearly The Stanley in Estes Park, CO but it was the Timberline Lodge in Oregon that was used for the exterior shots. Why would Kubrick make these obvious changes? Not limited to The Shining, Kubrick often–in Kubrick fashion–adapted novels to screenplays in a manner that it made them more cinematic and less literary. The film certainly has a literary quality about it, but the changes implemented were in an effort–and successfully so–to make the story more cinematic. One visual way Kubrick adapted the novel in order to make the film memorable was to invert colors from the novel (i.e. yellow VW bug instead of the red one from the novel). Furthermore, he looked at the meaning behind the hotel’s design in the novel, and interpreted the meaning for the screen, not the objects themselves. It’s this cinematic quality that contributes to the masterpiece status of the film.

More than a ghost story in an isolated location, more than haunted magnificent hotel with a sordid, tragic past, The Shining derives its brand of horror through the twisted, dark family drama with a touch of the supernatural. I love how Kubrick uses what may appear to be beautiful imagery and juxtapose it against the macabre. Often there are innocent or majestic images used in the film that are undercut by dark subtext, uncomfortable music, or superimposed on that which removes any positive potential from the sequence. It keeps you from being too comfortable or perhaps it pains your mind. While one may expect a haunted hotel to appear in a more conventional or traditional fashion (gothic, rundown, tired, antiquated), this hotel is brightly lit, well-kept, and modern. But through Kubrick’s brilliant direction, despite the hotel’s outward appearance, it also feels evil from the onset. Frame by frame, Kubrick paints an entire portrait, writes an entire story. Each scene is as though it is a word in a larger paragraph. Much like the scenes in Barry Lyndon are ostensibly taken directly from an oil painting, the shapes, colors, and frames of The Shining communicate through extensively showing that which would have lost critical value if it was told. Show don’t tell (I say to my students all the time). Visually, the film builds tension throughout every moment from the beginning to the end. Because Kubrick exerted extreme perfectionism in direction, cinematography, and editing, one could remove all the dialogue from the film, and it would still play out just as powerfully. But of course, we would lose that famous line as Jack comes crashing through the apartment door.

Some of what Kubrick left out of the novel was due to logistical reasons. Visual FX that would allow for increased ectoplasmic apparitions, menacing hedge animals, and more was still limited. At least, limited to the extent that they did not meet the demands of Kubrick. He exchanged the more traditional horror imagery for something with far more intrinsic value–and thankfully so. Let’s concentrate on the three principle characters for a moment. Just like the Overlook Hotel is one location, one building with many spaces or rooms, we can apply that illustration to the Torrance family. Imagine the Torrance family as one unit, one unit with three different spaces. Perhaps this is a bit of an abstract thought, but the film’s content supports the focus on the central three as abstract spaces within the larger whole more so than the haunts around them. When analyzing the family in such a manner, the viewer can then see how elements of the hotel are extensions of the individual family members. You can read the family like you read the hotel. I also liken The Shining to Edgar Allan Pot’s The Fall of the House of Usher because the Overlook is a direct representation of the psyche of Jack, just like the house in Poe’s story. On one hand, the hotel is exquisite and expansive but on the other, it’s a claustrophobic prison, a grave. It exists on a serene landscape of beautiful snow-capped mountains but it also exists in a state of hell. It’s that identify crisis that mirrors Jack’s duality of mind and behavior. The famous carpet pattern, arrangement of corridors, impossible windows, lonely hallways with skeletons in the closets–or bathtub in this case–are all representative of the bizarre, bewildering mazes of Jacks mind that slowly drive him insane.

