by Jay Stringer
Okay, today we open up a can of worms.
We all know how it goes; we read the latest news story about the latest remake and we roll our eyes. We decry the lack of originality in modern Hollywood, and prepare the inevitable hate campaign.
In truth remakes are nothing new. Hollywood has always been about remakes. Some of the best films of all time are the second or third pass at the material. ALIEN? THE THING? Remakes. The classic Humphrey Bogart version of THE MALTESE FALCON was the third adaptation of the Hammett novel. Neither Bela Lugosi’s Dracula or Boris Karloff’s monster were the first film versions of their respective material. And films like MILLER’S CROSSINGand ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 were both ‘inspired’ by previous films or books that had already been filmed. The world may have gone nuts for CASINO ROYALE, but let’s not forget that there were two previous screen adaptations of the book.
Sure there are slight differences with some of these examples. We can argue the degree of separation between a ‘remake’ and a ‘reinterpretation of the same book.’ In cases like the many film versions of Robin Hood, we could argue they’re not remakes at all. But when you really get down to it, they’re all the same thing; they are all returning to a well that’s already been used. It’s just the same idea for a different audience.
And I would argue that horror films are ripe for remaking. The most effective ones are based on some basic fear, something universal that can be carried across the generations and simply updated each time. The fear of the unknown and the fear of the familiar are true to any generation, so all you need to do is throw in the latest allegory and the modern technology.
So when you think about it, there was no reason at all for the A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET film to fail. They still managed to find a few though.
Lets deal with the ‘failure’ comment first. Is it fair? Well I guess you can look at it in two different categories, money and craft. Financially, the film is reported to have cost 35 million dollars, and made a worldwide gross of 105 million dollars. Even when you throw in the heavy marketing costs for a film that was pushed hard, the film will still have made a profit. Not much of one, but the studio still made back more than they invested. And throw in DVD sales further down the line, extra profit, and we’ll probably see a sequel. Compare that to the original which, according to Wikipedia, cost 1.8 million dollars and made a worldwide theatrical gross of 51 million dollars. And this was at the dawn of home video, where this was one of the most seen films.
So what we can really say is that the remake was fairly successful. But the original tapped into something that the remake didn’t. There was just something in that first film that lead to it making back it’s budget 25 times over. The remake ran out of gas after trebling its budget. So what was the difference?
Well the studio would probably cite their favorite folk devil and cry about piracy. They would also point to different cinema costs, a struggling market. And they would all be fair points, let’s not lose sight of that. At the same time, I can’t help but think there was a far more fundamental reason, both with this film and other modern horror remakes. I think that creatively they miss the point. They can do the short shock well enough, because all that needs is a competent director and a sharp editor. But they’re failing to run any deeper and tap into our basic fears. We see them once, jump, and then forget about them. That’s a big difference to a generation of kids who had nightmares about Freddy Krueger.
So where did the film go wrong creatively?
Well, first, let’s look at the central character himself. Krueger has a strong grip on people of my generation. I’m too young to have seen the original straight away, but old enough to be scared by folk tales. At my junior school, the name Freddy Krueger was used as the modern day boogie man. We told each other the score, he came to kill you in your sleep. Worse than that, he was a school janitor. If you were in a junior school in the 80’s that had any kind of scary out house or boiler room, then that was Freddy’s home. So the character clearly worked. He tapped into something primal to the extent that, before even seeing the films, we were trained to be scared of him.
By the time we watched the films we saw that there were really two different Freddys. There was the dark sadistic killer of the first film, and the wise cracking comedy character of the later films. Both versions are valid, both can be effective. But the remake didn’t fully commit to either of them. They gave him a lot of pointless and unfunny one-liners, and gave him a few scenes of sadism, but they never really sold us one way or another on who he really was. Early on in the film I thought they were going to take a bold step and make him innocent. For a long time it looked as if maybe Krueger wasn’t guilty of the child abuse for which he was killed. That would have given the story a bold edge, and made him an interesting character. It wouldn’t have redeemed his actions, but it would have twisted the morality of the film. But in the final act they undercut all of that, Krueger is shown to be guilty and therefore the straight-laced morality is put back in place. He’s the bad guy and always was. Presumably he returned from the grave just because he enjoyed being bad so much that he’d worked it into his pension plan. They picked the right actor for the part but then wasted him with a script that didn’t give him anything to work with.
I like to think that the truth to really unsettling an audience is to have horrible things happen to decent people for no reason. That gets us where we feel it. Here, watch this video of some dead Japanese girl in a well and, whether you’ve lived a good life or not, you’ll be dead in seven days. The only way you can survive is to trick other people into dying, and even then the dead girl is going to haunt you forever. Now that is horrific.
But in the remake, it’s all too straight-laced. A bad man gets killed for doing bad things, and then he comes back from the grave and punishes the kids of the people who killed him. That’s a story that really only has a finite lifespan. There are only so many people to be terrorized, and some of them deserve it anyway. Some of them have had the sex.
The straight-lacing runs deeper than that, it spills over into the kids. The victims that we are supposed to route for are to unrealistic for them to care. Once they are aware of the problem, and that they need to stay awake, they take medication. Now, I remember being a teenager. And if I wanted to stay awake for four days, I didn’t go to a chemist. There’s a scene in the film when the kids lives depend on them getting the medication that they need, and they stand panicking in a chemist when the sensible guy behind the counter won’t give it to them. I find it unrealistic that, out of their entire circle of friends, they could not think of anyone that might be able to help them out. So if the kids don’t act like real people, how can we relate to them, and why should we care?
It probably doesn’t help that they’re related to their parents who are a bunch of adults who brainwash their kids into forgetting something, then choose to keep that secret even when other people involved start to die. This happened in the original too, to be fair, but it’s more glaring here because of all the other faults.
But here’s my biggest problem with the film; it makes no effort to be set in the modern day. By and large it’s the same basic story as the original, and most of the same things happen, but nobody has stopped and decided how to make the story relevant to the modern day. The original film was geared to the fears and trappings on life in 1984. The new film needed to be geared to life in 2010. Both years would have the same basic human fears, but those fears will apply in different ways. The audience will have different home comforts to be twisted and subverted.
What the remake achieves by failing to grasp this is that it doesn’t suck. It’s competent, well made, and looks like a very scary film. But it also fails to tap into anything that will scare us after the credits role. It has no life or character of its own.
The frustrating thing is that there is one moment in the film when they get it. And for that one brief moment I was getting pulled in. As they try and track down the other victims, they find the web-cam video diary of one of their less fortunate classmates. We see him talking into the camera as he learns what’s going on, as he fights against sleep, and then as he dozes off and his head crashes violently into the screen. It requires zero special effects and only one actor, but it taps into something we recognize from our modern comfort zone and makes it scary. That’s what we needed to see. A Freddy Krueger film set in the modern day, where cameras are everywhere, where we video blog, where our every waking move is followed by computers or cell phones. Use these things, twist them and make us afraid of them, and you have a successful modern film.
The 2010 version of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is not a bad film by any stretch. Its problem is much worse than that. It commits the cardinal sin of any horror film; it’s bland.