Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is Wonderfully Old-Fashioned

Murder on the Orient Express 2017 movie poster

Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express” marks a return of sorts for the actor and director. His last few movies as a director, “Thor,” “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” and “Cinderella,” had him embracing all the cinematic tools available to him to where his unique talents threatened to be squashed as he began to look like any other filmmaker making blockbuster motion pictures. But with this latest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel, we see him returning to his theatre roots as he directs an all-star cast to excellent performances while simultaneously playing the lead role of Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The late Leonard Nimoy said he never directed another “Star Trek” movie after “The Voyage Home” because acting and directing at the same time was just too much work. Branagh, however, makes it all look like a walk in the park, and after all these years I am astonished that he can make it look so easy.

Branagh is fantastic as Hercule, and he makes this classic character into a man of many splendors. We first see him being very picky about being served two hard-boiled eggs, both of which need to be the same size for him to eat. This scene almost makes him looks like a food snob, but then we see him solve a crime at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Hercule brings up three holy men to the front of the crowd, and immediately we think one of them is guilty, and that, once the guilty man is revealed, people will find their prejudices to be justified. But instead, Hercule implicates another man with the crime, and it shows how he sees sins as being universal and not relegated to a particular group or ethnicity. From there, we know this man will not be bound by prejudice when it comes to solving a crime.

Hercule just wants to take a holiday aboard the Orient Express, and we see him take great joy in observing perfectly baked foods as well in reading Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” which he laughs at constantly. But detectives like him can only stay on vacation for so long as the scent of crime is never far from him. And, as the movie’s title implies, a murder is committed which only he can solve with his unique set of skills. This will not be an easy case, but Hercule is quick to tell us, “If it were easy, I would not be famous.”

“Murder on the Orient Express” has been adapted several times, the most famous adaptation being Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film which, like this one, features an all-star cast. I have not seen any of the previous versions nor have I read Christie’s novel, so I am coming into this one a fresh newbie. From the start, I expected Branagh’s film to be an old-fashioned whodunit, but as it went on, I was surprised to see the story deal with themes Shakespeare wrote about time and time again. It becomes less about who the murderer is and more about the sins we allow ourselves to live with and of the different kinds of punishment we are forced to endure. Once the murderer is revealed, the story doesn’t stop there.

Branagh brings together a terrific group of actors who sink their teeth into roles which, on the surface, might seem underwritten and one-dimensional, but each actor does excellent work in creating an inner life for their characters to where their eyes tell us more than their mouths do. Even as they work on perfecting their poker faces, something which Hercule has them all beat at, their eyes betray a truth which can no longer stay buried.

Johnny Depp shows up as Edward Ratchett, an unsavory individual who becomes the victim of the story. Seeing Depp getting killed off early on in a movie is guaranteed to please many audience members who have had their fill of him, and I don’t just mean Amber Heard. I’m just glad Branagh cast him in this role instead of as Hercule. Depp would have just resurrected his Guy LaPointe character from “Tusk” and “Yoga Hosers” if he played Hercule, or perhaps he would have given us another variation on Charlie Mortdecai as, like Hercule, that character sports a truly extravagant mustache. All the same, Depp is wonderful in the role and makes Ratchett into a despicable character whose nasty fate deserves a thorough investigation.

I loved watching Penelope Cruz as Pilar Estravados as her demeanor presents the character as one with dark intentions as well as someone who has suffered far too much pain and tragedy in life. It took me a bit to recognize Josh Gad who plays Ratchett’s right-hand man, Hector MacQueen, and he is excellent as a man who has compromised his values once too often. Daisy Ridley, whom we cannot wait to see again as Rey in the next “Star Wars” movie, matches Branagh scene for scene as Mary Debenham, a lady who refuses to be investigated by Hercule for a protracted amount of time, but even her poker face falls apart before she realizes it. And you can always depend on Derek Jacobi, Dame Judi Dench and Willem Dafoe to turn in excellent performances as they rarely, if ever, have let us down.

