Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Freddy vs Jason vs Michael vs Leatherface: The Ultimate Countdown! (#10-01)

We're finally here! We've whittled down the Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchises to the ten best films. Which one will come out on top? Read on to find out...


10) Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998)
After so many awful sequels, it's refreshing that we finally got a worthy successor to the original Halloween. While the other sequels tried to come up with ever more convoluted means to continue the storyline and Michael's killing sprees, H20 takes things back to the most logical jumping-off point and deals with how Laurie's life was impacted by the events of that Halloween night twenty years ago (acting as a sequel to only the first two Halloween films and ignoring the rest). In that time Laurie has faked her own death, moved across the country to California, had a son and is now a teacher at a private school, but she hasn't been able to confront the trauma of what happened 20 years ago. The premise alone puts H20 well ahead of other sequels in this franchise because it actually has some things to say about fear and trauma and how it can ruin not only your life but the lives of those around you if you don't confront it. Luckily for Laurie, Michael Myers manages to figure out where she's living and pencils in an exposure therapy session for that Halloween evening...

H20 has been compared to Scream many times, although I feel like the comparisons make you expect a far more referential film than what we got (it very much lacks the meta elements which basically defined the Scream franchise... although it does have some unexpected meta elements like Janet Leigh acting as Laurie Strode's maternal proxy). I mean, sure, the film very clearly exists in the post-Scream landscape with characters who aren't complete idiots. Just compare H20 to Halloween 6, which had come out only three years earlier - that film felt like a late 80s slasher, with its bloated mythology, idiotic teen cast and over the top gore, reeking of a tired genre content to just coast off of the lowest common denominator. In contrast, H20 is written in a fairly clever and fun manner, ditching a reliance on lazy tropes and with no one being truly stupid. It actually takes its time to establish the characters and setting before setting loose. After a trio of early kills, Michael takes almost an hour to really get into his murder spree, similar to the original film, which gives us time to get to know the victims on the chopping block. That said, this is very much Jamie Lee Curtis' movie, as Laurie Strode is by far the most compelling character (good try though, Josh Hartnett). Seeing her confront her fears and then beat the tar out of Michael Myers is quite entertaining and a satisfying arc for the film.

However, I can't be entirely positive about this film. For one thing, the movie is very heavily relying on your previous knowledge of Michael Myers for his character to be in any way compelling. It's not like the original Halloween where we get to meet Laurie and see Michael stalking her menacingly the entire time, here Laurie gets most of the focus and then Michael just kind of shows up momentarily on occasion. Hell, even when he does show up, he doesn't even kill anyone, despite having two different occasions to do so. I kind of like the restraint, but again if you didn't come in knowing Michael would probably usually kill these people then it just makes him look like less of a threat. I think that they just could have done more to re-establish him in this film, especially considering that it wiped several sequels off the slate. However, the issues with Michael are nothing compared to the ending. Like, I'd knock a whole point off this movie's score for the crappy ending. There's a certain satisfaction to having Laurie kill off Michael Myers definitively, but even if you didn't know about the pre-planned retcon this ending was preparing for the next film in the franchise, it's still insane. So Laurie kidnaps Michael in an ambulance at gun point, drives like a maniac, runs him over, rolls down a cliff side (and gets herself ejected from the ambulance in the process, unscathed), pins Michael to a tree and then chops his head off! Like... just let her kill him in the school! Dammit, LL Cool J! Ugh, I just hated how ridiculous that ending got, it felt like an escalation that went way too far, and knowing that it was to bake in a potential sequel in incredibly convoluted fashion just makes it worse.

Those gripes aside though, H20 was really enjoyable... and thank God because the Halloween franchise was a real slog to get through for this count-down. It's really no wonder that they went back to H20's ideas for another go-around in 2018. Oh, speaking of which...


