New Line Cinema is known as “The House that Freddy Built.” It’s been established, acknowledged, and confirmed by the man himself, founder Robert Shaye. To that end, Wes Craven was the most important filmmaker in the early days of the burgeoning, would-be studio, with the possible exception of John Waters, whose films, including the incredible Pink Flamingos (1972) gave New Line a viable product to distribute. Ditto the lesser-known Louis Gasnier, the director of a frequent New Line screening property, Reefer Madness (1936). The “other” director who was of vital importance to New Line’s development was so adorably naïve that upon first meeting Shaye, he thought New Line could distribute a short film he’d made. Director Jack Sholder ended up editing all of their trailers and trimming films which Shaye deemed “15 minutes too long.”
Sholder was determined to be a director, but he was also realistic. Needing work, his sole official credit as an editor was for the memorable slasher The Burning (1981), which has continued to gain in stature as the years have worn on. By 1982 though, it was time. He wrote (with a story by Shaye and Michael Harrpster) and directed Alone in the Dark, a small, but very effective thriller that contains some genuinely frightening scenes. I respect Jack Sholder, not only as a filmmaker, but as a man. You know why? Because he’s willing to admit culpability in an industry that thrives on constantly shifting blame and changing the narrative.
With Wes Craven moving on to other things after the unexpected success of A Nightmare on Elm St. (1984), Sholder had only six weeks prep time to direct the highly-anticipated sequel, A Nightmare on Elm St. 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985). The film has become infamous amongst horror aficionados for its homosexual under, and some would say over, tones. Sholder has stated that although he didn’t realize it at the time, he says he definitely sees it now, which is rare for a filmmaker to admit something of such magnitude. We all know Tommy Wiseau didn’t mean to make a comedy with The Room (2003), but he’ll never admit it. The homoerotic themes have been confirmed as being intentionally written into the script by writer David Chaskin.
Sholder initially declined the chance to direct Freddy’s Revenge, but he was advised by a film industry friend that it would make his career, which it did. Nightmare 2 was a hit and he worked for nearly 20 years, making mostly TV movies and direct-to-video features like the bonkers Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies (1999). It’s thrilling to discover a filmmaker whose enthusiasm for a potential project led to the eventual film being extraordinary. Being, as he put it, “on the B-list,” he turned down several projects post-Freddy's Revenge, until he was sent a script written by the prolific and very talented writer, Jim Kouf. Intending to direct the project himself, Kouf had shopped the property around for years, receiving many rejections, until it arrived at New Line, who agreed to produce, providing he didn’t direct. Though not a directly personal work, the writer had been inspired by real-life events in which seemingly "normal" people went on murderous rampages. Kouf, who nowadays is happy to admit his involvement with the film, sold the script and visited the set a number of times and saw the changes that were being made. He washed his hands of the whole thing and opted to be credited as Bob Hunt. Sholder adored the script and what we got was his finest hour. Shot in 45 days, we're gifted with a slick, rip roaring, truly original sci-fi thriller called The Hidden (1987).
Which movie had the greatest car chase? The list goes on and on, and we all know the usual suspects. It always begins with The French Connection, then people mention Bullitt, The Blues Brothers, the Mad Max films, The Fast and the Furious movies, the Bourne movies, blah, blah, blah... I’d be more inclined to mention slightly more off-beat titles, like The Man from Hong Kong or The Driver, but if I want to be hip and even a little obscure, I will always say The Hidden.
The film opens with grainy black-and-white security camera footage. Neon green slime-colored credits roll as we see nothing out of the ordinary in a Wells Fargo bank. A tall man, Jack DeVries (Chris Mulkey, First Blood, Mysterious Skin) steps into frame and merely stands in the lobby. In a clever touch, a security guard even gives him a once over before nodding and moving on. Jack produces a shotgun as a trio of armed guards carry a couple sacks of money and away we go! He grins at the camera and blows it away.
Most bank robbers go for an unmarked van or something simple, like an Oldsmobile. Not DeVries. When he’s robbing and killing, he rides in style. He hops into a black Ferrari 308 GTB, pops in a heavy metal cassette, and zooms off. When asked if Sholder really wrecked a Ferrari for the film, the director replied: "No, I didn't wreck a Ferrari. I wrecked FOUR!" One was pristine, two were beat-up for the chase, and one was a husk to be blown to smithereens.
