One, Two, Freddy’s Coming For You. Three, Four, A Remake Critics Don’t Adore

When Wes Craven’s original “A Nightmare on Elm Street” hit the screen in 1984, America was midway through the collective dream-state of the Reagan years, an era that promised to slam the door shut on the social traumas of the ’60s and paper it over with a veneer of “Father Knows Best” suburban normalcy. It was morning in America — but there was some mighty weird shit going on at night.

Craven’s antiheroic Freddy Krueger appeared on the landscape, in that era of missing kids on milk cartons and largely mythical ritual-child-abuse scandals, as a visible manifestation of all the suppressed secrets and lies that weren’t quite deeply buried enough in the dripping, steamy basement. He was a child-killer, freed on a technicality and then hunted down and murdered by the vigilante parents of Springwood, Ohio, who then resurfaced as a murderous, lascivious emissary from the id, in a remarkably ugly sweater. (Craven reportedly read somewhere that that particular red-green combination was uniquely unpleasant to the human eye.)

Along with John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” “Nightmare” reinvigorated horror cinema and launched the teen-oriented, slasher-movie craze of the ’80s and early ’90s. That’s a mixed blessing, to be sure, but “Nightmare on Elm Street” was also “The Matrix” before “The Matrix” was, dynamiting conventional screen distinctions between dream, reality and psychosis. In the original “Nightmare” and some of its better sequels — I’d nominate “Nightmare 3: Dream Warriors,” “Nightmare 4: The Dream Master” and “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare,” the most metafictional pop film this side of Charlie Kaufman — production design veered into the Gothic, the grotesque and the surreal.

As the franchise munched its way into jokey, Grand Guignol decadence over the course of eight feature films and a TV series, Robert Englund’s smirky, wiseass Freddy became first a cultural icon and then, more and more obviously, the damaged, hubristic hero of the whole enterprise. Teenagers in horror films are endlessly replaceable; there can be only one Freddy Krueger. His back story became increasingly complicated: He has a mother (a nun — raped by 100 maniacs!), an abusive stepfather, an ex-wife and a daughter. He began to sound like the deadbeat-dad protagonist of Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart,” except with a grant of eternal life from the Dream Demons and a sweater badly in need of dry cleaning.

Craven tried his best to kill Freddy off and demolish the franchise down to its foundations by making “New Nightmare,” which starred Englund, Craven, New Line Cinema head Bob Shaye and Heather Langenkamp (who played Freddy’s nemesis Nancy in the first and third films) as themselves, haunted by a fictional demon their movies had called to life. Of course it wasn’t enough, and New Line convinced Englund to don the moldy stripes one last time, for Ronny Yu’s 2003 “Freddy vs. Jason,” which became, depressingly enough, the highest-grossing movie in the history of both the “Nightmare” and “Friday the 13th” franchises.

I guess, in the wake of all that, you can see the appeal of trying to strip away all the one-line gags and Halloween costumes and Hieronymus Bosch-knockoff imagery and postmodern layers of meaning, and bring the series back to its roots among the insomniac teens and lying parents of an idyllic, lily-white Midwestern town. Or actually, come to think of it, maybe you can’t.

Neil Miller at Film School Rejects:

For no good reason, Freddy Krueger has come back to life. But that won’t stop his return from being a terrifying ride into the world of dreams now, will it? Certainly not.

As an avid fan of avoiding anything disturbing, bloody or in any way scary, I can tell you that I wasn’t exactly looking forward to seeing Freddy Krueger rise from the ashes like a knife-fingered phoenix. But having enjoyed — much to my surprise — the most recent remake from Platinum Dunes, Friday the 13th, I was at least optimistic. That, and the casting of Jackie Earle Haley as the new Freddy reeked of potential brilliance. In Watchmen, Haley was the essential Rorschach. He had the exact amount of intensity that one would like to see from a scary slasher, that was clear.

What wasn’t clear, at least at that point, was how right Haley would be for this new brand of Krueger. He isn’t the same Freddy that emerged from Robert Englund. He’s a darker, more tragic and twisted vision of a man murdered by a town full of angry parents. He’s an unrelenting dreamscape killer, a downright terrifying and grand figure who haunts the minds of a group of hip teenagers. But there’s something more to his story, something that didn’t exist in Wes Craven’s seminal slasher classic from 1984. In this rebirth, the story behind the man who kills you in your dreams is played with, twisted about, and turned into something deeply disturbing.

This week, after taking in my first screening of director Samuel Bayer’s new Nightmare, I saw fit to revisit the original. And after said visit, the most striking thing about the difference between the classic and contemporary is the steep shift in the tone of Freddy’s background. In the original, he is simply a child killer who was rightfully burned by an angry mob of moms and dads. There is never a discussion of his potential innocence, never a discussion of what he did beyond simply killing a few kids from the neighborhood.