Kubrick also plays around with the idea of time, repressed memories, the uncanny through the revealing of that which should have remained hidden or buried. In my article The Psychology of Horror: An Exploration of Freud’s Uncanny through Psycho, I explain that the uncanny is The word uncanny comes from the German word unheimlich, which is literally translated as something unfamiliar. However, that which is unfamiliar is not necessarily uncanny. By the same toke, that which is uncanny is not necessarily completely unfamiliar either. In particular, he was interested in the return of the repressed. And, in this return of the repressed, “other” scenes, to which we do not have direct access, would reveal themselves. It is this revelation that is what Freud terms the uncanny. According to Freud, “unheimlich is the name for everything that ought to have remained…secret and hidden, but has come into the light.” The famous bathroom scene with the ghoulish bathing beauty, the bloody elevator (which Universal achieved so brilliantly at last year’s Halloween Horror Nights), and the twins that beg Danny to play with them forever, these are all repressed memories of the hotel’s past that have come into the present to disrupt the natural order of time, space, and dimension. It’s this disorder that directly impacts the ability for the family to function normally. And therefore contributes to the psychological breakdown of Jack, Wendy, and even Danny. These images and experiences distort reality, causing those of weak minds (Jack) to question everything around them, to behave hostilely in the face of an inability to discern reality from imagination.

Many critics and fans have written that the chief theme of The Shining is an exploration of America and her troubled, violent past. Mainly the massacre and displacement of the natives but can be applied to slavery, the Civil War, and where I’m choosing to go: socioeconomic class. I find that this is an important theme to discuss and may provide further insight into the meanings of the film because we learn that Jack is unemployed but finds himself in the grandest of hotels. Evidence of socioeconomic class can be seen through Jack’s words and behavior. Although he’s issued the title caretaker, he quickly asserts himself as a writer during his interview. How many of us have modified our profession or self image to impress more. It’s out defensive pretense to make ourself appear more successful or more intellectual than we actually are, for fear of what others may think. We are our own caretakers and public relations professionals.

Jack quickly associates the hotel with luxury, but is reminded of his lowly status during the course of his interview. He can temporarily live like the elite, but knows that he is still a working class schlub. Seeing this position at The Overlook as a way to gain prestige, he takes the position. I imagine he took the position so he could say to his friends that he spent the winter at the Overlook in order to write on his novel. During the tour, Wendy often remarks that they’ve never been anywhere like this before, drawing attention to the family’s provincial status. Several times during the film, Wendy urges Jack to resign as caretaker and return to Boulder. He refuses, stating that if he went back, he would be reduced to working menial jobs. The irony is that he is already working a menial job as a caretaker at a shuttered hotel. He exists in a perpetual state of cognitive dissonance, demonstrated an inability to reconcile what his role actually is. Again, we witness the film displaying someone who cannot discern reality from imagination.

And on the topic of the real versus imagined, another theme I’d like to highlight in the film is madness versus possession. We may never truly now if Jack was simply mad or was truly possessed by the spirits in the hotel. In the TV version, it is far easier to surmise that Jack IS possessed by the hotel, not so much in the more artistic film. We know that Jack has a violent history of alcoholism that led to Danny’s arm breaking and that he resents Wendy for refusing to forgive him for the accident. Furthermore, Jack demonstrates anger and resentment for Wendy not fully supporting his aspirations for a writing career. The presence of ghosts and other evils lends support to the possible possession of Jack. He certainly does change during his short tenure as the caretaker. Perhaps it’s a combination. Danny’s ability to shine and Jack’s sensitivity to objects and people who shine creates quite the conundrum. It’s entirely possible that Danny insisting that Jack is possessed drives him mad. There is evidence in the film that Jack may be legitimately schizophrenic because of his visions of Lloyd, the Gold Room bartender and the New Years party guests. But because Wendy eventually sees these same ghosts, that supports the hypothesis that Jack is possessed by the hotel. Does Jack have free will or is he fated to a pre-determined destiny? You be the judge.

That’s what makes the writing and visuals of this film so great! There are many interpretations, and I feel strongly that is what Kubrick wanted. This film causes us to think and discuss. So, I am glad it doesn’t just have one metaphor or meaning. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a masterpiece of a film that deserves all the accolades that it has ever received. The supporting evidence outlined in this article merely touch the surface of the depth and breadth of discussions that can be had about this film. The bar set by the atmosphere of dread in this film is incredibly high, and few films even encroach upon the level of cinematic excellence.