9) Halloween (2018)
At first glance, Halloween 2018 (the third freaking movie in this franchise with the same title) is basically just a redo of H20 - after all, it features Laurie Strode once again dealing with PTSD, a crumbling family structure and fighting back against Michael Myers. However, there are some fundamental differences that make this a different story at its core. First of all, in H20 Laurie was running away and hiding from her past because she can't bring herself to confront it and this fear is suffocating her relationship with her son. In Halloween 2018, Laurie is obsessed with the events of the original film and has been preparing for, what is in her mind, an inevitable final confrontation with Michael Myers, to the detriment of her family's well-being. Another fundamental weak point of H20 is that Michael Myers is just kind of... there. It relies very heavily on you already being invested in the character going in, but it doesn't really do much on its own to sell him as an intimidating foe. However, Halloween 2018 immediately sets up Michael Myers as this mysterious, inhuman, almost otherworldly monster in the shape of a man even before he starts going on a killing spree. Then, when he does escape, his threat is established when he mercilessly kills a freaking child, which actually makes later moments even more tense such as when he passes by a crib with a crying baby.

Perhaps what makes Halloween 2018 stand out so much though is that it is easily one of the best directed and edited films on this entire countdown. Directed by David Gordon Green, perhaps best known for directing the freaking Pineapple Express of all things, crafts some of the best moments in the entire franchise. The extended one-take which sees Michael make his way through Haddonfield on his random murder spree is expertly crafted, while other very tense moments include a father and son coming across the crashed sanitarium bus and the truck rest stop attack. It's not every year that you can say that the editing in a slasher sequel puts Oscar nominees from the same year to shame, but that's how good Halloween 2018 is.

The main issue with Halloween 2018 though is the writing, which is a bit of a mixed bag. When it comes down to it all, the film is basically just standard, predictable slasher movie sequel fare. Sure, the execution is much better than your average slasher sequel, but there are still issues. The middle of the film in particular feels like it's about one draft away from being perfect, because there's all sorts of weird issues. For example, we get a random subplot where Allyson's boyfriend cheats on her, which ends up having pretty much no purpose and goes absolutely nowhere. The momentum in this section also starts to stagnate - Laurie keeps talking about how Michael is going to be coming after their family and tries to secure them all, but he's really just killing randomly. It's pure coincidence that Michael happens to come across Allyson, and then pure convenience when Dr. Sartain ends up transporting him to Laurie's house for the final showdown. And then Allyson spends nearly the entire last act running through the woods and only ends up putting herself in danger stupidly by blundering into Laurie's house when Michael is on the loose. Ultimately, it wasn't really worth it for Laurie to ruin her family's life due to her paranoia, because if she had just moved out of Haddonfield then they probably wouldn't have been in any danger anyway because Michael sure as hell did not seem to care about seeking her out.

That said, the writing of Halloween 2018 still does some great things. In particular, the victims in this film are almost always more than just pure cannon fodder. On several occasions we'll get to meet a group of characters right before they get into danger, and they're actually written in a way that makes them interesting, which makes it hurt a lot more when they meet their grisly demise. Even the assholish characters, like the pair of podcasters who are investigating Michael's history or Allyson's friend who tries to come onto her after her boyfriend cheats on her, are sympathetic enough that we don't really want to see them die. In any other slasher sequel, they would have just been written as cartoonish dickheads, but here they're actual people and it really sucks when Michael kills them. The last act is also pretty great on the whole as Laurie and Michael go head-to-head in a very Skyfall-esque sequence. Seeing Laurie clearing her house room by room and then locking them down afterwards is pretty awesome, showing off how capable and prepared she is. Like, why can't we get more badass final girls like this? Horror movies seem to think that they need to have stupid, incompetent final girls who are powerless against the villain, but seeing badass Laurie Strode trading blows with Michael and still getting overcome regardless is way more tense in my opinion. It makes for an incredibly satisfying conclusion to the film, moreso than H20's ending as far as I'm concerned. That said, we do know that we have two more Halloween films coming in this new continuity, so hopefully they don't completely invalidate the successes of this newest sequel.


8) Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)
There's nothing truly revolutionary about Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter - after all, it's yet another movie that boils down to "Jason murders horny teens". However, The Final Chapter is easily the best rendition of that formula. Part of what makes it so much better than its predecessors is that it doesn't waste any time with lulling the audience into boredom in order to get a fake-out or cheap scare, most of the action comes hard and fast. Even the obligatory opening recap is a lean three minutes and manages to cover all of the events of the previous films quite well! The Final Chapter also has some of the most entertaining victims in the entire franchise (most famously, an awkward Crispin Glover). Sure, they're almost all dickheads, but they're actually pretty enjoyable to watch, they don't make you want to pull your hair out when they're on screen like Shelly from Part III does. What also helps to set it apart is that the dickhead teens aren't the main characters, it's the Jarvis family living next door. This addition allows The Final Chapter to follow the usual formula of offing all the cannon fodder and then move over to the Jarvis' family for further carnage, and features some clever writing to allow Trish and Tommy Jarvis to survive their night of terror. As the title implies, The Final Chapter was indeed intended to be the last Friday the 13th film, and it's clear that the filmmakers really were trying their absolute best to make this the most definitive film in the franchise rather than another cheap follow-up. They certainly succeeded, and many people will rightly say that it's the best film in the entire franchise. However, there is one other Friday the 13th film which often is cited as the best, and for my tastes I have to give it the slight edge...


7) Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)
A lot of people will debate whether Jason Lives or The Final Chapter are the best Friday the 13th movie, but for my part I have to give the slight edge to Jason Lives. While Part IV is essentially the best execution of the classic formula, Jason Lives reinvents the franchise to be just more lighthearted and a hell of a lot of fun. Sure, the previous Friday the 13th films had had some fun with their kill sequences, but they mostly aimed to be serious and scary. Jason Lives isn't quite so concerned with that, instead making Jason's murder spree as enjoyable as possible. It also resurrects Jason in such a cartoonish manner that you can't help but smile in glee at this new, super-powered zombie Jason (in my opinion, the best version of Jason in the franchise).

Of course, it's not just the fun times that make Jason Lives so good, because otherwise Jason X would be in this spot. No, Jason Lives also has a solid story revolving around Tommy Jarvis, back once again and more badass than ever, trying to take down Jason once and for all. Tommy also has a burgeoning romance with the sheriff's daughter, which doesn't please the sheriff too much when all of the murdering starts going down. It even manages to make Jason's murder spree more tense than ever because this time there are actual kids at Camp Crystal Lake which the counsellors have to protect! It's nothing mind-blowing, but Jason Lives is executed to such perfection and is so enjoyable that you can't help but love it, especially considering that they managed to reinvent the franchise so well six movies in!


6) A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985)
I imagine that there are some people who are shocked that I've ranked Freddy's Revenge so highly on this list, but I really enjoyed it. I know a lot of people dislike that it has very little to do with any of the other Nightmare films and doesn't really follow their continuity (plus, y'know, some people are also just homophobes). Hell, in some ways I think that it manages to be more compelling than the original. Much of this comes down to a very well-written story centred on Jesse Walsh, a young man whose body is being taken over by Freddy Krueger. Pretty much all discussion on this film goes to how clearly gay it is, especially for a mid-80s film, so you can see how these themes about body and instances of body horror are really compelling. I feel like the addition of the character Lisa muddles this somewhat, since by the end Jesse seems to have settled into a relationship with her, despite the film heavily implying that he is much more interested in his friend, Grady. Regardless, it's a much more thoughtful and interesting film than nearly any other slasher sequel and I kind of wish that more Nightmare films had followed its lead.

Freddy Krueger is also very different in this film. He still invades Jesse's dreams, but he uses this as a means in which to take over Jesse's body and force him to kill for him. This culminates in an unforgettable scene where Freddy literally bursts out of Jesse's body, shredding his skin like a cocoon, akin to a werewolf transformation sequence. Freddy is also truly terrifying in this film, grim and dead serious. The film itself can be pretty weird at times though, such as when Freddy's powers cause a parrot to explode, causing Jesse's dad to inexplicably blame him for the strange happening. People like to cherry-pick that moment for being bonkers, but I view it as part of the gay themes, with his dad creating irrational explanations for Jesse's changing behaviour in order to keep his own masculine view of his son intact. That said, there are some sequences in Freddy's Revenge which do feel like they're just padding for time (such as that parrot scene), which cause the film to feel a bit more bloated than the original, but don't let that turn you away - Freddy's Revenge is a great film in its own right, I loved that it was very unique without having to rehash the original Nightmare's formula all over again.


