Friday, January 21, 2011

House of 1000 Remakes: "A Nightmare on Elm Street"

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of reviews focusing on horror remakes. When I first came up with the idea, I decided to look up which B-movie classics, ‘80s exploitation pictures and foreign-language shockers were about to be repackaged and released to a theater near you. The sheer number of titles was staggering: The Blob, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Children of the Corn, Faces of Death, Hellraiser, The People Under the Stairs, Poltergeist, Suspiria

I could go on. So what gives? Why is Hollywood so intent on selling us not-so-new nightmares?

I blame Jaws. Steven Spielberg’s 1975 horror blockbuster (along with George Lucas’s Star Wars, released two years later) helped bring exploitation pictures into the mainstream. Movies that had once been shot in a week for $30,000 by the King of the B’s, filmmaker Roger Corman, were now being given extensive production schedules and multi-million dollar budgets. Today, we basically live in the world Spielberg created: a world of mega-budgeted exploitation pictures. Just take a look at next summer’s slate of releases: Thor, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, X-Men: First Class, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Cowboys & Aliens

Horror remakes are simply a byproduct of that world: gritty, often modestly budgeted exploitation movies are being slickly repackaged. You can argue whether or not Planet Spielberg is a good thing. What's undeniable is that Hollywood's addiction to horror remakes has produced some exceptionally lousy fright flicks. (Not all of them are terrible; I’ll get to the good ones in future posts.) The studios have flooded the market with remakes and sequels to remakes that, in the words of one particularly perceptive blogger, look like “Gossip Girl meets Freddy.”

Which brings us to 2010’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, a big-budget reimagining of Wes Craven’s 1984 slasher hit. The first film spawned half a dozen sequels and gave us one of the genre’s most iconic villains: the undead child killer Freddy Krueger. The new movie lacks the imaginative dream sequences of the original. It’s the worst of the Craven remakes, falling way behind The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes.

Made for $1.8 million, Craven’s original Nightmare showed a surprising amount of ingenuity and still has the power to shock. Music video director Samuel Bayer’s remake has a budget of $35 million. But what, exactly, does Bayer have to show for it? His movie copies the cool effect in the original film where we see Freddy stretching a bedroom wall. Craven used an 8-ft piece of spandex to achieve that effect; Bayer uses computer-graphic effects, and I’ll be damned if I can tell the difference.

The new, unimproved Freddy (played by Jackie Earle Haley) isn't any fun to watch; he’s been robbed of his nightmarish playfulness. Gone are the impossibly elongated arms; the tongue-kiss through the telephone; the frightening scene where Freddy disguises himself as a high school hall monitor. Even the murder scenes aren’t up to snuff – though, to be fair, Craven is peerless in this respect. It’s difficult to compete with that terrifying scene in the original where Amanda Wyss is slashed open, dragged up a wall and across the ceiling by an unseen force, or the classic scene where Johnny Depp gets sucked into his bed and a volcano of blood erupts.

There’s no replacing Robert Englund, but Haley – aided by some very effective burn-victim makeup effects – commands the screen. Too bad the movie he’s in makes no sense. The heroine (played by Rooney Mara) doesn’t even acknowledge the fact that one of her closest friends has just been brutally murdered. Her mom (Connie Britton) suggests the teens are safe because the adults ran Freddy out of town. Uhm…

Then there's the CW aesthetic I mentioned earlier. The opening of the original was like some fucked-up documentary about Freddy Krueger, with the killer putting on his “work gloves” in a grungy-looking boiler room. There’s no scene like that in Bayer’s film, which is afraid to get its feet wet or its hair mussed. Nancy’s believable physical transformation in Craven’s film, as she tries to stay awake and avoid being murdered in her dreams, is similarly MIA. We wouldn’t want Mara looking anything less than movie-star beautiful, now would we? What’s missing from this remake – and many others like it – is the original’s gnarly, grindhouse spirit.

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