Look man, I’m not completely racist against remakes. I hate the blatant wholesale creative bankruptcy of modern Hollywood as much as the next guy. But I gotta admit there are some remakes that are upstanding movies in their own right, that have richly contributed to our culture and society as a whole. Or that at least don’t suck. Two of the better modern horror remakes in my opinion are from Wes Craven movies: THE HILLS HAVE EYES and LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. Both have their problems, but they’re a good balance of disturbing and entertaining, they have some respect for the original themes and ideas of the movies but also put some new spins on them. Both were produced by Craven himself, by directors he handpicked. (well, I don’t know if he used his hands specifically, he probly just had seen their work and called em up.)
But Craven owns those movies. His best known creation, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, belonged to New Line Cinema, who sold the rights in their Everything Must Go, We Blew All Our Rent Money On THE LAST MIMZY yard sale. So instead of Craven overseeing this remake it’s the Michael Bay owned Platinum Dunes company (they also remade TEXAS CHAIN SAW, FRIDAY THE 13TH, AMITYVILLE HORROR and THE HITCHER). On a making-of featurette on the DVD Platinum Dunes producer Brad Fuller says, “As a producer it was really important, if we are guys who are making our living making horror films, this is the best one that you can get.”
And that tells you everything. Platinum Dunes movies seem like the horror movies that would be made by a guy who sees his mission not as pushing along the evolution of the horror movie but as “getting the best one.”
The ELM STREET remake is slickly made, well cast, and the characters (while not great) are not the kind of obnoxious idiots that kill many bad horror movies. It didn’t make me want to run my head through a wall like their TEXAS CHAIN SAW massacre. It stays relatively faithful to the basics of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Freddy looks about the same, still follows the same rules, still haunting teenage dreams because their parents secretly burned him alive in an act of vigilante justice. The heroine’s first name is still Nancy, and she’s still the one who figures out who Freddy is and how to pull him into the waking world. It redoes some of the famous shots from the original, some of the famous lines, it loosely follows the same basic trajectory, and doesn’t go off on too many crazy tangents.
But it doesn’t work at all. It’s a textbook example of a remake by people who remember the surface of the original movie but have no clue about the subtleties going on beneath the surface. It’s like thinking you can make a clock when you only know what the outside looks like and not how the gears work.
The main problem, and this actually surprised me, is that it’s completely half-assed. It’s hard to even be mad about it because it’s so dull and unambitious even in copying the original (let alone coming up with new ideas) that it’s mildly depressing. If it caused severe depression then the filmatists could say hey look, we were going for terror and fear, at least we got severe depression. But it’s not even that good, it’s only mild depression.
They simplify the original story and characters and don’t bother to elaborate, expand, or add many new ideas (except for one, which I’ll get to later). They try to re-create a few of the classic effects gags (the Freddy face in the wall, the glove in the bath tub, the body on the ceiling) but not others (the phone tongue, the stretchy arms, the bed-blood-geyser, tearing his face off). None of the re-done images beat the original low budget versions, especially the scene where the wall above the bed stretches out into Freddy-form. In the original this was done just by sticking his face through a sheet of latex, on this one you know what type of advanced machine they used to do the effect, but you’d still be surprised how bad a job they did. Not only does it pale in comparison to the original, but in comparison to the same gag done with the computers in THE FRIGHTENERS what, almost 15 years ago?
I almost want to praise them for restraint because you’d expect them to go too big and add an unbearable number of crazy Freddy computer effects. But at least that would’ve been something to watch. I don’t understand the idea of remaking a classic on a budget nearly 20 times greater and then doing less than what was done the first time around. Freddy mostly just walks along scraping his knives on metal to make sparks. Yeah, I like that trick too, but I don’t think we need a whole movie about it.
As expected Jackie Earle Haley makes a good Freddy, but he’s not a significantly different one if anybody’s hoping for that. There’s been hype about him either having a whole different spin on Freddy or about going back to the dark, quiet Freddy of part 1. Okay, but let’s be honest, he’s got some parts 2 and 3 Freddy in him. Not part 4 Freddy – he doesn’t dress up in goofy costumes like the genie in ALADDIN. But he does do a couple puns (“talk about a wet dream!”) and actually one joke that I thought was kind of funny (he kills a dog and says defensively “I was just petting him!”). Also they say his makeup is a more realistic burn victim, but to me he looks like the “Demon Freddy” who jumps off the dock in FREDDY VS. JASON, combined with some sort of fishman.
One way I sort of expected them to fuck up was to cast somebody too standard-issue-Hollywood as Nancy. Actually they picked well, they got Rooney Mara, the girlfriend who accidentally unleashes a monster by dumping Mark Zuckerberg in the opening scene of THE SOCIAL NETWORK (she’s also gonna play the American GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO). She’s better in THE SOCIAL NETWORK but she’s a good choice – cute, but not in a phony model type of way, and seems very smart and capable. It’s mentioned that she doesn’t fit in, but they don’t play this up by making her a punk or a goth or some shit, and during times when she turns down prescription drugs (being used for legitimate Freddy-avoiding purposes) it shows that she’s a clean-cut kid without her having to say it or preach about it.
