‘Alpha and Omega’ is a recurring feature that examines a famous horror director’s best critically received film and their worst reviewed installment (according to Rotten Tomatoes). It will compare and contrast these two efforts, looking at the difference in the auteur’s work and seeing if any overlap exists as these two extremes of the director’s career are examined.
Debatably Wes Craven’s best and worst films, ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ and ‘My Soul to Take’, are collectively examined
“What you’re seeing is not always what’s real.” – A Nightmare on Elm Street
“We’re all doomed, Bug. It’s the human condition.” – My Soul to Take
To even the most horror-ignorant of individuals, when you bring up this particular genre, images of Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger are inevitably what jump to the front of their minds. That’s how iconic these characters are. So when Wes Craven, the horror auteur responsible for creating one of these legends is discussed, even the most oblivious of audiences know who the man is. If that weren’t enough, Craven would go on to helm a number of horror classics, like The Hills Have Eyes, Swamp Thing, The Last House on the Left, and Shocker, almost as if to prove that he wasn’t a one-monster pony. Lest we forget that Scream is a horror film so iconic that it nearly singlehandedly led to the revival of slashers in the ‘90s and brought on a slew of copycat, self-aware horror to follow.
Craven is a director that has gems like this all throughout his filmography rather than it being a terribly one-sided affair. Even his final film before his recent passing, Scream 4, is arguably not only of the better Scream installments, but also of the better Craven films, period. Even some of the more uneventful offerings from Craven’s career, such as The People Under the Stairs, Vampire in Brooklyn, or Red Eye, all usually manage to show some sign of the master’s flair. That being said, some of these films really scrape the bowels of hell and are the sort of pictures that would even give Freddy nightmares (and not for the right reasons). “Alpha and Omega” will take two films from Craven’s career, A Nightmare on Elm Street (which has 94% on Rotten Tomatoes) and My Soul to Take (which has 9% on Rotten Tomatoes), and pair them against each other.
It’s kind of remarkable how fully formed Craven is when he comes onto the scene with A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984. It might be one of his first films, but it hardly feels like it with this fresh filmmaker exhibiting a clear understanding of horror and how to effectively put people in danger. Fundamentals such as characterization, gore, and scene composition are all given lengthy consideration from Craven and it’s easy to see how A Nightmare on Elm Street could become a launching point for so many sequels. Craven sets out a clear horror blueprint that not only follows established rules of the genre, but is also consistently re-inventing things in an exciting way. Craven’s tendency to amend the genre and inject new life into it is something that he would continue to do through every stage of his career. This is a brilliant glimpse of him refining his voice while still doing all sorts of innovative work not only in terms of the “reality” of a horror film, but also for its villain.
All of these touches show a brave director who’s willing to take chances that it’s not hard to understand why Nightmare has such an austere reputation. With the vision present here it’s shocking to see how off the mark Craven falls 25 years later when working on My Soul to Take. Craven is admittedly a less busy filmmaker during the final stage of his career, but his films were still met with a wide degree of anticipation. My Soul to Take is not only a very frustrating film accordingly, but one that looks increasingly sloppy when held up to the mirror of Elm Street. My Soul to Take feels like it’s almost intentionally operating counter intuitively to how Elm Street works.
For instance, Nightmare begins with a sublime, minimalist intro that’s the definition of a “teaser.” We see Freddy (or “Fred Krueger,” as he’s listed in the credits) building his now-iconic claws. This works so well because you don’t know what’s going on. The figure is intentionally obscured and only certain parts of Freddy are shown. He groans and shows expressions in a way that doesn’t help the audience towards figuring out if this thing is a person, monster, or something in between. It gets you curious, excited, and scared in the perfect way. It’s crazy that this intro also works in a wholly different way now due to the legacy of Craven’s character and the hearty franchise that this film would grow into. Both as an uninitiated viewer from 1984 and as a Nightmare expert now, these simple opening images accomplish a lot.