Peter Suderman at Reason:

With three decades’ worth of silver-screen suburban slasher flicks behind us, it’s easy to forget how truly, delightfully bizarre Craven’s movie was.  A mesmerizing mix of low-budget schlock and imaginatively gory shocks, it wasn’t a good movie, exactly, but it was a stirring piece of pop-culture transgression—in no small part because of the obvious and more-than-slightly crazed pleasure it took in mangling its assortment of oblivious, bedroom-community brats. And with its scar-faced spectral dream-villain, it offered a crudely effective psychological manifestation of adolescent anxieties about self and subconscious: When you’re 15, who knows what evils lurk in your mind?

Sadly, the remake has little of the original’s freaky, low-fi surrealism. Sure, it’s fun to hear Jackie Earle Haley spew quips in a death metal drawl (after explaining to one gutted youth that the brain keeps going for seven minutes after the heart stops, he declares, “We’ve still got six minutes to flay“). But for the most part, it merely offers a dull recitation of generic teen-horror rituals: music-video moodiness, bloody-but-dull kills, and a cast of dim, expressionless teens who constantly look as if they’re auditioning for jobs as department-store catalog models. Each is a vacant placeholder for a contemporary suburban high-school type—the jock, the goth, the emo-snert, the bland bombshell (in a pair of Uggz, natch), and the nice girl with the troubled past.

Ideally, each would be an archetype, though even a plucky stock character would do. Instead, every one of them is a black hole of personality; at one point, one of the characters asks another if he wants to talk. They both stare blankly for a moment, and then:

“What do you want to talk about?”

“I don’t know. What’s your favorite color?”

“Blue.”

The conversation dies there, pathetically, as if the screenwriter, perhaps fully aware of the fact that these might be the most boring humans in cinematic history, simply gave up, possibly to take a nap.

Melissa Lafsky at The Awl:

One of the keys to being an 80s movie that’s remade in 2010 is the presumption that the original was, well, kind of crappy. As one article (I’d link to it, but a media insider recently sneered to me that “linking is dead,” which I hadn’t realized but I’m hardly the one who decides these things) put it, “It’s not like they’re gonna remake ‘Apocalypse Now.’” Still, for those of us who are, well, old, it’s nearly impossible to watch a remake of a 26-year-old movie and not be in a state of constant comparison—particularly when the original was a staple of our childhoods.

Which is one of the reasons the new ‘Nightmare’ is getting such a flaming on the Internet: Messing with a beloved 80’s classic can seriously backfire on you. If your audience is already supermega-nostalgic about the original, they’re gonna compare every second of your remake, frame by frame. Which is basically what I, and every other fangeek, did.

So let’s do a breakdown of the two:

The key difference, of course, is Freddy. We (meaning those of us who fully remember the 80s) adored him. He was the pre-Bart Simpson, a pockmarked iconoclast with a closet full of one-liners and no discernible morals. He represented everything our parents abhorred, and so of course we deified him beyond reason. He was the symbol of everything unsafe that lurked beneath the 80s (as well as the financial savior of New Line Cinema). His level of celebrity was Bieber-esque: A friend of mine waited in line for hours at a mall to have his ‘Nightmare’ poster signed by the man himself, who eventually wrote “Dear Adam: Go take a nap! Yours, Robert Englund.”

But in the post-innocence era of 2010, we’ve gone decidedly darker. Gone are the fluffy haircuts and pink sweater vests and beefy jock boyfriends. Today’s mainstream horror, and today’s moviegoers, are oh-so-self-aware. Nowadays we like our vodka organic, our Tolstoy digitized, and our serial killers repositories of child-raping evil. As Abe Sauer so astutely noted here, the move in this heavier-child-molesting direction began with the casting of Jackie Earle Haley, an uber-talented actor who’s hedged his career on Hollywood’s fascination with pedophiles. Despite his stature—he’d come up to Robert Englund’s shoulder, maybe—Haley summons enough twisted presence to successfully recreate Freddy as a seriously scary motherf**ker. Except in the process, he sells out the character. The New Freddy has abandoned charisma in favor of being a total Sadist—he went “Full Child-Torturing Murderer.” Yes, he’s scary, but there’s no friggin’ way anyone is waiting in line for this guy’s autograph.

Peter Martin at Cinematical:

I actually liked Samuel Bayer’s new version of A Nightmare on Elm Street as I was watching it. Like the other remakes of modern horror classics perpetrated by production company Platinum Dunes, including 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and last year’s Friday the 13th, the latest Nightmare doesn’t skimp on bloody, gruesome violence and is peppered with plenty of profanity, along with wisecracks to deflate the tension. It honors the spirit of the original by faithfully recreating several memorable set-pieces. It delivers, in other words, the most basic desires of horror fans, introduces young audiences to a classic character, and wrings a few changes of its own.