But one performance I want to single out in particular is Michelle Pfeiffer’s who portrays Caroline Hubbard. 2017 has been a big year for Pfeiffer as she has emerged from what seems like an infinitely long hiatus and has given unforgettable and scene-stealing performances in Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” and Barry Levinson’s “The Wizard of Lies.” The same goes with her performance here as she takes the stereotypical divorced socialite and renders her into a complex figure of tragedy whose armor is harder for Hercule to break through. Pfeiffer has always been a fantastic actress, and her performance as Caroline reminded me of this and of how long her career has lasted. She has a show-stopping moment towards the movie’s end (you’ll know it when you see it), and it is further proof of how she has never been just another pretty face in Hollywood.

Branagh has directed “Murder on the Orient Express” as a theatre piece, and it is clear to me how much attention he has given the actors here. Having said that, he also gives this adaption a beautifully cinematic look. Along with his collaborators, director of photography Haris Zambarloukos and composer Patrick Doyle, he makes this film feel wonderfully old-fashioned, and it seems like forever since I have watched a movie which evokes this feeling. It should also be noted how he shot this movie on 65mm film which suits the material perfectly, and seeing those cigarette burns appear on the screen was a very welcome sight for me.

Of course, not everything about “Murder on the Orient Express” is perfect. The movie does drag a bit towards the end, and the story is at times a bit hard to follow. It also pales in comparison to another mystery movie Branagh directed back in the 1990’s, “Dead Again.” Still, it proves to be a wonderfully entertaining motion picture which reminded me of his best work even while not quite equaling it. The ending draws our attention to another Agatha Christie classic novel which implies, if this movie does well, we could be seeing the beginning of a franchise. I do hope this happens as Branagh has put together a wonderfully entertaining motion picture which begs for a continuation. Whether he can come up with a follow up remains to be seen as the world of movies remains dominated by endless superhero/comic book franchises.

I also have to say the mustache Branagh sports in this movie is very impressive. Lord knows how long it took for him to grow and keep so pointy. Many other actors would have been easily upstaged by such a mustache, but not Branagh.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Pirates of the Caribbean On Stranger Tides poster

I am happy to say “Pirates of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” is a big improvement over the previous entry, “At World’s End.” Whereas the latter had an incomprehensible story I gave up on following, “On Stranger Tides” has a plot which is a little more straightforward and easier to follow. Stars Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, and director Gore Verbinski have done left the building, and in their place are “Chicago” director Rob Marshall, Ian McShane and the alluring Penelope Cruz. With some of the dead weight removed and new elements thrown in, this showed promise. And of course, we have Johnny Depp back as Captain Jack Sparrow, whom without there would be no “Pirates” franchise.

This one has Jack sailing to the Fountain of Youth, and we’re not talking Beverly Hills. Along with him on the voyage is his former lover Angelica (Penelope Cruz) who proves to be every bit as trustworthy as Jack, which is to say not at all. Also onboard is legendary pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane) whose giant sword wields a vicious power even with a simple wave of it. And just when you thought he was out of the way, Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is back as well, leaving Sparrow with the usual number of antagonists working against him, and there’s always plenty to go around considering Sparrow’s checkered history.

You would think by now this franchise would have bought the farm as it seems the only reason for it to continue is money. But even in this sequel, Depp still looks to be having a blast as this rock star of a pirate. Never easily upstaged, except by Keith Richards who has one of the movie’s best lines, he finds much to play around with and hasn’t lost a beat since the beginning. It could have been a movie where he could have just taken the money and run, but if he’s still having fun then so am I.

Personally, I’m glad Bloom and Knightley are gone as their romance ran its course, and to have them bitching and moaning at each other yet again would have been tiresome from the start. Instead we have Penelope Cruz who remains an actress as fantastic as she is beautiful. She more than holds her own opposite Depp as Angelica as her character threatens to be even more devious than Jack. Seeing these two play off each other kept me guessing as to who was the more honest of the two, and if they ever reached a point where they start believing their own lies.

