by Stephen Graham Jones
[Jones is the author of seven books, most recently Ledfeather. Read his blog at demontheory.net]
In 1984 Wes Craven said to an already primed audience, “Come down to the cellar with me, and I’ll tell you” a story. That story of course involved one "Fred Krueger," who would soon, like Jason and Michael, become "Freddy." Not just an institution, but a franchise, one Craven himself would even return to helm a bit, in 1994 — which says a lot about the integrity of the core story, there. So, with the recent critical-if-not-quite-box-office successes of the My Bloody Valentine and House on Sorority Row remakes, and Michael and Jason getting the remake treatment as well, then A Nightmare on Elm Street remake, it’s been inevitable for a while now, with perhaps the one hang-up being that Robert Englund so thoroughly owned Krueger — can you imagine anybody but Anthony Hopkins now playing Lecter? — that trying to doff that beat-up Indiana Jones hat, well. Intimidating to say the least, and built-for-failure, to say a little more.
Or perhaps there’s an even bigger hang-up, yes? When we hear there’s another remake in the works, our first instinct’s of course just to groan, to wonder why Hollywood’s insisting on recycling again, then to finally suspect that it’s all about the money — that what a remake of a slasher has that an original slasher doesn’t is that built-in audience, that loyal fanbase, that guaranteed box-office receipt. And that is a factor, yes; the market shapes our art. No big surprise there. A very necessary relationship, even. But if we want to be charitable, then we can look at the remake as either an update, be it in production values, special effects, acting, casting, whatever’s update-able, or we can look at it as a repair job, as fixing what was in the first place broken. And the second of these is by far the more valiant, I think. However, that doesn’t mean we’re seeing remakes of Stagefright or Humongous or even the first (1981) Scream, all of which were fun enough but could, even when they were in the theatre, use a little paint and bondo. You don’t find old Humongous lunchbox/thermos sets in antique shops, I mean. You find Freddy Krueger.
Does this mean that the Nightmare remake’s to update the effects, then, like the recent It’s Alive? Possibly. The ones this time around are definitely 2010 effects, not 1984 effects. But that’s not to say the 1984 effects are in any way lacking in the original, either. Sure, when Freddy’s tongue comes through the telephone handset, it looks a little suspicious, not exactly like real tongues look when they come through phones, and when his silhouetted arms are long and unbalanced, it does look particularly unbalanced, maybe a little stagey, but that hardly detracts from the experience of the movie. Or: were the effects of the original to 2010 standards, it would still be the same, strong movie.
So, there must be a third reason for the remake, then — perhaps the obvious one: to re-introduce an already-established character to a new audience. No, correction: to market an already-established character to a new and paying audience. Which, again, isn’t at all to be cynical: these movies have to make money, the studios have to make money; nothing gets greenlit unless it’s going to pay for itself and then some. Good, great. And I’ll accept this, too, marketing to a new audience — will even argue that it’s maybe necessary. Example: whenever I’m at a revival showing of something-horror from the ’70s or ’80s, and the audience turns out to be born in the ’90s, say, then they don’t seem to watch the movie as horror, but as comedy. To get anecdotal with that: when The Exorcist was re-released (with the spiderwalk). The showing I was at, the high school next to the theatre had just let out, and the kids who’d walked over to see what all the fuss was about, they couldn’t take the movie seriously. Because of production values or effects? Maybe. Or it could just be that thing about how none of us in the 21st century can ever really see the Grand Canyon for the first time, because we’ve already seen it in postcards and everywhere else for so long; it’s already colonized our imagination. Which is to say that The Exorcist might be so ingrained in our pop culture that you feel like you’ve seen it, even if you haven’t, thus making an actual viewing redundant. Whatever the reason, these high-schoolers were watching The Exorcist more as comedy. Of course I wanted to read the laughter and jibes as defense mechanisms, but I suspect that’s going too far in defense myself.
Simply put: there was too much distance between the audience and the models of cars on-screen, the modes of dress, the haircuts.
Meaning, yes, pulling When a Stranger Calls nearly three decades ahead, and allowing cell phones to be an integral part of the horror, that might be key to keeping that very essential story alive.
In which case: good job, Nightmare remake. Thank you.
However, as we’ve seen with other remakes, just erasing mullets from the same movie, that’s hardly enough. If the story itself doesn’t pull off that nearly-impossible trick of both staying loyal to the original and making it different enough to warrant seeing this one, then the remake’s a failure. And, with the slasher, this is especially difficult, as the most vital characteristic of the slasher is the red-herring dynamic: when the audience already knows who or what the killer is — the hockey mask’s kind of a dead give-away, say — then the movie becomes more of a monster affair (Alien, Just Before Dawn, Wrong Turn, etc.), as opposed to stories more in keeping with April Fool’s Day or Happy Birthday to Me, or, more recently, Harper’s Island. Which is to say it becomes Jaws or Final Destination, each monster movies, which, as they’re sisters with the slasher, of course share with it that closed system of justice we all know and love — these various sinners will be punished — thus allowing us that thrilling transgression of identifying with the “evil” monster or killer. And of course pure slashers, slashers that hearken back to giallo-days and insist on this red-herring dynamic, they’re very difficult to pull off, at least without the corny reveal at the end that doesn’t really make sense. But, yeah, Scream (the 1996-one) does it. And, I mean, The Terminator, it starts off being a classic slasher, and then, exactly as happens with Jason Voorhees, as soon as we know who the killer here is, then the rest of the movie’s monster fare.