The escape is captured in an epic crane shot featuring spectators pointing the police in the direction the perpetrator headed. Sholder’s energetic camerawork is provided by Jacques Haitkin, whose fabulous credits include the first two Nightmare films, Cherry 2000, Galaxy of Terror, Fist of the North Star, and second unit DP work on larger-scale projects like Venom, Black Panther, and Kong: Skull Island. The Ferrari whizzes through traffic and car enthusiasts shed a single tear as it gets banged up pretty badly. What’s truly bizarre about DeVries’ behavior is his intentional side-swiping of random drivers. And he’s an equal opportunity offender. If you’ve got wheels, you count as a vehicle, because as he drives through a park, a man in a wheel chair has some bad luck and gets creamed, big time. He even finds time to embrace that old cliché, smashing through a pane of glass being carried across a street.
In a HELLZ YEAH! moment, the cops set up a road block and we get at least five or six shotgun pumps as the Ferrari approaches. It’s badass and briefly makes one forget how horrible guns are. The police are joined by a trio of detectives: Sanchez (Richard Brooks, The Substitute, Law & Order), Willis (Ed O’Ross, the bad Russian from Red Heat), and most importantly, Tom Beck (Michael Nouri, that nice fella from Flashdance and of course Albert Pyun’s Captain America). DeVries punches through the road block but slows to a crawl. Staggering out, bruised and bloody, he lets out a laugh and the cops respond by destroying the car in a fiery explosion.
“I doubt he’ll last the night.” “Good.” A doctor is taken aback by Beck’s response to DeVries’ prognosis. Beck informs him that Jack is guilty of several crimes, not least of which is killing 12 people and injuring 23 more. A lanky FBI agent, Lloyd Gallagher (Kyle MacLachlan, just a year after Blue Velvet), shows up and Beck gets assigned to help him investigate the DeVries case. MacLachlan's character name comes from Jim Kouf's appreciation for The Virginian's Clu Gulager, who has a small role in the film. The banter between the trio of detectives and Gallagher are great, with the boys ragging on another detective, Krem (Larry Cedar, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, “Goddamnit! You got my pen!”), who is assured by them that his wife has been “well taken care of.” The scenes in the station were shot at the former Lincoln Heights Jail, where the boiler scenes from the first Nightmare film were shot. It's noteworthy that there's very little blue in the film; an intentional choice which highlights the sickly green hues that permeate throughout. Beck is super stressed, but of course, Lloyd says please. “How can I refuse?” says Beck. One thing DeVries and Gallagher seem to have in common is a love of fancy cars. Gallagher drives a beige Porche 928, which he jokingly mentions he stole. Wait, is he joking?
Up to this point, we just assume that DeVries is some homicidal maniac criminal, but then...this happens. Jonathan Miller (William Boyett, Highway Patrol, Adam-12) lays helpless in the next bed, and DeVries suddenly sits up with ease. He grabs Miller’s face and a large black bug most resembling a cockroach/leech emerges from his mouth and heads down Miller’s gullet. The script called for "a black, membranous, pulsating glob," which the film delivers. The next thing we know, Miller is gone and DeVries is dead to rights. It’s official. We’re in science fiction territory now. Boyett got one look at the phony head that would "receive" the parasite and begged them to get it out of his sight.
This alien is a real prick with expensive and peculiar tastes. He pockets a bunch of hard rock tapes, beats the record store owner to death, steals the register cash and a boom box, rudely plays it at full blast in a café while he wolfs down some steak, then catches sight of a red Ferrari, his favorite. Sholder found the notion of doing whatever you want rather cathartic, so despite the awfulness of the creature, there's a certain joy in watching such selfish behavior. He happens to see a news report about a probable candidate for president visiting Los Angeles before rushing after the sexy automobile. Back at the record store, Beck and Gallagher do some investigating. This scene is mostly played out in a great single take with a handheld camera. Sholder claims to have been influenced by Sidney Lumet’s treatment of police procedurals, and the scene has a vitality and immediacy missing from many movies about cops and robbers. Gallagher is playing his cards close to the chest, but he convinces Beck that DeVries and Miller are partners, strange as that may seem. For Beck, a criminal is a criminal, so he goes along with it. The film acts as a sly response to 80’s consumerism, with Maclachlan describing “Miller”: “He sees something he wants; he takes it.”
This Ferrari dealership is quite the place. While a big dude named Eddie tries to make Miller piss off, the white-suited goombah (Frank Renzulli, a writer/producer on The Sopranos) snorts cocaine in the salesman's (James Luisi, The Rockford Files, Fade to Black) office. Eddie staggers in, having been shot in the gut. “I need the keys,” Miller says. They reluctantly hand them over. He responds by saying, “Thank you. Bye.” Bang. Bang. They're dead. Miller finds the goombah’s wallet and checks out his import business. It turns out this Ferrari fan is an arms dealer, having a massive collection of weaponry in a side room. Oh, and Miller fucking hates country music. Originally, the alien was supposed to go to the dealer's house first, but this was rightly excised. The song on record player was supposed to be a Sinatra tune, but that too was changed to fit the budget. Aliens have needs too, apparently, so he heads over to a, ahem, gentleman’s club: The Harem Room.