I’m also glad to see Geoffrey Rush back as well and fresh off the Best Picture winner “The King’s Speech.” His character of Barbossa has had an interesting journey throughout these films as he’s been an antagonist and then a protagonist. By the time you reach him in “On Stranger Tides,” you’re not quite sure what to make of him which is part of the fun. Like Depp, Rush still has a joyous time playing this enigmatic character, and his gleeful delivery of dialogue is highly entertaining.

Ian McShane was an inspired choice to play Blackbeard, but in some ways his performance is a bit of a letdown. He’s very good, but after watching him portray one of the most cold-blooded bad guys ever in “Sexy Beast,” I expected a lot more menace from him which would have made “On Stranger Tides”’ all the more enthralling to watch. Still, he’s a great actor and could have done much worse.

The one character, however, I could have done without is the stubborn missionary Philip Swift. He’s a bland character who serves no real purpose in a movie which already has more then enough characters to juggle. This is no fault of the actor playing him as Sam Claflin does his best with an underwritten role, but it felt like the screenwriters were making up for the loss of Bloom and Knightley, and they really didn’t need to.

I do have to admit I really dug the mermaids and their natural beauty as much as I did the filmmakers’ take on them. Whereas they are as lovely as we remember them from stories and fairy tales, these mermaids here pack a vicious set of jaws and would sooner devour you than kiss you. There is some nudity here but no breasts (it’s a Disney movie folks), and you will find them unusual than the mermaids you grew up reading about. I guess you could say this is Disney’s subtle take on “Fatal Attraction.”

With Rob Marshall taking over directing duties on this one, I really admire how he streamlined this venture. Even though the movie stumbles a bit in the mid-section, Marshall keeps things moving at a swift pace and none of it gets overwhelming. “At World’s End” was so over bloated to where I wouldn’t be able to describe the plot or remember the name of the character Chow Yun Fat played to you. But here you have a good idea of who everyone is, and even if there are things which don’t make complete sense, it doesn’t matter too much.

In the end, all I really wanted out of “Pirates of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”’ was a good time. It’s not a movie I ask too much from, and I liked how Disney learned from the franchise’s previous mistakes. While the wonderfully entertaining “Curse of The Black Pearl” set the bar high, this one reaches up far enough towards it. Along with another thunderous Hans Zimmer score, I was pleased with this fourth “’Pirates” film, and I am open to seeing a part five, and you know there will be one at some point in the future.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Tusk’ Should Not Be Mistaken for a Mainstream Film

Tusk movie poster

To be honest, I’m glad Kevin Smith hasn’t retired from filmmaking (or at least, not yet). I’ve enjoyed all his movies except for “Cop Out,” which I’m sure he doesn’t care for either. When it comes to “Red State,” I found it to be a major leap out of Smith’s safety zone which resulted in his best directorial effort yet. Now we have “Tusk,” his second visit to the horror genre and one of the more original and bizarre movies to come out in a long time. It has its moments of comedy, but it is mostly a serious film dealing with one American’s journey into Canada and of the horrific fate awaiting him there.

Justin Long stars as Wallace Bryton, one of the hosts of a popular podcast called “The Not-See Party” (get it?), and he and his good friend Teddy Craft (Haley Joel Osment) live to have fun at the expense of others. Their latest target is the “Kill Bill Kid” who accidentally sliced off one of his legs with a sword while attempting to perform one of that movie’s famous moves, and Wallace decides he and Teddy should travel to Canada to interview him. Teddy, however, doesn’t like to fly, so Wallace goes over there all by his lonesome.

When Wallace gets to Canada, he discovers the “Kill Bill Kid” has died which leaves him without an interview. Despondent, he stops by a bar where he discovers a handbill from a man who claims to have a lifetime of stories to tell, and he is offering free room and board to those interested in hearing him out. Wallace jumps at the chance to listen to what he has to say and travels out to the man’s house which, like in any other horror movie, is located in the middle of nowhere. It is there he meets Howard Howe (Michael Parks), a wheelchair-bound old man who regales Wallace with tales of his life at sea. One of those tales involves a ship he was on which sank and led to him meeting a walrus who saved him from drowning. Howard came to name the walrus Mr. Tusk, and he still considers Mr. Tusk to be the best companion he ever had.