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Sinister Summer: “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984) Retrospective Review

Summertime often means sleep away camps, beach trips, road trips, and more. So many horror films take place during the summer and others serve as material for ghost stories around a campfire. This summer, I thought I would have a shortrun series on some of my favorite horror films that I’ve titled Sinister Summer. With the Friday the 13th next month falling on the precise day that the original Friday the 13th movie takes place and it being Jason Voorhees’ birthday, I first thought I would take a look at the original movie. But then I figured, why not do a retrospective on other horror films during June, July, and August? First up on the Sinister Summer series is my favorite slasher series A Nightmare on Elm Street featuring my favorite horror icon Freddy Krueger. Unlike with other slasher icons who hide behind masks and never speak, I consider Freddy to be the most terrifying because he can talk to his victims and attack you in your sleep–a time in which you are most vulnerable. Moreover, dreams are a private time and he invades that sacred scape. Furthermore, we don’t pay much attention to the actor behind other icons such as Jason, Leatherface, and Michael but actor Robert Englund is synonymous with Freddy because we get to appreciate the actor’s performance, charisma, and enthusiasm. Let’s get started.

1, 2 Freddy’s coming for you; 3, 4 better lock your door, 5, 6 grab your crucifix, 7, 8 gonna stay up late, 9, 10 never sleep again. If that jingle still sends chills down your spine, you’re not alone. Writer-director Wes Craven’s nightmare on screen has been terrifying audiences for more than 30yrs and has even had a crossover with Jason Voorhees. Beyond the silver screen, the Nightmare on Elm Street (NoES) franchise has been featured at Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights, interactive media (video games), and Robert Englund reprised his most famous role in the Halloween episode of The Goldbergs [in October 2018]. Inspired by a series of articles in the LA Times; three small articles about men from Southeast Asia, who were from immigrant families, who died in the middle of nightmares—and the paper never correlated them, never said, ‘Hey, we’ve had another story like this.” From that short series of articles came the franchise that we know and love today. But there is so much more to NoES than the fact it was inspired by truly unexplained deaths during nightmares. I’ve written before that the horror genre is the best genre for creatively exploring the human condition, questioning standards and observations, providing different perspectives on sociologically, exploring psychology, heteronormativity, and more, often in terrifying ways to get you to think, and NoES certainly gives us lots of material to talk about. At its core, NoES provides ample opportunity to discuss the distinction between dreams and real life, manifesting in the actions of the teens in the film; furthermore, the events of the film transgress the boundary between imagination and reality that provocatively toy with the audience’s perceptions of the real and imagined. It’s like an episode of The Twilight Zone on crack.

On the surface, it appears that the only motivation of Freddy’s kills and trauma-inducing actions is revenge–plain and simple. After all, he was burned alive by the parents of the Elm Street teens. And so he takes his revenge out on the teens and occasionally their parents. Albeit revenge is a classic motivator, it lacks substance; however, there is much more to Freddy and the NoES series than revenge. What truly separates classic Freddy from new (remake) Freddy and from Michael and Jason is his sick commitment to showmanship. It’s just about the kills, it’s about putting on a show for his own amusement. Almost exclusively attacking teenagers, Freddy’s attacks on the mind and body can be interpreted as being symbolic of the various and often traumatic experiences encountered by young people. Our central character Nancy is the straight-laced strong-willed teenager that experiences social and sexual anxiety around her peers and parents. Clearly she is someone who has had a strong relationship with her parents–especially her father–but that relationship has become strained due to her parents becoming increasingly disconnected from her through abuse of alcohol, pills, or simply not being present. One could go so far as to assess that the parents serve as opposition to the goal of defeating Freddy and survival.

Way before the proliferation of YA movies today and unlike typical slasher films, Craven makes it a point to place the power of survival into the hands of the teenagers. He then transfers the importance of physiological control to psychological control over the unconscious mind and that which induces fear. The ability to defeat Freddy lies within the mind of Nancy. And of course, Dream Warriors places that power into multiple minds. Originally Wes Craven wanted Nancy’s entire experience to be one big nightmare but New Line Cinema wanted a darker, more macabre ending in order to pave the way for sequels because that is there the money is. Just like John Carpenter desired for Halloween to be ONE film, Craven originally desired for NoES to be one and done. Fortunately for us, both have become hugely successful franchises. However, many agree that the originals (or even extended to the first 2-3 films) are the timeless ones.

