Sunday, October 17, 2010

Rethinking the Nightmare Remake

I usually try to avoid being that guy on the internet saying "if I'D written this book/movie/comic book, it would have gone like THIS and it would have been AWESOME." Anyone can do that and I at least try to keep in mind that creative industries aren't always about getting a creator's ideal vision into circulation and I also understand that sometimes people just have different ideas than I do about a character/franchise. So I TRY to avoid armchair quarterbacking, even when I'm talking about something I don't like.

But for the recent "Nightmare on Elm Street" remake, I'm going to make an exception :) Spoilers for the remake and the original abound.

Wes Craven's original movie is a classic, but there are certainly moments of sloppy execution and a great deal of undeveloped potential in it. Unlike most slasher movies, it was fueled by an incredibly original IDEA and one idea almost certainly creates tangential ideas. We've had 25 years or so to extrapolate on the core concept so the hope was in a remake that they'd produce something, while probably not better, at least a little tighter.

Unfortunately, the remake has a mound of underveloped ideas of its own.

I'm not trying to start from scratch here but I think even given the circumstances of the recent remake, there's a better movie to be made then what we ended up with. It's OK, but it could have been really good.

The crappy part is they screwed up within the first five minutes. In the original the initial scene is of Tina wandering through a boiler room, obviously frightened, then Freddy shoots up behind her and she wakes up, safe in her own bed. We really didn't have a clue what was going on. In the remake, in the very first scene we meet all the major players and then one of them has his throat slit by Freddy, right there in front of his girlfriend.

Where do the characters go from there? It's this impatience -- that horror movies have to have a kill before the opening sequence is over -- that really hamstrung this remake. In killing the guy off immediately, the characters don't have any ability to interact with any sort of range. They're deeply disturbed and freaked out from the outset so all they can do is look somberly at one another for the rest of the movie. Now the original had an element of surprise in that no one really knew the premise or the characters. The remake doesn't have that and surprise is essential to horror working. The original still allowed the protagonists time to be three dimensional and to laugh and to be engaging. For the first fifteen minutes or so, Tina just had a bad dream, for all we knew it could have foreshadowed a lot of different things. Until she did in the dream, we didn't really know that was where the movie was going to go. Even without the surprise of fans not knowing the premise for the remake, there was still time, if they didn't kill someone in the prologue, to let the kids interact more and let Freddy percolate a little bit before he finally delivered that first kill. It also would have allowed the kids more time to start putting together the notion of the shared dream.
To a lot of people, the most memorable and harrowing sequence in the original is the death of Tina, the first death when she's in bed, then in a nightmare, then it cuts back to the bedroom where we watch her get cut wide open by an unseen Freddy. It was shocking because we didn't have any idea where this movie was going and because Craven set Tina up as the protagonist. When she got ripped open it was a wonderful horror thrill. The remake, in interviews and the trailers, promised a recreation of that scene and tried to deliver it. But it didn't work as because it was predictable and ultimately underwhelming. That's not the actress's fault, I actually thought Katie Cassidy was a very strong presence in the movie (and was also strong in the generally disliked remake of "Black Christmas,") even though she wasn't given much to do, other than hang around and die.

My idea for her would have been slightly different. Let's accept we're going to kill her the same way, she's going to fall asleep, walk through a nightmare and Freddy's going to tear her apart and through her around the room. The writers already sort of screwed up the Nancy character anyway, by making her mousey and artsy. Not that it couldn't have worked, it just didn't. Still, Nancy is the only one who believes Kris when Kris says there's something crazy going on at the funeral in the remake. Why didn't she go to Nancy's house later and why didn't they talk about Freddy? Instead Kris just goes home and, again, waits around for Freddy to find her so they could try to remake the bed scene from the original.

So move the bed death to the end of the second act, basically to where Johnny Depp got sucked into the bed in the original. You want a final death to push Nancy to make her final attack on Freddy, so use this one. The Nancy/Quentin boyfriend/girlfriend relationship was pretty shoddy in the remake anyway. So make Kris (the Tina character) the one fighting to stay awake, make her the one doing all the desperate things to stay awake. She KNOWS what's going to happen when she falls asleep. Still do the teases with her drifting in and out of sleep and running into Freddy and escaping. Make the dread come from both she and Freddy knowing at some point or another she's going to fall asleep and not going to be able to get away. She knows it, he knows it and WE know it. All any of us can do is wait.

As the other kids start dropping around her, it gets worse and worse, then at some point ... she gives up. She can't take it anymore so she sits at home quietly, lays in bed and just goes to sleep. Meanwhile Nancy's trying to get answers, trying to figure out who and what Freddy is. But, here's the thing: I wouldn't show anything. We see her go to sleep, then we let the music start to do the work. I'm talking some seriously sad music, very quiet. A couple Freddy scratches cut through the air, we see the sleeping girl react. If we're being particularly melodramatic, a tear could slide down her sleeping cheek. We go to slow motion as she raises up off the bed. It's possible we're cutting between Kris dying in slow motion to Nancy learning something important about Freddy, but realizing she's learning it too late to save her friend. Again, slowly we see the cuts tear across Kris and see her fly across the room, before she finally slumps back on the bed, bloody and dead.

I think it would be a pretty tragic scene. I know I harp endlessly that horror movies need to be more sad, more than anything, but I think this would have worked pretty well. It would have delivered a scene from the original people were waiting for but in a new way that would have added to the story and built off what we already know about the situation coming into the movie.

There's also a lot of awkwardness in the remake about the parents. The original at least gave the parents the strength of their convictions: they hunted Freddy down and took care of him when the justice system failed them. And then they went back to their lives with only a dirty secret between them. The remake implied that the parents didn't really MEAN to kill Freddy, they were just trying to smoke him out of a hiding place. That doesn't work. The story is about evil (Freddy) begatting evil (the parents becoming vigilantes) begatting EVEN WORSE EVIL (Freddy coming back from the dead to kill the children of the parents who killed him.) The kids are completely innocent and are paying for their parents's crimes. That's pretty hardcore.

