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How great is it that the credits for A Nightmare on Elm Street list Robert Englund as playing Fred Krueger? Even though his character is called Freddy throughout it and all subsequent films, the first installment never anticipated the kind of pop culture phenomenon he’d become. Billed as the new ‘masterpiece of fantasy terror’ from the director of The Hills Have Eyes and The Last House on the Left—I guess I never realized how popular those two were—this is what I most associate with the name Wes Craven. And Hollywood continues to go and remake them all despite their somewhat young ages, with a new Scream trilogy in the works to complete the cycle. What I didn’t remember, however, was how serious the original Nightmare was. All the entries to follow made Krueger into a jokey caricature of the villainous manifestation he began as. I can only hope that the newest re-imagining will go back to when that dark abyss of malice existed, before Roseanne and Tom jumped aboard.

Hellraiser and its sequel will always be my favorite 80s horror due to their aesthetic and overall creepy crossover of fantastical mythology and reality. Having only seen Nightmare once, or at the most twice, I definitely sold it short in how effective it was at bridging that same void. The idea to create a monster that kills in your sleep, existing on a plane of consciousness that can only be reached when your inhibitions are down, yet still inflict whatever damage in dream in the real world also, is quite ingenious. But Craven goes even further by instilling a sense of history and purpose to Krueger—he isn’t picking these kids at random, he has a vendetta to settle. A child molester and killer in his former life, the parents of Elm Street took matters into their own hands once a judicial clerical error set him free. With all the sequels jumbled in my head, I could have sworn I’d see his fate sealed in a blaze of gasoline fire as young Nancy is told the story, but I guess that only occurs later on down the line. Instead, we see a foursome of high school friends cope with the fear of the unknown, something they themselves can’t fathom. If only they knew of the horrible secret their parents have been hiding, perhaps something could have been done.

Every victim is crucial to Nancy’s life, our heroine at the center of the tale. Daughter of divorced parents—both had a hand in Krueger’s demise—she is also a friend of Tina and Rod, as well as girlfriend of Glen, the boy across the street. Soon realizing that the four have begun to experience a collective dream state, conjuring up the same burned face, knifed-glove wearing terror, it is Nancy who discovers the only way to be saved is to not fall asleep. It is the perfect catch-22 because the longer they all stay awake, the more prone to catnaps and daydreams they become. No longer solely worrying about what to do at night, the kids begin to nod off during class, while taking a bath, and even sitting down as guard for another. Freddy comes calling as soon as the brain begins its REM slumber, wreaking his own brand of horror by scrapping his knives against metal, cutting himself open to show the maggots ravaging his decomposing body, and relishing in the labored movements he takes, torturing his prey with the anticipation of violence. I would never laugh at someone who saw this film upon its release in 1984 and seriously couldn’t sleep without fear of his own bogeyman coming out to play.

What makes it all so effective, besides the terrifying performance of a make-up clad Robert Englund—who unfortunately devolves into more cultish prankster in sequels than the serial killer who speaks little more than raspy, growled taunts—is the atmosphere created by Craven and company. The score still stands up almost thirty years later, never becoming a hokey 80s-style overbearing nuisance. Mixed with the foggy mist of both the boiler room each dream eventually leads and the nightly outdoor jaunts on Elm, you will find your heart racing a bit, waiting to see what might happen to Nancy and her friends, constantly wondering if and where Freddy is, lurking for that opportunity to jump out and slice. Add to all that a few amazingly well done death scenes and A Nightmare on Elm Street really does become the film that brought gruesome terror back to the cinema. It was now possible to delve into a new world of possibilities for the genre, entering imaginative places where anything was possible. Looking back now, I can honestly say that without Craven’s vision, Hellraiser may never have been made.

The other casting then becomes second fiddle to the art direction and tone. Englund is a big part of course, but it is interesting to see just how little of his prominently placed personality later on is actually included. More a physical manifestation of fear and death, it is his body language and amoral attitude that resonate without the need of one-liners or close-up quips. Hiding his face and keeping him in the dark is far more effective than the risk of him hijacking the tension by coming out of the shadows. As for the others, I will admit that I thought Amanda Wyss was pretty effective as Tina, portraying the fear realistically at all times while Jsu Garcia’s Rod is a bit heavy-handed and Johnny Depp’s Glen somewhat amateurish. But you give both the benefit of the doubt, as well as Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy, because they are young frightened teens. The innocence and naturalistic emotional range supercedes the acting talent that may be lacking.

