Monday, 31 May 2010

A Tale of Two Nightmares


Remakes are rife in today's hollywood. This is perfectly understandable for a number of reasons: A familiar title with an established fanbase seems less of a gamble than a brand-new product, many of the current crop of film-makers would be honoured to try their hand at re-creating a favourite film from their youth and, simply, it's HARD to come up with new ideas, so why not simply repackage old ones for the contemporary market?

Of course, the ultimate problem with a lot of these remakes is that they seem to have been achieved by somebody burying a print of the original movie in a Pet Cemetery, then going home to wait for the new version to turn up on their doorstep. They come back WRONG.

The "Nightmare on Elm St." remake is a case in point. Based, of course, on Wes Craven's 1984 New Line-founding video-nasty, concerning the trials of a group of teenagers being plagued by nightmares about a disfigured, finger-knived chap named Freddy Krueger.

Now, surely the main aim of a remake should be to iron out any perceived problems with the original whilst making a film which will satisfy old fans and yet bring new fans onboard? This creates a quandry for any film-maker. Are you simply retelling the story to a fresh crowd, or are you referencing the knowing audience's favourite parts of the old flicK? This film falls awkwardly somewhere between; playing as essentially a greatest hits reel for Craven's original, but hurrying through the standards as if there's a curfew.

The best nightmare images are re-hashes from the earlier film (friend in bodybag, glove coming out of the bath) and aside from a few slightly clever jumps and red-herrings there is little we haven't seen before.

Whereas Craven spent his film attempting to replicate dream-logic, investing the picture with a surreal and sometimes darkly absurd edge, here we have Freddy's backstory helpfully laid out in the dreams of our protagonists. Apparently he needs them to remember his origin in order to grow stronger or summat, but all the visual explanation takes away from the general unpredictablility of the nightmares when they are essentially exposition. The dreams often feel like flashbacks with one of the leads bumbling around in the background and, of course, the more we learn about Krueger, the less scary he becomes.

Freddy's past is directly linked to that of the teen-tossers and their parents, a fact which was subtly handled in the original so as to emerge a genuine surprise when the sins of the parents were revealed. In this here remake, the parents are creepily evasive right from the start, leaving no doubt that they have something to hide. Of course, the audience is presumed to already know they burned Kruger alive; so no point building suspense or wasting time actually telling a story, right?

The flaws in the writing rot the film from the very core, nowhere more so than in the stilted, on-the-nose dialogue. It is less than five minutes into the film when someone calls "Is anybody there?" into an empty room. This is swiftly followed up with exchanges like this:

"You look like..."
"Like I haven't slept for three days?"

"They're just dreams, they're not real."
"These dreams... are real".

And this is all in the first scene of the film! At least in Craven's effort, the first dialogue scene was more like "Oh, I had a nightmare last night!" "Oh, me too" "What are we doing today?". The characters in the remake are sold on the idea that Freddy is a murderer who kills them in their sleep pretty much from the outset, mostly because, again, the audience already knows what the crack is, so lets not waste time building up any convincing characterisation and behaviour when we can be hurrying towards the next kill!

It may seem churlish to complain about such problems in a slasher remake, but surely the whole point of remaking a film is to try and improve the original? Craven's "Nightmare" has certainly dated, the soundtrack, some of the dialogue and the ropey performances from its youthful cast (even Mini-Depp) betraying its lo-fi 80s origins, but it dominates this rehash in terms of invention, atmosphere and the all important memorable deaths.

Director Samuel Bayer eschews Craven's sense of the macabre in favour of typical LOUD NOISE jumps and hurried tributes to the set-piece killings from the original. Now, surely this is an area where prosthetics and effects from 1984 can be improved upon in order to deliver some seriously gut-churning grim and gruey nightmare death sequences? Nope. The deaths are all surprisingly muted and understated. The few cover-versions (the girl being dragged across the ceiling, ripped open and dumped on the bed, for instance) manage to be much less punchy and shocking than Craven's big-haired masterwork; rushing by in a relatively bloodless flash as if they were inserted perfunctorily in order to nudge fans in the ribs.

Another element which you would expect to be vastly improved from the aged counterpart is in the field of acting and, sure, the performances here are nowhere near as stagey and amateurish as Heather Langenkamp and pals, but they are still almost uniformly flat and unengaging. Langenkamp was a buck-toothed personality void on screen, but the character of Nancy still emerged as a basically likable character to root for. The new Nancy is a mopey art-school reject who spends her time drawing in shades of black, like that dude from the fast show.

The other kids turn in fittingly somnambulistic performances, apart from Kyle Gallner (in what I suppose is the Johnny Depp role), who kicks the arse out of the scene of the movie in a twitchy, pleading attempt to score wake-up pills from an uncaring pharmacist.