The remake's really sloppy with the parents. I realize they probably didn't have a lot of movie time to dedicate to parents debating their past actions but the time they DO give to it is pretty unsatisfying. What the movie says is that the parents accidentally killed Freddy and then decided to have their children never discuss their childhoods or ever remember their time with Freddy, who the remake says molested them (in the original he killed the kids, the molestation is implied by circumstance but never clearly mentioned.) Regardless, when the first child dies the family had pictures of him at the funeral, including pictures of him with the other kids Freddy got to, although, in their minds they didn't meet until high school. It's not unworkable conceptually: the parents killed Freddy and vowed to their kids would forget it ever happened, getting rid of pictures of them together. We can also assume the city had a couple grade schools and you can move kids around to keep them from being in school together. The movie says they were five at the time and, let's be honest, I don't really remember anyone from my kindergarten class, other than the kids I stayed with through grade school. I even get why the mother of the dead teen might want to show pictures from when her son was young with his friends. But DISCUSS it in the movie.

Keep in mind: there's no reason for the parents to think the guy's death was anything but an unusually violent suicide. The kids know better but the parents don't, that's pretty common in horror. So at that funeral, the parents should have some sort of issue with that family having pictures of the children together, pictures they've tried to keep from the children for a long time. And why does Kris's mother keep the old pictures and her daughter's slashed dress? They were in the garage, it's not like Kris found a secret room where they were kept. Honestly, it felt like that stuff was left around because it gave the writers a trail of exposition to let the characters sniff. I liked that the movie let Nancy's mother suggest that the reason the kids were all dreaming about the same boogeyman was due to repressed memories. But I think there could have been a stronger moment or two of follow-up with the parents as well. They had two particularly strong actors, Connie Britton and Clancy Smith, to work with as the main parents. They were woefully underused.

I like that a couple of the families moved away and that Freddy got them too. I never especially loved the notion that Freddy was tied directly to Springwood. I like that as a theme for slasher horror, though, but I never bought that if someone left Springwood that Freddy wouldn't find them. Isn't that the point of his existing in the dreamscape? You can't escape him.

Rooney Mara was a pretty unremarkable Nancy but I don't blame her. In fact, she's very charismatic in a small role in "The Social Network." But the "Nightmare" remake reduced her to a sort of mousey art student who never really went after Freddy the way Nancy did in the original. She went looking for answers, sure, but in the original she definitely went to take the fight to Freddy. It didn't help Mara that the final scenes with Freddy pretty much reduced her to a victim in terms of his means of attacking her. In the original, the final showdown was as straight-forward a fight as you'll see, Nancy took it to Freddy and put him on the run. I think the remake tried to be too clever with getting Nancy out of the dream, and needing her boyfriend to do so. I'm not against a boyfriend saving the day sometimes, but I don't think Nancy was strong enough. At first I thought Nancy was quiet but was going to bloom as the movie went on -- predictable, yes, but it seemed the only useful reason to make her so waif-like. But she really never really got to be aggressive or on the offensive. In fact, Freddy played her and Quentin for fools the entire time when he lured them to his lair. They thought they were going to be proven right but he just wanted to prove them wrong.

Which brings me to the most glaring mistake the remake made: the notion that Quentin doubted whether or not Freddy was really guilty of the crimes the children accused him of. It just didn't work as a red herring because, come on, it's FREDDY KRUEGER, everyone knows he's guilty of everything, otherwise we wouldn't be watching "A Nightmare On Elm Street." Had the filmmakers gone through with it and said Freddy was on the revenge mission because he was falsely accused of molesting a bunch of kids wouldn't have worked either. You aren't going to sell that Freddy Krueger is anything but the boogeyman so why bother. It wasted a lot of time that could have been spent building up the characters, both young and old and making the horrors and dream traps more frightening. Stick to the basic origin, the monologue Marge gave in the original.

One thing l obsessively liked about the original was how the first couple murders could be justified in reality. Rod killed Tina, then Tina killed herself. It takes that notion of the parents not understanding what was going on and amplified it. Same with Nancy almost drowning in the tub. Any kid can drown in the tub. Sure, it lost its wheels a bit when Glen got sucked into the bed and the whole geiser of blood but keep in mind: it's possible all of that happened in Nancy's dream and there were also scenes shot of Glen coming out of and then collapsing on the bed that were shot but ultimately not used. It's possible the geiser of blood could have been a dreamed exaggeration. Nevertheless, the remake tried to imply that Kris's boyfriend killed her, then got arrested for it and died in prison but his death in prison was bloody and violent and lacked the cleverness of Freddy hanging him so that it would look like a suicide.

There are a couple ways to look at it. It's reasonable to suggest Freddy would WANT the parents to know he was back, killing their children but the mythology initially seems to keep him in the children's dreams. You could also say that in making it look like they're killing each other that Freddy's letting the parents know that they've failed to protect them again, just like they did when he was alive. It's petty but it still sort of works. If Freddy really wanted the parents to suffer, getting to watch the families fall apart as their kids die and turn on each other would probably be entertaining. No reason a parent couldn't eventually believe that Freddy is haunting the children and take their own life, convinced they've ruined their own life and the lives of their children. It could've been a pretty damning moment.

I generally thought the "Nightmare" remake was OK. I get why people hated it. But it frustrates me because even further developing these little things that were right there would have made for a better movie, a scarier, sadder, more emotionally taut horror movie.

People still might've bitched about it, of coursre, but I wouldn't have been one of them :)