Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Remake

[My friend Lucas, obsessed with the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, discusses remaking his favorite movie. Welcome this new guest blogger, and whatever you do, do not fall asleep while reading this, because it would probably hurt his feelings.]

This weekend, Platinum Dunes, the Michael Bay-helmed production company behind remakes of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, The Hitcher and Friday the 13th, is releasing its latest abomination: A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. I think it's safe to say that I am not pleased.

Before I lose myself in a harangue, I'd like to clarify two things:

1) This is not a review. I have not yet seen this movie. This is a preview. I have only seen the trailers and read articles and interviews about the movie. Thus, this piece is heavily steeped in presumption, and

2) my presumption is NOT that A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET will suck as a movie (that is my fucking prediction!), but rather that it will suck as a remake.

And here's why:

One of the major problems people have with remakes is a general uneasiness with whether or not the new material will be faithful to the spirit of the original (or preceding) material.

When watching a remake, one hopes the re-makers have an understanding of why the story they're remaking deserves a bigger, broader, modern retelling. The filmmakers have to recognize something in the original story that audiences will appreciate in their context. Movies like BEN-HUR, SCARFACE, and THE DEPARTED understood this. Movies like RED DRAGON, Van Sant's PSYCHO and pretty much everything remade in the last 20 years have not. What frustrates me about remaking A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is that Platinum Dunes isn't up to the task of understanding why A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET resonated with audiences and deserves a modern retelling. They only latch on to the superficial. They only do teens terrorized by stalking killers. With Friday the 13th or Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I assert that that's all that's operating there with little subtext. How easy it is to make that mistake about A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.

The legacy of the first NIGHTMARE, despoiled by its misguided sequels (FREDDY'S REVENGE, DREAM WARRIORS, DREAM MASTER, DREAM CHILD, FREDDY'S DEAD and FREDDY VS. JASON), is unfortunately Freddy Krueger. Don't get me wrong: I fucking love Freddy Krueger. His history, philosophy and physicality are all things I find to be compelling. I can recite his cheap one-liners and describe in pathetically accurate detail every death he's had the pleasure of effectuating and the plot circumstances in which they occurred. I often dreamt of helping him terrorize people I disliked at my school. As a child, I once made a glove of my own out of a gardening mitt and butter knives. He ranks among the finest movie villains in history. I love him. With that said, I can say with a 110% earnesty that A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is NOT ABOUT FREDDY FUCKING KRUEGER. And that's the first mistake they made remaking this movie.

Any cursory investigation into what is going on in that first movie reveals a far richer spirit, a philosophically fascinating, irreducible horror that merely employed, rather than focused on, an interesting character. Unlike Batman, which is about an interesting character's struggle to blah blah blah, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET isn't about Freddy Krueger's struggles to do anything. He's merely a delivery device for a darker, more intelligent form of horror movie.

Platinum Dunes had an opportunity with this remake to explore what made A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET fascinating, to liberate the spirit of the first film from the unfortunate branding of its interesting character -- just like the Star Wars prequels mistakenly focused their attention on exploring Darth Vader rather than furthering its exploration of the struggle between good and evil in an intergalactic empire -- but in typical Michael Bay-fashion, they focused on the brand, glossed it up like a new ad campaign and took a big shit over what could have been an intriguing treatise on what A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET was all about in the first place.

Now enough shucking and jiving. What was A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET all about in the first place? Well, it sure as fuck didn't resonate with audiences because we have some implicit fear of burn victims or men who wear hats and striped sweaters (though those are admittedly horrific specifics). A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET resonated because it exploited the most primal, universal, unavoidable fear experienced by all of us: nightmares. Duh!

First off, let's be broad about this. What are horror movies about? Things that scare us, obviously. But to be truly scary there must be a threat that we cannot avoid, that is, UNAVOIDABLE FEAR. The more we can avoid something, the less scary it is. A growling dog on a leash that is tied to a stake in the ground is scary, but it's got nothing in the pants-shitting department as a growling dog roaming free. Why? Because the threat that the free dog poses is greater than that posed by the leash-bound.

