MARCH 24, 2010
With the “looks rather half-assed” remake coming up, I figured I’d take a look back at the original Nightmare On Elm St (and it’s sequels, not counting 2 and 3 which have already been reviewed here - look for one a week leading up to the remake’s release!), which I hadn’t seen in years. In fact, I would guess I’ve probably only seen the film maybe 5-6 times in my life. I’ve seen Dream Warriors probably 20 times, because it was my favorite as a kid (and probably still is), but otherwise, I was never as big on Freddy as I was the other horror icons.
I have no reasonable explanation for this - the films are, if nothing else, better made than any Friday the 13th movie, and it also has the suburban flair that drew me to the Halloween movies. But also, the films that came out around the time I started getting into horror (the late 80s) are also the ones that moved further away from horror and into comedy - I knew wisecracking Freddy first, and then discovered his darker version (in this film, and part 2, a slightly lesser extent) later. So basically, I was robbed of a proper introduction to the character, and by the time I finally got around to seeing the original (which, I think was the LAST one I saw of the original 5 films), I had already sort of gotten tired of him. It is the biggest irony that Freddy was always the least likely horror villain to give me nightmares - to this day I don’t think I’ve had one (Jason has chased me several times, however).
Now, of course, I realize how great of a film it is. In fact, it just dawned on me for the first time that Tina is actually sort of set up as the heroine of the film, only to be killed at the end of the first reel (another downside of watching the films out of order, though the film’s final poster “spoiled” this too). Nancy is introduced as the friend and only really takes center after Tina is dispatched. It must have been a great shock back in the day, but now it still works as evidence of how fast paced this movie is. In fact, despite the rather compact cast of kids (only 4, as opposed to the usual eight to ten-ish that the Friday films had offered), it moves along faster than most other slashers of the era, and it’s far more creative than the others to boot.
I also enjoy, and always have, how Craven depicts dreams in a fairly realistic way. People change into other people, locations change on a whim, there’s an odd sense of logic in that you can follow what is happening but actually describing it wouldn’t make a lick of sense... the sequels got away from this idea, staging big set pieces that were obviously written before the actual story of the film was. Here, the nightmares are organic to the story start to finish. Sure, it may not be as visually exciting as parts 4 or 5, but it’s more grounded in reality, and thus, far more interesting/scary - Freddy jumping up behind Tina at the beginning still gives me a bit of a jolt.
Less successful (in retrospect) is the standard Craven scene of a character setting booby traps. Not sure why he always goes back to this well, but at least five of his films have such devices, and it’s somewhat laughable. Are all of his heroes natural survivalists? I’ve said in the past that unlike Carpenter, Craven doesn’t have a particular visual style that would instantly identify one of his films to a viewer, but I guess if you see the film’s hero setting up tripwires and small shocking devices, you are probably watching a Wes Craven film. Or Home Alone.
Another thing I noticed this time around that I never gave much thought to before - why doesn’t the doctor at the Katja Institute (played by Charles “Roger Rabbit” Fleischer) ever follow through with his research? His subject breaks all of his known nightmare threshold levels, and then pulls a goddamn HAT out of her dream, but it seems he doesn’t consider this any sort of breakthrough. It’s a shame Craven was left out of the sequels for the most part, as I think he would have returned to this character in some way.
The effects still hold up quite well. The effects in the jail cell (first phasing through the bars, and then the magic blanket/noose) still impress, and the revolving bedroom is still a wonderful invention that, again, remains a remarkable visual. And the scene where Freddy attempts to break through the wall above Nancy’s bed is still chilling - and even moreso in the wake of the laughably bad CG version seen in the trailer for the remake.
