Friday, April 23, 2010

Long Week On Elm St.: Part 1: A Nightmare On Elm Street

(An unfortunately prophetic slogan in my case)

So a week from now Platinum Dunes will release their latest monstrosity on the world. I’m still desperately trying to remain cautiously optimistic about The Nightmare On Elm Street remake, based off of the fact that Jackie Earle Haley is awesome. But that’s becoming more and more difficult with the reports of reshoots that have apparently deballed what was initially a fresh look at a horror icon. Sigh.


So to celebrate (?) the release of the thing that I will go to see against my better judgement, I’ve decided to revisit The Nightmare On Elm Street Franchise. The whole damn thing. Yes. Even fucking Part 2. There’s probably going to be some alchol involved. It might get messy. Yes I know that gives me seven days to cover 8 films. Something is going to get shafted and covered as an addendum here. I’m not going to lie, it’ll probably be part six. There are only so many ways you can write IT’S TERRIBLE.

I’ve written about my thoughts on Freddy Krueger and The Nightmare franchise before (For the installments I’ve covered I’m probably going to end up doing more of live blog type thing). But lets start at the very beginning here (Which I’m told is a very good place to start).


The problem with reviewing Nightmare On Elm Street, is it feels like an anomaly. In oh so many ways. An elegant film in the ouerve of a crude director, a deadly serious film in a franchise known for its jokeiness, and a film that is still genuinely scary from an era of horror now most beloved for its tube socks, gore tricks, and endless nudity. A Nightmare On Elm Street is playing so above its means that its almost hard to believe that its creators, franchise, and time period produced it. It remains, against the odds, a genuinely great little film.

A Nightmare On Elm Street, is still so effective because its still a powerful idea for a story (and honestly do I even have to give a synopsis?). Like all great horror stories A Nightmare On Elm Street works because it taps in a very direct way into a very potent area of unease. As David Foster Wallace said, “The mind is a wonderful servant and a terrible master.” The world of the subconscience, the world of dreams, is a place we have no control over. It is an uneasy truth, that the one place where we are not safe, is inside our own heads.

Lets start with Craven. Craven is a filmmaker whose power is derived from his blunt lack of artistry. At their best Craven’s films have an effortless authenticy precisely because they are so clumsy.At best his films feel raw and unpremeditated (The Hills Have Eyes, The Serpent and The Rainbow). At worst his films have a kind of amateurish schlockyness that’s truly embarrassing (Cursed, Shocker) most of the time the two combine in a sort of depressing mélange, which we get Scream, The Last House On The Left, and The People Under The Stairs. The final two being perhaps the most tonally confused movies I’ve ever seen, with the former just ghastly with its bumbling comedic relief cops and bizarre “Mother performing Oral Sex on the guy who just raped her daughter” sequence, and the latter playing like an R rated version of The Never Ending Story.

The fact is that Craven has never before or since turned in a movie that looks this damn good. From the opening frames with its rich saturated colors, deep shadows, creative imagery (love the surprise of the offhand goat in the opening frames) and inventive staging (though Craven does occasionally show some of his obvious side in this regard. Still it’s forgivable because it always works. The image of Freddy’s arm shooting up between Nancy’s legs in the bathtub may be crude,but there is no denying that it is a repulsively effective and communitive piece of imagery) . Nightmare looks so immeasurably better then most of its brethren in both Craven’s filmography and it’s eighties horror cousins that its frankly baffling.

Sure things aren’t perfect. Outside of the dream world, some of the old clumsy Craven often comes roaring back. The tone in the real world is off. Johnny Depp, is still Johnny Depp and has never seemed uncomfortable on camera (Even in the bizarre borscht belt comic relief he’s forced to play involving his Mom and a malfunctioning Sound Effects Tape). Heather Langenkamp who always seemed like she should have been a bigger star from her role here. Its not what you’d call polished, but has a real talent to it and John Saxon is well John Saxon. But the rest of Craven’s cast, particularly Layne the bizarre anachronistic greaser who is first blamed for Krueger’s crimes is too often broad, hammy, and bizarrely off note. Though give Craven credit all the teenagers do actually look like teenagers. (The movies only other real flaw is its cheesy eighties score, which lacks both the unsettling oddness of Carpenter’s Halloween score, and the Herrman lite score of Friday The 13th. And the oddly confused ending Which even Part 3’s direct sequel is unable to clarify.)

