GitRant – Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Scary Canaries

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You sprogs think you know fear.

With your “Saw” movies, your “Dead Space” videogames and your fucking Pokemon.

You don`t know fear. You don`t know what it was like to walk into a video rental shop in the 80s, and have to dodge through rows upon rows of garish, leering video covers, some hand drawn, some blood splattered, some promising death and pain with their taglines.

“Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid”; “It Will Tear Your Soul Apart!”; “Now Mankind Is Pork”.

You don`t know what it was like to be told, “Sorry, we aren`t getting any more Betamax titles in, there just isn`t a demand for them any more.”

You know nothing. Let me tell you about real fear.

But first some, background.

I like bad horror movies. Not stuff like “Giant Octopus vs Mega Shark” or “Snakes On A Plane” or any of that cynical, purposefully made, cheaply churned out cash-in arseholery, but the real stuff. Movies that don’t know they’re bad. Movies made by people so sincere you want to weep. I’m talking about movies like “Slugs”, in which a guy goes into his greenhouse only to have the whole place blown up by an unlikely series of events involving some petrol and a mollusc, or “Hell Comes To Frogtown”, in which Rowdy Roddie Piper fucks an amphibian, or “Alligator”, in which a giant plastic reptile eats a wedding. That kind of thing.

Every so often, I come across a movie so wonderfully, so utterly excruciatingly terrible I feel compelled to watch it repeatedly, immerse myself in its celluloid effluence and memorise every clag-encrusted bumnugget of bad dialogue. Movies like this are not hard to find due to there being something of a demand for cinematic offal these days (hence aforementioned cynical cash ins), and some of the better known examples actually have sizeable followings – the sublime “Troll 2” for example, or “The Room”, both of which are overdone to the point of boredom elsewhere so I won`t touch them with a ten foot pole.

But this film was something different. This one slipped under the radar by being part of a mostly well regarded horror franchise (and by that I mean the usual – the first one is regarded as a good film, and the rest are seen as somewhat throwaway and a bit crap, but good for a laugh because of beloved characters and situations). However, more recent viewings as an adult have uncovered a total and utter cinematic ineptitude.

Oh here we go again, he`s going to go on about the gay thing, main character called Jessie, S&M bar, he wants to take me again, big deal, the year 2000 called and wants its review back etc etc.

Wait a second! That`s not where I`m going with this.

If you were to perform a quick google search for Freddy 2 (from now on, I will be using the official schoolyard name for this film), you will find numerous smug and snooty diatribes about the blatant homoerotic streak running right through this movie. This in itself is worth a laugh or two, but is dealt with far more in depth elsewhere. If that somehow passed you by, give it a quick search, it’s diverting. It’s perhaps because of that well discussed subtext that people don’t really talk about other aspects of the movie. But here, we’re looking at something different. We’re looking at Freddy 2’s slant on fear itelf.

So here we are, back to what scares us. Those universal fears we all share. Primal stuff. Darkness. Death. Sharp things – usually teeth or claws. And then deeper, there’s loneliness, isolation, being pursued, being trapped, being lost. The abstract mindbuggery of a bad dream. Freddy 1 gave us all of this in spades, and drew particularly on aspects of the uncanny. Memorable chunks of the uncanny in Freddy 1 include the big arms in the alleyway, the gluey stairs, the hand in the bath and Johnny Depp’s haircut. Darkness, death and sharp things (in this case, claws) are obviously present throughout most of the film. As for isolation and loneliness – well, Freddy gets you in your dreams, and there’s nobody else in your head but you. But watch out – here comes Freddy 2, and you ain’t seen nothing yet.

First of all, the darkness has gone. The house, apparently the same set as the original (or rebuilt to the same specs), is barely recognisable beneath cheap looking 1980s sitcom overlighting. The dream sequences now appear to have 70’s disco lighting, making them look like they are taking place as part of the Saturday Night Fever skit from “Airplane” – they do stop short at having Freddy get into a fight with a girl scout however (shame really, as it might have lifted the movie a little). Cheap, cheap cheap. It’s clear that the movie was rushed into production based on the success of the first – none of the original cast (save Robert Englund, bless his stripy cotton socks) or crew are involved.

Anyway, time to talk about what Freddy 2 thinks is scary.

15 minutes in, fact fans, is where the handbrake really comes off and sends the film tumbling down into a nightmare of fumbled scares, bad direction and nonsense. We see Jessie Walsh (our hero) dozing in class. Then weird things start happening. Midway through a biology lecture, the teacher slams a real bloodied heart on the table. Odd behaviour, even for a biology teacher. But the savvy amongst us will already have deduced that this is a dream sequence.

Then…a python suddenly curls its way around dozing Jessie’s back. The scary music builds. Jessie’s still dozing. The snake curls itself around him. Wraps around his neck. Closeup on his face – he wakes up with a scream! Reaction shot of his classmates all laughing at him. Then – we cut back to a wider shot of Jessie – and the snake is STILL THERE! It wasn’t a dream sequence. The teacher comes and unwinds the snake with a disapproving scowl on his face as if this is the sort of prank he has to deal with every day. You know, as if huge pythons  usually  wander unchecked through his classroom. No explanation. The teacher just says “If you want to play with animals Mr Walsh, join the circus!”