On top of all of this, it’s kind of incredible how little exposition Nightmare gives you, with the film instead just throwing you into everything and letting you connect the dots. You intuit that what’s happening in the dreams is actually happening to these people. My Soul to Take, however, kicks off with such a confusing, frenetic opening that sets the WTF tone all too well. It feels like you’re jumping into the middle of the movie due to how haphazard things are. I seriously had to look if I messed up the time code and started at the wrong place or something. The film reeks of being heavily re-edited and second-guessed. It’s not an introduction that instills confidence for the picture, and then a “16 Years Later” title appears and only muddles things further. It’s at this point that we learn about the Ripper, Riverton’s serial killer, who’s celebrated as the town’s boogeyman every year at Ripper Day. The Riverton 7 are seven teenagers who were all born the same time that the Ripper died, with one of them thought to be his second coming. This is information that we know because it’s awkwardly told to us through heavy exposition, something that practically becomes a theme through the film (all-too-convenient radio stories about souls coming up at the perfect time, for example). If A Nightmare on Elm Street is a horror film that doesn’t spoon-feed its viewer, then My Soul to Take straight up crams a feeding tube down the audience’s throats.
Let’s take a moment to properly unpack My Soul to Take because this film is a doozy and one does not skim over doozies. As an example of just the sort of tone-deaf place that Craven and the film’s studio, Rogue Pictures, were in at the time, they faked a stabbing at the movie’s premiere, disguising the stunt as a promo tool and posting it on YouTube. If this was the sort of thing that seemed like a good idea, a lot of the puzzling production decisions make a lot more sense accordingly. This is also a film where 3D is unnecessarily tacked on after the completion of filming as another good representation of the mentality present here. It’s truly a let down considering the potential that Craven’s first “real” 3D film could have held.
It’s worth addressing that other films such as Scream 3, the abysmal Cursed, and the second half of Red Eye all mark lows that Craven has hit, but those films are at least having fun in their stupidity. My Soul to Take just washes over you and feels empty, its soul already taken (9% on Rotten Tomatoes is really disgustingly, terribly low). The film’s original title, 25/8, is also pretty stupid but at least consistent with the rest of the film’s attitude. “My Soul to Take” is just vague and means even less. It does however manage to create a meager tie-in to Nightmare in the process. Inviting this comparison and perhaps tricking people into thinking there’s going to be any sort of verisimilitude between the two pictures is just poor behavior. No one should be duped into seeing this movie or thinking that it’s something that it’s not. My Soul to Take’s trailer even pointedly ends on a very Nightmare on Elm Street-like visual beat, as if trying to further invite the comparison.
What My Soul to Take ends up being is an indecipherable slash-by-numbers entry in horror. There’s an interesting “whodunit” angle that’s played with at the beginning of the film in terms of which of the Riverton 7 is this unwilling reincarnation of a serial killer. That’s not the worst idea and even plays like a “reverse slasher film” in a cool way. Unfortunately the film abandons this direction in favor of the Ripper actually being back and him hunting down the Riverton 7 instead. The film probably doesn’t also need to play with the legitimacy of the Ripper’s death on top of everything else. There are a lot of half-baked concepts that get thrown around for a half a minute to fill time, like the idea of how souls can be absorbed and sometimes create a “bad soul.” Or the film’s tendency to just toss in some dream and pre-cog material for good measure, too. Simplifying and focusing would do wonders for the picture.
Nightmare is additionally aided by simplicity and the fact that the film feels like it’s continually just cutting to the chase. There’s very little waste here. Not long after finding out that Tina’s friends also suffer from bad dreams, the film’s cutting to them all having a slumber party together. My Soul to Take could benefit from not meandering through extraneous material that it doesn’t know how to properly tap into in the first place. Elm Street, on the other hand, could actually stand to show more of these characters wasting time since they’re actually charming.