Beck learns that “Miller and DeVries” killed Gallagher’s partner. He takes pity on Gallagher, who seems like a lonely oddball, and invites him to dinner. There, Gallagher meets Beck’s wife, Barbara (Katherine Cannon, Beverly Hills 90210) and their daughter Juliet (Kristen Clayton, who would show up in Nightmare 3 and 4 as well as the TV series). Juliet sees something in Lloyd, and he knows it. Up until now, Lloyd has been more mild-mannered than weird, but alcohol seems to have an odd effect on him. His tongue loosened, he makes several admissions regarding his dead wife and daughter, as well as the place he originally called home. Some place “upstate” called Altair. Sholder loved the script, but did feel it needed a polish, so he added to Gallagher's backstory that his wife and daughter had also been murdered along with some tightening of certain sequences. Kouf wasn't happy.
At the strip club, Miller, whose alien “buddy” seems desperate to escape out of, eyes Brenda (Claudia Christian - Yes, of course Babylon 5, but let’s not forget Maniac Cop 2 and The Dark Backward), a stripper with a cash-patterned G-string. There's an element of sexual danger, yet if one digs deeper into what the alien is after, it's likely that Brenda's money-centric attire is what caught its eye. He attacks her backstage and next thing you know, she’s dressed in a bright red, clingy dress exposing her...ummm...butt cleavage, and carrying a large, matching bag. This alien knows how to accessorize. Some sleaze bag on the street inquires whether she “likes cars,” and she proceeds to fuck him to death before stealing his green Cadillac Sedan Seville. Christian was contacted by her agent and convinced to audition based on this pitch: "It's light on dialogue but you get to shoot machine guns!"
There are so many little bits of business going on in the film that lend a ton of character to the proceedings. The alien fondles “her” newfound breasts and Lloyd, given an Alka-Seltzer for his hangover, tries to chew it like a pill. He later takes an aspirin and believes it’s supposed to dissolve in water. Ironically, actress Christian was neither a dancer nor a "big-chested" woman, so she stuffed her bra with socks and tissues, fooling them enough to gain a callback. She performed her callback in a bikini, so this time she used shoulder pads and electrical tape. She landed the role and was sent to work with Janet Jackson's choreographer, who deemed her "hopeless," advising her to visit some strip clubs and fake it. Though she exudes ruthless confidence, she was actually quite nervous playing Brenda, even going to a weight-loss clinic due to body image worries.
Beck and Gallagher manage to chase her down and shoot out the tires, causing her to crash into a clothing store. The back room is creepy as hell, with mannequins strewn about. Mannequins, it turns out, are prohibitively expensive, so the crew bought two, made molds, then produced a hundred which could easily be blown to bits. They shoot her at least 15 times, but the bullets don’t even slow her down. Beck nearly gets shot off the roof, which forces him to hang off the side of the building. The stuntman offered to do the stunt without a wire, but the production worried for his safety, so a harness was used. The cord dug into the stuntman's arm and he'd end up needing stitches. Gallagher corners her, producing a weird, silver weapon that was designed to be wielded by a three-fingered being. MacLachlan has never struck me as an action hero-type, but he’s hardcore as he shoots the gun away from Brenda’s grasp and stalks her. She tells him it’s not over and throws herself off the roof in an impressive stunt.
A dog and Lt. Masterson arrive, played by great character actor Clarence Felder, who delivers one of the funniest lines I’ve ever heard in Ruthless People (1986): “This could very well be the stupidest person on the face of the Earth.” The dog runs ahead and unfortunately gets nabbed by the alien. Played by Roy the Dog, who'd return to New Line for Nightmare 4 as the pup who pisses fire, he delivers one of the finest performances. The dog stares at Gallagher, who has no idea where his nemesis has gone, growls, and even licks his lips like all of the alien-hosted humans. The dog has a seemingly existential crisis for a moment when we find him staring in a mirror. I’d’ve liked to have seen him get down with some rock music, but that might’ve been crossing the line. Later, in a pretty shocking jump scare, it smashes through a back door and attacks Masterson, allowing the bug to get inside.
Beck finally loses it with Gallagher and has him arrested. Lloyd spills the beans, claiming the person they’re pursuing is really an Altarian alien who uses bodies until they’re too damaged to continue then finds another host. Gallagher is really a member of an elite alien space force who’s been searching for this wanted galactic criminal for nine years, Earth time. How does Beck respond? Throw him in the pokey!
