Worshiping James Cameron’s “The Abyss” and checking the dirty diaper of “A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child.”
August 11th, 1989
Nutshell: A team of deep-sea oil workers come across an alien intelligence while working near the bottom of the ocean. When an accident occurs, leaving the crew stranded underwater, estranged couple Bud (Ed Harris) and Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) are forced to confront their bitterness toward each other as the aliens attempt to make contact and a psychotic Navy SEAL (Michael Biehn) starts to lose his marbles.
1989: The last gasp of big-budget, four-quadrant summer cinema arrived in the form of “The Abyss.” James Cameron’s follow-up to his stunning work on “Aliens” was a huge target of gossip and expectation that summer, pulling up to theaters after enduring a full year of mysterious set reports and industry speculation, where it was made abundantly clear that Cameron was swinging for the fences with this feature. Always bold, brash, and bearded, Cameron was looking to stun audiences with his ambitious underwater epic, and 20th Century Fox was more than happy to oblige the filmmaker’s quest to summon grandeur, assembling a marketing launch that reinforced the film’s undefined threat, forbidding locations, and, unexpectedly, the human factor at the center of the special effects hailstorm.
Attending “The Abyss” in August of 1989 changed my life. It didn’t cure cancer or provide me with a magical money tree, but the picture forced me to start absorbing movies as film. Every cinemaniac has their starter pistol, pinpointing a specific chalk line when motion pictures went from a casual event to an unstoppable craving. “The Abyss” was my psychological bomb, my matinee game-changer that left me woozy and itching to assume movie going as a full-time pursuit.
Part of this transforming experience could be attributed to the venue. Heading back to the Cooper Theater (the former crown jewel of St. Louis Park, MN) to catch the film on a screen once employed for Cinerama purposes, the picture’s elaborate visuals whacked me with the force of a (at the time deleted) tsunami, opening my eyes not only to the mechanics of filmmaking, but also the gargantuan practical sway of Cameron’s work. These actors weren’t in a smoked room, prancing around in slo-mo. These brave souls were actually underwater, interacting with the treacherous environment, and their fear was real. The marvel was projected a mile high, forcing me to cram down in the soft velvet seat to take it all in at once. It was movie exhibition of the highest order, underscoring a film event that deserved such luxury.
I also latched onto the emotional content of the film. Yeah, the sappy stuff. Cameron completely sold me on the reluctantly cantankerous relationship between Bud and Lindsey, bringing me to the breaking point of tears as their fractured marital bonds mended in the face of crisis. Cameron is shameless, but he’s never schmaltzy, and I bought into it with my soft, unformed mind. I fell in love with movie characters that day in a manner typically reserved only for Indiana Jones, Linda Barrett, and Gizmo.
“Abyss” pulled me in the whole way, though I could hardly process it at the time. Even the oft-maligned alien/war-ain’t-good ending enchanted, partially out of shock that Cameron had the seeds to follow through on his promise of extraterrestrial life. I floated out of the theater in a manner that never occurred before. It’s strange to think that this movie, above all others, was the one to pry open my cerebral cortex and lay happy eggs, but hey, that’s the fun of movie going, right? You never know what weirdo film is going to be the picture of pictures to completely alter your worldview. Though with stuff like “Saw,” there’s a pretty good idea of value beforehand. Back in 1989, I was less aware of this multiplex potential, leaving “The Abyss” a wide open shot to make a meteor-sized impression on my soul.
2009: Growing as a film critic (it’s a continuous educational experience), I’ve come to guard my true appreciation of “The Abyss.” It’s a vocation of perpetual one-upmanship, and to admit something as futile as a beloved personal choice is often an invitation for derision. This is why in professional circles, when asked my favorite film, I answer “The Godfather.” It’s a safe, bland, commonly known choice that impresses those who don’t take the art form seriously, and stuffs a needed gym sock in the mouths of those in the know. If I say “The Abyss,” it leads to confusion or worse, humiliation, as I found when I made a clown shoes appearance on a Los Angeles radio program a few years back. Some people just can’t recognize the value of personal opinion. And by some people, I mean everyone.
“Abyss” is not a film I’m away from for long. While not at all pleased with the current non-anamorphic DVD nonsense, the film has always been immensely watchable, be it on a lackluster home video format or projected on the side of a porta-potty. It doesn’t matter. If it’s showing, I’ll be there.
The years have only strengthened my affection for the picture, allowing me to mature to a point where I can fully appreciate the pristine craftsmanship of the filmmaking, but also its human touch, finding new dimensions of warmth and comedy within the feature’s quirky, desperate cast of characters. Cameron scripts magnificently tight action and severe suspense, but his gift with characterization -- puffed for the mass audience, yet retaining atypical dimension -- is always a treat to observe, matching his visual heft with vivid personalities easy to fall in love with or, if need be, boo the bejesus out of.