On the topic of characters, it’s interesting that there are actually a number of shared elements between both films in this department, like them both dealing with a group of teens experiencing supernatural problems as well as the topic of generational revenge where an evil lives on to haunt future offspring. Freddy is waging war on the children of those that led to his death and the Ripper is very much operating in the same fashion. In spite of this, these similarities only help highlight the stark differences present in these pictures. My Soul to Take offers up some of the most wooden acting of all time in the form of the Riverton 7, with none of them ever feeling like actual characters. This is a real shame because Craven can be absolutely fantastic at character building in the right circumstances.
The character that gets the most focus, Bug (a pre-Bates Motel Max Thieriot), spends a lot of time in his own head, talking to himself and tripping on his own mind as he’s unsure what’s real. This isn’t exactly handled gracefully and Thieriot never really rises to the occasion (but maybe that’s because the original actor cast in the role developed mono and had to drop out…true story). This is again frustrating because it’s the sort of material that could be really interesting and effective if done right. Elm Street sees Craven creating truly interesting characters in the form of Tina and Nancy, while also pulling legitimately strong performances from these unknown actors. This amounts to you actually caring about whether they survive or not, something paramount in any horror film. Just shots of Nancy periodically tending to her still-fresh wounds go far in terms of showing you the person that’s suffering under all of this. The film takes its time to give you more of these muted moments, whereas My Soul to Take offers up caricatures that say things like, “If things get too hot, just turn on the prayer conditioning.” This might have plenty to do with the fact that as a 70 year-old, teenage dialogue might not come as naturally to Craven as it once did.
Craven even uses his characters in Nightmare to play with your expectations, as the film definitely begins with Tina as the central character only for her to wind up being the film’s first death and the realization that Nancy is in fact the lead. Tina’s death is so damn wonderful on every level and a strong note to kick off on. Comparing that to My Soul to Take’s first kill—or really any of its kills—which are basically just variations on a stabbing. Even Nightmare’s arguably weakest death (Rod’s in prison) still packs a lot more impact than Soul’s best murder.
Along these lines, it’s also problematic that the film’s serial killer/monster uses such a stock “scary” voice and looks pretty silly as he’s pulling off his bland stabbings. He’s also antagonizing people on the phone a number of times with it just dripping of Scream, but being so sloppily handled. Here is an actual threat from the Ripper: “Fuck your fucking unborn child. Now where’d I leave your bitch?” It’s crazy to remember that Freddy is in A Nightmare on Elm Street for less than seven minutes, and yet he leaves an unforgettable impression on the viewer, rather than this performance of mock bravado going on with the Ripper. In Elm Street, the first sequence where we really get to see Freddy in all his glory is incredible. He’s a terrifying creation that defies logic. It seems like there’s no way that Tina’s able to possibly escape him barring being woken up from this dream purgatory. He operates like a crazed madman with unlimited power and really, what’s scarier than that?
While a certain out of touch nature is present in Craven’s characters in My Soul to Take, this tonally off atmosphere continues through the picture in some very confounding set pieces. The scenes at school are really the biggest offenders here. They act as great examples of exercises in the cliché and lazy, complete with hackneyed bullies and overdone music. There are actually a bunch of puzzling, out of place musical cues throughout the film, a lot of which are accompanying comedic beats that fall flatter than the Ripper’s victims. Nothing feels like it’s adding together and becoming the sum of its pieces. A lot of things just happen with you bemusedly going, “Why?”
One of the biggest examples of this is the truly bizarre California Condor report that Bug puts on that somehow ends in projectile vomiting. Why is the teacher even letting him do a report like this! The film then tries to frame Bug’s weird, on-the-spectrum obsession with this animal into something deeper and thematic, even! You’re meant to pull poignancy out of lines like, “I’m the condor. The keeper of souls. And I eat death for breakfast. I live in a house of blood and I accept that. That’s all a man can do.” Excuse me? The film’s conclusion also chooses to use weird animated, comic book-esque end credits, which not only don’t fit and further confuse things, but they weaken the horror and the film’s final message.
