Sunday, October 31, 2010
CULT MOVIE REVIEW: A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
Over the last several years, I've become something of a pragmatist in terms of horror movie remakes.
There are so many of 'em out there (and so many still coming our way...) that the only to broach them fairly -- and at least relatively objectively --- is to take them on a case-by-case, individual basis.
So I try to find the good where I can, even if it is a re-vamp of a classic that is under the spotlight.
And facts are facts: "remakes" of The Thing (1982), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Nosferatu (1979) and The Fly (1986) remain some of the best horror films ever made. You might even add 1988's The Blob to that select list too.
Given this reality, it makes no sense to boast a blanket philosophy against horror movie remakes. You take the risk of dismissing something good if you do.
The problem is that there are so many remakes -- arriving in such rapid, heavily-hyped succession -- that it's indeed difficult to distinguish the wheat from the chaff.
What I've detected, in broad strokes, in this current crop of genre remakes -- (2000 to 2010) -- is that the best ones appear to be those that replace the original's sub-text with an updated, relevant one.
In other words, the remakes must reveal something valuable to us about our lives in the here-and-now. They can't just be disposable "jump" and "jolt" roller-coaster rides.
In other words, a remake can't be the "same" movie as the original because times have changed and different talents are involved. But if a remake excavates a comparative path to quality -- gazing at our world as it is now; pushing the boundaries of today's cinema, etc. -- then it very may well offer something worthwhile to commend it.
I believe that Marcus Nispel's Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead (2004) and Alexandre Aja's The Hills Have Eyes (2006) all fit that bill.
Are these remade titles all-time classics like the originals from which they sprang?
Only time can answer that question for certain. But I think, at the very bare minimum, they are good movies that honor the memory of the originals and also boast their own distinctive visual and contextual identity.
Also -- and I realize this is a highly controversial judgment -- I feel that history may judge Rob Zombie's Halloween movies more kindly than many of us (including myself, at times...) do right now.
Why? Although Zombie's Halloween remakes are drastically different from Carpenter's in approach and aesthetic, they do substitute an artist's legitimate, if controversial, individual vision. Is it the vision that I prefer for Michael Myers? Absolutely not. I prefer Carpenter's minimalism. I prefer Michael Myers as the Shape -- as an ambiguous, mysterious figure -- not as an abused child.
But it seems both foolish and unfair to deny that Zombie's Halloween movies represent the efforts of a distinctive artist taking risks, making bold choices and pushing things to the limit....especially given Zombie's other, generally well-regarded contributions to the genre (namely House of a 1,000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects).
This is a very long preamble to a discussion of the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010).
But I believe it is abundantly necessary to spell this all out, in meticulous detail, because this is one case in which a remake is almost stereotypically awful.
I didn't want my distaste for this movie to be erroneously perceived as a complaint against the remake form in toto. It's too easy to dismiss my review if that were the case, and I don't want that to happen.
Long story short: Samuel Bayer's A Nightmare on Elm Street is shallow, poorly-made, and wholly lobotomized -- yes, downright stupid -- compared to the Wes Craven, 1984 source material. The remake fails to scare; it fails, even, to generate interest around its by-the-numbers "investigative" storyline. More than anything, the movie plays like a bad remake of an obscure J-Horror, like One Missed Call, perhaps.
Of course, the new Nightmare on Elm Street cannot be the old one. I don't expect it to be. But it fails on the creative basis I wrote about above. It doesn't replace what was so good about the original Craven film with anything of comparative value or quality. The remake fundamentally misunderstands the original's point-of-view and is a pale, play-it-safe, whitebread effort. It pushes no boundaries in terms of the genre; it is a dull, unimaginative piece of work.
Let's talk a bit about the original Nightmare on Elm Street for a moment.