As Howard continues to talk, Wallace begins to lose consciousness as, like those horny teenagers in “Red State,” he has been drugged and eventually passes out. When Wallace wakes up, he finds himself in the hands of a man intent on turning him into a walrus. We all know what curiosity did to the cat, but Wallace looks to be heading towards a fate far worse than death here.

I don’t think it’s any secret of what happens to Wallace in “Tusk,” and perhaps it is best for those who haven’t seen the movie yet to stop reading this review now. The inspiration for this movie came from “SModcast,” a weekly podcast Smith does with Scott Mosier. On one episode they talked about an ad from a British website where a man was offering free room and board for anyone willing to dress up in a walrus suit and make walrus noises while he throws them fish and crabs to eat. We get to hear some of this episode during “Tusk’s” end credits, and Smith and Mosier are laughing their asses off as they discuss how the movie would play out. Seriously, it got to where I was kind of amazed at how the story evolved from the podcast to this finished movie.

Like “Red State,” “Tusk” is not the kind of horror movie designed to make you jump out of your seat every five minutes. Instead, it is more about people confronted with a terrifying situation which proves to be way beyond their control, and just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do. Robert Kurtzman was the effects artist, so that should give you an idea of just how horrific Wallace’s transformation is. It may not quite equal what Jeff Goldblum went through in “The Fly,” but it does provide the audience with a very unsettling visual.

Long has a tricky role to play as Wallace is a very obnoxious dude who almost doesn’t yet realize just how rude he is to others. His interactions with Canadian residents provide “Tusk” with some of its most amusing moments, and that’s especially the case when he meets a border agent played by Harley Morenstein who doesn’t hesitate to explain the differences between the United States and Canada. You can’t help but feel bad for Wallace even though he’s a bit of a jerk. I like to think this gave Long an interesting arc to play as he goes from being an egotistical prick to a helpless victim who is not exactly deserving of the fate which awaits him.

We do get a few flashbacks which show Wallace hanging out with his girlfriend Allison (Genesis Rodriguez) who is starting to accuse him of being a sellout, and she admits to missing the old Wallace as a result. Wallace, however, is more smitten with the new version of himself and doesn’t want to go back to the way he was. To say that this comes back to haunt Wallace is the understatement of the year.

Rodriguez, I have to say, has some really strong close-ups here where she holds the audience at bay with her emotional conflicts. As much as she loves Wallace, she is not blind to his misdeeds which eventually come to reflect her own. Rodriguez previously appeared in “Identity Thief” and “Casa de mi Padre,” and she looks almost completely unrecognizable here. Gloria Swanson may have told Mr. DeMille in “Sunset Boulevard” that she was ready for her close-up, but she wasn’t as ready as Rodriguez is here.

It’s also great to see Osment here whom we all remember from “The Sixth Sense.” He’s grown up now (deal with it) and gives a multilayered performance here as Teddy. Explaining why is tough because it would be giving away one too many things, but it shows that Osment has entered into an adult acting career with confidence, and I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.

But let’s be honest, the real reason to see “Tusk” is Michael Parks. His performance as Howard Howe is truly a master class in acting, and he takes what could have been an utterly ridiculous character and turns him into a pitiful and truly haunted soul, not to mention an utterly terrifying one. Seeing him dive right into this role with such a giddy exuberance and spout off classic lines of literature is invigorating, and it quickly reminded me of how annoyed I was that he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his work in “Red State.”

“Tusk” does, however, fall apart a bit during the second half when we get introduced to a French-Canadian detective named Guy LaPointe. His appearance comes out of nowhere, and it leads to a cameo which goes on for far too long. Now you may or may not know the identity of the actor playing LaPointe, but I’m not going to reveal it here because it honestly took me a minute or two to realize who it was. There is something to be said for an actor who disappears into their part, and this one succeeded in doing so thanks to a nice nose job. Still, the character feels out of place.

It’s best to go into “Tusk” with an open mind, and this especially goes for Kevin Smith fans. Some may say he is traveling through familiar territory here, but I don’t think he is. True, it does have a couple of convenience store clerks (both of whom will be appearing in Smith’s next movie, “Yoga Hosers”) and there are a lot of in-jokes throughout, but here he is exploring the possibility of a man’s humanity surviving a cruel and life altering event.

