Night Killer (1990)

Directed by Claudio Fragasso

In third grade, we had to write and illustrate a short story and share it with the class. Mine was called “My Monster” and it was about all the incredible things my monster did—it wore tailored business suits, cleaned the house with Pine-Sol, and drank instant coffee (Sanka, never Folgers). It also happened to be a successful lawyer for Jacoby & Meyers, a real-life personal injury firm that ran countless commercials during the weekday afternoons, when personally injured people were at home. The story was a hit and I was awarded a gold star, the nine-year-old’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. Clearly I had drawn ideas from all the commercials I had seen, and, in fact, Miss Jensen made a point to discuss inspiration and parody. I had unknowingly created a satire about consumerism and the litigation-obsessed culture of the United States, and I had knowingly created an enthralling story where my monster helps get a client 2.1 million dollars after an unfortunate scooter accident.

When the class had to write another short story, more than half the students wrote ones inspired by commercials. There were ones that involved Palmolive, which softened hands as you did dishes, and others with “set it and forget it” appliances. These stories had their own merits but, of course, nothing really measured up to the original. And I think everyone knew that my story couldn’t be touched, but it didn’t keep them from trying.

I guess what I’m saying is that I was a pretty big deal in third grade. I had a gold star.

But also I’m saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

A group of dancers sway and pulse frenetically. It’s that terrifying boundary where aerobics and modern dance (pronounced “dahnse”) meet. Picture a fish out of water doing the Running Man. Now put it in a leotard and leg warmers. Congratulations, you have just imagined the opening scene of Night Killer (and also Dance or Die, High Kicks, and every movie that involves dance and aerobics, of which there is surprisingly many and not enough).

Soon a shadow moves across a window. A gnarled hand with sharp claws reaches into a ladies’ locker room. A vicious, bald figure with a deformed, burned face snarls. Is it Freddy Krueger? Nope, not really! But it sure looks like him!

The claws rip through a choreographer’s chest and she goes flying off the mezzanine. In answering that age-old question “Dance or die?”, she chose “die.” Or rather, someone chose it for her.

Melanie Beck (played by Tara Buckman from Silent Night, Deadly Night) has a young daughter and a marriage on the rocks. A drunk guy keeps calling her. She likes to talk on the phone topless and rub her chest in the mirror. I had a neighbor who’d talk on the phone naked in front of his open window and scratch his junk.

Melanie hears strange noises inside her home. She calls the police who advise her to “lock herself in the house.” Sure, seems like a fantastic idea. The deformed, burned figure with claws who is most definitely not Freddy is most definitely in her house. There are desperate screams, blood-hungry threats, and bizarre sexual tension.

“Are you ready to play, Mrs. Beck?”

She survives, just barely. The killer is still loose, and something is broken inside her. Soon she’s demanding a sexual-harassing creep in the ladies’ bathroom to strip naked and flush his clothes down the toilet. He’s wearing purple banana hammock briefs, just like our vigilante hero in the SOV milquetoast Human Prey. She then heads to the beach where she downs a bottle of pills, only to get saved by the purple-brief-wearing creep. He explains that drinking a lot of seawater will help her avoid an overdose. We’ve been doing it wrong this entire time!

The creep holds her captive and now Melanie has been pushed past her dissociative state and into a psychotic break, with a bit of Stockholm syndrome mixed in for good measure. She begs her captor to kill her, even writing “I kill you kill me” in the mirror in red lipstick.

Meanwhile a man in what is most definitely not a Freddy mask and most definitely not Freddy claws attacks ladies around town.

Night Killer is a psycho-sexual drama with emphasis on the psycho—and really it should be psychos. It’s not exactly a rip-off of Nightmare on Elm Street, but it certainly gets close at times. There’s a bit of home invasion, a bit of Cinemax-after-dark, a bit of slasher, and healthy servings of sleaze and melodrama. For the most part, Night Killer makes no sense, but it is consistently entertaining. There’s an erotic re-telling of “Little Red Riding Hood,” an assault in front of an aquarium full of plankton, and a man who eats KFC while a woman holds a gun to her head. There are a few twists that are hard to decipher, but you can comprehend just enough to suspend everything you know about narrative and plot and move on to enjoy a killer who is most definitely not Freddy.

The lesson I learned in third grade is that if you’re going to imitate something, you better put your own perspective on it to make it yours. Satan’s Bed, Mahakaal, and Khooni Murda are cheap knockoffs of Nightmare on Elm Street, only with more exotic spices. It unapologetically recreates parts of the original wholesale, but that’s precisely where we find the entertainment. The deranged flavor allows us to forgive these films for stepping all over a classic. But Claudio Fragasso managed to take Freddy Krueger and re-imagine him enough to make him not be Freddy Krueger, save the mask and claws (which are slightly different to avoid a massive lawsuit, probably by Jacoby and Meyers). Whether it’s Fragasso’s intention or not, the film takes our understanding of what is one of our most beloved cultural icons, and then promptly throws it in the dumpster unexplained. We expect nothing less from the genius who brought us Troll 2 and Monster Dog. It’s beyond entertaining to explore the boundary between ripping something off and taking something and running with it. And while nothing will ever measure up to the original, nothing should ever stop a filmmaker from trying.

This film features a slow-motion unwrapping of a gift.