A funny thing happened in 1984 when Wes Craven made a movie about a child-murdering, blade-handed ghoul who embodies every teenager's worst nightmare: The monster became a phenomenon. Presented as a playground rumor, an urban legend passed among kids like viral enlightenment, Freddy Krueger was the first slasher embraced by the culture of mass marketing: TV shows, guest turns on hip-hop records, appearances on MTV. You can't really say that Freddy was co-opted by the media. Instead, he adapted.
As the original A Nightmare on Elm Street extended into a franchise, the genuine terror in the first two films began to change. Grotesque humor and hyper-exaggerated dream sequences became the norm, while the monster morphed into something more obnoxious than scary — a celebrity. Freddy was in a comic book. Freddy was in a video game. By the time Freddy got his own 1-900 number, his finger blades had lost their edge. Freddy Krueger may have been let loose on the world by consumer culture, but as the failure of 1994's mega-meta Wes Craven's New Nightmare confirmed, he could be bound by it as well.
Now comes the current "reimagining" of A Nightmare on Elm Street — and it deserves to be bound in concrete and dumped in the remotest body of water available. It is, sadly, yet another case of Michael Bay's remake factory Platinum Dunes taking a beloved horror film they don't understand, sanding down all its rough edges (like character, atmosphere and ideas), and serving up a visually slick, empty-headed paste that exists only to grab money and be promptly discarded. What's truly pernicious about their body of work is that they only traffic in enduring works — The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hitcher, Friday the 13th, even, God forbid, The Amityville Horror — then do everything they can to make them disposable. In this case, they've ruined the most resonant, provocative and ambitious of all the bogeyman franchises.
So how did they manage to undo Freddy Krueger? The setup has been corrupted in small but ruinous ways. Always a master of deeply primal scenarios (The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes) that prey upon a parent's helplessness at protecting a child, Craven served up a Greek tragedy in McMartin-era suburbia: A group of upstanding vigilantes slay a child killer acquitted on a technicality, only to set his evil free in a realm they can't control — their children's imaginations. He makes abattoirs of all the comforting institutions of social order: the hospital, the school, the police station, the home. Already hormonal wrecks sensing that Mom and Dad can't shelter them anymore — even the worst Elm Street sequels delve into teen traumas few movies dare, from intricately coded sexual confusion to addiction and eating disorders — the movie's young protagonists do battle within their own psyches, which makes it doubly upsetting when they lose.
The new film, for the most part, dispenses with parents altogether. We have a couple of single moms with the trait of being suspiciously bad liars (nothing close to Ronee Blakley's spectacular turn in the first film), Clancy Brown as the school principal/representative of patriarchy, and a few mournful-looking older folk at a funeral and during a vigilante action. Freddy, moreover, is now an accused child molester (played by Jackie Earle Haley, Central Casting's pedophile du jour) whose ambiguous guilt is held out for far too long as a red herring. It's confirmed only to affirm the mostly absentee parents' correctness — a betrayal of the original films if ever there were one.
It's the teen heroes, though, who show how thoroughly the original has been mangled. They're a fresh-faced bunch: Katie Cassidy from Supernatural, Kyle Gallner from the woefully underrated Jennifer's Body, Rooney Mara (who was hysterical in Youth in Revolt). Under the weight of the dull script and Samuel Bayer's one-note direction, though, they're just flies trapped in murkily lit amber.
This is tragic, because in Wes Craven's hands, the original Elm Street was a gamechanger in American horror that has yet to be topped. Throughout the original film series, we get to know teens of all sorts of backgrounds and circumstances — rich kids and homeless kids, mental cases and honor students — all of whom had to learn to rely on themselves or die. These kids, however, find no inner strength. They are victimized and revictimized by their pasts, but they don't confront and work through their weaknesses the way the original's characters do. They just become proceduralists, moving videogame-like through a series of search/find tasks to try and solve a mystery. They're slaves to structure — fodder, just like the populations of the many slasher films that the original Elm Street annihilated out of the gate in 1984.
The very idea of parents keeping their children safe, in this film, is treated as something of the past. But what scares these kids today? Does this next generation, the audience whose parents were teens and tweens during the initial run of Elm Streets, get genuinely frightened at the movies anymore? Or is that kind of visceral experience something of the past as well?
The original Elm Street series had a knack for making the real into something surreal, taking the very places where one would feel safe and stripping that security away. CGI, unfortunately, has made surrealism of everything. Not only has the technology devalued reality (thank you very much, Forrest Gump), it has devalued fantasy as well. Anything is visually possible, but nothing ever seems completely real anymore. Something that exists and was photographed has a weight to it that no computer can equal. With today's audiences firmly entrenched in the digital, it seems that tangibility has been completely abandoned as an aesthetic goal.
The new film abandons the dreamscapes of the original series in exchange for more realistic (i.e., cheaper) tableaux, shifting in and out of the dreamworld like a pendulum. It leads to a couple of striking images, but nothing that registers in the subconscious like the infinite spatial deformations of the vastly underrated second film. It is the fakest of the Elm Street films, this new one, and that includes each and every bit of quippy foolishness that Robert Englund gave us in the sequels.
If you'd like to see a film way ahead of its time, give Wes Craven's New Nightmare another look. A kind of splatter-movie 8 1/2 in which Craven and his stars play themselves bedeviled by their movie creation, that film understands that stories have to evolve, and breathe anew. It posits Freddy as the latest incarnation of a monstrous fear that has been with us since humanity first learned how to dream, both figuratively and literally, and it recognizes that by telling the story around the fire — or multiplex, as the case may be — it binds that inchoate menace into something concrete. Midway through this dismal retread, I noticed the friend who went with me had momentarily drifted off. How much better to be in an actual dream, I thought, than this moribund Nightmare.
Okay, but I think it should be said, in Gibney's and in Ardin's defense (and…
Gibney films Anna Ardin saying “I really didn’t want this to be in the papers."…
Fixed. Our apologies for the error.
Yes, Assange is in the Ecuadorian embassy in the U.K. I made a…
Wikileaks has leaked a full annotated transcript of the film, with links to independent sources…