I also got to say, looking at this movie’s title, that I kept wondering if the Fleetwood Mac song “Tusk” would be featured here. Is it? Well, see the movie to find out.

* * * out of * * * *

Yoga Hosers

Yoga Hosers poster

I like Kevin Smith. I’ve always liked him ever since he unleashed “Clerks” on audiences worldwide. “Chasing Amy” and “Dogma” were wonderful movies as they delved into personal matters in both intelligent and hilarious ways. “Red State,” his best movie to date, showed him breaking out of his comfort zone and giving us something we could not have seen coming. I’m also a big fan of his various podcasts, especially “Hollywood Babble-On” which has him and Ralph Garman laughing at the expense of celebrities of all kinds (especially Justin Bieber). I even have good things to say about “Tusk” which most people hated.

But when it comes to “Yoga Hosers,” I’m afraid I can’t give it a positive review, darn it. The movie has some inspired moments and appealing performances, and there were scenes which had me laughing quite loudly. Still, this motion picture is nowhere as inspired as Smith thinks it is. It’s not as bad as his misbegotten “Cop Out,” but it does run out of gas long before it arrives at the end credits.

“Yoga Hosers” is the second film in Smith’s “True North” trilogy, and it has the two teenage female clerks from “Tusk,” Colleen Collette (Lily-Rose Depp) and Colleen McKenzie (Harley Quinn Smith), returning to the silver screen. The two still work at the Manitoba convenience store Eh-2-Zed, but they occasionally use excuses like having a urinary tract infection to escape the register and go to the backroom where they sing songs like Anthrax’s “I’m The Man.” Being teenagers, they obsess over cute boys almost as much as they do over their cell phones and texting. When one of the hottest looking boys at school, Hunter Calloway (Austin Butler), invites them to a senior party, they couldn’t be more excited if they tried.

But of course, something gets in the way of their well-laid party plans, and it’s not just their parents. The Colleens soon discover an ancient evil rising from beneath Canada’s crust, one which proves to be a product of Canadian Nazis. Soon, an army of Bratzis (little Nazis made out of bratwursts) are unleashed, and it is up to these two clerks who are not even supposed to be here today to save the world from destruction and salvage their social standing at school in the process.

Knowing that Smith has quite the love for weed, I can’t help but describe “Yoga Hosers” as half baked. There are some wonderfully creative ideas on display in the movie, but they are never fully realized. The Bratzis are at best one joke characters, and Smith (who plays the Bratzis) can’t wring much in the way of laughs out of them. The whole Canadian Nazi flashback is beautifully filmed, but it is also rushed to where only so much of it stays with you. And when the movie ended, I came out it saying, “That’s it?” I hate, hate, hate, hate coming out of any movie like that.

The special effects are incredibly cheesy, but then again this movie only had a budget of $5 million dollars so it’s pointless to expect “Avatar” visual effects here.

On the upside, the cast is very good. Harley and Lily are of course best known for being the children of famous people, but enough of that already. Both are best friends in real life, and they share a great chemistry together onscreen. Even when the material fails them, they are very appealing throughout and make you want to keep watching “Yoga Hosers” in the hopes it might improve. Harley herself has one of the movie’s best moments when she utters a famous line from “Clerks,” and you will definitely know it when you hear it.

Johnny Depp returns as legendary man-hunter Guy LaPointe, the same character he portrayed in “Tusk.” Depp must have relished the opportunity to be in a movie, any movie, which wasn’t bankrolled by a studio for millions and millions of dollar to where the weight of the world was weighing on him to the tune of another box office bomb. While Guy seemed like a bit of an unnecessary addition to “Tusk,” the character is a more welcome presence here as he teams up with the Colleens to bring an end to the Canadian Nazis promise of domination.

Justin Long also has some hilarious scenes as the Colleens’ yoga guru and mentor, Yogi Bayer. This character is so far removed from the one he played in “Tusk” as Long revels in playing an over the top character whose teaching methods in the way of yoga, while not exactly sound, do come to aid these ladies when danger looms large.

