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Thursday, September 26, 2019 | Retrospective

After the box-office bonanza of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS (1987), every big studio wanted a horror movie franchise cash cow character. And, in particular, some were savvy enough to realize that Freddy Krueger’s basic concept as a character allowed for a certain plot/imagery flexibility (as opposed to a hulking mute like Michael Meyers or Jason Voorhees) , while also requiring a larger effects budget to assure the promise of that cinematic “wow!” That first factor meant there was also more opportunity to “target the demographic” (that is to say, youth culture, re: Freddy on MTV) and, that second factor? Well, while it might seem like a drawback, a mutable practical effects budget is an easy way to disguise some, shall we say, “creative bookkeeping”? So the race was on to magic-up another Krueger, and this series of articles, which I’ve called the KRUEGER ALSO-RANS, examines four 80’s horror films and their central characters through this lens – that is, attempts by various studies to copy the success of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET by deliberately creating a franchise-ready character who eschewed the lumbering, silent slasher model and instead embraced the cinematic “rubber reality” approach used by our joking, twisted dream ghoul. None were successful. I’ll follow the examination with some thoughts on sequel and remake potential.

In 1994’s BRAINSCAN, Michael (Edward Furlong), is a reclusive computer nerd, horror film fan (he runs a film club at school, which receives flack from his teachers) and latchkey kid with an absent dad and only goofus metalhead friend Kyle (Jamie Marsh) and an obsession with his female neighbor Kimberly (Amy Hargreaves) to keep himself occupied. He discovers “Brainscan” (from Scientific Perception Laboratories), a new and purportedly ultra-realistic horror video game, being advertised in FANGORIA magazine. Playing it, he finds himself in a POV scenario where he kills a stranger, only to find on waking that the murder actually occurred. Then he’s visited by Trickster (T. Ryder Smith), a mocking, evil entity from the game, who drives him to further acts of murder, even as Detective Hayden (Frank Langella) closes in…

“Trickster is fun to watch (something akin to Freddy, Beetlejuice & Max Headroom combined, and resembling a demonic Steven Tyler)”

Capturing a suposed horror-film-fan culture (as well as the burgeoning video-camera culture) of the 90s (the school club watches DEATH, DEATH, DEATH PART 2), Michael lives a teenager’s fantasy of an adult life – no parents, wealthy home, ready cash – while he’s also lonely, wracked by traumatic nightmares of his mother’s automobile death (that crippled his leg), throws tantrums and listens to loud metal music. There’s a gory knee surgery scene, and some deliberate and possibly accidental horror film resonances: the initial First Person killing addresses a main critique of slasher films; Trickster emerges from a screen much like VIDEODROME, while the first killing feels almost like a giallo & the video-camera aspect vaguely anticipates found footage. But it’s also goofy (Trickster dances to Primus! Michael sloppily chugs milk! There’s the surrealistic image of dog carrying a severed foot, which leads to a loop ending) and uneven (turns out that the girl-next-door is, likewise, a creepy stalker, so she’s into it!). I know the film has fans, and its unevenness does lend a certain oddball charm, but as a horror film (which one presumes is what it’s trying to be, before anything else) it’s just not very good.

On the other hand, Smith’s Trickster is fun to watch (something akin to Freddy, Beetlejuice & Max Headroom combined, and resembling a demonic Steven Tyler). Michael initially asks “How did you get in here?” to which the demon distractedly, but honestly, answers “You invited me in…that’s how it always works”, which implies a much older sets of folkloric rules at play). Trickster gloms food, is a messy eater, doesn’t like Country & Western music, watches Three Stooges shorts and has a quirky & cartoonish sense of black humor, but is also abusive and has a hair-trigger temper.

The inevitable moment…

COULD HAVE BEEN: the potential for BRAINSCAN sequels seemed pretty good, since the “rubber reality” and reset ending frees the series from hard continuity concerns, while the underlying theme of Horror Movies/Entertainment/Computer Games as addictive (and akin to a drug-like altered state) also had some promise. But popular horror had already moved away from the ELM STREET model by this point (with the post-modern smugness of SCREAM around the eventual corner)… As for a remake, with the pervasiveness of video games, VR and retro-gaming, one can easily imagine someone running across an old “Brainscan” disc in a dusty pawn shop or junk store…

Shawn Garrett
Shawn M. Garrett is the co-editor of PSEUDOPOD, the premiere horror fiction podcast, and is either the dumbest smart man or the smartest dumb man you ever met. Thanks to a youth spent in the company of Richard Matheson, Vincent Price, Carl Kolchak & Jupiter Jones, he has pursued a life-long interest in the thrilling, the horrific and the mysterious – be it in print, film, art or audio. He has worked as a sewerage groundskeeper, audio transcription editor, pornography enabler, insurance letter writer – he was once paid by Marvel Comics to pastiche the voice of Stan Lee in promotional materials and he spends his days converting old pulp fiction into digital form for minimal pay. He now lives near the ocean in a small metal box and he hopes that becoming a Yuggothian brain-in-a-jar is a viable future, as there is NO WAY he will ever read all the books he has on his lists, or listen to all the music he wants to hear. Everything that he is he owes to his late sister Susan, a shining star in the pre-internet world of fan-fiction, who left this world unexpectedly in 2010. He spends an inordinate amount of time reading, writing and watching movies.