My Soul to Take’s out of touch elements might have a lot to do with a heavy studio pressure during production. Back when Craven was making Elm Street, it was practically an independent picture with the budget and resources that he was working with. This also meant that Craven could do whatever he wanted accordingly. My Soul to Take is a film that reflects a huge studio process though where he’s met with lots of interference, plenty of re-shoots, and test audience manipulation. This man at the end of his career is unfortunately much more a cog in a machine and trying to please a lot of people rather than the budding renegade that got started doing all of this. This progression certainly isn’t unusual with filmmakers, and it’s no doubt a similar trajectory as the one that John Carpenter has gone down, too. It’s worth highlighting these very different mindsets and operation styles present in Craven during these two films that appropriately bookend his career.
Another one of the things that A Nightmare on Elm Street is known for is its groundbreaking practical effects and gore. There’s consistently impressive work being done here, whether it’s the hands pushing through the wall in a time that was pre-Frighteners, or Tina being dragged on the ceiling in a visual that’s as haunting as anything out of The Exorcist (in fact I’d say it’s scarier). Furthermore, the ways in which Freddy invades Nancy’s phone and can make something so pedestrian so terrifying work so well. Or even simpler beats where Freddy is just fucking around and cutting off his fingers to mess with Tina. That bed just volcanoing blood from its innards onto the ceiling is the stuff of nightmares and so expertly handled. It’s one of many fantastic visual set pieces where you’re just like, fuck!
I just marvel at how inventive all of Elm Street’s practical effects are, whether it’s using fishing rods with puppet arms to convey Freddy’s supernatural reach, pancake mix resembling the gooey steps, or heavy use of latex to represent Freddy trying to invade the walls of a room. The budget here was barely over a million dollars (and no one wanted the script for three years until the fledgling New Line Cinema picked it up), whereas you then look at My Soul to Take, which has clunky effects work going on and a tendency to not fall back on the practical side of things, yet they have a budget of $25 million.
Nightmare has all of these great visuals, like Tina in a bloodied body bag appearing to Nancy in class, those muck stairs, or that inspired bath set piece, yet I would struggle to remember any of My Soul to Take’s scenes. All of this effects work in Nightmare then benefits by juxtaposing itself with striking images like Tina against a pure white background. In a time before motion capture, extraneous CGI, and prominent green screen work, it’s incredible to see how Craven conveys that these people are in dreams. Before you even know for sure what’s going on here, his use of these visuals and echoing voiceover make you think of dreams and plant the seed in your subconscious. It feels like a situation where if Craven was forced to work with less or had less money to solve problems, perhaps a better looking movie could have come out of this. Something at least with a more tactile look to it.
As both of these films attempt to wrap themselves up, Nightmare glides with the same efficiency and respect for its audience that’s present in the rest of the picture. Once more nothing is spoon-fed and characters deduce Freddy’s backstory, his weakness, and figure out how to take him down. It’s the opposite of the sort of overdone handholding that can happen in horror now. Nightmare might deal with an ending that feels a little rushed as a result of the above, but it still works. Leaving the audience wondering about things and wanting more is still the better route than beating a dead horse with the idea. Besides, the one final fakeout with the car at the end and Nancy’s mother is the perfect sort of “Carrie explosion” to end on after the storm has been welled. Compare that to My Soul to Take, which doesn’t even really have much of an ending. The Ripper’s soul is dealt with and Bug takes the role of city hero, even if it’s not exactly earned, with his fable superceding that of the Ripper’s. Heavy voiceover and exposition share the spotlight with Bug as the film concludes.
Craven is someone that has proven his ability dozens of times over, but focusing on these two films in particular does a good job at highlighting the yin and yang to his career. It’s all too fortunate that Craven’s final film could end up being Scream 4 and the director is able to go out on a relatively strong note instead of the bummer final film that this would have made. In lieu of many of the questionable decisions that are made in My Soul to Take, some of that genuine A Nightmare on Elm Street magic is seen once more in his final picture.
And at least it doesn’t conclude with cartoon end credits.