The Man of Your Dreams: Sam Bayer’s New Nightmare
If today’s horror neophytes are by some weird chance unfamiliar with the extant Nightmare on Elm St. franchise, they are more than likely very familiar with the tropes and scenarios at play. Boogeyman stalks teens in their dreams. Bloody mayhem ensues. That’s pretty much it. Professionally executed from beginning to end, the exact purpose of Samuel Bayer’s New Nightmare1 (a.k.a. Nightmare Redux) isn’t really clear. Apart from the vibe that it’s trying to be a crowd-pleaser, the precise aim of how it expects to do that is muddy. Barely a remake, it’s more of a retread, with Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer’s screenplay gathering up some of the original film’s more indelible scenes, reshuffling them, and dealing them from the bottom of the deck — apparently at random — in an attempt to catch established fans off guard while simultaneously re-entrenching those scenes in the minds of a new generation that might (rather unbelievably) not be at all familiar with the source material.
The biggest departures from the original film are the introduction of the device of “micro-naps” that the brain takes when starved by insomnia (where a person can apparently slip in and out of a dream state without ever recognizing a difference), and in the backstory of Freddy Krueger. As Kyle Smith has noted in his review and his blog, the biggest opportunity the film opens up for itself in terms of redefining the mythos of the series — and thus creating a distinct identity for itself — is totally squandered. Had the film remained true to its initial premise that Freddy truly was a wrongful victim, his vengeance would have underlined a neat, hideous perspective on meaning and justice (or lack thereof) in the universe. Rather than just being a monster from birth, evil from the time his mother conceived him (as Robert Englund’s Freddy was), this Freddy might have had a genuine axe to grind when he buried it in the skulls of our hapless protagonists. Instead, the terrifying notion that some of the greatest evil in the world really is just a case of what-goes-around-comes-around — perverse, karmic (in)justice — is left unexplored. Frank Darabont built his entire masterful film, The Mist, around a similar, cosmically chilling premise (that being: God is cruel, as Stephen King put it in Desperation), but the suits who oversaw Nightmare Redux decided to stick with an established formula, with the only real change being that Freddy is a child molester, rather than a child killer. So much the better, if this remake is to be expected to compete with other rape-tastic remakes like Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes or Rob Zombie’s Halloween. Apart from Jackie Earle Haley’s authentically skin-crawling body language as Freddy, nothing about this remake has the teeth to go that far — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The whole concept of Freddy is theoretically terrifying enough to justify cold sweats without the specter of sexual assault leering over the affair.
As in many horror films a leer-worthy and surprisingly promising young cast does what it can with a rather lame script. I actually liked Rooney Mara as Nancy; she doesn’t have Heather Langenkamp’s presence, but she feels plausible as an introverted girl-next-door with unexpectedly deep reservoirs of strength.2 Thomas Dekker also had a decent shot at bringing depth to a horribly underwritten role by channelling all that John Connor-like intensity into a scene that rhymed with the flashback to Freddy’s barbeque lynching.3
Bayer and his d.p., Jack Cutter, deliver reels and reels of lush, foreboding images, most of it glossy as a bourbon ad, and very little of it terribly imaginative or dense. One particular image struck me as ingenious: a girl opens the door to her attached garage. At this point in the film, we (the audience) are not sure if she’s dreaming (in which case she’s Freddy-fodder) or awake (in which case she’s just going to the garage). The light diffusing around her silhouette strikes a reflective surface in the middle-foreground, and to me, it suggested a coffin. (Dreaming! *gasp!*) She flicks on the light, and instead of a hellish funeral parlor, it turns out that the reflection was just a car windshield. (Awake! *phew!*) Retrospectively, I’m not certain that this layering of suggestive imagery was intentional, because little of the film’s photography or production design is as deft as I wanted to credit that one scene for being.4 My conclusion is that it was accidental, but it was still an effective moment. There are other effective moments, but nothing that accumulates the kind of dread that suffused the duration of Wes Craven’s less visually impressive but, overall, far more imaginative and effective film.
