Wake me when it's over
I wouldn't call Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) with its attempts to blur the line between dream and reality an especially great horror movie, or even a particularly unique one. Remember that Joseph Ruben's wittily conceived Dreamscape came out the same year, that David Lynch's no less nightmarish Eraserhead screened over a decade ago, that Roman Polanski's Repulsion had arms sprouting out of apartment walls to grope Catherine Deneuve almost twenty years before, that Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls (to which Craven's film bears a striking similarity) played in drive-ins three years previous to Polanski's, that most of Luis Bunuel's career (from 1929 to 1977) was predicated on the blurring of the line between reality and dream, and that Carl Dreyer's Vampyr (arguably the greatest nightmare ever realized on the silver screen) was released in 1932, a silent film belatedly converted to sound--a time when dreams found their voice, and spoke to us directly.
No, I wouldn't call Craven's movie great or even unique, but it was driven by a couple of clever ideas, it had a handful of striking imagery, and it's directed with a supple, not entirely ungraceful, visual style. One remembers it fondly for the way it spoke to teenagers about the deceitful nature of adults, the vulnerability of youths left unaware of their secret histories, their childhood traumas. Most of all, one remembers it for Freddy Krueger--named after a boy who bullied Craven in his childhood--the fried-faced, blade-fingered fiend who haunts the edges of the picture's (and our) inner landscapes. Craven basically borrowed the unstoppable Bogey Man figure from Halloween (1972) and Friday the 13th (1980) and, instead of merely suggesting their link to our nocturnal fantasies, makes the link an explicit and integral part of plot and story (“don't go to sleep or Freddy'll get you!”). Part of the inspiration was from Southeast Asian culture: Craven had read of Cambodian refugees fleeing the Khmer Rouge who refused to sleep, terrified of the nightmares they're experiencing. Our version is in some ways even more insidious--the bangungot, or waking dream, where we're aware of being asleep but for some reason are unable to wake up (I've experienced this once; one of the most frightening experiences in my life). Craven has yet to acknowledge being inspired by or even being aware of this local phenomena, but I for one have no doubt about it--some of the most unsettling moments in the picture borrow heavily from Filipino nightmares.
Mega-mogul Michael Bay, director of such oversized, underbrained hits as Armageddon and the Transformers movies compounds his cinematic sins nowadays by giving us less-than-stellar remakes of horror classics (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), this movie). Well, arguably The Amityville Horror wasn't a classic--easily the silliest haunted house movie ever made this side of the Three Stooges--but even this low mark Bay managed to miss with his 2005 version.
For this production Bay hired music-video director Samuel Bayer to direct traffic and veteran screenwriter Wesley Strick to whip up an upgraded screenplay. Bayer might have done a good job--music videos and even TV commercials nowadays often employ reality-to-dream transitions almost as a matter of course--but here the result is a largely dutiful re-enactment of Craven's iconic images: the children playing jump rope, Freddy's shape looming out of the walls, a clawed hand peeking up from between a girl's legs in the bathtub, a girl being eviscerated on her ceiling (Craven's brilliant parody of Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding (1951)). Once in a while Bayer attempts to be inventive--one new image is of a girl in a body bag being dragged along a school corridor--but the attempt (compared to any number of Craven's) seems more enervated than inspired (Bayer does hit upon one clever little touch, a snapped-off paper cutter blade that doubles as an improvised sword--but that's neither here nor there, nightmarewise).
Strick and co-writer Eric Heisserer do bring back an element Craven rejected for the original Nightmare (warning: read no further if you plan to see the picture--why, for the life of me I can't imagine): they made Freddy a child molester. That does add something unsavory to the character, but not all that much; Freddy has always been recognized as a father figure turned leering sadist, and it had always been my unspoken suspicion that Freddy probably molested his victims before he killed them (even if Craven didn't actually use it, the idea must have leaked through the edges of the original). With Jack Earle Healey playing the role (he'd previously played a molester in Todd Field's Little Children (2006)), the writers might have taken the picture in a more radically different direction, said direction suggested in the scene where the parents trap Freddy in an abandoned building and burn it down--Healey here is almost heartrending in his distress. But any attempt at creating sympathy is subsequently dropped like the hot potato it probably is, sympathetically portrayed child molesters being a touchier subject than outright killers turned cool anti-heroes. A pity--Freddy out for justice, if not a little understanding, is a different Freddy, only the challenges involved are probably too much effort for the filmmakers to meet head-on.
So what's left? A chase sequence that pretty much follows the original; the promise of at least two more sequels (Healey signed on for that many in his contract). The power of the bangungot lies in the threat of absolute helplessness, of being stuck unmoving for some time, perhaps the rest of your life--you're fully aware of everything going onand there's not a thing you can do about it. That sounds exactly like our situation with regards to this Nightmare reboot, except there's nothing brilliant about it--just the prospect of an endless number of sequels, sloppily done. Welcome to my nightmare, breakdown, whatever.
First published in Businessworld, 5.13.10
First published in Businessworld, 5.13.10