A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

Asked to picture a mental hospital in a horror film, most of us would think similarly. From old B-movies to Halloween to the recent Happy Death Day and IT, they house dangerous maniacs itching for an escape, a weapon and an unsuspecting innocent to murder. It’s a trope A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors plays into: a nun reveals that Freddy Krueger was the result of her gang-rape in an asylum, making him “the bastard son of a thousand maniacs.”

But Dream Warriors also flips this on its head. Our heroes, teenagers in a psychiatric unit, are all tormented by Freddy in their dreams, and Freddy is both a metaphor and a catalyst for mental health problems. Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette) lands in the hospital after Freddy slits her wrists, but the other kids – in desperate attempts to stay awake or just deal with the trauma of their dreams – exhibit symptoms of mental illness. Jennifer puts out cigarettes on her arms. Will is paralyzed at the waist after a botched suicide attempt. Joey, once a high school debater, is mute.

Of course, the doctors don’t believe them about Freddy. They don’t listen to them at all. According to Dr. Simms, their dreams are a group delusion. When one kids points out that they all had these dreams before they’d ever met, she has no good answer. She blames them for their “weaknesses.” Dr. Neil Gordon is supposed to be the nice one (he empathizes with the kids in a way that Simms doesn’t even try to), but even he can’t understand them. He has no problem putting them under sedation, despite their screams and cries that sleep is what they fear the most. When one dies in an apparent suicide, he tells the group that his suicide was selfish, and that he let them all down.

The hospital in Dream Warriors isn’t a classic horror movie asylum. It’s a nice, clean, modern hospital; the kids decorate their rooms and wear their own clothes. They play Dungeons & Dragons until lights out. But Dream Warriors finds a very different kind of horror here. It’s the horror of not being listened to, of not being believed. Of being a patient in the mental health system.

Originally published in issue 25 of Unwinnable’s Exploits, April 2020.

Phase IV

Phase IV is the only film directed by Saul Bass, the designer of most of the greatest title sequences in film history, as well as a good chunk of the greatest film posters. It is, plot-wise, a pretty standard creature feature: Michael Murphy and Nigel Davenport play scientists studying mysterious activity among ants. The ants have seemingly abandoned interspecies conflict and are working together, building strange towers in the desert and making crop circles. The local population has fled, with the exception of one family. 

But the extraordinary thing about Phase IV is how sympathetic it makes the ants. The shots of the ants are incredibly technically impressive: it’s hard to tell if you’re looking at real insects or animatronics, because neither possibility seems to account for the simultaneous realism and precision of movement. Even though the ants aren’t anthropomorphized at all, the film cultivates a deep empathy for them. Hubbs (Davenport) blasts one of their towers, and an ant carefully lines up the corpses of his comrades, creating a kind of memorial. We see more and more bodies of dead ants, and it unmistakably evokes real-life massacres of human beings. 

The whole thing plays like an allegory for the Vietnam War. “They’re not individuals, they are individual cells. Tiny functioning parts of the whole,” Hubbs says about the ants, “Think of a society, James, with perfect harmony, perfect altruism and self-sacrifice, perfect division of labor, organized for preordained roles.” They’re communist, basically. Hubbs and Lesko are supposed to be scientists, disinterested observers analyzing the ants’ behavior. While James Lesko (Murphy) wants to study and potentially communicate with them, Hubbs unilaterally wages a war of aggression. Just as Lesko successfully communicates with the ants, Hubbs blows up their tower, massacring hundreds. 

In his eagerness to destroy the ants, Hubbs kills all but one of the only family who didn’t flee the area. The ants break into an outside generator, and it triggers chemical weapons: an ant trap that backfires on fellow human beings. We see ants crawling out of a hole in the hand of one of the corpses. Lesko is deeply disturbed, but Hubbs is unmoved. “People get killed sometimes.”

Originally published in issue 29 of Unwinnable’s Exploits, August 2020, and on Unwinnable.com.

Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession

It’s hard to know why certain movies from a given country end up becoming popular internationally, while others languish in obscurity. It helps if it’s popular in its home country, obviously, but it’s not a silver bullet.

Leonid Gaidai was one of the most popular and successful directors in the Soviet Union, but his films are tragically under-seen outside of the former USSR. You could argue this is due to their specificity in Russian culture which international audiences can’t understand or appreciate, but I don’t think that’s true. His 1973 film Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession is a total crowd-pleaser: the kind of fun action-adventure comedy that Hollywood made so well in the 1980s, but a decade earlier and a half a world away.

The film is sometimes sold in English-speaking territories as Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future, under the same commercial logic that led to a dubbed version of Le Samouraï being released as The Godson to capitalize on The Godfather. But the comparison feels apt: although a very different time travel story to Back to the Future, it has a similar total commitment to being big, loveable entertainment, without sacrificing all the offbeat touches that make it unique. It’s rooted in Russian culture and humor, but it has every right to be a comedy classic in the English-speaking world.

Shurik (Aleksandr Demyanenko) is building a time machine. He accidentally sends the superintendent of his apartment building, Ivan Vasilievich Bunsha (Yury Yakovlev), along with a burglar who was in the middle of robbing Shurik, back to Ivan the Terrible’s time. Meanwhile, Ivan the Terrible (also played by Yakovlev) jumps forward to 1973 Moscow. Hijinks ensue. Vasilievich poses as Ivan the Terrible: the burglar, who poses as a duke, says this Ivan looks nothing like Ivan the Terrible, despite them being literally identical. Ivan the Terrible, meanwhile, is confused by elevators, and also everything else about the 1970s. People mistaken him for Vasilievich and figure he seems to be having some kind of nervous breakdown.

Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession executes classical styles of comedy with a particular flair. It’s full of farce that would make Oscar Wilde proud: the mistaken identities and escalating misunderstandings in both timelines are the core of the film’s humor, carried off by Yakovlev’s killer dual performance. But its slapstick is what really shines. The epic final chase combines physical comedy with genuine tension in the manner of Buster Keaton. It’s no wonder it became hugely popular in Russia. The weird thing is that it didn’t everywhere else.

Originally published in issue 37 of Unwinnable’s Exploits, April 2021.

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