Friday, April 30, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

Shhh. Don't tell anyone, but I already outlined my review before going to see the movie. Here's the outline, unedited:

1) Jackie Earle Haley brought the scare back. Platinum Dunes knows how to cast 'em.
2) I hate hate HATE the constant soundtrack spike jump scare.
3) Teenagers bore me.
4) Harp on the whole "Freddy was always a pedophile" argument again.
5) Fun but dissatisfying, like McDonalds or sex with an ex.

Most of my little predictions turned out to be correct. Jackie Earle Haley was genuinely creepy. No disrespect to Robert Englund, but Freddy had become way too cartoony over the course of the series. You had to clean the slate completely over the course of a reimagining and, love 'em or hate 'em, Platunim Dunes knows how to cast a monster.

I very carefully avoided reviews of the movie before seeing it. I heard through the grapevine that it wasn’t getting good reviews, but horror movies never do. I did chance on Roger Ebert’s review of it where he accused Wes Craven of being the “Ray Kroc of horror”, which I found both distasteful and dismissive. It’s no secret that he doesn’t care for a lot of the stuff I really like and it’s no secret he’s become the crazy old coot who constantly rails against the things my generation does, but his review is very flip and he completely blows off the contribution Craven has made to our cultural landscape. You don’t have to like ‘em, but creating monsters is just as valid and valuable as any other art form. It’s meant a lot to me, at any rate.

I don’t think I cared for the movie all that much. The nicest thing you could say about it was that it was unambitious. There’s a lot of subtextual meat on Nightmare’s bones that the filmmakers don’t particularly seem interested in exploring. It’s just happy to scream in your face every few minutes. The screenplay is terrible, with character moments constantly interrupted by god-awful dialogue that sounds leaden and off-key. The only time the movie really comes alive is when Freddy is on-screen.

One thing that struck me as most interesting about the new Freddy was how different his characterization felt. The original Freddy was evil in a kind of simplistically joyful way; he basically gets off on hurting people. We don’t really have a sense of who he is prior to his death and he carries off his role of dream murderer with a malicious glee that made him curiously likeable. We don’t think too deep on his crimes because he’s a lot of fun to watch.

Haley’s Freddy is much, much angrier. We see him when he’s alive and it’s clear he’s a very sick man. In the flashbacks of his life, he portrays Freddy as apparently suffering from a mild form of retardation, and his death at the hands of the enraged parents is almost tragic. His Freddy isn’t the callow sneering demon of the Robert Englund day. The new Freddy is a sniveling little shit made monstrous by his murder.

He’s also got a more specific reason for going after his victims. While the original Freddy seemed to be targeting all the kids in Springwood, the new Freddy is killing the children who told their parents about his hidden playroom and the terrible things he did to them. One of the movie’s big redeeming factors for me was that it dealt explicitly with something that has always run through Freddy’s mythology, which were his crimes as a child molester.

There’s a lot of fans in the horror community who are up in arms over Freddy being “recast” as a pedophile. I don’t really get that. It’s always been fairly clear to me from the get-go that he was a child molester. His taunting has always had a leering, sexual edge and the only reason they never went into it in depth is that pedophilia is always a taboo subject, even in a gory horror film. Slasher movies have always had a preoccupation with sexuality and the leering gaze, but Freddy has always been pretty explicit about his predilections. Really, why does he always have little blonde girls following him around, showing victims the boiler room and saying “this is where he takes us…” This movie deals heavily with repressed memory and the long reach of childhood sexual trauma. The characters haven’t healed from it and it reaches out to affect their lives. The scene where the two remaining kids find Freddy’s hidden chamber is genuinely disturbing in a way very little of this movie is.

One of the things that ties into the motif is the parent’s conspiracy of silence. Slasher movies are always about isolating the teenagers from their forces of authority, usually by getting them into an abandoned something-or-another. Here, the isolation comes from the parents not believing the kid’s admittedly outlandish claims and concealing their complicity in Freddy’s murder.

The rest of the cast is pretty good too. I never quite warmed up to this movie’s version of Nancy. She’s really cute and kinda looks like Felicia Day from The Guild, but her performance is wildly uneven. Is she the aloof, guarded artist? The shy loner? The angry teenage rebel? She’s more interesting than the bland fake-out final girl we initially follow, but she’s ultimately too impenetrable to win my sympathies. The male characters are slightly more interesting. Aside from being better actors, they portray the stress and fear of crossing over into Freddy’s hellish world much more believably. I don’t’ remember where I read this, but I remember that Thomas Dekker gave an interview where he said that he wanted to portray Dean as scared out of his mind, rather than as the stoic male lead we’ve come to expect. He did a great job and I’m never going to be more creeped out by the words “We’ve still got six minutes to play.”