And if A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) fails to erase Wes Craven’s original (1984) from the memory banks of all who’ve seen it, maybe that’s because Craven created an unsettling picture that tapped into universal fears. The new version labors, initially, to establish its own unique take on the atmosphere, mood, and premise.

We’re introduced to the anonymous town of Springwood, which has been struck with tragedy: a high school boy dies in unpleasant, mysterious fashion in plain view at a diner. Among those who witness his death are quiet part-time waitress Nancy (Rooney Mara) and the dead guy’s girlfriend, Kris (Katie Cassidy). They’ve both been having bad dreams featuring a creepy guy in a sweater, with knives for fingers on one hand, and they’re both feeling haunted.

Two boys are experiencing similar nightmares: quiet Quentin (Kyle Gallner), who yearns for Nancy, and angry Jesse (Thomas Dekker), Kris’ ex-boyfriend. Worn out by grief, one of them gets sliced up spectacularly after falling asleep. The others realize they’ve been having the same dream, and that the creepy guy wants them dead. “Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep!”

The name of the creepy guy is revealed to be Freddy Krueger (Jackie Earle Haley). He appears to have some connection with the teenagers, but none of them knows anything about him, and can’t imagine why he’s running through their dreams trying to kill them. Nancy’s mother (Connie Britton) and Quentin’s father (Clancy Brown) are no help to the kids, so they’re left to their own devices to stay awake and solve the mystery of Freddy Krueger.

Throughout the initial scenes, the direction by Samuel Bayer is strictly stereotypical, jammed with music cues that startle due to volume rather than surprise, and false scares aplenty. The script, credited to Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer, is front-loaded with moments that feel perfunctory: a showy entrance for Freddy, the requisite spurting blood, and references to the original. It’s almost like the filmmakers are following a checklist of necessary items for a modern horror remake.

Then there’s a welcome shift into a more measured approach. Callbacks to Craven’s original continue to pop up, but there are more extreme close-ups, sometimes moving so close to the faces of the young actors that the shot threatens to go out of focus. As the dream sequences take hold in earnest, the extreme close-ups retreat.

S.T. VanAirsdale in Movieline:

But I can’t exaggerate how little Bayer and Co. even tried in their remake. A quasi-atmospheric intro features Kellan Lutz (spoiler alert) introducing steak knife to throat and downtrodden young waitress Nancy (Rooney Mara) flirting with Joaquin Phoenix in a Joy Division T-shirt (Kyle Gallner). They’re half of a cluster of teens who went to the same preschool where handyman Krueger abused them all, and now, somehow, they’re all having the same dream that plunges them into one of several fashionably lighted chambers where he can finish the job he started years earlier.

How many years earlier remains an open question (these actors all look like they’re pushing 30, despite the presence of childhood photo archives dated 1997), but it’s an unpleasant sign of our times that a mainstream horror film can actually get away with a teenage victim dressed up like a little girl while a leering, licking, caressing villain growls paeans to child rape before pledging to kill her. “You were always my favorite,” Krueger says to the trembling young Nancy — after throwing her around the room like the rag doll on which she likely once pointed out his gravest offenses. Nice. Nicer still is the vigilante justice of Krueger’s origin story, culminating in the parents of the abused preschoolers torching the warehouse where he’s taken refuge. This all unfolds in flashback as Joaquin-alike watches in a Speedo, literally pulled into a nightmare during swim practice.

It’s not as though Bayer is totally without imagination, but years of music-video directing have withered his attention span to about three minutes — the time it takes to mount a visually effective if generally unscary drugstore set piece, or to frame one of Nancy’s preschool classmates in a vlog documenting his struggles to stay awake. The last installment of the videos — when he nods off — predictably doesn’t go so well for the subject. But for the viewer, at least, it yields a more authentic sense of dread than any of the labored, portentous glam-horror in its orbit.

Had Nightmare on Elm Street simply strung a succession of these mishaps together in Final Destination or Saw style, it could have been a serviceable exercise in screen sadism. But the choice to pretend that there’s a story here is worse than insulting to the audience, which outwardly demonstrated its incapacity to give a shit after a while. (And dear Michael Bay: I viewed it with the general public, not a room full of stuffy critics sharpening their own knives for your latest exercise, so shut up already.) It was boring. So, so, so boring. It doesn’t even give Haley the courtesy of a bad-guy showcase; his face frozen and obscured behind burn prosthetics, he spends most of his time spitting distorted one-liners from the shadows, like some anonymous mob witness on an episode of Dateline NBC. It’s boring and a waste.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “One, Two, Freddy’s Coming For You. Three, Four, A Remake Critics Don’t Adore

  1. i hate remakes screw you

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