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A Nightmare On Elm Street: Not Much of an Update

Halfway into the new remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street, the young heroine disrobes and steps into a hot bath. As she peels off her robe, some men at the screening I’m sitting in holler, “Yeah! Alriiiiiight!” in anticipation. But before her garment can complete its descent, the image cuts to a shot framed above the waist, of her naked back.

The crowd: “Ahhh, maaan!” In a film that has thus far rubbed our faces in a series of graphic stabbings and assaults, NOW the filmmakers suddenly get shy? That’s all right: The next shot parks the camera smack between her wide open legs, at water level in the tub. “Awriiiight!” After a contemplative interval, Freddy Kreuger’s razor glove rises out of the water like a stainless steel erection. “Woooo!”

One thing about the new Elm Street: It gets the crowd hooting better than a Yankee Stadium pipe organ.

But the bathtub scene’s crude/clever, blunt/subtle collision of sexual tension and violent tension is lifted, almost shot for shot, from Wes Craven’s original. Most of what sticks in memory here (not much) comes from the 1984 film, not from any horrors particular to the times we live in.

Samuel Bayer, of all people, the visionary-ish director of many classic ’90s rock videos, doesn’t bring much vision to this upgrade. And the straightforward screenplay by Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer doesn’t give him much fodder for Scream-like riffs on the genre.

Bayer and crew aren’t interested in the kind of horror flick deconstruction that Craven explored in the last Elm Street flick he directed (Wes Craven’s New Nightmare) and fine-tuned with screenwriter Kevin Williamson on Scream. Those films looked back to slasher touchstones made in the 1970’s; the new Nightmare references only the “real world” of the mid-90’s, when Scream was just being born and this film’s teen protagonists were but Little Children, victims of a child-molesting school custodian named Freddy Kreuger. (This review is destined to contain more stray movie references than the film.)

So we have the strange phenomenon of a film that cribs a lot of its money shots from the original, but with little spirit of either loving homage or audacious disrespect. For all the blood and guts, this movie behaves itself, sticks to the script. No hugging, only learning– and stabbing. It also sticks to what passes for suspenseful storytelling in contemporary horror flicks: Subwoofer rumble, shock cuts, clinically detailed carnage. Some of the gags that were achieved with cheap physical effects in ’84 (like a wall that momentarily becomes Freddy’s body condom) get redone in pricey-looking CGI, still managing to be astonishingly not-scary.

The plot follows the basic outline of Craven’s original, in which a group of high schoolers start dying off during vivid nightmares about a shape shifting killer in fedora, striped sweater and Ginsu gloves. The remake adds a thread about the young male protagonist’s addiction to Attention Deficit meds (which he uses as uppers to keep from falling asleep) and Freddy’s origins as a fatal victim of the kids’ vigilante parents. These developments announce themselves as they would on an unloved basic cable TV show, important only when the filmmakers remember to jostle them up to the foreground with a shriek and a spray of blood.

Now that we’ve gotten the film itself out of the way, let’s talk about Jackie Earle Haley. His portrayal of Freddy Kreuger is the only reason to almost consider thinking about watching this movie. Under latex makeup that looks more accurate for a fatal burn victim than Robert Englund’s gnarled, troll-like Freddy, Haley creates a sinister presence out of a voice; his is deeper than Englund’s– or at least the electronic filters in post-production make it so. And he’s not as chatty as the original Freddy. I guess the filmmakers deserve credit for keeping Freddy’s one-liners to a more effective minimum, but it’s Haley’s delivery that makes them creepy-funny rather than cartoon-supervillain funny.

Haley plays Freddy as the id of a smallish loner who was repressed in life, suddenly liberated in the afterlife. While this Nightmare confronts Freddy’s pedophilia more openly than ever (in ways that will make parents mighty uncomfortable blowing money on THESE Freddy Halloween masks), it still emphasizes his brutality over his diabolical cunning.

Bad move. The scariest thing about Freddy isn’t his fistful of knives but his commanding, almost seductive presence. His monstrousness flows not from his threats but from nearly convincing his impressionable victims that what he’s doing is what they deserve– or, more provocative still, what they want.

Bayer and crew could have used this opportunity to better explore what promiscuous, self-destructive wrecks molested children often turn out to be in a climate of middle class denial and distraction. Instead, the fact of Freddy’s crimes is little more than a MacGuffin here. Once the surviving teen couple figures out that the figure haunting their dreams is the same man who raped them as children, the sublimated memories don’t come flooding out of a Pandora’s box; they file out neatly, like a printout of cheat codes. The kids get ready to battle Freddy as if he were the boss adversary in a particularly grueling level of a video game. Yeah, there’s a lot of crying and gnashing of teeth, but it’s mostly over the present physical ordeal, not the guilt and paranoia of a longtime victim/survivor.