Wait a second, what? What the hell is wrong with you, Mr. biology teacher? This student was just attacked by a dangerous animal on the loose in your classroom, you flippin nutter! Where did the snake come from? What’s it  doing  there, you maniac? First a real heart slapped on the table and now this? What next, you going to burn a sudent inside a gigantic wicker effigy?

The snake however, begins a trend. Scary animals. That aren’t really scary. In this film, we have scary snakes, scary rats, scary dogs-with-halloween-masks on and of course, scary canaries.

Now, on the list of animals guaranteed to make you jolt awake at night, sheets sopping wet, the vestiges of some half-remembered avian nightmare lingering on the edges of your consciousness, I’m guessing the humble canary is somewhere in the bottom five alongside kittens and tadpoles. But clearly not for the writer. And I know Aviaphobia is a thing, I have a friend who suffers from it (I have another friend who’s scared of balloons. Takes all sorts), but to the general public, small yellow feathered chirpy things are not the stuff brown trousers are made of.

The scene in question occurs around 27 minutes into the film. Jessie’s pet canary goes crazy, kills it’s cagemate and escapes. SCREAM as the canary bursts from his cage to the accompaniment of frantic panic music! SHRIEK as the canary puts a tiny cut on Jessie’s dad’s face with its razor sharp claws! PANIC as the canary knocks over a lamp! GUFFAW as the canary explodes for no readily explained reason, showering the shocked cast with comedy feathers like someone just toe-punted an old pillow at them! LOSE YOUR SHIT as  the father in all seriousness accuses Jessie of sticking a cherry bomb up the bird’s arse or something.

Later there’s an unconvincing puppet rat and some…just…terrible  dogs with human-face masks on. They’re on screen for all of one second, presumably because the filmmakers themselves knew how stupid they looked. We don’t even get a good look at the faces. Are they Freddy 2’s previous victims, like the pizza in Freddy 4? If so let us look at them so we get the point. If they’re just nobody, why have them there in the first place?

The uncanny works when it’s used in the correct way, not if you just look around your house and pick the first ordinary thing you see and try to subvert it. Horror has always been very similar to comedy – both rely on precise timing and a slanted way of looking at things, which means there only has to be a slight misjudgment in horror in order to push it into comedy territory (probably why people like me enjoy watching bad movies in fact). What we end up with is a family terrorised by canaries and kitchen appliances. There’s even a really badly judged segment where a gym teacher is pelted with assorted basketballs and tennis balls. Was the writer attacking the white-picket-fence normalcy of the American nuclear family? Was there some sort of statement about the status quo, family life, school life or capitalism in there? Are our everyday possessions, literally, trying to kill us? It’s a chodding mystery and no mistake.

Right, seeing as the movie is called Freddy 2, pizza face himself finally starts showing up after a good hour, once the writer has peddled all of his animal/appliance scares past us. And he’s wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

In the original, Freddy 1 always got you alone. You were running around some basement somewhere and some clawed silhouette was cackling and dragging his fingerblades across a blackboard just out of sight. You couldn’t wake up. Your friends couldn’t wake you up. That’s scary. But not in Freddy 2! Here, they have Freddy 2 run around a sodding pool party waving his arms and going “grr”, while bikinied ladies scream and jiggle about. Put some shades and bling on Freddy 2 and back him up with some tasty beats and it could be a rap video.

Nightmare on Elm Street 2 8

This is no longer the actions of a demonic hellbastard child molester who invades your mind – the core of your very identity – and uses your own fears against you. This could be ANYONE. Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, or Wizbit (google it, I`m old). Replace Freddy 2 with a drunken tramp with his cock out and you’d have the same reactions from startled teens at a pool party. Put Freddy 2 in a crowd of people and his fear factor descends to zero. He’s just a bloke with a funny face in a daft sweater running around waving his arms. You just robbed your antagonist of all his power guys, well done.

The ineptitude on display in what was at the time a moderately major motion picture, is staggering. It’s as if the film was written by aliens who had  seen  the first movie but didn’t really understand it, and were somehow tasked with producing the second, despite having no idea whatsoever what human beings are and what they’re afraid of. It is however, enormously good fun, and appears to be underappreciated in the annals of bad moviedom. It’s unique. I cannot think of any other horror movie which fails so hard to instil a sense of fear.

So why is it so bad? Was the writer so obsessed with the subtext about a sexually confused teen that he forgot he was writing a horror movie? Were the production team in fact emotionless robots from Planet Zog? Was the director some kind of tortured genius who dreamed of directing crappy sitcoms instead of being lumbered with a big budget movie? I have no idea. But I come back to this film again and again. It`s a flippin riot.

Get a couple of mates over, crack open a bottle of plonk, raise a glass to those departed days of video rental stores and a simpler time when all horror movies had to be about was exploding canaries.


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