You won’t worry too much, though, especially when events like a bed devouring someone, a tub opening up into an infinitely deep sea, and characters crawling around on the ceiling with blood pouring out—what a great effect, assumedly with a room built upside-down—soon occur. Even the ending is thought provoking in its open-endedness. Was everything that happened an elaborate nightmare? Was the ending a new dream starting back at the beginning, or is it Nancy dealing with new issues by imagining all who died back at her side? Whatever the true meaning, I’ll admit that the sheer fact a sequel was made one year later belittles its effect. For that split second of letting the film wash over me without thoughts of what was to come, the feeling of dread was palpable enough to prove that, in its time, A Nightmare on Elm Street truly was a masterpiece of its genre and still a benchmark legacy that won’t soon be forgotten.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 7/10

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French director Romain Gavras could very well be my new favorite visionary. With all the hype surrounding the new M.I.A video—not as violent necessarily as I thought it’d be, but definitely NSFW, (as most of his videos aren’t), and vicious in its authenticity—I had to check his work out. His personal Vimeo page contains five of his music videos, all but one, (The Last Shadow Puppets), the musical creations of dance/electronica/electro hip-hop acts. It’s a pedigree of some international favorites and thankfully they all allowed their director to orchestrate mini-movies, oftentimes using their own sound effects and noises above the song being played, to stand apart from the MTV-mainstream by creating conversation with their political themes and aesthetic.

The Last Shadow Puppets: The Age of the Understatement
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This is by far the most ‘music video’ of Gavras works; the two singers walk around some sort of Russian town in their Beatles-esque trenchcoats, singing the words being played. It’s a great example of the director’s eye and ability to create intriguing frames of pure beauty. Watching the large group of military officers singing the background vocals, seeing the young figure skater do her routine and stop perfectly centered under a sign of foreign words, the ornate church interior as a priest waves his incense, and the swooping camera on its crane flying through it all is quite the spectacle.

Simian Mobile Disco: I Believe
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Here is an example of turning the music video into more than just a band onscreen selling their product. It is also a film that shows the song being sung, but instead of the actual artists, it is a young man from a rundown, beat-up town. Always looking directly into the camera, he and the people around him are a surly, defeated bunch, partaking in everyday work or just sitting down as the frame passes by. Complete with the grainy stock that makes it appear as though it was shot decades ago, Gavras puts onto film a slice of life—impoverished people looking to live their lives unbothered, but also unafraid to ham it up for the camera towards the end.

DJ MEHDI: Signatune
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Gavras decides to create an entire story around these techno beats, portraying a kid who is about to go to battle with his car, the auteur showing his comical side in the process. Reminiscent of a Saturday Night Fever homage, the lead character leaves his home and parents in his souped up car, arriving at the competition site, lined up with revelers and fellow enthusiasts. The kid has a swagger about him and the stoic stare that many of Gavras’s characters portray. Just don’t be surprised when the cars aren’t lined up at a drag strip—this contest is more akin to the music playing and beats a-booming.

Jus†ice: Stress
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It is with his fellow countrymen, Jus†ice, that Gavras takes the darkness that loomed in the work above to full effect. Depicting a gang of hoodlums wearing jackets with the band’s symbol on their backs, this video is unadulterated carnage and rage. Property is smashed, people are beaten, fires are started. What makes this work stand apart, however, is in its ability to bring us as the viewer into the destruction—not necessarily as a willing participant, but as a follower doing nothing to stop them. Much like the film Man Bites Dog, the camera crew itself becomes involved as the boom-mic operator is in the action as a molotov cocktail is thrown into a deserted car and the cameraman himself eventually ends up the last soul around to be harassed, putting a memorable end to the journey of violence.

M.I.A: Born Free
watch video here

And that brings me to his most recent work for M.I.A, the oft-talked about Born Free video. This is the culmination of everything he had done before—a strong political comment on a quasi-Nazi state at the hands of the American police force, redheaded boys the population being hunted down and taken. What Gavras does so well in all his videos is utilize the music as his metronome to cut and pace the visuals to. Crescendos and tempo changes all affect what he is depicting onscreen, a road map in tone and power rather than words being interpreted. There is a humorous moment at the start as a cop turns to the camera and mouths the ‘boom’ that pushes the song into its abusive progression, just as the apartment building raid is commenced. Using impressive tracking shots and slomotion to add drama, violence has never been so mesmerizing.

I’ll admit that I felt it was all a bit tame at first compared to the buzz around the internet, the profanity and grotesquely naked intercourse that’s interrupted in the search for a red-haired boy the only things making the video unsafe for work. Most of the beating and aggression is actually off-screen—we only see the swing of the arms and batons, never the actual contact with flesh. But then the bus load of captives makes its way to the new form of concentration camp, one more sporting and enjoyable for the sick, twisted minds of those rounding the helpless up—although a contingent of them are underground, looking to begin an uprising against the oppression. Here is not only where the graphic quality of death becomes more brutal, but also where the visual splendor of boys running through a minefield and soldiers watching and screaming as their vehicles drive by takes control.

Most likely a commentary on being born free in this great nation of America, yet still dealing with the oppressive state of our government and military, all the underlying messages—agreed or disagreed with—are only an added layer to the visual strength and indelible imagery that won’t soon be forgotten. If anything will make a song or an artist stick with you to remember and purchase, it is the work of Gavras and his willingness to push the envelope as he creates challenging and memorable pieces for artists unafraid to take the journey with him. I hope he makes the jump into feature films soon, his Jus†ice documentary A Cross the Universe already becoming something I need to see.

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