Ultimately, horror movies are about two things: a monster and a haunted house. The Overlook Hotel in THE SHINING and Cuesta Verde home in POLTERGEIST are houses haunted by ghosts. The water in JAWS is haunted by a shark. The space ship in ALIENS is haunted by an alien. And so on. But the relationship between the house and the monster requires a factor of avoidance. How easily one can do the obvious (as Edgar Wright so brilliantly parodied in his Grindhouse trailer "Don't"), i.e., DO NOT GO IN THE HOUSE!, determines how the horror connects with us on a subconscious level. Thus, a movie like JAWS, which was voted by Bravo as being the scariest movie of all-time, is ultimately an un-scary series of cheap thrills. Sure, a shark that pops out of nowhere will shock you, but it's not scary. Why? DON'T FUCKING GO IN THE WATER! There's nothing keeping you swimming in the cape and nothing keeping you at the Cuesta Verde home. Just don't go in and don't stay there. Jesus. Snow and topography will definitely keep you in the Overlook Hotel and the physics of outer space will keep you on-board a spaceship, but you didn't have to get into those situations in the first place, and both stories have their escape routes built into them rather implicitly: overcome the odds of weather and leave the hotel and survive. Turn the tables of the obstacle of leaving the ship on the monster by removing the monster from the ship instead. At first glance, a horror movie like THE EXORCIST seems to fit the bill rather nicely. After all, one cannot simply AVOID demonic possession. But once you identify that you've been possessed, accepting the reality established as such, it's actually the simplest of them all to survive: AN EXORCISM!

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is one of the few horror films that operates in the realm of the truly unavoidable. You might be saying to yourself, well what about the famous refrain: whatever you do, DON'T FALL ASLEEP. That's an obvious way to avoid the threat, right? AU CONTRAIRE smart ass. This is what makes A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET begin to operate on a smarter, irreducibly horrifying level. Here, avoidance of the threat ONLY MAKES THE THREAT WORSE. As brought up in the first film, and as verified by fucking science, the longer a human stays awake, the more likely a human begins to dream while awake. Thus you cannot avoid the monster while dreaming, you cannot avoid the monster while awake, you can't simply outrun it, or refuse to go into its lair, or just suck it out of an air vent. And you can only put your arms on a hot boiler room pipe so many times before you don't wake up at all. The threat demands confrontation and leads to an even more fundamental human experience.

Freddy Krueger isn't simply a shark you can defeat by cobbling together a shark hunter and ichthyologist on a boat. Freddy Krueger isn't a Christian demon that a pair of priests can exorcise with holy water and a bible. Confronting the nightmare in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is not a team effort (as the Dream Warriors unfortunately found out in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3). What A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is about, beyond merely the unavoidable threat, is that the unavoidable threat must be confronted ALONE. And that is a direct affront to a little thing most of us took for granted growing up.

When we were children awaking from a frightening dream, to whom did we turn amidst our screams? Our parents. To whom do children go when afraid of monsters in their closets or under their beds? Their parents. In whom did all of us invest our trust to protect us at all times? Our parents. So what bigger horror than the realization that not only are your parents unable to protect us from an unavoidable threat, but that your parents are the ones responsible for creating the threat in the first place?

This is what a remake should be playing with. Not the cliche of twentysomething CW rejects looking to make their big break in film. Not the brand of Freddy Krueger. Hell, his inclusion wouldn't even be required to satisfy me. You could tell a remake of NIGHTMARE with any placeholder for the nightmare monster because it's a fucking irrelevant McGuffin moving the story forward. What is the story? What is the spirit?