All of which means that the question here, for this Nightmare remake, is: Is it a true slasher—and was it ever? — or is it now a monster movie?
And, in answer to the question “Is there any mystery that Freddy’s the killer here?” then: no. None whatsoever. From the opening scene on. He chews every bit of scenery he can, always saying his own name, even — everything we expect from him.
But, was A Nightmare on Elm Street even a slasher? Was there ever any red-herring dynamic cooking in that story? Yes, there was. But to understand that, you have to understand that what the red-herring dynamic introduces to the story, it’s uncertainty, which very pleasurably allows the audience no anchor, so they have no choice but to keep following the story, to see it through to the end, and believe all of it along the way. And Craven’s original, it was able to maintain that uncertainty simply by calling reality itself into question: Is this a dream, or is this the waking world? Is there even a line between the two anymore? That distinct chance that Freddy wasn’t even real, that he’s just some sort of shared dream or set of fears, a product of these kids’ over-imaginations, as the parents would have it, it’s such a cagey story-move, especially when you take into account that, in order to prove to their parents that Freddy’s real, these kids have to die. So, within the closed system of justice of the slasher, there’s another closed system. And that’s beautiful, is nearly as canny as Craven placing his slasher in dreams, thus erasing the questions we always have about Jason and Michael: How can they live through all that damage? How can they be both behind you and ahead of you?
With Freddy, his dreamworld’s plastic; the rules don’t hold, anything goes, and, because we all have dreams, he was that much more terrifying, in a way Jason or Michael never quite could be. Or, much as Psycho maybe made a generation nervous about the shower, so did the original Nightmare make us, like Nancy and crew, afraid to go to sleep.
Brilliant. Plain and simple.
And the remake, it may even one-up the original. Or, talking Psycho, it definitely, as Scream did 14 years ago, borrows some final-girl misdirect fun, resulting in an opening sequence (an Act I, really) that’s nearly as compelling as the extended opening sequence in the Sorority Row remake. Which is to say that these remakes, they’re ceasing to just be pale repackagings, but are starting to actually challenge each other, I think. And, that last time we saw similar challenges at the horror box office? The ’80s, that golden age of the slasher.
So, yeah, hold on.
But this Nightmare remake doesn’t stop impressing us 30 minutes in. No, knowing full well that we already know Freddy’s “real,” that is, that we’ve seen or at least are familiar with the original, this one has to locate that uncertainty that’s standing in place of the red herrings somewhere else. And it does so wonderfully, by turning the story we know on its head, and calling Freddy’s motivations for these murders into question, thereby possibly justifying this revenge he’s taking and in the process serving to explain why its these kids who are being targeted, and not their parents. And it does so without falling needlessly deep into Freddy’s backstory, which, as we’ve learned with other franchise slashers, finally only serves to “explain” them away, rather than keep them mysterious and terrifying, as they need to be.
And, as for the rest of the brilliance Craven built into the original—that ticking clock of “we have to sleep eventually,” the trademark sweater/glove/hat combo, the rambling, decaying boiler room, the stupid, stupid parents, the “Is this real or a dream?” — it’s all there, and humming. And, yes, I was as nervous as anybody about Jackie Earle Haley’s portrayal of Freddy, and whether it might be a case of on-screen suicide or Rorschach-ego, but, seriously, he pulls it off, and, just when you think he’s not going to go down the sequel-path the original Freddy took and get all clever and quippy, he does. And, what’s more, by that point he’s established the character enough that the quips work. Or, to say it more directly: Without him, I don’t see how this remake could have worked, even as strong as the story is, and even though it’s got John Connor (Thomas Dekker) and Trish from Harper’s Island (Katie Cassidey, channeling Tori Spelling when portraying Sidney in the Scream franchise’s “Stab” trilogy, which makes perfect sense, as of course the Screams were all drawing heavily on Wes Craven’s New Nightmare).
And, remember a time or two ago when I suggested the stage was set for a slasher boom, that these remakes were getting the audience primed, re-introducing them to the conventions, teaching them all over again how to watch a slasher? I was wrong, it would seem. Not completely right, anyway. I do still think the slasher’s on the rise, definitely, no doubt — we’ve even had Lakeview Terrace, much as the eighties had Fatal Attraction — I just never expected that that metal rod shoved down into the casket for the lightning to strike, that it would be the remakes, that those remakes would themselves become their own mode, and start battling each other, learning from each other, trying to out-do each other.
Please, though, carry on, carry on.
I’ll be at the box office waiting.