Which brings us to the battle of the Freddies. Can anyone step into the stripey jumper and spikey glove of Kruger without withering in the shadow of Robert Englund. Well... yes. Jackie Earle Haley actually has a lot more to work with than Englund ever did, as the movie's preoccupation with the explanation of its bogeyman allows him a great range of facets to play with: we see him being friendly and funny, playing with the kids, charming them into accompanying him to his "secret cave", we see him running like a scared animal, whimpering pathetically as the parents torch him, and we see him stalking and slashing and making occasional bad puns. This is an altogether more grizzled and low-key Freddy than we are used to, replacing Englund's iconic swagger with grim determination and sinister sleaze.

It's worth noting the decision to explicify (that's not a word) what was implicit in the original: that Freddy was a paedophile with particular interest in Nancy. This does add an extra element of ickiness, but its seems like a bit of a cheap-shot to make the bizarre and unsettling (the licking telephone?) sexual side of Freddy into something outright repugnant.

This is perhaps part of a (not entirely misguided) attempt to ground the film in some kind of reality. Freddy's burns are much more realistic, the dream-sequences are a lot more "down-to-earth" and Freddy himself displays none of the uncanny abilities (stretchy arms) or surreal self-abuse habits (chopping his fingers off) that made him ultimately degenerate into a murderous Looney Tune in the subsequent films, but this could just as easily be attributed to an overall lack of imagination.

Any attempt at heightened believability is, however, derailed by the aforementioned acting and writing problems. The characters are never more than shallow plot-prodders, hardly ever saying anything that isn't story-related and never behaving as human beings would under the circumstances.

When a bloodied-up acquaintance climbs in through Nancy's window and proclaims something along the lines of: "CHris is dead, killed in her sleep, we were dreaming about the same dude and you said you'd seen him!" Nancy pretty much responds with: "Yeah, I heard a song as well" "How did it go?" "One two, Freddy's coming for you..." Emotional and believable characterisation?

An exagerration, perhaps. but you get the idea.

The plot is also riddled with inconsistencies. If the parents wanted to hide the truth from the kids, why keep all the incriminating evidence in their own homes? Why not just burn it? And I particularly enjoyed the sepia-tinged, high-exposure flashbacks to the ancient 90s, a forgotten decade where a scabby-faced oddball like Jackie Earle Haley was allowed to live freely in the basement of a pre-school without anyone even suspecting him of being a sexual predator until their kids started turning up with suspicious marks on them. It was a different world back then.

The main problem, as mentioned before, is one faced by many movie-remakes: it is a vehicle built for people who already know the story, meaning the film-makers don't feel the need to even try to build suspense and pay off, we are simply hurried from one Freddy sequence to the next as the cast of people you don't give a shit about get offed in mundane ways.

So what's the deal with remakes? You have to ask: Why does anyone make a movie in the first place? To make money, sure, but I honestly believe that Wes Craven made the original Nightmare on Elm St. to scare people, to exorcise some personal Demons (Freddy is apparently named after a kid who used to bully him) and to get paid to do something he loved. New Line thought it'd be a sound investment to give him the money to realise his vision, and they were right. This is when the business model comes in. Every Nightmare film since then has been made to capitalise on the popularity of that first film and the character of Freddy himself.

The production-line feel of these films, and their remakes, can be quite disheartening. For instance: ANOES begins with a jittery, scratchy stock-footage montage of kids at play and expressionist shit like leaves blowing around and broken dolls and stuff, in much the same manner as the credits sequence for "The Hills Have Eyes" or "Texas Chainsaw" remakes. C'mon, kids. You can't all be "Seven".

This gets me thinking of the opening of Craven's schlocky little piece from 1984. Close shots of SOMEONE in a basement, dicking around with tools and then lovingly manufacturing a freaky metal glove with razors on the fingertips, before slashing his new claws through what looks like a bed-sheet. An icon was born. Twenty-odd years later, he's born again. But he's come back WRONG.


  1. Well, it could've been worse, I think. They added some pretty inspired new scenes, like when Nancy is cruising a drug store aisle intercut with micro-sleep nightmares of Freddy. And Englund makes the role a lot more menacing.

    Call me an optimist, whatever. Good review, then.

  2. good review, I love the original a ton so I didn't bother with the remake, though I was tempted by Jack Earle Haley. Also, your bit on the bygone era of the 90's had me giggling

  3. Good review - I think I'll wait for the DVD. I did really like Dream Warriors though, but maybe it was just the soundtrack.

  4. Simon: True, the "micro-sleep" thing was a neat idea, but they didn't really pursue or develop it in any interesting way. And the scene in the pharmacy was marred for me by Freddy interacting with the real world by knocking stuff off the shelves, which seemed to negate the whole "he can only get you in your dreams" thing.

    Sugar: Haley is pretty much the best thing in it, but it isn't really the Freddy we've come to know and love.

    Legacy: Dream Warriors is the proud second best of the originals, and features probably the most iconic killing with the vein puppet effort. I like it too.

    Cheers to all for comments!

  5. I just had the strangest hallucination that led me here. Must have been a dream.

    Some days, I wonder if all of it was a dream.

    Cheers, eh.