Saturday, March 26, 2016

Happy Easter to all!

For He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. -2 Corinthians 5:21

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Video Cheese: SLEEP STALKER (1995)

Note: this piece was originally written for and has been published here by the kind permission of Mr. Ken Begg.

   "Bland A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET knock-off."

   This review will be short, because there's just not that much to say about the picture. As well, I've previously examined the slasher genre in my review of PROM NIGHT.

   In the 80's, the "horror" genre was nearly hijacked by the sub set of "Slasher" films. Even today, I notice, a lot of younger types used the term 'horror' for a Slasher pic. While there might be a technical basis for this usage, it doesn't really sit well with older horror fans who saw the 80's slasher boom nearly overthrow gothic and monster-based horror films completely. Put simply, "horror" is supposed to create a sense of creeping dread, while the slashers did little more than try to gross audiences out. (For what it's worth, though, the studios certainly gave their audiences what they desired from them.)

   Slashers were base, practically pornos with guts in place of flesh. Intelligence was never a requirement of the genre, only a number of bodies, creative kills, and a bit of nudity along the way. Although the odd gem like FRIGHT NIGHT came along, the decade's only decent genre entertainment was largely limited to science fiction films like CRITTERS, MUTANT (not to be confused with FORBIDDEN WORLD), LIFEFORCE, NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, and INVADERS FROM MARS.

   One notable exception* was Wes Craven's A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Despite playing into the conventions of the same kill-a-bunch-of-teenagers formula the Slashers were noted for, Craven also played against them by creating a slick, intelligent, and actually frightening film. The killer here, Fred Kruger, didn't mindlessly hack people to death with a big knife as he schlepped through the woods. Kruger stalked his victims in their very dreams, dealing out fantastic and outlandish horror which would carry over into the real world. 

(*I hasten to make mention of MY BLOODY VALENTINE, which stuck closer to the traditional slasher template but did so while serving up an unusually strong script and likable set of characters.)

   In short, the story concerns high school student Nancy, who begins to have nightmares. Her circle of friends share these nightmares, which are actually the work of dead child-killer Fred Kruger. Kruger, after being burned alive by the parents of his victims, has somehow managed to transform into a dream-stalker capable of physically killing the offspring of the mob that killed him. Nancy manages to piece things together, but can't find any help in stopping Kruger. She must enter the dream world and pull Kruger back into the real world in order to stop him herself.

   The film was a box office smash, and the Kruger character instantly took his place as an icon of horror. Over night, the burned madman forever became "Freddy" and the studio, New Line, demanded sequels. And so, "Freddy" continued to stalk his victims in their dreams, and gobbled up huge profits in the process. (Ultimately, a rather silly pattern would take shape, one of Freddy being pulled into the real world so he could be killed, only to re-emerge a few years later as a phantom that again needed to be pulled into reality in order to be killed so he could stalk dreams again...)

   A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, PART 2: FREDDY'S REVENGE found a young man now occupying the house Nancy had lived in earlier. In a Cronenberg-esque plot, Kruger intends to physically invade and take over the boy's body in order to enter the real world. This entire affair was overlooked when Wes Craven was returned to script the third (and best) entry, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, PART 3: DREAM WARRIORS. After that was a number of increasingly dreary and tiresome re-treads.

Despite the character being handed off to lesser talents and forgettable movies, Freddy remains Wes Craven's most visible gift to American and world pop culture. Wes would get a chance to play with the character again after the original run of films had officially "ended." New Line put the franchise to bed with FREDDY'S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE, but saw the film pull in enough cash to justify suspending their decision. Wisely, they turned to Craven with the idea of jump-starting the series again. Wes crafted a surprisingly intelligent film in WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE. This picture was set in the 'real' world, into which an ancient evil force was trying to gain entry in the manifested form of Freddy Kruger (having been given this form by the public acceptance of Freddy as a symbol of evil). The film re-united original cast members Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, and Robert Englund. 

   WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE didn't live up to box office expectations, but the character refused to die. Weirdly, Kruger was returned in the surprisingly good cross-over vehicle FREDDY VS. JASON, where the dream stalker was paired with Jason Vorhees of the rather more representative FRIDAY THE 13TH series. More recently, the original film was subject to a decent, if typically useless, re-make.

   Needless to say, inferior knock-offs would attempt to cash in on the success of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Obviously, there would be less Freddy clones than Jason or Meyers clones. Freddy's very nature demanded more intelligence and effort than the genre's producers would usually be willing to provide. Complex stories and impressive visuals just weren't hallmarks of the genre. Still, a handful did give it a try...

