Sunday, 2 May 2010

Re/Made: A Nightmare on Elm Street [part 1]

This part 1 is a critique of the 1984 original. Part 2 to follow will examine the remake.

There are three major icons of the 20th century: Dracula, Frankenstein and the werewolf. Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula[1] was published in 1897. The 1931 film[2] starring Bela Lugosi is horror. Today Dracula - or versions of him - can be seen in the Twilight films (described as romantic fantasy). Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein 1st edition was published in 1818. The movie that rewrote the monster’s appearance starred Boris Karloff and was also released in 1931. It is one of the best horror films ever made. Frankenstein hasn’t been seen since Kenneth Brannagh’s 1994 melodrama. The Wolf Man 1941 starring Lon Chaney was a success. The Wolfman 2010 was not.

It is time for new icons.

A new breed of horror germinated with Night of the Living Dead 1968. This horror was not philosophical. It was societal. It was immediate. It was The Last House on the Left 1972. It was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1974. It was in full bloom with Halloween 1978. Friday the 13th 1981 was a ripoff Halloween. A Nightmare on Elm Street 1984 gifted cinema Freddy Krueger. A new trio of icon was complete and they ruled the 80s.

Dracula predates Stoker’s novel. The werewolf too is folklore. Shelly’s book is 200 years old. As seen with the Twilight saga and The Wolfman these icons are enduring. They will be revived throughout this century. The new icons’ durability has not yet been fully tested. The wave of first re-imaginings may already be over[3][4].

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 is tipping point.

don’t fall asleep

Wes Craven’s film takes surrealism and frames it within literal context. Everybody dreams. Human beings have an innate fear of the dark. It gets dark every time we close our eyes and we are at our most vulnerable when we sleep. In what could be a cinematic first and only every human being on this planet past present and future can relate to the concept of this film. If not for its inspiration[5] this would be ingenious. It remains brilliant.

Halloween had Jamie Lee Curtis. A Nightmare on Elm Street mimicked Janet Leigh. The shower scene in Psycho 1960 is doubly shocking: hero – dead. The unlikeable Tina’s death was momentarily off-balancing: she was the only one wise to the killer. It was momentary because Nancy Thompson immediately fills the lead role.

Tina is unsympathetic as written because she commits the cinema sin of cliché. She yields to the killer’s summons only to flee to her deathbed. She is unsympathetic because actor Amanda Wyss, then 23, failed to capture a 15 year old child. Her portrayal fails to involve - it only serves to inform the viewer. Thus due to Wyss’ performance Tina becomes nothing more than a cypher. Wes Craven would correct this with Drew Barrymore in Scream 1996.

In the documentary Never Sleep Again 2006[6] – not to be confused with the incoming Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy 2010[7] – Craven says he wanted to cast someone intelligent looking to play Nancy. Heather Langenkamp, then 19, evokes the adolescent: too old to be lied to; too young to dismiss her dreams. Nancy challenges Freddy in her classroom dream sequence. She tries to save Rod. She warns Glen. She accuses her mother. She begs her father for help. She has to fight the demon alone.

At the time of filming in 1984 the early 80s recession was fresh in memory. The Cold War was on the brink of Star Wars[7.5], college fees were escalating[8] and divorce was epidemic[9]. The white picket fence was stained. Nancy’s mother is an alcoholic divorcée. Tina’s ma is a slut – a scene that would be replicated by Kristen’s ma (albeit with better jewellery). Rod is the town delinquent. Nancy – and her Generation X[9.5] - understands that the future is not as secure as her parents and authority would have her believe.

By contrast Glen has two parents and is least prepared to deal with the bizarre. He denies his dreams. He ignores them and he dies in them. Admittedly Johnny Depp’s character is the least developed but he showed no sign of the star he was to become. He’s remembered in this film for his death scene. Craven cast him because his daughter thought he was cute[6].
Jessica Craven in New Nightmare

Freddy Krueger is a mesmerising villain complete with backstory and motivation. As innovative as the film’s concept is it is the relationship between him and Nancy that transcends this story into mythos[10]. That relationship is powered by the performance of Langenkamp. It is the Final Girl’s[11] role to seduce the audience into empathy. It is her point of view that will display the enormity of the evil in pursuit. Jamie Lee achieves that in Halloween. Langenkamp surpasses her in A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Langenkamp achieved a father-daughter presence with John Saxon that continued in Dream Warriors 1987 and New Nightmare 1994. She convinced as a good daughter who challenged her mother Ronne Blakley. As a girlfriend she was prim but not prude. She risked her life for her friends.

For the most part Krueger is an enigma in this film and this is how it should be. He lives in dreams and darts out of shadows. This demon has a very human quality of mirth. He enjoys the helplessness of Nancy as he preps Rod for the kill. His name is shame in Springwood. He is a reminder to the good people that they are a lynch mob. It is through their collective closed closet that he is able to kill the children. In their parental guilt they would rather deem their own children mad than confront the crimes of their righteousness[12]. They unknowingly created Krueger. They unknowingly assist him.

I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
- William Shakespeare [Hamlet]

The dreamscape played as major set pieces in the sequels. In this original, apart from Nancy’s classroom dream, they are indistinguishable from character consciousness. The effect is more unsettling à la when Nancy dreams of Rod. The body count in this movie is 3 or 4 to include Nancy’s ma. It is not how many are killed – it is how they die. Of the three Tina’s and Glen’s are so memorable Tina’s was duplicated in New Nightmare and Glen’s was inverted in The Dream Master 1988.

Freddy’s legacy is indisputable. This is the first film that New Line Cinema produced. It spawned a franchise that built the studio[13]. It started a sub-genre. It is my assertion that Koji Suzuki was inspired by Elm Street to write Ringu (pub. 1991). Ringu 1998 uses A Nightmare on Elm Street concept, premise and motifs (it also stole from Black Christmas 1974). It is the highest grossing horror film in Japan[14]. In its wake came the sequels, the cash-ins and the Korean copycats. The West dubbed them J-Horror and promptly remade them.


Hollywood devours its own also.Apart from the obvious financial incentive was there a reason to ‘re-imagine’ such a classic? Did the filmmakers take advantage of cultural shifts in the last quarter century? Did they utilise modern technology to enhance the story telling and not smother it? Is it a better script? Is it better entertainment? Is it The Thing 1982? The Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978? The Fly 1986? Or even Night of the Living Dead 1990? I will answer these questions after I have time to digest the remake and assess it. Meantime read what Reznor has to say about the original[15] and the reboot[16] at Koopaskeep. Like me he doesn’t believe in sacred cows.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the best horror films ever made.

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