5) A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
Dream Warriors feels like a truly blockbuster horror film, much like Aliens was the year before. In fact, Aliens is a great movie to compare Dream Warriors to: if the original Nightmare is Alien, then the Aliens-like Dream Warriors expands the scope of its universe, ups the stakes, pushes its characters further, and makes Freddy Krueger more grandiose than ever (in part due to some fantastic special effects). It does so by introducing a new heroine, Kris, a girl who has the power to pull other people into her dreams. It's a bit of a strange set-up, but combined with returning heroine Nancy Thompson's knowledge, the latest group of teens being targeted by Freddy are able to band together to try to fight back against their tormentor before he can kill them all.

Dream Warriors doesn't waste too much time rehashing the same story as the original - the kids all know from the start that Freddy's after them and they're actively trying to avoid sleeping or at least put themselves on a watch to at least get some rest. The characters are actually pretty smart and well-written, which makes the fact that Freddy is able to still isolate and pick them off even scarier, which also shows off just how much power he has in the dream realm. This also makes the spectacular kill sequences even more impactful and memorable, because you don't really want to see any of them die. Some of the deaths are just as iconic as the big kills from the original, such as the brutal sequence where Freddy pulls a guy's tendons out to turn him into a human puppet, or when he comes out of a TV to ram a girl's head into the screen.

As fun as Dream Warriors is though, it is also a really messy and inconsistent film. For all of the cool things it brings to the franchise, it also has some elements I really didn't like. For example, each character brings along some sort of ill-defined "dream power", which feels like it could probably have been expanded further. Like, Kincaid's power is that he becomes strong, but... it's a dream. Could he not theoretically do anything if he is in control of his own dreams? I get that they probably don't want the Dream Warriors to be able to fight back too easily, but it feels like a pretty artificial limitation. Worst of all though is the addition of a dull subplot involving Freddy's mother and Freddy's bones needing to be consecrated in order to put him to rest once and for all. It just sucks and every time the film cuts away to this subplot it loses a lot of the energy it has built up. Still, it's not enough to truly ruin the film, and Dream Warriors brings so much fun to the table that it feels like a true successor to the original Nightmare's legacy.


4) Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994)
People are probably going to be angry that I put this ahead of Dream Warriors, and I can understand that. After the disaster that was Freddy's Dead, Freddy Krueger felt totally defanged, so Wes Craven came back to the franchise to bring true horror back to the character. New Nightmare isn't following the slasher formula so much, instead it is more of a psychological and supernatural thriller, with the focus being put onto Heather Langenkamp (playing a fictionalized version of herself), with Freddy being mostly an unseen, menacing presence. The film is also very slow in the middle and could have done with some tightening up in its almost 2 hour runtime.

Wes Craven essentially tested out his idea of meta-horror here for the first time, which he would later go on to redefine the horror genre with in Scream. Most people say that Scream does so much better, but I think that New Nightmare is pretty damn close to its successor. The fact that it's a sequel dealing with its franchise's own legacy and how that impacts the people involved in constructing that legacy is fascinating and not the sort of thing that can be explored in a stand-alone film. That said, it can feel like Wes Craven's being more than a little self-congratulatory at times (especially with his explanation of Freddy's demonic origins), although thankfully it doesn't get nearly as bad as, say, Lady in the Water. Add in a stand-out performance from Heather Langenkamp and her compelling relationship with her son and the cultural legacy of Freddy Krueger and you've got a socially-relevant horror film with actual things to say.

I will note though that it starts to crumble a bit by the end when the more familiar slasher antics start to trickle in and the new, more menacing Freddy starts acting silly. The effects when he's defeated (...spoiler?) are also embarrassing to witness. Still, I have to give this the edge over the funner, but much more uneven, Dream Warriors.