But that’s not what this is about. Smith sort of hit upon an astute observation when he surmised that audiences don’t really want to be scared by a film like this. I think he kind of missed the point by singling out the younger generation. Formulaic, unimaginative franchise films aren’t anything new, and neither are the people willing to shell out hard cash for the experience. Swaths of Nightmare Redux feel eerily, but emptily ritualistic, not unlike a bunch of sleepy parishioners reciting the Lord’s Prayer on a Sunday morning — not out of religious conviction, but out of some bizarre commitment to habit and keeping up appearances for the sake of maintaining cultural currency. For every inspired page in Nightmare Redux’s playbook (such as a quite excellent sequence in a pharmacy in which our heroine, Nancy, drifts in and out of a dream state as Freddy stalks her down an aisle that morphs into the phantasmal psychopath’s infernal boiler room dungeon and back again), others are just stiff recitations.5 At times, it feels like the filmmakers are trying to make a real, scary movie; at others, it feels like they’re winking at us without a trace of humor. The creaky attempt to please longtime fans and a potentially brand new audience makes for some astonishingly stale sequences — witness the CGI rendering of the creepy face-in-the-wall moment from the original, which here looks like a rejected test run for something out of Jan De Bont’s abortive 1999 Haunting remake.
Instead of maximizing Freddy’s sinister omnipotence in visually arresting, outlandish scenarios, the film just cranks the volume of Freddy’s voice so that it’s always the loudest thing on the soundtrack. Disembodied cackling can be unsettling at times, but Haley’s voice doesn’t sound supernaturally omnipresent; it sounds digitally altered. Freddy’s voice isn’t even that scary. He just sounds like Christian Bale in The Dark Knight. (“I’m not wearing hockey pads, BITCH!”) Haley’s makeup isn’t much better. While suitably macabre, the little nuances in his performances are all but lost under what is quite obviously a latex pancake. Especially the bridge of his nose. The overdone makeup makes him look more like a shit-faced Na’vi than an immolated ghost, sort of Neytiri crossed with Pizza the Hutt. It’s hard enough to compete with an established — nay, legendary — interpretation of a character without also having to compete with one’s own makeup artist.
Such comparisons are inevitable, but perhaps unfair. Leaving aside the question of retcon and if it affects the original film with endless streams of nearly-identical sequels, let’s just see if we can answer this simple question: why can’t horror movies just end? Why do horror movies have to end with a sudden, inexplicable jolt? Nightmare Redux ends much in the way its source ends — a mom is snatched through a glassy aperture by a hand gloved in steely daggers, much to the non-surprise of audience members everywhere. Horror film viewers are familiar with this trope. After a film’s protagonists have apparently dispatched their resilient nemesis in a spectacular, high-stakes showdown, they all breathe a collective sigh of relief… only to have the antagonist come back, as Jamie Kennedy put it in Scream, “for One Last Scare.” But why? Do horror filmmakers genuinely believe that audiences fall for this anymore? It’s pretty much the one part of a horror film’s structure that will never, ever actually startle audiences. We might flinch, but that has more to do with either the gruesomeness of the final image (which has more to do with gut-level revulsion than terror) or the fact that the film’s soundtrack, as Playtime colleague Daniel Davis has pointed out on numerous occasions, is “brickwalled.” That is to say, it’s so freaking loud that we flinch in the same way we flinch when we hear a gunshot, when a mischievous friend pops a paper bag right next to our ears, or when a tone-deaf uncle spontaneously starts belting out “Cool Jerk” in the shower when he visits at Christmastime.6
Last year’s Friday the 13th remake ended with a similar homage/jolt that made absolutely no sense aesthetically or as a storytelling choice. The film’s utter lack of inspiration or, you know, scariness (beyond the surprisingly effective and nihilistic opening set piece) didn’t help. I can forgive a last-minute indulgence a bit more easily when a film has earned the right to it. A Nightmare on Elm Street Redux sorta-kinda earns it. I’ll cop to this: if the Nightmare remake were the very first horror film I’d ever seen, and I were still fourteen or fifteen years old, it would probably scare me into a spontaneous and unprecedented-in-size bowel movement the likes of which would become the stuff of theater usher urban legend.