Everyone possessed by the alien has a slightly odd gait, and Masterson is no exception. He hobbles into the station, where he meets up with a cameoing Lin Shaye, who is the special assistant to the visiting presidential nominee, Senator Holt (John McCann, Scarface). “The one everyone applauds.” Not only is this Altarian hungry for cars and music, he’s hungry for power, and the senator is his new target. “Masterson” grabs Beck, warning him that he already shot him once, and it all clicks for Beck. His fellow detectives attempt to gun Masterson down, but the alien is once again impervious. It’s a chaotic scene of outstanding mayhem. The alien casually tosses a grenade in the precinct, Danny Trejo shows up to deliver a single line before getting blown away, and there’s even a bazooka shot through a wall! Holy shit! This movie is bananas!
While Gallagher explains to Beck that his weapon can only destroy the alien when it’s out of its human host, being ineffective against human flesh, detective Willis is taken over. There’s real emotional depth here thanks to the smart writing, with the cops reacting to both the possession of Masterson and now Willis with genuine grief. “Is he dead?” Beck asks, referring to Willis. “Yes.” It’s so much more enjoyable when a character cares about another, while most movies feature countless deaths which get forgotten by the next scene.
The alien doesn’t particularly care for the Altarian race, so he’s determined to reach the senator. “Willis” lays waste to the bodyguards and Beck gets badly wounded in the stomach. When Lloyd sees the senator escorted away, the future president gives a malicious lick of the lips, signifying the presence of the renegade creature.
A press conference is held and the film employs some slight but very knowing satire as the senator says nothing regarding the recent attempt on his life, except to utter the simple, voter-friendly sentence, “I want to be president.” The crowd loves it. Kyle MacLachlan rushes past the armed guards, in 48fps slow motion no less, busting out a flame thrower that had been confiscated earlier. He gets shot multiple times, but he too can withstand bullets. He lights that career politician up and the alien slithers out. The ray gun emits a golden beam and the yuppie scum alien is incinerated. This moment was re-shot and originally featured a larger, more impressive monster, but Sholder felt it detracted from the impact of Gallagher's revenge. It's also more satisfying that the bug is just a little, slimy bastard. Great moment aside, I could’ve used some reaction shots. Like, what the fuck just happened?! Perhaps Sholder worried an exaggerated reaction would lessen the impact of the scene, but I’d have liked to see a bit of confirmation that everyone else had just witnessed a fucking oversized bug crawl out of a burning corpse’s mouth. A reporter does point the beast out, so there’s that.
In the original ending, the alien gets away clean and we assume the world is destroyed. I don’t really have a problem with this final scene since it’s written, shot, and edited with class and sophistication. Beck is dying and Barbara is devastated. Lloyd sneaks into Beck’s room and transfers his essence, which is a glittering stream of gold light, into Beck. Of course, now Beck is fine, and while his wife rejoices, Juliet looks upon him with apprehension. In their final moment, she smiles and holds his hand. Fade out.
The film is like a bullet train, rarely letting up and even in its quieter moments, remains compelling. The action is first-rate and the makeup effects by the great Kevin Yagher, along with his team which included Howard Berger and Robert Kurtzman, though brief, are reliably grotesque and freaky. The film is tightly-paced by editor Michael N. Knue, who would become a major contributor for a handful of the Netflix Marvel series and cut his teeth on horror films like House, Man’s Best Friend, Night of the Creeps, and Nightmare on Elm St. 4: The Dream Master. Really though, the film belongs to the director, the actors, and especially, the writer.
Jim Kouf may be best known to TV viewers as the creator of the long-running fantasy series Grimm, but he’s amassed a huge body of work in a very long career. His work includes some pretty big films (Rush Hour, National Treasure, Stakeout) as well as smaller, interesting work, like The Boogens, Class, and Gang Related, which he also directed. The Boogens would also be a film he'd use his 'Bob Hunt' pseudonym for. It's unfortunate that Kouf was angry about the changes made to his script. It was his baby, so it's completely understandable, but the changes don't seem to sacrifice character development or damage the overall story.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that he wrote 1985’s Secret Admirer, which was blatantly, and that’s putting it mildly, plagiarized by Eduardo Ortiz for his 2016 film Vasos de Papel. I was not aware of this situation until I was doing research for this piece. Whoa, what a clusterfuck. Anyways, Kouf’s work here is stellar, providing great material for the actors, all of whom deliver effective, lived-in performances, particularly Nouri, whose stressed-out, “seen it all” detective never comes off as hackneyed. Michael Nouri was even nominated for a Saturn Award, although he was reportedly a nightmare on set; constantly butting heads with Sholder and sometimes flat-out refusing to do his director's bidding. MacLachlan has a great quirky humor to him while each performer possessed by the alien brings their own unique flavor to the villainous invader.
Jack Sholder may not have made a film that reached the heights of The Hidden again, but it’s a hell of an achievement.