The _evil Came Down to Elm Street

06 May

This is a review my pal Jason Grasl  sent to me. I’m reporting here for your viewing pleasure.  Enjoy!

What Works In the New Elm Street and Why Fans Won’t Like It

by Jason Grasl

I was eight when the original “A Nightmare On Elm Street” came out in 1984.  As any good parent should do, mine tried to keep me from watching it, and any other horror movies, of that ilk.  In fact, I didn’t actually see the film until years later during Detroit-based WXON-TV20’s “Saturday Shocker” matinees, so what I saw was watered down and interrupted by commercials.  In the meantime, I recall hearing about the movie, its sequels and about Freddy from friends at school.  As a preteen-boy, the gory special-effects and imaginative deaths sounded absolutely titillating to me…I thought “if only I could somehow catch one of these movies at a friend’s house during a sleepover (I couldn’t rent any of them because my dad put a restriction on what I could rent at Blockbuster)”.  “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare” came out in 1991, and I saw it at the theater (as I recall, it was one of the first R-rated films I snuck into before I was 17, preceded only by “The Last Boy Scout”…but I digress). My initial thought was that it was odd that Freddy had become comical, with puny-one-liners to go along with the over-the-top deaths.  Deaths that kept getting more outrageous as the series went along (Freddy as a motorcycle, Freddy in a video game, etc).

While that was both funny and campy, it wasn’t what Wes Craven created in the original.  We saw evidence of that when he returned to the series ten years and six movies later, in 1994, by writing and directing “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare”.  Using “art imitating life” imitating “art imitating life”, Craven cast the actors from the original Nightmare as themselves, in his New Nightmare.  In the film, they are terrorized by a Freddy that is distinctly NOT the one portrayed by actor Robert Englund in “A Nightmare on Elm Street’s” previous 5 sequels.  Craven, playing himself in the “New Nightmare”, admits as much, saying “Fred Krueger (not the much more chummy “Freddy”) is the manifestation of an age-old evil, not to be trifled with.”  As the series went on, that evil was lost in the translation.  Craven came back to reset the franchise to what he intended  it to be when he wrote and directed the original film that started it all.

But reset it to what?  What is it about the original “Nightmare” that rings true to the fans?  There was inventive death with fire hose-amounts of blood, but that only happened four times.  That’s right.  The body count in the original was only four.  And as far as Freddy’s outrageous personality goes…re-watch it again.  The rimshot one-liners aren’t there.  That happens later on in the sequels when other directors and writers took the helm.  Craven brought a new angle to the teen-horror genre with the element of dreams but he didn’t create the comedy element of Freddy that the sequels did. (John Carpenter’s Halloween and the original Friday the 13th were precursors, but they took place in reality).  What exactly did he create that makes this story so good?  I think it comes down to a very simple tale of good versus evil, through the eye of someone who had studied it and was a by-product of the early 20th century’s drift away from the supernatural.

Wait a second though…before you think I’ve gone and deconstructed and psycho-analyzed your favorite childhood horror movie let me explain…

Wes Craven grew up in 1940s/50s Cleveland, the product of a Baptist family.  He did his undergrad work at Wheaton College; a bastion of conservative Christian thought, where he has copped to issues abiding by the “rules” Wheaton enforced upon the student body.  He went on to get a master’s degree in philosophy from Johns Hopkins, but his worldview was already heavily influenced by his religious upbringing in a time when rational thinking ignored the supernatural for the proof and security of science.  Craven never felt comfortable with that rationality of modernity.  His films often explore the line between what is reality and what is not.  The original “A Nightmare On Elm Street” is a perfect example; bringing the life of our dreams into reality and vice versa.  Part of his inspiration for writing the film was reading an article about Cambodian refugees who died in their sleep after having nightmares.  Had the atrocities, stress, and evil they had experienced caused this?  Craven was exposed to the ultimate battle of good versus evil in his Christian upbringing.  It doesn’t get any larger in scope than God and Satan fighting over the souls of humanity.  Enter the embodiment of evil as envisioned by Wes Craven….Fred Krueger.

The poster for the original…and no signs of a one-liner spewing villain, just the evil out to get us.

