Monday, May 3, 2010

A New "Nightmare"

Scanning over the critics' one-lines on the reboot of "A Nightmare on Elm Street," Richard Corliss calls it, "a fine copy." His review, the most favorable on Metacritic, is only one of about a dozen that seem to largely miss the point. Samuel Bayer's resurrection of the surreal slasher is a completely different reimagining of what the Elm St. lore is all about, and takes the core underlays of the genre in a direction that's actually more interesting than you might think. It has some obligatory intertextual nods - the hand in the bathtub, the steamy boiler room - but this film isn't just about a set of familiar signs and codes. It has something else in mind.

No, I'm not saying Nightmare on Elm St. is a good film. Not by a long shot. The filmmaking is scattershot and scatterbrained. The scares rely far too much on amped-up audio and dirty close-ups. There's often a fascination with framing Haley's silhouette in the same pose over and over again. The actors are crap; fodder, movable chess pieces who regurgitate empty exchanges or lay out exposition as the plot rolls over a pretty familiar arc.

The slasher films in the early 1980s have been read over and over as films about sexual awakening and liberation. Too often we read "teen sex = death" in slashers, but is it a coincidence that nearly all of them end with a female empowered to take down the masculine figure with a phallic device? No, I don't think so. Slashers aren't just about disposing with bodies. They're about how the spectator gets implemented in that disposal, about a very specific set of structural shifts and gender codification. Don't believe me? Read Carol Clover's "The Final Girl" and let's talk - an essay that's still so influential the 2010 PCA/ACA conference had a whole panel about reevaluating it on its 20th anniversary.

Why do I bring this up? Because Bayer's "Nightmare" isn't about sexual awakening or sexual empowerment. There isn't a drop of teenage fornication in the film (save for some snuggling in bed. You can do the math if you want). The script was co-written and developed by Wesley Strick, the same guy who wrote Scorsese's "Cape Fear" in 91. Strick actually has a keen eye on how to shift this story into a different set of thematic anxieties. So often we dismiss these remakes as "Hollywood without idea" - Hollywood has ideas; screenwriters will sell them for far less than they're worth. The question is why Hollywood has been so insistent on selling these ideas again. What does rebooting a set of franchises mean for us in the 00s? When it came to "Halloween," Rob Zombie turned Michael Myers into a psychological profile, a tortured serial killer with a complex about his sister.

"A Nightmare on Elm Street" is now not only a revenge story, it's a psychosexual trauma film. Wait, what? Yes, it is. It's actually kind of a stroke of genius. The 1984 film kind of boldly questioned children should stand for the crimes of their parents, and the 2010 film implements both sides. Turns out in this lore, Krueger was a gardener-cum-pedophile at a pre-school. When one of the kids (Nancy) came forward, the parents turned into a lynch mob and set Krueger ablaze. All the kids Krueger stalks were in the same pre-school class, and they've all repressed his memory. The structure of the film is then the exact structure of a trauma patient -- Nancy must decode a set of signs both within her world and her dreams, investigate the memory she has repressed, and then travel to its source - the preschool basement - to confront the pedophilia/Freddy in a violent expulsion of her sexual repression.

Of course, this also allows her to open up to the guy who has a crush on her (and who is similarly stalked). And Jackie Earle Haley is the perfect choice to do this version of Freddy. Strick/Bayer rely on his intertextual link to 2006's "Little Children," where he played a pedophile trying to readjust to a society that refuses to accept him. In flashback, Haley plays a version of this character, an impish manchild. In the Freddy make-up, he has a gargled howl that runs closer to his roles in "Watchmen" or "Shutter Island." Very rarely has an actor, in a period of four years, explored the troubled terrain of this psychological misfits with such brave energy. Though Bayer doesn't handle Haley as well as perhaps another director would -- the man's physical stature is not his strong point -- the Haley makeup looks markedly different from the Robert Englund makeup. Krueger is not a ghoul, a melted jack-o-lantern; he is a flat-out burn victim carcass.

Unfortunately, "Nightmare" is a far more interesting film on a theoretical/structural level than it is on an actual visceral level. Bayer, in his directorial debut, misses his chance to make a terrifyingly surreal film. The film's jabs in and out of reality are too often punctuated by overly familiar signifiers, and only one scene in a pharmacy - with marvelously jagged intercutting editing - seems to have any kind of punch. The film's largest failure is in its inability to make the spectator feel as confused as the characters. "Nightmare," as Craven envisioned it, works because film itself is a surreal scape that reflects the natural world while toying with its principles through various degrees of representation -- and isn't that what a dream is?

Films have been called a "dream" since at least Siegfried Kracauer's theories in the 1930s. That's why Freddy turned into a franchise killer; his murders were an attack on spectatorship consciousness. I actually kind of love the screenplay for this new "Nightmare on Elm Street" -- as a piece of adaptation, it's a serious reconsideration of what Krueger is about, and it rather boldly literalizes the rape implication of the original. By putting pedophilia and sexual trauma squarely in the spotlight, "A Nightmare on Elm Street" repositions how the slasher thinks about sex.

Of course, that's not to say no slasher film has thought about sexual revenge or pedophilia before. There's nothing original about this film, and most of the time it's barely passable. The creative jolts are few and far between, but to dismiss it is to refuse to give it the single chance it wants. It preys on our understanding of the Krueger lore so that it can give us an alternative reading. And isn't that what the resurrection of the slasher beast is all about? Challenging the critical reception and theoretical evaluation the first round of baddies received? This "Nightmare" succeeds because of its imaginative trauma structure, but its aesthetic and direction are misshapen, blunt, and a little too obvious.

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