But the one man who steals every scene he has in “Yoga Hosers” is Ralph Garman who plays Andronicus Arcane, a resurrected Canadian Nazi who is also very good with celebrity impressions. Garman has a blast doing his various impressions, some of which are excellent, and it generated a lot of laughter and near applause at the screening I attended.

Still, despite all the fun everyone seems to have had making “Yoga Hosers,” not enough of it translates over to the audience. More jokes miss than hit, and the movie never works as a comedy, fantasy or horror movie. Looking back, I wonder what Smith was hoping to accomplish with it other than to make the kind of teen movie he wished he saw as a kid. At times the story feels like it is all over the place, and the humor after a while becomes too broad for its own good.

All the same, I do have hope for Smith as I’m confident he can recover from this missed opportunity. The writer/director plans to conclude his “True North” trilogy in the future with “Moose Jaws,” and the title already has me excited. While he looks to be making amends to all those movie critics who bashed “Tusk” and “Cop Out” without an ounce of remorse, they will still be coming after him on this one. Here’s hoping we get “Clerks III” sooner rather than later.

* * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

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Wes Craven Gives a Live Commentary on ‘A Nightmare On Elm Street’

A Nightmare on Elm Street original poster

It has been a year since filmmaker Wes Craven passed away after a long fight with brain cancer. Despite the fact he was 76 years old, it still feels like he left this world far too soon. The following article is about a screening of perhaps his most famous film which I attended seven years ago, and it remains one of the most enjoyable, informative and entertaining screenings I have ever attended in Southern California.

Wes Craven made a special appearance on March 29, 2009 at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica for a special screening of the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” This horror classic was released back in 1984 by the then fledging distributor New Line Cinema, and it remains one of the great horror classics of all time. This screening was sold out as Craven was there to do a live commentary of the film, and he was joined by director Mick Garris who started things off by saying, “I hate those people who talk through the movie!”

What shocked everyone the most was that the 35 mm print of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” was in pristine condition to where it looked like it had never even been run through a film projector before. Both Craven and Garris gave their compliments to the Aero Theater for getting their hands on such a beautiful print, and the audience applauded in agreement.

Garris started off with the question Craven must get every single day of his life: “Where did you get the idea for this movie?”

Laughingly, Craven said the idea for “A Nightmare on Elm Street” came when he was watching late night television, and a story came on regarding a young man who had died after having horrible nightmares. This case led to a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times about the boy and how he told everyone there was a man inside his dream trying to kill him. His father, a doctor, kept giving him sleeping pills to help him rest more easily. But when the police found the boy’s lifeless body, they also found all the sleeping pills his father gave to him underneath his bed. He never took a single one.

Craven also said the film was inspired by a dream sequence he did in “The Last House on the Left” where a character named Weasel has this nightmare where he is strapped down on an operating table with the parents of one of his victims hovering over him in and dressed in scrubs. The husband ends up taking a hammer and a chisel and places the chisel right on Weasel’s front teeth. The hammer comes down with a thrashing blow, and Weasel suddenly wakes up. Craven said when people talk about “Last House on the Left,” it is always this particular scene they bring up which astonishes him. Turns out it stayed with him to the point where someone suggested he make a movie out of a dream. Guess what happened next.

Craven also made it clear that “A Nightmare on Elm Street” was not inspired by any specific episode of “The Twilight Zone.” Instead he said he was trying to establish the world of dreams as he finds them, as we all do, endlessly fascinating. Throughout the movie, he discussed the subject of dreams at length and talked of how they have no rules to them. Dreams seem to revolve around the violence and darkness we experience in the world either through the news or firsthand, and Craven discussed how they seep into our subconscious all the time by saying, “If we were ever fully conscious of all the bad things that were happening to us, it would be too painful for us to handle.”

