30 April 2010

Trends: Horror Remade, 2003 - present


In honour of the promising new A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) film premiering today, I thought I'd talk a minute about horror. Booga booga booga.

More specifically, in the past decade we have seen some genuinely good innovations in the Horror Genre (The list of good horror is actually more impressive than you'd think - SAW [2004] before it became redundant, The Mist [2007], Trick 'r Treat [2008], The Descent [2005] and The Host [2006] are my quick Top 5, not to mention the swelling of zombie films, both superfluous, innovative and bizarre). But it has bothered me that among this usual crop of pretty scary shit has also come this needless outpouring of re-makes, re-visions and re-hashings. This week's revival of Freddy Krueger is really no different.

This all started in 2003 with two big horror re-treads. The first was Producer Michael Bay and Platinum Dunes Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003). Platinum Dunes was formed, apparently, for the sole purpose of updating slashers from the 70s and 80s for a new audience today, essentially going for kid's wallets who want to watch Jessica Biel killed by a maniac instead of some unknown chick from the 70s. I can't really figure out any reason for these remakes, I mean, the 2003 TCM was actually pretty decent, and it did well in theaters (hence the many more to follow), as was The Amityville Horror (2005) (which also showed some of the great range of Ryan Reynolds) but it's not new innovation. Yeah, the final scene of Leatherface waving the chainsaw around the Texas fields in horrific glee is iconic - it was iconic thirty years ago. Hi-Def icons are still the same icons. I'd rather praise something like Trick 'r Treat with that new creepy pumpkin-headed kid as generating new horror iconography as well as freaky ideas that push the limits of taste. This is what true horror is supposed to do - one of the scariest parts of the original TCM (1974) wasn't Leatherface hitting that pothead dude on the back of the head with a hammer; it was Leatherface pulling him behind that door. That creepy unknown (On that note I might give a shout-out to Paranormal Activity [2009] here which actually has defied almost everything I've admonished about this decade).

This leads me to something else - part of the reason some of these films like TCM (1974) and The Last House on the Left (1972) worked was because of their gritty cultness. They were filmed on genuine rough stock (not forced for aesthetics) and struggled to find that audience who reveled in its crudliness while simultaneously stunned by its real disturbing imagery. Re-made horror from Platinum Dunes has big budgets, big casts and a proper establishment behind them. This takes us out of the horror rather than assists our disbelief. We're at a point where we've become too inoculated with CGI to bother questioning how an effect was generated. It puts you more in the scene to see a bloody claw burst through someone's chest in 1984 with the knowledge that any possible effect was done practically.

Now I know that many (not all) directors, Michael Bay in particular actually, are still a fan of practical Tom Savini-style gore. This doesn't take away from the clean film stock, professional editing techniques and score that also lifts these films into a more professional echelon which also dilutes their real-life stunning power.

Now, let's focus on our friend, Frederick. I think it would be interesting to see a film play with the Oneiric quality of film like the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise could do. The other film from 2003 that mostly caused this trend and leads more directly to Freddy is what I believe to be the very underrated Freddy vs. Jason (2003). For one, it beats the hell out of AVP (2004) and has enough of both characters mythos and iconography to be pretty satisfying, the most kills of any other Freddy or Jason film and actually gives a winner (This could be argued, although I'll say that Jason's full emergence from the water gives him the win - Freddy is just a smirking bastard head at this point - c'mon, neither of these characters can really be killed). Sure a lot of the plot is retarded and some of the actions of main characters is constantly questionable, but does this really matter in a Freddy vs. Jason film? Fuck no. That chick's got big tits!

At any rate, Freddy vs. Jason certainly increased some interest in bringing these legends back to the screen. The Elm Street remake in particular seems interesting to me because of the classic nature of the main Killer. There's really not much to the character of Leatherface or Jason or that pissed off Miner-dude from My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009). That is to say, recasting them isn't messing too hard with an actor who became iconic in the role.

Freddy up to this point, even at his worst, had always been played with a sneer and grin by Robert Englund. It's a Shatner-like dominance of a role, and Jackie Earle Haley isn't just putting on a mask and glove to take over this character. This elevates the quality of the character both twenty years ago and today. We should examine the quality of this remake very closely, because it's not as easy as simply updating all the pieces to the modern day and swapping spooky masks. There's a lot of personality at work here, a lot of subtext and nuance. Sure.

Anyway, it's important to remember that remakes actually CAN be better than the original, but this is of course the exception rather than the rule. These contemporary Horror Icons in some way deserve better than these retreads (maybe not really). It's a signifier of our regurgitive culture that imitates rather than innovates. The development of the slasher genre in the late 70s and 80s speaks to a lot of what those societies feared (The 70s fear the excesses of counterculture, the 80s the invasion of our most private places [summer camps, dreams, etc]). These films were a commentary on popular culture when they came out - to simply remake them now is a commentary only on our repetitive, impulsive culture.

Which in itself is interesting, but a sore subject for another post.

Go be scared.

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