And with that - the remake rant. Most notable about the original is that it’s not even that dated. Apart from the mom smoking in a hospital, there really isn’t anything in the movie that a new audience couldn’t identify with. Johnny Depp listens to a record while he watches a TV that is so small he can move it around his room with ease - will changing this to an iPod and a 27 inch LCD really make any fucking difference? I really don’t want to go down this road again, but I guess it bears repeating - Rob Zombie is a guy with a vision. It’s one I don’t always agree with, but he brings something to the table, creatively and technically. So the idea of him doing a remake of a perfect movie like Halloween is, in theory, a solid one, if remakes must exist. Friday the 13th, on the other hand, is NOT a perfect movie. It’s got a cheat ending, and it’s sort of an anomaly due to the franchise taking on a different life once Jason was introduced. Therefore, it made sense to redo Friday the 13th - it could give him a rebirth that was worthy of his iconic stature. But the Platinum Dunes factory cannot possibly improve on Nightmare on Elm St with the way they make films (combining scripts from multiple writers, hiring a director who producers Brad Fuller and Andrew Form can push around, etc). The only way a new Nightmare could be a viable prospect is if a filmmaker with an actual vision AND IDEA wanted to do one. Now, I haven’t seen the film, and for all I know it’s entertaining. But it won’t change the fact that all of their money and efforts should have been utilized elsewhere, because this Nightmare still works splendidly, as both a horror film AND as an important piece in the career of its sole creator: Wes Craven (who wasn’t even given a courtesy call when the Dunes put their remake into production, let alone involved in any way as he was with the Hills Have Eyes and Last House remakes, both of which are “upper level” remakes).
While I still have the old boxed set from 1999 (at the time, the most money I had ever spent on a single thing besides my car; I can now get it for less than the cost of a new Blu-ray), I recently picked up the new-ish (2006?) Infinifilm release, which has a new commentary track and some other bonus features, all of which are worth a look. First is a look at the history of New Line (aka “The House That Freddy Built”), which is an unusual feature to have on any movie, let alone a horror movie (let’s see Dimension put something together like this for the inevitable Scream Blu-ray). It’s a slightly bittersweet piece, as New Line has been since folded into Warner Bros., but it’s still a nice tribute to a studio that really did take chances on genre fare (Se7en was rejected by every other studio due to the ending - New Line gave them enough to hire Brad Pitt to star in the damn thing). Then there’s a brief look at the history of dream studies, with some professors (one of whom seems to be a bigger Freddy nerd than anyone I know, despite the fact that he looks about 70) and Craven offering insight into the subject. Then there’s a 45 minute “making of” that’s really a retrospective, featuring many of the participants (no Johnny Depp, sadly) as they walk us through the entire film’s production. Actual behind the scenes footage is rather scarce; it’s mostly limited to stills - but there are some alternate takes where Englund is using his own voice for Freddy, which is kind of creepy in and of itself. The sequels aren’t really mentioned, oddly enough - surely Craven and Heather Langenkamp could have offered a thought or two on the ones they were involved with (as for Englund, the man can talk for twenty minutes straight about his shoelaces, so if asked for his perspective on the sequels, it could yield enough for an entire full length documentary).
The two commentaries are packed with info. The one with Craven, Langenkamp, Saxon, and DP Jacques Haitkin is held over from the laserdisc (apparently Haitkin’s kids have been bugging him to get one - wonder if he ever did?), but it’s screen specific, and has an equal balance of technical and creative stuff, as well as between anecdotal and insight. And Craven mentions Shocker once or twice, so that’s a plus (the track cuts out in mid-sentence though - weird). The other one is edited together from interviews with the above as well as Englund, Bob Shaye, Amanda Wyss, etc; some info is repeated, but the comments from the folks who aren’t on the other track are certainly welcome. Both are recommended.
Dream Warriors is still my favorite of the series, but the original runs a very close second, and it’s actually held up even better than Warriors has (those skeleton effects in the graveyard NEVER looked good). And I’m kind of glad I never really watched it a lot, as it allows me to look at it more or less with a fresh pair of eyes, without nostalgia clouding my judgment as it probably does for other childhood horror movies (again, Shocker, plus some of the Friday and Child’s Play sequels). And with this new viewing, I remain more convinced than ever that the upcoming remake is as unnecessary as they come.
What say you?