I often describe Wes Craven as the genre's social conscience, and his first Freddy Krueger film is Exhibit A. The 1984 film is not merely about a dream killer stalking teenagers; it's about something much deeper in human nature. In particular, A Nightmare on Elm Street concerns the idea that it is a sin to bury the truth -- no matter how painful -- and far better to face it...to dig it up and show it the sunlight.
Wes Craven gets at this important idea in a few significant ways. The parents of Elm Street (who murdered Freddy), lie to their children, like Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), about their crime, and so the sins of the fathers -- the lies -- return to impact the children.
We see the price of denial and repression all through the film. The Thompsons have divorced. Nancy's mother hides in the bottle -- she's an alcoholic -- so she doesn't have to face the truth about the vigilante action (murder...) against Krueger.
Unlike her parents, Nancy digs and prods at the truth to save her own life. She won't hide from the truth about Krueger, and Craven actually makes an intelligent comparison in the original film (in an English high school class, no less), between Nancy and Shakespeare's Danish prince, Hamlet.
Both characters seek the truth about "their fathers," even though those truths are uncomfortable.
Society wise -- and I'm authentically sorry this upsets or angers conservatives -- this dynamic also reflects dramatically what was happening in political America in the mid-1980s.
Ronald Reagan, an avuncular, father-figure was by-and-large telling Americans that they could have it all. They could have tax cuts and spend heavily on defense and not cut entitlement; and there would be no consequence, said Reaganomics. There was a price, of course: the deficit ballooned dramatically in the 1980s.
Again, the sins of the father were being visited upon the children. Who would pay down the national debt? The children of Elm Street all over America.
Again, I don't mean to offend, but genetically-encoded in A Nightmare on Elm Street is this notion of a battle between Americans generations. The generation that denies and represses the truth (the middle class parents of Nancy's Elm Street; the Establishment of the 1980s) and the younger generation, which would hopefully learn to do better and grapple with problems rather than pawn them off to their own kids, a generational IOU.
"I'm into survival," Nancy notes at one important point in the original film, and this is critical commentary about the times. As youngsters of that era (and I was close to the same age as Nancy in 1984...) many of us indeed worried about our survival.
Again, not to harp on President Reagan (whom I appreciate for his handling of the Challenger incident, for example), but he was the President who joked on an open mic that bombing of Russia would begin in "five minutes." He was the President who incorrectly stated in a debate that nuclear missiles could be recalled from submarines after launch...which was not true. He was the President who said that Jesus would return in his life time and that we were likely the last generation.
This is not political attack or partisanship...these are facts. These are the things the man said, and as children and teenagers, we heard and internalized the messages from the Bully Pulpit. We had to be into survival, like Nancy. It was up to us to determine the truth, and fight back against lies.
At the end of the original Craven film, the only way to defeat Freddy is for Nancy to turn her back on him. Not ignore him, not deny his existence but -- knowing full well what and who is he is -- take away his power in the open. In other words, take the wind out of his sails; solve the problem. Give it no more power over the course we steer.
This was an important turning point in the development of the character of the Final Girl in the Slasher Movie Paradigm. Nancy took responsibility for defending herself; and for beating the Bogeyman.
The point is that -- if you so choose -- you can gaze at Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street on multiple layers. As a frighteningly good horror film; as, thematically, the idea that things repressed return as symptoms...and must be faced. Or, as a political point about the context under which the film was produced: the so-called "apocalypse mentality" of the 1980s.
Through Wes Craven's careful layering of elements (including literary allusion to Hamlet), the film opens itself up to interpretation and analysis. It becomes about "something" other than a guy with finger knives, slicing and dicing nubile teenagers.
In terms of structure -- and the act of pushing the horror film format forward -- Craven blended the naturalistic-style Slasher Paradigm of the early 1980s with "Rubber Reality," infusing "knife-kille" horror again with the supernatural...and the spectacular. That was a big deal at the time, and it opened the way for rubber reality horrors such as Hellraiser (1987) and even Candyman (1992).