When Craven he took his script to every studio in Hollywood, he said the executives all rejected it because they found it to be ridiculous. But even as he got more and more broke, he kept shopping it around until he met Robert Shaye, the head of New Line Cinema, at a party in New York. Back then, New Line Cinema existed merely as a storefront in downtown New York, and it would have gone bankrupt had this movie not been successful. Indeed, New Line Cinema will forever be known as the house Freddy Krueger built.

Craven also remarked about how he didn’t know much about signing contracts at the time when he signed with Shaye to “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” Since he was already so broke and filled with doubt of what he could do, he felt he had no choice but to sign the contracts given to him. But what he thought would be a 50-50 situation turned out not to be the case, and from that point on New Line Cinema owned the movie and Freddy Krueger. The realization of this brought forth many hisses from the audience.

But when he was asked to make another “Nightmare” movie, which became “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare,” Craven asked for profit participation in the franchise he did not previously have. Shaye later told Craven he agreed that he was not treated fairly, and the deal between him and New Line got restructured to where Craven got what he rightfully deserved.

Garris pointed out how “A Nightmare on Elm Street” had an amazing cast for a genre film and asked Craven about his casting process. Craven replied he looked for actors who didn’t have a lot of credits to their name in the hope of getting people who could act more naturally. This was actually Johnny Depp’s very first movie, and Craven recalled how incredibly nervous Depp was throughout the shoot. Depp did manage to get a friend of his to help him out, and that same friend got cast as a coroner.

Of all the young actors, the most experienced was Amanda Wyss who played Tina. Amanda also starred in “Better Off Dead” as the girlfriend who thoughtlessly breaks John Cusack’s heart.

In casting Heather Langenkamp as Nancy Thompson, Craven said he chose her because she was basically “solid peasant stock” (the audience was shocked at this description) and looked like an “every woman.” This was what he wanted for this part, and Langenkamp turned in an excellent performance playing a character everyone could relate to. Nancy was also the first of many strong female characters Craven would utilize in his movies.

Garris then asked Craven how he created Freddy Krueger. Craven replied the inspiration for Freddy arose when he came across a homeless guy with a bowler hat who was shuffling his way slowly down the sidewalk, his face a mask of nasty scars. He said the sight of this man creeped him out a lot, and the image of the man stayed with him long after he vanished. The name Freddy came from a kid who Craven said used to beat him up at school, and he was at one time going to be based on a janitor he remembered from school who frightened him and his classmates. He was also adamant that Freddy not have a mask since this had already been done to death in the “Halloween” and “Friday The 13th” movies.

Krueger was also originally envisioned as being older, but this changed when Robert Englund came in to read for the part. Unlike other actors who were reluctant to portray such a dark and evil character, Englund was not intimidated by it and was willing to be serious with the material. Craven said Englund took a great delight in playing Freddy, and his audition convinced him the character did not have to be an old man for it to work. When an audience member asked if there was some sort of sound device or technique used to make Freddy’s voice sound deeper, Craven answered by saying, “Robert’s voice was all Robert’s.”

The budget for “A Nightmare on Elm Street” was around $1.8 million, but a big chunk of financing fell through two weeks into the shoot, putting the cast and crew in a position where they would not get paid. But once Shaye explained the situation to them all, not one crew member left the set. When the movie opened, it earned back its $1.8 million budget in just one weekend.

Craven also described how the special effects were created and what inspired them:

  • During the scene where Nancy falls asleep in her high school English class and sees Tina being dragged away in a body bag, the trail Tina leaves behind her was inspired by the slime trails left by snails.
  • When Nancy gets stuck on the stairs while running away from Freddy, the goo she steps in was actually oatmeal.
  • When the centipede comes out of Tina’s mouth, it apparently got lost on the set and the bug wranglers couldn’t find it. When the crew broke for lunch, none of them came back.
  • When Nancy cornered Freddy in the downstairs basement and set him on fire, the man doing the stunt was Craven’s racquetball partner.
  • In regards to the montage of Nancy setting up the traps to take Freddy down, the book she uses as a manual was actually a World War II manual on booby trapping.