   SLEEP STALKER, THE SANDMAN'S LAST RITES is about as naked a ripoff as one could imagine. It also came out AFTER the slasher cycle had largely ended. 

   It's complete steal from Craven is also hampered by the fact that this particular knock off is pretty bland. Granted, it's better than the worst of the Freddy films, but not by much. Honestly, I don't know how much I can say about the film. It's competent enough to not be a total dog or anything, but it's sheer blatantness keeps it from being all that good. (This is a case of a naked ripoff that doesn't quite work.)

   It's fairly cheap, but the acting tends to be decent (if the lines poorly written). I think this might technically pre-date the 90's adventure version of THE MUMMY, but it shares with that (far better) picture a killer that silently stalks his prey by turning into sand. The physical effects for this are pretty simple things like reversing the film and turning the camera upside down while someone pours sand around the set. This is used to demonstrate the Sandman changing into a pile of sand and creeping through keyholes and under doors and such. Pathetically, the video box boasts of it's cutting-edge digital effects (which are few, obviously). These are rather drab, even for 1995 (especially for 1995, since JURASSIC PARK was released in 1993!).

   In the end, Bland is pretty good description of the whole affair.

   Our story concerns a boy named Griffin. As a child, The Sandman, a local serial killer, broke into his home and murdered Griffin's parents. The Sandman, his lips scarred from having been sewn shut by an abusive father when he was a child, is killing all families that have 7 year old boys in the house. He also likes to recite lullaby and sleep-oriented songs in a voice that makes him sound like a rather drowsy Fred Kruger. 

   Griffin sees his Mother killed and the Sandman gives chase. Fortunately, the Police arrive just in time to capture the beast.

   17 years pass and Griffin is now a young man hoping to make a career for himself out of an interview with an elusive street thug named "Dog." This really doesn't mean much to the story, but then not much here does. Griffin has some colorless and annoying friends who will act as fodder for the eventual killing spree, but he has a developing crush on his pal Megan.

   Despite being convicted 17 years ago, The Sandman is going to be executed at midnight. (Of course, this is set in California, which doesn't have the death penalty anymore -or else Charles Manson wouldn't still be living off the tax payers' collective dime over 50 years since his conviction!) Before the Sandman walks the last mile, he's visited by a 'priest' who was also at the scene of his arrest. Turns out both he and the Sandman are part of some cult and they're making arrangements for the Sandman to return from the dead. That he does, forming out of a sand dune, and he comes looking for Griffin.

   After a lot of rigmarole, we learn Griffin is actually Sandman's younger brother, which is a gender-switch steal directly from HALLOWEEN 2

   I'd like to say there's more here than just watching Sandman stalk Griffin, occasionally tuning into a cloud of sand to fit through heating vents and such... but really there isn't. While the acting (in general) is serviceable, the script is pretty moronic. The dialog tends to be either lame or outright terrible, and that hampers the actors who at least seem to know what they're doing.

   Another miscue is how the movie goes about offing the Sandman. They establish a couple of times that water is his enemy. Being made of sand, water quickly dissolves him, and they make sure to set this up so we'll take notice. Griffin should be able to kill his opponent simply by turning the hose on him, or splashing a cocktail in his face, or just urinating on him. But instead, he formulates a Rube Goldberg operation to flash burn the Sandman, because heating sand turns it into glass. 

   Why he assumes a glass-based killer is better than a sand-based one, I don't know. This idea fails horribly, and makes Sandman even more dangerous (only after thinking about it again did I make the connection that Sandman's glass shard arm is a weak recall of Kruger's infamous clawed glove). He's still mostly sand though, but rather than go back to the whole water-dissolves-him thing, the characters further implement the turn-him-into-glass plan. And if you think this was so they could do this cool effect where he breaks into a million glass shards at the end, you're wrong -something that highlights just how stupid the movie is!

   You try to take away what bright spots you can. It was nice to see a modern-era movie where characters smoked cigarettes like normal people and the movie didn't look down on them for doing so. Though this trait wasn't given to the 'heroes' of the film or anything like that, that's becoming so rare, you sort of admire it when you see it! Still, if that's the best thing you can say about a movie, it ain't much of a movie.

   So, in conclusion, my recommendation is to stick with A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (along with it's first two sequels, WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE, and FREDDY VS JASON). Should you want more, there is the admittedly decent, though thoroughly pointless, remake.