[11 May 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s all the movies fault, when you think about it. Monsters aren’t supposed to be endearing. Instead, they are supposed to haunt the very fabric of your nightmares and dreamscapes. Similarly, human versions of said villains aren’t supposed to be ripe for idolatry, their horrific forms finding their way on t-shirts, tumblers, and other pop culture marketing mementos. They are criminals, after all, walking reminders of the inherent dangers lurking within all societies. When the ‘80s delivered the notion of easily available home video to the average viewer, it awakened a weird attitude toward terror. Locked in the living room, able to share the scare experience with only their own chosen circle of influence, fear quickly morphed into familiarity, and then strangely enough, fun.
So it’s been interesting to see the amount of real vitriol flung at the recent remakes of so-called “classic” ‘70s and ‘80s horror films. While their status as all time masterworks is questionable at best, their beloved nature illustrates something unusual about the entire do-over ideal. Granted, no compilation of opinion can be truly accurate. As noted many times before, mainstream film critics and commentators generally hate the genre, dismissing it outright without giving it a moment’s mindful consideration. The Evil Dead or John Carpenter’s version of The Thing could be the creepiest, most craven experience in all of fear and yet someone in the shadow of their own monitor will deem it unworthy of satisfying its own cinematic mandates—if they consider it at all.
When you combine that with the personal level of attention these films have received since Betamax battled the VHS, it’s easy to explain such fury. Movies are like memories, forged from experience, reaction, context, and above all, impressionable entertainment value. Friday the 13th might stand as your own personal benchmark based on a number of factors—the film itself, the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the direction, the campy performances, the last act reveal of a psychotic Betsy Palmer. Over time, these recollections build up and take root within your history, becoming the foundation for entire internal narratives and justifications. In essence, whenever you decide to reinvent something, you run the risk of alienating the faithful while further angering those who will never be a fan.
Still, the level of hate for Samuel Bayer’s take on A Nightmare on Elm Street is almost unparalleled among recent releases. There wasn’t this much outward disgust when Marcus Nispel unveiled his streamlined look at The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the aforementioned journey of Jason Voorhees. Apparently, Freddy Krueger is God in comparison to his like minded brothers in slaughter, and with franchises past and future hanging in the balance, no one wanted to see their favorite charred funnyman marginalized so. While many have picked on the filmmaking and the lack of likeable leads (there is no heroic Nancy to play hunter to Krueger’s ‘ghost’), the main complaint is how the dream dude with the glove of knives as been stripped of all his… celebrity.
Indeed, the chief beef about the new Freddy Krueger is his lack of antihero magnetism. When Robert Englund originated the role, he played it purely for shivers. The shapeshifting ghoul was nasty and wicked, worming his way into the dreams of teens before tearing them limb from limb. It wasn’t until later in the series run that Freddy turned into a spookshow stand-up comedian, his one liners matching the inventive F/X film kills as a means of keeping the growing cult coming back for more. By the time originator Wes Craven revisited his phenomenon with his wonderfully meta New Nightmare, any serious take on Krueger was considered blasphemous. By then, he was a trickster, a merry prankster who just so happens to strip you of your life as well as your social dignity. As the bastard son of a 1000 maniacs, he was the Joker, the Jester, and the Grim Reaper all in one.
So what does the 2010 movie do to him that’s so offensive? The same thing that Nispel did to Camp Crystal Lake’s least favorite son back in 2009—it took him seriously. The reason the Friday the 13th remake was so satisfying to those of us who’ve long appreciated the Sean Cunningham slasher film is that, instead of treating the killer like a shambling, solemn sacred cow, it took Jason back to what he always was—a monstrous, unapologetic killing machine. No cutesy quirks, no corkscrew through the cranium splatter—just a mass murderer doing what his disturbed pre-adolescent programming required. Kill. Kill. KILL! Outside of such a character retrofit, the update remained faithful to the original films, loaded with loose teens, moral compassing, and galloons of free-flowing grue.
By the end of the ‘80s, Freddy Krueger and Jason were like the Universal creatures that used to terrify one’s grandparents. Instead of being cruel, there were cartoons. But A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 decided to do away with all the quips and kiddie falderal. Instead of pandering to a mindset not quite prepared for what Freddy truly is (one of the main reasons the sequels skirted the issue of his predilection for more and more goofball deaths), it turned him into a very veiled threat. In the update, however, Freddy’s motives are made crystal clear. As a child molester and pedophile, he was as deadly to his victims in their waking hours as he would later become in their dreams. His intentions are clear—shut these tattletale brats up, keep his sickening sexual secret to himself, and get revenge on anyone who snitched - and who then brought about his fiery end.
In the original, there was no patina of perversion. Freddy was a child killer, nothing more. Parents invoked vigilante justice and he decided to visit the nightmares of their offspring to set things straight. But in Bayer’s take, everything we learn about the man stems from his time as a gardener at a day care center, the kids he took a particular interest in, and what happened in the “magic cave” in his disgusting, foul-smelling hovel of a room. For generations raised on the boogeyman possibilities of the child care employee, this can’t be comforting. How can you laugh at someone who, unlike Freddy 1.0, sees you as something desirable and defilable? Take away the jokes and you’ve removed 90% of the reason for Krueger’s Greed Decade fame. Turn him into something real and repugnant and the blowback is nuclear.
Granted, not every film is fashioned to be universally popular or appreciated, and there are many who will argue that Freddy’s new standing as a child rapist has nothing to do with why they hate A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010. But a certain sense of logic dictates that if you mess with a memory, you’re bound to disturb its keeper. Extrapolate that out into the personality defining elements of media and the impact is even greater. The success of the Nightmare franchise 30 years ago had little to do with the individual films (most are mediocre) and rested solely on the tattered sweater of an enigmatic evil with a glimmer in his eye and a raspberry on his lips. Making said scare source something realistic was destined to destroy all that. That’s why the new Nightmare on Elm Street is so effective. That’s also why it’s so reviled.