In Craven’s conception, the teenagers of Springwood, Ohio are terrorized by the embodied evil of Fred Krueger in their dreams.  This evil, presumed eliminated by the parents (who in a sense have just tried to ignore Fred’s affect on the town) is instead very much alive within the dreams of the children.   The parents might have put Fred out of sight, but certainly not out of mind; evil is not a rational thing.

JUST AS AN ASIDE…this storyline is ripe with (1) parallels to modernity’s ignoring the supernatural…and thus falling prey to it and (2) the successive generations born into post-modernity exploring and embracing the supernatural in whatever real forms they tan it.

Okay, back to my point…The battle between Fred and the parents for the lives of the children does not end with the death of Fred Krueger because Fred Krueger represents something much bigger than the man himself.  He is the devil in your dreams, unrelenting in his desire to take your soul.  Instinctually, we can all relate to that.  We may live in the real world, but are sensitive to the supernatural world all around us.  Evil is relentless and will never stop trying to get to us.  Our dreams are a conduit, giving us the opportunity to release our sensitivities to this realm.  We may not be open to this all the time, but we know when we feel like something is making the hairs on our neck stand on end.  This is an intriguing and mysterious concept and explains why it makes for a good film.

So there’s my theory as to why the story works and, even as a horror story, how there are some serious spiritual implications worth considering, beyond the gore and sadistic indulgence that the franchise became.  Better yet, does the recent reboot that opened last weekend deliver the same relatable story?

As an idea, yes.  At the time I type this, the estimated opening weekend  of 2010‘s “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, from director Samuel Bayer, is about $32 million.  However, reviews have been generally negative on, and gave it a C+.  One of the predominant gripes with the new film, other than the fact that it doesn’t add much as a remake, is that the exploration of Fred Krueger as a child molester is repelling to the audience.  Interestingly enough, this was Craven’s intent in the original, but the studio made him change it.  It certainly explains more of the motivation and nature of Fred Krueger, but for fans of the series that embrace Freddy as a pop-cultural icon more than as a villain and embodiment of evil, its kind of gross.  (Same theory I have about stories like 2004’s “Closer”.  It’s a brilliant play that makes great points, but it did horribly at the box office, because it makes people uncomfortable.)  So in concept, Freddy the molester works, but in reality, people aren’t ready for this popular villain to really be villainous.

I believe the current film succeeded in casting better actors.  The original has nostalgic value and an original concept, but believable performances…not so much.  At the same time, there’s not really a chance to get to know the teenagers in the remake. The most developed and likable character **SPOILER ALERT** ends up being the second death and from that point on, the story concentrates on Freddy’s background…which appears to be turning people off.

“All of this has happened before and some of it is happening again…only with better acting”

Jackie Earl Haley is grounded in the Freddy role, but that may just be because he played a similar version of this character in “Little Children”.  I personally like the change; Robert Englund’s version eventually became a clown with a burnt face, and even in the first film, Freddy comes off as a bit of an uncoordinated klutz.  That may be part of the camp of the first film, but it comes off lazy and as a break from the supernatural realm that Freddy belongs to.

Overall, I like that the remake didn’t “up the gore” and stayed faithful to the mythology of Craven’s original, but I don’t know that the film needed to be remade.  The memorable scenes were duplicated, but the scare factor was missing.  If it was made to relate to a new audience, I think it will do that…though as I mentioned before, initial reactions to the reality of evil (admitting that Freddy is a pedophile) incarnate have been less than favorable.  People got used to the idea of Freddy as a villain to cheer for…though, as I’ve stated, Craven did not intend for that (and tried to correct with “New Nightmare”).  The new film is subtler in its imagery (Nancy doesn’t cling to a crucifix in multiple scenes,  she’s just given a cross necklace to protect her) and, again, the acting is better.  Otherwise, it’s still creepy, but more thriller creepy than horror creepy.  And that might creep out the fans of the original…because no one likes their nostalgic-childhood memories screwed with.  So while the remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” still deals with good versus evil fighting for our souls in the realm of our dreams, I think it will fail to please original Nightmare fans and fans that got used to the wink-and-a-smile Freddy, titillating the blood-lusting 11 year old inside us all, trying to win our allegiance…rather than the “evil Freddy”, that just wants to take your soul.

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Posted by on May 6, 2010 in Movies


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