Maybe that’s the point: These children of the D.I.Y. Internet age aren’t ones to wallow in their problems. As soon as they learn that Freddy the phantasm might be an actual person from their past (their Pied Piper, as an obligatory Creepy History Book Browsing scene informs us), they get on a search engine to find the answers and a strategy for defeating him. They gain confidence by watching a streaming video of another local victim who saw Freddy in his sleep. Cool, slick, but not half as terrifying as the teenager who saw Bob standing silently in her bedroom mirror in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. (Oh, man, imagine what Lynch, or, say, an unhinged Japanese auteur like Takashi Miike or Satoshi Kon could have made of these tensions. Or howbout Craven’s contemporary, Clive Barker, who was once pretty good at making fear and desire do a fetishistic waltz…?)

Damn, I slipped back into talking about the film proper again, when the real substance here resides with Haley. But the possibilities sketched above describe the film that Haley must have thought he was acting in, a much tougher, more imaginative and intimate reloading of a genre classic. His Freddy means business when he runs his tongue along the heroine’s earlobe and dares her to deny the nasty things he’s done to her. This Freddy’s wisecracks, delivered by Haley, sound cruelly personal. And all truly great horror films get personal, drawing less stadium whistles and more terrorized silence.

5 thoughts on “A Nightmare On Elm Street: Not Much of an Update

  1. Pingback: A Nightmare on Elm Street : Not Much of an Update « halloweencostumewinners
  2. interesting review, but do you not think the problem with a lot of modern horror films is they’re trying to be more serious than the material can actually sustain?
    Imagining what NOES would be like if it was a piece of serious cinema is valid, but also sort of misguided because the story was conceived as a spin on a commercial horror sub-genre. It was and is campy, but packed full of interesting ideas. Without the humour and balance what you would end up with is a “serious” film for people who take fun comic book ideas far too seriously to be taken seriously. Think about it kick-Ass is fundamentally more serious than the Dark Knight films because it is playful. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Dark knight and I like some nasty horror movies but I am not convinced that they are more intelligent than seemingly lighter movies.

  3. Glenn, I’m not asking for this movie to be “serious”– I’m asking it to draw its laughs, thrills and terrors from something emotionally credible and sustainable. One of the breeziest, most bouyant movies I’ve ever seen is Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth. But every last laugh or gasp in that film comes from a real place (heartbreak, divorce); McCarey and his scenarists allow those reactions to arise out of universally familiar situations unfolding with a keen sense screen time, not simply letting them jump out at us at set intervals.

    The argument is, if you’re going to re-boot something like ANoES, the most effective way to do it isn’t by just upgrading the production values and effects technology, but by drinking more deeply from the dramatic/psychological core of the original– not for the purpose of curing cancer but in order to truly seduce the audience. We appreciate it, and we remember it past the theater exit. This flick I had trouble remembering enough to write the review the next day.

    By the way, I find The Dark Knight about as serious as a Superbowl commercial, for all its pretensions. Just like this Freddy film, it’s interested in its characters only for their use as audience cattle prods. Nobody aspires to make Jaws anymore, just the 15 second TV spot for Jaws, on loop.

  4. Steven,
    Fair points. I think I misunderstood the references too Lynch and Takashi Miike. My problem with the new NOES and things like the Dark Knight is they fall into humourless cliches about “dark” takes on pop-comic ideas. The difference is , I suspect, unlike Wes Craven or Tim Burton, the people who construct -and construct is more apt than direct- these things are not entirely aware of the playful nature of the kind of film they’re making. They’re not English lecturers or gifted cartoonist. They’re hired-hands who’ve learned what to say to get the gig and have seen enough films to put together something acceptable to boss.
    Most of the life, personality and subtext has been sapped out of mainstream films. It’s what happens when you try the appease rather than entertain film goers and it sadly it works. It’s risk aversion cinema, with the studio as the auteur. What I find odd is that film makers are making fun, bright and commercial films outside of the new studio-system. District 9 and Kick-Ass prove that smart mainstream-minded films can be made, but not within the mainstream. With an almost guaranteed success like NOES 2010 you could have let a director and writers impose some sort of personality on it. But instead the only interesting thing in the film is a by-product of hiring a good actor! You’re absolutely right Jaws could not be made with that level of freedom within the current climate.

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