3) Halloween (1978)
A lot of people would have put Halloween at the top of this list, but I can't really justify that myself. Don't get me wrong, it's an undeniably good film with great direction from John Carpenter, an iconic soundtrack and a good lead performance from Jamie Lee Curtis. It's such a simple film, especially considering how the slasher genre evolved in its wake - Michael Myers escapes from the sanitarium, comes back home to Haddonfield and then stalks and kills a group of babysitters on Halloween. Michael himself is very clearly intended to be as simple as possible. He doesn't really have a motivation to kill or a personality to speak of, he's just evil. That could come across as just lazy for most films, but Halloween manages to make it work so well in part because it absolutely commits to the idea. The way that the main characters are handled also helps to make Halloween what it is. We spend a lot of time getting to know Laurie Strode and her friends while Michael Myers stalks them for a very long time. This creates a tension which just continues to build and build as you're left wondering when or if Michael is ever going to strike. Then, when he finally does, all hell truly breaks loose as Laurie and Michael end up in a terrifying pursuit, which is also helped by how capable Laurie is.

Unfortunately, most of Halloween's issues come down to how dated it can feel at times. For one thing, the slasher boom which it inspired can make it feel quaint and restrained in comparison (and hence the accusations that it's a simple film). The fact that this film was so influential also makes Laurie look like an idiot in retrospective, since she keeps turning her back on Michael when she thinks he's dead. In a post-Halloween world we all know that you make sure that the killer's dead, but there's no way that Laurie would have known that... it doesn't make me think she's any less of an idiot though when I see her do it twice in 2019 though. Still, Halloween builds tension expertly and that's an element which can't be taken away from it, no matter how much time passes.


2) A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
So many slasher movies tried to just get a slice of the popularity of Halloween, but A Nightmare on Elm Street surpassed them all by being incredibly creative. Rather than just have another killer on the loose, this killer stalks his victims in their dreams. It's a pretty simple twist, but it adds a whole new dimension of terror, because not only do the characters now have to beware of a process which is just a part of everyday life, but it also allows the villain to break the usual laws of reality for some truly spectacular kills, not to mention scares such as the bathtub scene or Freddy's silhouette coming out of the wall. It also establishes Freddy Krueger as an iconic, sadistic and truly evil villain for the ages. Heather Langenkamp's Nancy Thompson is also one of the best final girls ever, very capable and clever, although Heather's acting is a bit wonky throughout the film. The film also over-explains itself at times. For example, Nancy gets a phone call from a visibly broken phone, which some editor decided we needed to then needed to have confirmed was broken and then have Nancy say so as well for good measure... we get it, you didn't need to reiterate the same thing over and over, movie. Really though, these are ultimately very minor gripes compared to the stupid, studio-mandated ending. I really hate the way this film ends, it was clearly done to get in "one last scare", but it just shits all over the characters we've grown to care for during the film. Still, I can get over a crappy ending when the rest of the movie is so good. I love the inventiveness on display throughout A Nightmare on Elm Street, which easily establishes it as one of the greatest slasher flicks of all time (not to mention one of the best slasher franchises too, especially considering that four of the top ten films here are from the Nightmare franchise!). However, there can only be one film on the top of this list and I definitely know which slasher film I love the most...


1) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
If you've read my retrospectives series, then you know that I love this movie. Kind of like Halloween, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a very simple film - a bunch of teens keep wandering onto a farm where they come across a family of murderous cannibals. However, it's not the plot which makes this film so good, it's the fantastic direction, the beautiful cinematography, the unrelenting intensity, the unsettling atmosphere and surprisingly deep themes. Very few horror movies actually scare me in any way - in fact, I'd say that literally no other film in this entire countdown gets my blood pumping at all (it makes it pretty difficult at times to figure out if a film is actually scary to most people or not). However, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is so unsettling that I can't help but feel something while watching it. And it does it all with minimal on-screen violence! There really wasn't an other film in contention for this #1 spot as far as I'm concerned, it's just that good.

...and that's it for the countdown! We're not quite done yet though - be sure to tune in again soon as we go through some of the best moments in these franchises!

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