Thursday, October 7, 2010

My Nightmare: Another One of These Pieces of...

A Nightmare on Elm Street just landed on Blu-Ray and DVD. I didn't see the film in its theatrical release, primarily because I never bother to waste my time on regurgitated horror remakes when they are in theaters. It has always seemed like such a profound time- and energy-suck, not to mention a waste of blog space. Every once in a while one of them comes along that raises my ire enough to make disgusted comments (last year's Friday the 13th remake comes to mind). And that is sort of the case with this Nightmare remake, albeit on a different level.

Unlike the 2009 Friday the 13th, unlike Hostel, Saw, or any number of other modern pieces of horror-porn, this film does not blend elements of salacious sex with brutal, unrelenting violence. I suppose that is to its credit, since the blending of sex and violence is one of the more offensive -- not to mention dangerous -- trappings of that heinous genre known as "Modern American Horror." But the simple lack of softcore sex doesn't come close to excusing the inept lack of drama, the soulless copying of the original, the cynical attempt to inject some sort of sanctimonious moral to this story, or the basic thematic and emotional preoccupations that plague this and every other Modern American Horror film.

That is to say, the Narcissistic Slog of Role-Playing Catharsis.

If you watch the new Nightmare on Elm Street, you might be struck by how closely it skews to Wes Craven's original -- which itself is not so fabulous upon my recent revisiting, but at least took an original concept to then-unseen places. This new film, directed by music video director Samuel Bayer and starring the great, resurgent Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy Krueger, does literally nothing to alter much of its basic structure from the original, which would be fine if the film were intent on cleverly homaging the material and proliferating a sense of fun. But "fun" is not a basic tenet of Modern American Horror, but "repulsive, persistent nastiness" is. There is an attempt to add a backstory to the character (a la Rob Zombie's self-serving, repugnant Halloween remake), one that, without giving anything away, offers two possible explanations, neither of which is less cynical than the other. And it makes no difference either way, because the point of this film is not to make audiences feel, but to make them jolt at false shocks, thus giving them some brief sense of release.

The audience is where I want to focus in this particular discussion, because as one who willingly sat down to view this film, I was taken aback at how entirely not scary, exciting, or even remotely compelling any of the material really was. It is not only a carbon copy of Craven's original, but a psychic copycat of every other entry into the modern horror-porn cannon in recent memory, which is to say it only exists to lure the late teens/early-20s set into theaters to vicariously cheer death and dismemberment. Watching the film, I could picture the type of person who would find this film enjoyable -- the sort of person who spends their days "Like"-ing Facebook status messages and sexting their entire contact list. There is nothing in this film that caught me by surprise -- one enters each scene under the expectation that it will be "shockingly" revealed to be a dream, and that there will be terror and eventually bloodshed. It is entirely episodic and not remotely surprising or intriguing, and yet I can imagine packed theaters jumped and shrieking with "terror" (read: delight). And it makes me wonder why.

Horror used to be socially relevant and spoke to a certain cultural malaise. In the days of early Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper and George Romero, there was sharp commentary and real terror being displayed on the screen. Horror was not only scary, but legitimately engaging on multiple levels. Now, in the age of Modern American Horror, the only commentary is that "pretty people should die," and the only people who find it scary or shocking are those who enter the theater seeking some sort of odd enjoyment from slaughter. In fact, I think most fans would willingly admit that horror is no longer scary, but a venue that showcases psycho-worship and empty violent catharsis. Roger Ebert has called this type of film a "geek show," and I couldn't say it any better myself.

The film is half-populated with good actors -- alongside Haley, who obviously decided to parlay his recent critical success into a big financial pay-day here, there is Rooney Mara as the lead, Connie Britton as her mother, and an interesting brooder named Kyle Gallner as "the boyfriend" -- and the other half consists of blank-faced 90210 rejects who are thankfully offed early, but not before they perpetrate heinous crimes against acting. Once Mara takes center stage, she is fabulously cinematic, a real breakout star with enormous talent (she's also flat brilliant in limited screen time in Fincher's The Social Network) who obviously saw this role as a way into the business, and she upstages the material at every turn. Gallner (the punk-boy victim from Jennifer's Body, a horror-satire that works in every way a movie like this fails) is also good as the emo-boy who researches the Freddy Krueger legend to aid his lady friend. Haley is not particularly fabulous, since Freddy doesn't talk much or interact in ways that don't involve screeching his blades against walls. He doesn't even get to chew much scenery with any great vigor. After he was Oscar-nominated for the brilliant Little Children, carried the weight of Watchmen on his back, and added great spice to Scorsese's Shutter Island, this just seems like a paycheck movie for Haley, which is unfortunate, but, I suppose, a rite of passage for the newly-minted star.

Whatever the case, this new Nightmare is a complete dead zone (no pun intended at all). It is empty, predictable, boring, and sort of sad. And to top it all off, in a year in which Christopher Nolan's extraordinary Inception so precisely and originally deconstructed the state of human consciousness and all the psycho and emotional weight that comes with it, this movie about a burn-faced specter who kills people in their dreams just seems so limp, so elementary, so irrelevant.

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