A lone hero on the precipice of adulthood being threatened by a monster in the one place where they are most vulnerable. When they reach out to their elders for security, their elders cannot provide it. Watching their peers succumb to the monster, they are first to realize no one else can help them, so they gain the strength required to take on the monster alone. They survive. The end. This is a god-damned obvious monomyth. How the people at Platinum Dunes could miss an opportunity to hire brilliant storytellers and filmmakers to take this five-thousand-year-old skeleton and incarnate a modern, philosophically satisfying story through modern storytelling techniques is a fucking shame. Instead, we will be left with a platform where a character actor made up by make-up artists will be forced to tiptoe around shitty tweens in a chroma key studio recreating somewhat iconic shots that themselves really had nothing to do with the point of the original film. Sigh.

Unfortunately, I am a sheep subject to brand loyalty. Thus, I am going to go see this movie. However, I will be snarky the entire time because I know it's going to be a god-damned nightmare.


Matt Jacobson (formerly Ultimate Matt) said...

One thousand thank you's, good sir. Bravo.

Roger Whitson said...

This seems very close to your analysis of the Alan Moore/Geoff Johns debate concerning remakes in their books.

For Moore, there is a compelling reason for the remake or the appropriation and the remake comments on this reason (i.e. League, Supreme, Watchmen etc.)

For Johns, there is no compelling reason. Something is appropriated or remade just to be appropriated or remade, or to make money (the Blackest Night, Superman: Secret Origin, Legion of Superheroes, Return of Barry Allen, etc.)

This doesn't mean that you can't or don't enjoy the Johns remakes, just that sometimes they don't seem as substantial as the Moore remakes.

Todd C. Murry said...

I agree with the general point that it is not likely the remake will be any good, and that putting the focus on Freddie and not understanding what made the horror of the original really work will probably be involved but: a) this is kind of strongly worded and emotional given that you actually don't know, in fact, how they approach the material yet and b) you can't really be serious with the "don't" stuff, can you? Is the reason why you think Nightmare is so great really that none of the other movies "make sense if you really think about them?" There is so much tension in Jaws that eventually puts him on that boat, due to real things that real humans think about like feelings of powerlessness in society and ultimately nature, what it means to be a man, and the responsibility of authority. Eliminating the personal choice to confine himself to a dangerous place to face the monster would have been stupid.

Nightmare taps in wonderfully to the fact that sleeping and dreaming are inescapable (as a tension causing device) and does a pretty good job utilizing the physical logic of dreams, which leads to an I can't get out sense, that (again) is great for the tension. But this is just one clever solution to how you can do this, and I don't think Alien, Jaws, and the Shining are inferior because their event horizon of options are more hazily drawn or that the characters have more agency. In fact, I think the tapping into that weird hormonal liminality, with the lack of control over your own thoughts and and struggles with identity apart from your parents and the dangers of the sexual life, is the movie's actual key strength. Freddie's just an AIDS metaphor (not really).

Christian said...

Spoiler alert I guess.

I haven't seen the movie, but I managed to glance something on Wikipedia, that I hope (but doubt) they did something with in the remake:

The kids this time around are his former molestation victims.

Now this is probably going to be grossly mishandled, (and rape is kind of a lazy cliché at this point), but I thought it could actually play with one of the etablished, and terrible pessimistic, themes of the Nightmare series: It's inescapable. Even when Freddy is dead this time around, you aren't out of the woodworks. The characters of the Nightmare series are fundamentally fucked up, moreso than regular horror cast- Aside from the psychological scarring, nightmares only begat more nightmares. And Freddy always comes back. No one gets to grow up and live normal lives ever, and as soon as you are in Freddy's grasp, you stay there. Even before he comes back to haunt them, he's already tainted and, literally, molested them.

He's like a slightly less alien Lovecraftian horror.

neilshyminsky said...

Following up on Christian's response, I recall hearing that the filmmakers have said they specifically wanted to make Freddy less likeable, even in a fucked up sense - that no one would want to wear his face on a t-shirt after this movie. This could still go badly, of course.