So here comes the remake in 2010, and instead of similarly commenting on our society now, it plays it safe and sound in every regard, and actually subverts the messages and meaning of the original film.
How does this movie play it safe? Well, consider how characters have changed since 1984 to become more timid, more bland. In the original film, Nancy's mother was an alcoholic because she buried the truth. Here she is not. Connie Britton plays a concerned mother who counseled against killing Freddy. See, she's reasonable and nice, not a law breaker, not a vigilante, and certainly not a heavy drinker!
In the original film, Rod was a legitimate juvenile delinquent -- a "rough" kid. Here, his replacement, played by Thomas Dekker, is not. He's just another typical suburban kid; one who happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. In the original film, people believed Rod could be guilty of Tina's murder because he was a bad boy "from the wrong side of the tracks;" because he had a history, and because he was deemed unacceptably lower class by the middle class. Not here.
In the original film, the parents of Elm Street are depicted as outright negligent. Remember Tina's Mom and her boyfriend, and how he asked "are you comin' back to the sack or what?" while Tina was facing the prospect of a terminal nightmare? Not here. Tina's surrogate -- Kris -- faces the exact some death as Tina, but there are two important differences. First, her mother is not negligent; she's just a stewardess who needs to go to work, to take a flight. And secondly, Kris does not have premarital sex before she dies (as Tina did, with the "bad boy," Rod.)
So this is a far more timid, milquetoast, safe depiction of the American middle class. No parental negligence. No alcoholism. No class warfare. No premarital sex, even.
But the most important and sickening change is that this Nightmare on Elm Street believes it is absolutely okay (and even commendable) that the parents of Elm Street have lied to their children about the truth of their pre-school age-abuse at Freddy's hands, and his subsequent murder. Where the original film was about digging and excavating the truth, no matter what, this film is about keeping the unpleasant things down and out of sight.
At the end of the film -- I shit you not -- Nancy actually thanks her Mother for lying to her (to...her...face) about Freddy. "I know you were just trying to protect me. Thank you," she says.
Okay, so the new A Nightmare on Elm Street totally undercuts the very theme of the original; the meaning of Nancy's journey. That's established. The question becomes: what does it replace that theme with?
Well, nothing really.
The new film doesn't work on multiple levels. It doesn't even work on one simple level actually; it's not remotely scary. As far as I'm concerned that's the base-line for a horror movie. It must scare. It must excite. It must get the blood pumping.
On that front, this remake tips its hand in the first five minutes, revealing Freddy in close-up during a "micro-nap" in a diner. Remember how the original film kept Freddy in the shadows, giving the audience only glimpses of the dream avenger?
Even that sense of artistry and patience is gone. We know who we're up against from the get-go -- before the title card, actually -- and exactly what he looks like too. True, this Freddy does look more like a burn-victim and less like a Halloween witch, but I'm not totally certain that's a fair trade. After all, Freddy is supposed to be a supernatural avenger, not merely a walking corpse.
Of course, one might argue legitimately that everyone knows who Freddy is by now, so the remakers had to show him -- full make-up monty-- early and get it out of the way. I disagree: going into a remake a director/writer/producer can't just take as a given that the movie's Bogeyman villain is so well-known that he's not scary.
Au contraire: the mission is to re-invent him so he is scary again. Generating real horror requires patience. We should build up to Freddy's appearance; experience a sense of anticipation in his absence. What's he going to look like, now?
And this is not an impossible task, either. Wes Craven did it well, re-inventing Freddy as a kind of Uber-Evil for Wes Craven's New Nightmare in 1994. Explicitly, he connected Freddy to antecedents in the genre like Nosferatu (1922) and the story of Hansel & Gretel. In this way, we understood that his brand of evil had always been with us.
So I don't ask for the impossible here, only that the movie provide us a new Freddy who is as terrifying to us today as the original was in '84, or in the re-imagined 1994 film.