But complaining about what Craven does wrong inside the real world seems to be missing The Forest for the trees. Inside the dream world, it's all golden. And Englund rules as its dark Jester King. His performance is, all in the body language contrasted to the mostly verbal killer he'd become. The way he cocks his neck as far from his torso as it’ll go, the eager way he shuffles forward, the jutting tongue flickering between his charred lips. He’s not funny or clever in this. Not a quipping VFX tech demo, allowing you to see the cool shit that KNB dreamed up this week. No he is a genuine terrifying threat. When he holds up his claws and starts carving off pieces of himself cackling “This is your God.” Its not for chuckles but genuinely diseased. He’s a perverse, all powerful boogeyman without a shred of mercy and a real mean streak. In a recent piece Drew McWeeney summed it up more or less perfectly…

I hate wise-cracking Freddy. This is a guy who was murdered by a group of parents because of what he did to their children. This is a vile, repulsive human being whose evil was so strong that he he came back from beyond the grave to keep hurting his victims

Go back and look at that first film Wes Craven made. It's great because it's cheap, and because it unfolds with an awful dreamlike quality, where the lines of what is or isn't real blur completely, and anything can happen. Freddy barely speaks, and the "jokes" in the film aren't funny at all. "I'm your boyfriend now" is not a joke. It's just a wretched, awful jab from a sick mind.

Perhaps the thing to ponder isn’t that the later grinning VJ of killer has diluted the power of Englund’s inaugural run on the character. Instead one should marvel at the miracle that after the relentless whoring of the character for the past twenty five years that Englund’s performance retains any of its frightening malevolent power at all.

To give credit where its due though Craven created some startling images and ideas to help him out. I don’t care how many times I see it in how many clip shows and compilations, the sight of Tina getting eviscerated on her own ceiling, in that grisly Astaire parody, never fails to shock and disturb. For exactly one time in the series the series dreams have the nonsensical feel of real dreams rather then FX reels. It’s the odd details that make them unsettling, the maggots that erupt from Freddy’s wound, the pile of dead leaves in the classroom, the hall moniter who turns into Freddy by degrees, the unsettling asymmetrical way Freddy’s arms stretch akimbo. Even the effects that don’t exactly hold up today, like Freddy’s pop eyed skull face when Tina claws off his face, or the weird Dummy Craven uses when Freddy kills Nancy's mother, have a weird organic feel to them. The film is simply put, fucking relentless when it comes to scares.

Craven came up with more ways to play with the conventions and rules of his horror story then anyone else did in all the sequels combined (and judging from the trailer, if nothing else the remake came up with at least one clever idea). There’s one great scene where the nightmare is played entirely outside of the body from the perspective of psychiatrists observing Nancy. We know that it’s a question of when not if, things will go wrong, but we don’t know precisely when its going to turn. It’s the kind of trick De Palma would envy, generating suspense from what we know and the characters don't.

A Nightmare On Elm Street, is damn close to a masterpiece. A creative, frightening movie, from a director franchise and era that would never be quite as good again. A film that gets a lot of mileage from its audacious concept but has enough on its mind to remain a good film long after the novelty has warn off.

And It’s a good thing I enjoyed it because Its all down hill from here.


Sarah from Scare Sarah said...

Haha. It is a cheap masterpiece. Love the long arms scene! Very creepy. Good luck with the rest mind!

J.D. said...

What a great idea taking on the franchise! You are a brave soul indeed, sir! heh.

The image that will always stay with me from this film is that of Johnny Depp getting sucked into his bed and an ungodly amount of blood geysering out. Man, the first time I saw the film back in the 1980s, I had nightmares about that scene.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Sarah: You're right its cheap as hell. But I really think it works. It just makes everything look so weird!

@ J.D : Thanks man. If my liver survives Part 2 and Freddy's Dead it'll be a miracle.

Anonymous said...

It is weird how Craven bumbles and stumbles through a lot of his films. Almost like he had a great idea conceptually but just couldn't put some of it together execution wise.

I think a New Nightmare is highly underrated though. It injected some much needed creativity in an otherwise stale franchise.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ POT: New Nightmare is actually the one I'm most looking forward to seeing. I really loved it the first time I saw it, and not so much the second. We'll see if the third time's the charm.

Erik said...

Great review and thoughts on the original,it is indeed a masterpiece,I too love the goat in the opening scene,so random..yet unsettling.Im with you on the rhash also,curious to see Haley and hope they make a respectable film.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Erik Thanks man. I enjoyed your review (and your excellent Hellraiser piece as well).

Rob said...

One of the best critiques of NOES ever(most reviewers get tripped up by the distance between now and when they first saw it as teenagers, so they linger on the cheesy aspects and forget how truly scary it was/is). Just in case(tho I'm sure you've probably seen it,freddie-phile that you are)I saw this on youtube. I guess it's a kind of audition for the remake,so it's rough, but at about .45 you see the concept they had in mid for freddie and it's pretty amazing. He's burning!

Bryce Wilson said...

Thanks for the complement Rob. And the great Vid!