So good job with those things, but I would still argue that this was made by people who DFGI (don’t fucking get it). With the possible exception of Laurie Strode in HALLOWEEN, I think Nancy Thompson in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is the best slasher movie heroine there ever was. She’s “the girl next door” (or across the street in Johnny Depp’s case), a regular girl who’s pretty but doesn’t look like a movie star, who’s smart and strong but not class president or the popular girl in school. She has both parents still in her life, and you couldn’t have a more protective father than police chief John Saxon. But his way of protecting her is to put bars on the window and an officer out front, locking her in and not locking the danger out.
The original gets alot of mileage out of the old “none of the adults believe us but we know what’s really going on” horror technique. Nancy tries to get help, but that causes parents and medical professionals to think she’s crazy, so it makes things worse. Therefore she realizes that she has to handle Freddy herself, and she does, through a combination of figuring out how to pull him out of the dream and a set of boobie traps she researches and builds herself. She conquers his rules of reality, she outsmarts him, and she kicks his ass.
(Well, except the ending seems to say that she really didn’t win. But then in part 3 she comes back as the wise veteran who saves a new generation of Elm Street kids and turns them into Dream Warriors.)
The new version is not nearly as dramatic. She lives with her single mother, who does try to help, but only by hiding what happened in the past so she won’t get upset. She doesn’t have a father, let alone a macho police chief father. (And by the way, how you gonna put Clancy Brown in this movie and not have him play that character? Instead it’s a useless part as a school counselor.) So the fear that parents have of being completely helpless to save their children is mostly ignored. There’s not much time spent on the kids trying to convince the adults of what’s going on, so the fear that children have of their parents not understanding their troubles is also neglected. She does pull him out of the dream to defeat him, but just by cutting him. There are no boobie traps so she doesn’t seem as clever and the showdown isn’t nearly as exciting. And the idea of having to rely on herself after all her friends are picked off is kind of moot because for some reason it’s structured so the other characters die in their own little sections of the movie and the kids are never all together as a group of friends.
They also don’t spend much time in her house, so you don’t really get to know the geography of it, and its iconographic importance to the series must not’ve made an impression on these filmatists. In case they were wondering it was important because it represented that even your own home is no safer from Freddy than anywhere else. Maybe you could leave Camp Crystal Lake, or Amityville, or get the fuck out of Texas, or stop taking babysitting jobs. But then you’d take refuge in your home, and even have bars on the window, but all you gotta do is close your eyes too long and this maniac is right there with you.
So the original movie was about children’s fears of adults not understanding them, about their fear of self reliance, about parents’ fears of not being able to protect their children, about everyone’s fear of home invasion. The remake doesn’t understand any of those fears. So it just sticks with the fear of a monster dude with knives. That was the one they picked up on.
(SORT OF SPOILERS in the next part…)
Well… that and the fear of being fondled. That’s the one big change they made. In the original series Freddy is a “child killer.” Alot of people assume that means he’s a molester, since that tends to be how it works in the real world, but it’s never put that way in the movies. Here he was a gardener at a pre-school who molested the kids. I have mixed feelings about this. I mean, obviously I’m against him doing it, but I have mixed feelings about it as a device in a horror movie. On one hand I think it’s kind of fucked up, it makes it less fun as a horror movie when the killer is making icky pedophilic comments and the heroine has to see herself in a collection of kiddy porn, and the monster says he’s given power by her remembering her childhood abuse. On the other hand it is the job of at least some horror movies to push the envelope and upset us, so if this was actually a good movie made intelligently it could be powerful, I guess.
But that ain’t the case. It seems like the logic of this subplot could’ve been the casualty of a rewrite, writer #2 (Eric Heisserer, FINAL DESTINATION 5) not noticing (or being allowed to follow up on) what writer #1 (Wesley Strick, CAPE FEAR, WOLF, DOOM) was trying to do there. So halfway or more into the movie it brings up this idea that maybe the kids had lied about Freddy molesting them, and maybe he was getting his dream-revenge because he was an innocent man burned alive. That’s a smart, dramatic idea and a clever change to the original material – except we don’t believe it for a second because Freddy has already repeatedly implied that he was a child molester, telling Nancy “you were always my favorite” and talking about a dress she used to wear and things like that. Even in the movie the characters only believe in his innocence for a few scenes before they figure out otherwise. Ball dropped.
And you know what, giving him this specific backstory with flashbacks (well, flashbacks within a kid’s dream) only makes the monster make less sense. If he was a pedophile why’s he so into teenagers now? And do molesters really go after both genders? The more they explain the more questions come up.
But there it is. They made a limp retread of a classic, almost nobody liked it at all, and it made more money in its opening weekend than four ELM STREETs in their entire runs. Platinum Dunes knows exactly what they’re doing. You just need to get the best one, you don’t need to get why it’s the best one.
p.s. I don’t know how they’re gonna remake part 2. Judging by all the jokes in BAD BOYS PART 2 I’m pretty sure Michael Bay isn’t comfortable with gay themes.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.