“The Abyss” has it all: action, sci-fi, romance, tragedy, drama, and comedy, wrapped up burrito-tight in undeniable widescreen glory. Helping to initiate CGI into the mainstream, “Abyss” also represented the end of an era. After this film and Cameron’s follow-up, “Terminator 2,” the F/X landscape was forever changed. Once “Jurassic Park” stomped up to the plate in 1993, the days of studios handing renegade filmmakers big coin to take over nuclear power plants and spend two years making a movie were over. That’s another reason why I treasure this film: the realism. The movie was a bear to make and it shows onscreen, parading around a series of mesmerizing set-pieces that look deliciously hard-earned in ways our current CG-drenched filmmaking climate never allows. Beads of sweat should’ve received top billing. It seems fitting Cameron was the guy to shut the door on this David Lean-style of filmmaking.
Hell, the sets and location were so durable and unique, they were still standing, frozen in time, up to only a few years ago.
I’ve never written a proper, glasses-on review of “The Abyss” and it’s something I would love to do one day, if only to place my origami crane on the tree of criticism to support a film that means the world to me. This is my “Godfather,” my “Citizen Kane.” It’s my personal point of cinema consciousness, and while it doesn’t fit those rigid critical approval standards I’ve grown to loathe, it’s mine, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 5: The Dream Child
Nutshell: Having already survived the wrath of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) once, Alice (Lisa Wilcox) is sucked back into danger when the burned, clawed one wishes to return to the real world via her unborn baby. Various teenagers and their sleep-deprived insecurities help Freddy pass the time.
1989: Arriving a mere two weeks after the franchise-torpedoing “Friday the 13th Part VIII,” “The Dream Child” had the unfortunate role of crippling the lucrative “Nightmare on Elm Street” series, bringing Freddy to his knees. It was a tough year for horror icons, with anemic scripts and unimaginative directors assuming control in what became a transitional year for ‘80’s horror. The staleness was setting in, and “The Dream Child” wasn’t immune to the curse.
This wasn’t my first theatrical “Elm Street.” A year earlier, I managed to attend a showing of “The Dream Master” (courtesy of a dear friend) and was delighted to not only see Freddy on the big screen, but slicing and dicing within a crafty, clever sequel that ignored the burden of being fourth, charging ahead with a wickedly entertaining set of kills and quips. Director Renny Harlin made a name for himself keeping the Freddy legacy cooking, offering hope that maybe, just maybe, the “Elm Street” dynasty was going to be able to tip over expectation and continue submitting agreeable sequels.
Yeah, “The Dream Child” ended that hope pretty fast.
Being a young teenager and encountering prohibited R-rated horror was always a treat, and I don’t recall being all that flustered with “Dream Child” at the time. But there was a disappointment festering after the showing that was impossible to ignore. The series seemed to run out of ideas, presenting a fifth installment out of financial obligation rather than devilish cleverness. Imagine finally being allowed admission to an R-rated party, but finding the evening boring? It’s a feeling of uneasiness that was both odd and intriguingly representative of my developing critical faculties. In 1989, I was starting to dislike bad movies, and the thrill of that realization was quite disarming.
The series would stumble further, reaching a shrill point of absurdity with “New Nightmare,” a “Freddy’s real!” satire/commentary on Wes Craven and his potent creation. However, the seeds of doubt were already planted with “Dream Child,” which effectively drained away the celebratory attitude of the franchise and brought on the yawns.
2009: Since Krueger is known as “the bastard son of 100 maniacs,” “Dream Child” gets off to a perhaps unintentionally funny start with a flashback to Krueger’s nun-rape origin, showcasing a mental hospital orderly slowly counting the loons on the patient floor. For some reason, this always struck me as hilarious. “100 maniacs? Yeah, sure. Prove it, movie!”
“Dream Child” suffers from a painful case of repetition. Director Stephen Hopkins does his damndest to keep the film visually exotic, but it’s an uphill battle -- a lost cause drumming up fresh ways to kill the same teenagers in the same dream state manner. The sequel also can’t shake a nagging dreariness that suffocates the excitement, perhaps brought on the whole infant-of-doom subplot. Because nothing says giggly slasher escapism quite like child endangerment and abortion discussions. Please pass the popcorn.
Point blank: it was a bad idea for a sequel, brought hastily to the finish line by a studio hoping to churn out these darlings on a once-a-year schedule, which always threatens the creative process. “Dream Child” shows the most strain of the “Nightmare” pictures; it’s bound by a quickie attitude that mucks with continuity and casting. There’s only so many modeling and Groundlings rejects a person can take before they leap for the eject button.
Still, I would rate this effort well above anything “Jason Takes Manhattan” had to offer, and while neutered and visibly exhausted, Freddy does get to enjoy some mischief, including a reasonably entertaining bit where he torments a nerd inside a comic book world (complete with a-ha transitions). Eh, it’s a small delight in a joyless film. But I’ll take it.
Coming next week…
Summer ends much like an overlong fireworks display: plenty of oohs and ahhs, and a few duds.
The late, great John Hughes makes his funniest motion picture.
Brian De Palma finds pure terror and heartache in Vietnam.
Disney goes back to the animals.
And Richard Dreyfuss gets a little uncharacteristically manic.