I should hasten to add, other directors have accomplished this task as well. The zombies in Dawn of the Dead (2004) were rendered new and scary by their frightening speed, and a twist in their life cycle (only a bite passes the infection, not death in general). And the clan of the new The Hills Have Eyes actually consisted of mutants; those who had been exposed to atomic testing in the desert. That new wrinkle fit into the remake's argument about American international power, and Red and Blue States in the era of the War on Terror (and remember the death by American flag in the eyeball)?
In all these cases, significant changes to a classic "monster" (or group of monsters) were broached, but something imaginative was substituted for the old. Nothing imaginative is substituted in A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010). Freddy talks a lot, but cracks fewer jokes. This sort of makes him dull, and less scary too. Now he's debating about "what he wants" from the teens before killing them? Let's just have a conference call too...
In terms of the teen characterizations, the new Elm Street is a disaster. In the original film, audiences strongly identified with Nancy. She was a brave kid, digging and probing to learn the truth, and dealing with Freddy...even engineering booby traps to stop him.
But we also identified with her because she was a regular kid, and the movie featured scenes with Nancy and her friends just being kids. Remember the scenes at Glenn's (Johnny Depp's house) in which they goofed off with a boom box and a sound effects tape? These scenes reminded us how young they were; and how precious their lives were. For god's sake, -- premarital sex or not -- they were innocent kids.
The new movie never once shows Freddy's would-be-victims acting like people or teenagers we can identify with. They are morose, pale, fatalistic and imperiled from the movie's beginning. They are undistinguished and uninteresting in the extreme. If this is an accurate reflection of kids today, then we're really in trouble. They can google and text, all right, but not crack a smile (or apparently get a tan).
The new Nightmare on Elm Street also lacks the slightly-seamy, lower-class vibe of the original, and especially the energy of Craven's original. This movie is so dull, it's the audience who wishes for a micro-nap.
It's true that the movie re-stages all of the "trademark" moments of the original film: Tina's death, the body bag dragged by invisible hands, Rod's death in a jail cell, the final sting-in-the-tail/tale with Nancy's Mom, the boiler room locale, and Nancy in the bath-tub with the Freddy glove. But it gives these moments no psychic weight, no importance, no relevance. We've seen these moments before. What's the twist?
Again, look at how Dawn of the Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Hills Have Eyes played with expectations, and the set-pieces of the varied source material.
Again, it's like New Line made A Nightmare on Elm Street's "Greatest Hits" movie, but forgot to tell an interesting story, with interesting, human characters, within a context that is meaningful to us now. The movie's opening dream set-piece is a prime example of how this film and the sterling original are determinedly different...and not in a good way.
In the first, original film, we see Tina (Amanda Wyss) emerging from a white light in a long, dank tunnel. She is vulnerable, in her pajamas...and alone. She walks towards us down that long hallway, and a lamb inexplicably crosses her path. It's all slightly unreal, with strong dream imagery. The corridor and light symbolize the tunnel, perhaps, between the dream world and the real world, and lamb is innocence being led to the slaughter. The images mean something beyond a surface level.
In the new movie, a kid named Dean is in a diner, walks back into the kitchen, and meets Freddy. He doesn't die. He wakes up, and talks to his worried friends for five minutes. Then, in plain view, he falls asleep again, meets Freddy and dies. Again, in plain view. This is underwhelming and, more so, does not hint at the power and symbolism of our dream life. It's so very literal and unimaginative, and this is, frankly, unforgivable in a film that should have great fun playing with the concept of dreams.
Here's my final assessment of the film: "Well, the producers got fat and Freddy got famous, but somebody forgot to make this movie more than a cliff-notes version of a classic, and Krueger wasn't scary anymore, just like that."
It's a shame. New Line Cinema is "the House that Freddy Built" and the studio dishonors its benefactor with this by-the-numbers, uninspired remake. A Nightmare on Elm Street, 2010 edition, isn't fun, isn't scary, and it doesn't mean a darn thing except a quick buck on opening weekend.