Craven didn’t hesitate to bring up the constant fights he had with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). When Tina’s bloody body, after being dragged over the ceiling, is dropped on the bed, the splash of blood when she landed was quite enormous. The MPAA asked him to cut down the scene to avoid an X (now NC-17) rating. Craven recalled these experiences as both very painful and never ending for him as they occurred with just about every film he made (“Music of the Heart” might have been an exception).

Those fights with the MPAA continued on with “Scream,” and Craven admitted he was baffled why none of the members realized that it was a satire. They even suggested the third act be completely cut, and this illustrates one of the many horrendous suggestions the MPAA comes up with when they judiciously give ratings.

One audience member asked Craven why he used teenagers instead of adults in the movie, and he replied very simply, “Adults would never have watched it.”

One of the funniest moments of the evening was during the scene where Freddy attacks Nancy’s mother, and how her burnt corpse descends into the mattress beneath her. Craven didn’t even try to hide the fact this was one of the least successful special effects in the movie. Regarding John Saxon, who played Nancy’s father, and his expression in the scene, Craven said, “John’s not upset that his wife just died. It was the special effects that tore him up!”

Charles Bernstein composed the movie’s unforgettable and unnerving score, and Craven praised his work as Bernstein had very little money to work with. Craven said he wrote the “1, 2, Freddy’s coming for you” poem, and Bernstein put music to it and took it from there.

As the evening continued on, we got to know more about Craven more as a person. In regards to his career as a horror filmmaker, he told Garris it was all a roll of the dice. When his good friend Sean S. Cunningham asked him to make “The Last House on the Left,” Craven remembered telling him, “I don’t know anything about making a scary movie.”

The audience was also surprised to learn Craven was not allowed to see movies as a kid, and it was not until much later that he finally got the nerve to sneak out of his parents’ home to see one. He credits “To Kill a Mockingbird” as the movie which changed his life and said the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” frightened him to death and left him in an unnerved state for months. But even after he had kids of his own, Craven said he never really changed as a director or in the kind of films he made.

When a movie of his opens in theaters, Craven said he always gets out of town as soon as possible. Life can get very miserable if your movie turns out to really suck. When Garris asked Craven if he got to see “A Nightmare on Elm Street” when it opened, Craven made it clear he hates watching his movies in a theater because he is usually driven mad by problems with the sound and projection.

There has never been any doubt Craven is an extremely intelligent filmmaker and human being. To hear him talk about the themes embedded in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” as well as the importance of horror movies made this live commentary all the more fascinating. Freddy Krueger became so popular with audiences because bad guys are far more interesting than the good guys. Another way of looking at this is of how the devil is more interesting than God because he is not bound by any moral obligations, and there is no rule he is not willing to break.

The way Craven sees it, horror is good for you as it forces you to deal with the chaotic. While other filmmakers are busy making “torture porn” movies, which Craven is not a fan of, he said he never tries to make horror look cool. Eventually, we all have to deal with the chaos of life, and we cannot spend the rest of our lives hiding from reality. If you watch the news, violence surrounds us in our everyday lives and gets deeply rooted in our subconscious mind. Horror films are affected by current events of the time they were filmed in

One of the best points that Craven made was that if you don’t know what darkness is inside of you and turn a blind eye to it, then you are in deep trouble. You cannot hide away from your dark side, and you need to be fully aware of what extremes people will go to in order to survive.

In the end, this is what makes Nancy so brave; she is the only one in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” capable of dealing with reality. This is in direct contrast to Nancy’s mother, Marge (Ronee Blakley), an alcoholic who hides vodka bottles in different parts of her house. She also becomes overly protective of her daughter by having metal bars put up on the doors and windows. Her way of dealing with reality is not healthy, and it is endemic of the other characters as they are handling it very well either. But in the end, kids need to know they have allies in their parents, and Nancy manages to find one in her father.

“A Nightmare on Elm Street” still holds up after all the years despite the dated styles and special effects. Garris said he loved how everything keeps building up and of how there is an increasing sense of dread throughout. This movie taps into those terrifying dreams we all had when we were young, and this is just one of the reasons why it remains so terrifying to this day; it deals with the never ending fascination we have with dreams, and it creates a world for them to exist where anything can happen.

Rest in peace Wes Craven.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2015.