It’s also funny to note that Friday the 13th’s Aaron Yoo has a cameo appearance as another one of Freddy’s victims. I like that guy, but every time I see him some maniac uses his face as a speed bag. At the rate he’s going I feel Platinum Dunes owes the poor guy a chance to balance the books. Maybe when they inevitably get around to remaking Child’s Play he can stuff Chucky into an industrial-grade printing press or something.

I really liked the whole notion of the micro-naps. One of my favorite parts of all the Freddy movies are how the real world and the dreaming world intersect as the victims become more and more sleepy. This movie gives a stronger reason for this phenomena, and some really trippy stuff starts to happen. I particularly liked the bit in the pharmacy, where Freddy’s dream-self takes big swipes at Nancy, knocking over stuff from the shelves.

In the end, I guess I was vaguely disappointed by it. It was nice to see Freddy doing his thing again and I really liked Haley’s performance in the role, but there wasn’t a lot more to the movie besides jump-shock scares. I try to be kinder about Platinum Dunes movies than a lot of my fellow commentators, especially because they’re keeping my favorite icons alive, but they seem to think of horror as a sledgehammer with which to bludgeon an audience. All the classic scenes from the original are there, but they're amped up to ten. The girl doesn't crawl up the wall, she's violently slammed around the bedroom. Freddy doesn't eerily stretch out of Nancy's wallpaper, he pushes out of it like bad CGI from The Haunted. Sigh.

There’s very little attempt to building any real tension or creating any sort of creeping dread. I get a bunch of jolts, which always leaves me twitchy and nervous, and I can leave the movie behind at the theater. It doesn’t follow me home, it doesn’t tuck me in bed late at night, it doesn’t stand over me while I sleep, waiting for me to open my eyes.

What’s worse is that, even though they work in a very formulaic subgenre, the movies Platinum Dunes have made come off feeling very cold. The people involved are too experienced and professional to make movies that have the weird amateurish enthusiasm of the classic slasher flicks. The stars are all very good looking and marketable, the camera work is very skilled, and the watching the movie feels like watching a technically skills if emotionless ballet. Bitch about Zombie's Halloween remake all you want, but at least that had soul. It was ugly, unpleasant soul, but it was there.

Walking away from the movie, I sort of wondered if the makers actually have any reverence for the genre at all, or if they are cynically aware that idiots like me will keep paying money as long as there’s some nostalgia involved.

Whatever. I can’t wait for the sequel.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Toxic Ideas in Horror Fiction

Recently a friend of mine loaned me a horror novel. The author was a big name who I've been meaning to check out for some time and a previous winner of the Bram Stoker Award. I was looking forward to the book, but somewhere between the unpleasantness of the lead characters, the overly-caustic tough guy dialogue, and the trite Stephen-King-Did-It-Better menace, I found myself feeling the same despair I feel every time I pick up an issue of Fangoria and seeing nothing but direct-to-video zombie movies. Are there any new ideas? Is there anything really innovative in our genre or are we doomed to keep retreading the same ground like Michael Myers on a slow-moving treadmill.

One of the things that really didn't sit too well with me while reading the book was how painfully familiar it all felt. The story revolved around a mysterious supernatural threat that befalls a small suburban town. The residence succumb to madness and violence as the thin veneer of civilization is stripped away and people blah de blah de fucking blah.

I get that horror isn't exactly an optimistic genre, but I've seen this theme done to death. Plus, I don't think it's a really accurate portrayal of humanity. Constantly harping on the evil inherent in humanity completely misses out on our higher aspects. Even if an idea is old there's still some value in exploring it, but it needs to lie fallow for a time.

With that, I want to look at a few themes that really need to be put on the backburner. I'll probably expand this list as times goes on, but these are the subjects that bug me the most.

1) There were some things Man was not meant to know.

This one really drives me nuts.

I get where this one comes from. You used to see this theme a lot in the creature features of the 50s, when atomic warfare seemed destined to wipe the human race off the planet. Hell, this theme goes all the way back to the roots of the horror genre, when the mad doctor Frankenstein spits in the eye of God and loses control of his blasphemous creation. While I understand people's phobias about atomic destruction, it seems like every time some new piece of technology emerges some jackass makes a ham-handed cautionary tale of how it could go wrong.

Me, I like technology. Lord knows I don't get it, but I like it.

I'm with Spider Jerusalem on this one: the future is inherently a good thing. The future represents an opportunity to crawl further away from the mean roots of our humanity and embrace something better. Change doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing. We want change. We want new things. We want to know that there's a newer, brighter land on the other side of the mountain. What we don't want is some dire monastic killjoy nervously whispering to us that everything could fall apart and we're better off staying where we are. If humanity believed that, we'd still be flopping in the muck instead of swaggering around Williamsburg with ironic moustaches.