That “final scare” seems to emblematic because it offers a slightly altered presentation and context, but doesn’t fundamentally differ from the closing moments of the original film, nor does it set itself apart from the final moments of numerous other horror films. This vigorous commitment to a total lack of innovation is so troubling because if the franchise had managed to do one thing well, even in the cruddy sequels, it was to develop a dream mythology to rival even that of The Sandman.7 Besides applying their imagination to conjure new reasons for Freddy surviving the previous time he was killed for good, the series consistently evoked (if superficially) hot button issues throughout its run, from repressed homosexuality to teen pregnancy to sexually transmitted diseases to parents overmedicating their kids. As allegories run, the series was not always successful, but there was more to it than a dude with finger-knives slashing up idiotic high schoolers. Even as Freddy became more lovable than his insipid antagonists, his evil manifested itself in new and innovative ways. In Nightmare Redux, his outlandish modes of death are dialed back to a tried-and-true methodology: stabbing victims to death. According to one of the most consistently inventive horror franchises in cinema’s history, apparently horror really hasn’t evolved since 1960, when Norman Bates let loose with a butcher knife in Psycho.
This isn’t a call for “cooler deaths” for the sake of enjoying bloodier, more brutal ends to human life. Part of the fun (and suspense) of the old series was the fact that some of the characters had to use wit and fortitude to adapt to the stacked deck Freddy dealt them. He usually won, of course, but his cat-and-mouse games developed a unique identity of their own that defined the series and enshrined the Elm Street series as a pop culture touchstone. Filmmakers are still trying to stack that deck in Freddy’s favor (even Dekker, with his brooding intensity, is not that cool, because he doesn’t have a bitchin’ snap-brim fedora), but instead of being a wretched, albeit ambitious failure (as were the less successful entries in the series) or a delightfully twisted ante-upper on an already convoluted, genuinely intriguing series, Nightmare Redux is a moneyed, manicured, one-size-fits-all green-and-red striped sweater that can’t quite fit everyone, nor is it frayed or stained in the places that would give it character. It’s just an ugly Christmas sweater that was perhaps on the wish list, but now that it’s been unwrapped, feels more like a gag gift. There’s no good reason for that cheap, final “scare,” just like there’s no good reason for this film’s existence. It just exists because of tradition. It’s a vestigial organ of a bygone era. It has no point, and it takes every available precaution to be pointless.
Edited by Tracy McCusker.
- To scare the audience? To showcase a greatest hits retrospective of the first film’s best moments? To re-establish an old franchise once again as a cash cow? ↩
- The film does overplay this quite a bit when Nancy yanks Freddy out of the dreamworld into the real world and snarls, “You’re in my world now, bitch!” It just doesn’t feel right. It’s the kind of totally inappropriate one-liner that makes Arnie sniping, “You’re luggage,” to an alligator look downright statesmanlike. ↩
- He also gets to be in the new film’s creepiest scene, which is almost an aside. After Dekker’s character is slaughtered, last seen bleeding out on the cold stone floor of a prison cell, we’re suddenly back in the dreamworld, where Freddy informs him that after the heart stops beating, the brain continues to function for seven minutes, and that they still have six minutes to play in. My blood ran cold just imagining the kind of torture porn the film thankfully elected not to depict. The film as a whole actually contains a shockingly low blood quotient and is, I suppose, more tasteful than one would expect. A scene like the one I just described is exactly the right balance between gore effects — Dekker’s death-by-razor-glove — and a grotesque suggestion of the horrors that take place offscreen. ↩
- One part features a mirror fake-out. You know: a character goes to the bathroom to wash her face, and when she looks in the mirror initially, it’s just her. She bends over to splash some water on her face, and when she looks up, she suddenly sees The Shape behind her. Except here, there’s no boogeyman. It was a nice tweak on an overly familiar phrase in horror film language. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t keep up that level of modest ingenuity. ↩
- The use of the bloody body bag, for one. The floor turning to goo under Nancy’s feet is another. ↩
- Get yer Talkboy ready! ↩
- Advantage: Freddy. Neil Gaiman never resurrected anybody with flaming dog urine. In his fiction, anyway. I’m not terribly familiar with the man’s personal life. ↩