Freudian imagery and analogies are in no short supply in NoES. Even more so than in other horror films where sexual content is common, the manner in which it is used in NoES is symbolic of Freudian themes that are manifested in the manner by which Freddy stalks, toys with, and kills his prey. For the most part, the Freudian imagery is shown through a sexual context in threatening and mysterious ways that play with the teens’ perceptions of their reality versus a nightmarish imagination. Each sexual image or action is representative of some type of trauma to the body that is connected to the mind and thus becomes part of the subconscious that impacts thoughts and actions.

The various scenes that take place within the dreams of the teenagers quite possibly represent Craven’s own nightmares or perhaps even your own. Just like you might talk to a therapist about a recurring dream or nightmare in order to interpret the imagery and meaning, Craven may be working through his own dreams on the screen. The dreams and Freudian symbolism are what separate NoES from the likes of Halloween. Strip away the dreams, and you have a slasher who kills teenagers. These dreams give NoES depth, and this dimension is what beckons us to face the uncanny and pleasurable unpleasures of this film. Importantly, cinephiles and horror enthusiasts should note that the dreams never end. Evidence of this occurs at the end of the film. In terms of Freudian terminology, there is sufficient evidence in the film to suggest that Freddy represents the id (the part of the mind in which innate instinctive impulses and primary processes are manifest). He acts impulsively, killing those who are connected to the ones who burned him alive in that boiler room after discovering he was a child killer (although the original script refers to him as a child molester). He feeds off fear and comes to life in dreams, full of revenge. Clearly audiences are witnessing a battle between the id, ego, and superego throughout the events of the movie. Unfortunately, there is no real winner in this battle of the mind and body. But there is a winner in the actor Robert Englund. Arguably, he is the biggest single horror genre star since Vincent Price.

Let’s not forget the comedic components of NoES. Beyond the dreams and thematic depth that sets this film apart from Halloween and Friday the 13th, is the dark comedy. Part of Freddy’s dark comedic charm is the fact that he can talk and toy with his victims in ways that Jason, Leatherface, and Michael cannot. For one simple reason, Freddy is not hidden behind a mask. Freddy has a sense of humor. Strange as it may seem for a slasher, he often integrates humor into his dialogue and actions. This is what makes him fun to watch. The original NoES could be read as the parents being the villains and Freddy being an anti-hero. For all the reasons to be terrified of Freddy, he comes off as a little goofy. As if he just grabbed the first hat, shirt, and pants he saw walking though a rummage sale. His taunting of Tina in the opening scene of the film comes off as taunting, not horrifying. It’s like he’s a cat, toying with his victims because it is way more fun than going in for an immediate kill. Another favorite comedic moment in the movie is when the long, disgusting tongue comes out of the phone when Nancy is talking on it, and Freddy says “I’m your boyfriend now.”

Variety ran a great article on this very subject. Here is what columnist Jason Zinoman stated, “[Freddy] has a weakness for catchphrases (“better not dream and drive”), dopey word play (“feeling tongue tied?,” he asks a victim tied to a bed by tongues) and a predilection for a certain word that makes him sound like a catty teenage girl (“Bon appetit, bitch”; “Welcome to prime time, bitch,” etc). But there’s no denying the star of so many nightmares knows how to deliver a line. He sells his stale material with an admirable professionalism—he’s the Jay Leno of serial killers.”

Looking back at A Nightmare on Elm Street and the legacy it inspired, it is clear that this film and franchise has so much to offer those of us who have been watching for years and those who are beginning to explore the fascinating genre of horror. NoES has it all. Comedy, visceral horror, commentary on the human condition, explorations of the subconscious, and more. It’s this delicate balance of all these elements that bolsters the plot and characters, gives us a horror film of substance. A film that is more than cheap thrills and chills.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, please subscribe! Follow Ryan on Twitter @RLTerry1 and Instagram @RL_Terry for more on movies, theme parks, and entertainment news.