2) Sexual promiscuity is a moral failing and punishable by death.

I've covered this one before at great length but it still keeps coming up and it still keeps pissing me me off.

One of my heroes, author and sex advice columnist Dan Savage, once wrote that slutting around is like travel; it broadens the mind. Now, while I do believe it depends on the mind in question, I subscribe to the idea that sex and sexuality isn't intrinsically bad and that it's part of life. But then I'm a godless liberal educated city-dweller type, born in San Francisco and living in New York. In summation of my previous arguments, uptight virginal characters are boring and it's a bit puritanical to bump off characters who have the audacity to have sex on-camera. It's like we want to see them do it, then we want to see them punished. What the fuck is that about?

I've recently been revisiting slasher classics and one thing I couldn't help but notice is that I can't think of many final girls who are clearly labeled as virgins. Many of them have boyfriends, some of them are actually quite forward (Ginny from Friday the 13th part 2 and Megan from Friday the 13th part 6), and they seem more bothered by their friend's boneheadedness than their promiscuity. Sure, they're often outsiders in their groups but that's because they're brainier and more mature than their friends. On the other hand, abstinence is usually a big part of their survival, if only because they're paying attention to their environments rather than their bacchanalian excesses.

One of the things I really liked about Wrong Turn 2 is that the final girl clearly isn't a virgin. She's damaged goods, we get the sense that she's lived an interesting life, and we know that the shit she's been through gives her the tools she needs to survive.

As I've said before, let the sluts and the stoners live. They're usually more likable, more interesting, and probably better equipped to survive because their brains haven't been turned into anxiety-flavored taffy by a lifetime of conservative dogma.

3) Humanity falls apart once the light goes out.

I object to a lot of these themes on moral or intellectual grounds. I'm just plain sick of this one.

You've seen this one as far back as The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street. A community is isolated from the world, some weird shit happens, and everyone turns against each other. There's lynching and looting and chest thumping and oh-my-god-civilization-is-a-thin-veneer-over-primitive-madness. The idea of going all Lord of the Flies on your neighbors holds some gruesome appeal, but at this point it's become tiresome.

I really don't think horror gives humanity enough credit. Sure, when disasters happen, there's looting and civil unrest, but there's also tons of people donating blood and digging through wreckage and doing their best to keep their fellow humans warm and sheltered and safe. I don't know about you, but I find that side of humanity inspiring. The fact that horror never seems to acknowledge that side of our character puts me in mind of an angsty teenager who only chooses to see the worst in everything because it fits with his bleak and hormone-soaked world view. In other words, it reminds me of myself at fourteen.

4) Pacifism is a useless, high-minded ideal.

This one comes up a lot in stories that involve fierce survival situations, like The Hills Have Eyes or Joe R. Lansdale's The Nightrunners, where innocent, good-natured city types are beset by territorial cannibals or sadistic ghouls or vicious hoodlums. Most of the time there's one guy in the group who is singled out as the wimpy but good-hearted pacifist who ever imagine harming another human being but is eventually forced to reconnect with his bloody, savage natural instincts in order to survive. Sometimes this is framed as part of the horror, as the poor man (and it's ALWAYS a man) becomes just as savage as the monsters he fights, but most of the time we're clearly meant to be impatient with the wimp and to celebrate the time he embraces his manhood and clubs the mewling, wounded monster to death with a big hunk of wood.

Of course, the gimmick of having a character put in a situation that forces him to work against his limitations is straight out of Dramatic Conflict 101 and it's so familiar at this point that it's simply exhausting. What bothers me most in this theme is the narrow-minded definition of masculinity at the center of it. Sure, when you're put in a situation where it's kill or be killed against a bunch of snarling monsters the choice is a no-brainer. But there's something vaguely simplistic and mean-spirited about the whole idea.

I myself am some sort of a pacifist, partially because I'd never win a fight and partially because I believe it's a losing game to measure your masculinity based on whose ass you can kick, but in horror that attitude is framed as a character weakness. The pacifist is always the most cowardly, the most snotty, the most unwilling to adapt, and, bluntly, the most stupid character in the group. All pacifist characters come off as red-state stereotypes about educated people. What we need is a good solid push so we can start kicking righteous ass. It touches on some ugly, outdated ideas of what a man is supposed to be.


I have no doubt I'm going to add to this list. I pay a lot of attention to subtext and horror is full of dodgy ideas and puritanical subtext. At some point I want to do an article on the age old misogyny question, but for right now I'll leave it at these. Readers, if you've got any other good ones, send 'em my way.