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A Nightmare on Elm Street and the disappointing mediocrity of horror remakes
There’s a famous moment in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street where Nancy, as played by Heather Langenkamp, nearly falls asleep in the bathtub after fruitlessly trying to stay awake following the discovery that a vengeful figure named Freddy is killing people in their dreams. As she dozes in the tub, the iconic blade-fixed glove of Freddy Krueger reaches out to her from the water between her legs. It's a terrifying image that still lingers in the imagination all these decades later, a moment of unnerving intimacy between a young woman and a predator that is simultaneously dreamlike and all too real. In the remake, the moment is recreated — if not beat for beat, then pretty damn close to it — and it just doesn't work. It's a carbon copy, yet not at all. In hindsight, it's the perfect exemplification of the Platinum Dunes remakes fad.
In 2010, the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street premiered to solid box-office numbers but damning reviews. The movie was the sixth remake of a classic horror title from the production company Platinum Dunes, which was co-founded by one Michael Bay. While these remakes typically made money, all of them were loathed by the critics. Not one of these titles — which includes remakes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, and Friday the 13th — has a Rotten Tomatoes score higher than 37%. A Nightmare on Elm Street wasn't the worst-reviewed of this bunch, but it came pretty close to claiming that title, and signaled the end of the company's mediocre remake frenzy. Nowadays, they're better known for The Purge franchise and A Quiet Place. So what was it about A Nightmare on Elm Street that brought about the decline of this remake trend?
On paper, the Elm Street franchise is probably the best of these iconic horror titles to remake. By the time the series had entered the '90s, Freddy Krueger had long stopped being scary. Fans loved the menacing dream killer, and soon the literal child killer became a one-liner-spewing clown. Bringing the character back to his dark roots and teasing out some of the more horrific implications of his origin story made a lot of sense. Indeed, the best thing about the 2010 movie is the performance of Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy. Few character actors working today embody sinister strangeness quite like Haley, and he manages to ground Krueger in a real malevolence that stops him from verging into goofy. Even when the film itself isn’t all that scary, he is.
That’s really the biggest problem with these remakes: They’re utterly lacking in true frights. Jump scares and a lack of lighting do not make a horror movie. As Roger Ebert noted in his one-star review of the movie, "So what? Are we supposed to be scared? Is the sudden clanging chord supposed to evoke a fearful Pavlovian response?" Each of the Platinum Dunes movies is also slathered in the same kind of grimdark aesthetic that robs the material of its original appeal. Elm Street remains striking because it’s truly hallucinogenic in places. It captures that upsetting feeling of not knowing what’s real and what’s in your brain, and the era-specific practical effects heighten that mania. It’s as much about what you don’t see as what you do see, a concept apparently too subtle for these remakes which seem to think that adding more blood will help to justify their existence.
It’s an issue that plagues not only the Platinum Dunes output by the surrounding horror remakes of the time, which includes other Craven titles like The Last House on the Left. The violence is more explicit in something like the remake of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but that undoes what made the original so horrifying. Tobe Hooper’s genius laid in using sound to evoke the most upsetting sensations in his audience. The screams, the revving of the chainsaw, and the warped cackles of Leatherface’s family are all infinitely more terrifying than yet another bucket of blood spilled across the concrete floor. The remake has no sense of aesthetic beyond "violence = scary," a mindless choice made all the more banal by how unsuitably glossy everything looks.
“Glossy” would be the perfect way to describe these remakes. Everything seems too practiced, too shiny, and just a little too neat to be truly scary. The original films that Platinum Dunes remade were and remain striking because of their low-budget artfulness. These were movies made by directors often working with little money and studio support, each striving to do the best with what they had. There’s a reason that horror is a genre that works so well for filmmakers on a tight budget. It’s just not the same when you have CGI filling in for the homemade scares, leaving the final product with a kind of unreal finish that leaves the viewer cold rather than intrigued. That’s not to say that you can’t make a truly scary movie with heavy VFX use, but Platinum Dunes never seemed to have a reason to use such technology other than because they could.
Other than Elm Street, none of these movies really have a reason for being beyond the need for a studio to plunder the profit-friendly depths of brand name recognition. Platinum Dunes were at least savvy enough to know that there was a whole new generation of horror-loving teens who may have heard of these films but never had the chance to see them, and there’s never been an issue in Hollywood with providing supply to meet demand. They may be familiar with certain iconography from these titles, from Freddy’s knife-glove to Jason’s hockey mask, or scenes that have become the stuff of movie lore. Familiarity is the name of the game here, and it led to a whole host of lazy filmmaking designed to rest on the laurels of the originals with minimal imagination. Just add more violence and make your cast hotter and the work is done. It’s nostalgia-bait but intended for an audience with no true affection for these properties, which makes the process all the more pointless.
This is why the Platinum Dunes' output proved not only highly mediocre but near-instantly forgettable. None of these movies were designed to be more than serviceable. They seemed to believe that doing the same things the original movies did, albeit with a splash more blood, would elicit the same fearful reactions from audiences, but it’s never worked like that. Just ask Gus Van Sant about his shot-for-shot remake of Psycho.
The best horror remakes come when the filmmakers are allowed to entirely reinvent the property in question. Rob Zombie’s Halloween movies aren’t necessarily brilliant, but they radically reimagine Michael Myers’ origin story in inimitably Zombie-esque ways that bring a grimy zeal to the mythos. Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is shockingly different from Dario Argento’s original in ways that are astounding and wholly unique. The Marti Noxon-penned remake of Fright Night is also excellent because it understands how a 21st-century version of a story about a sexual predator cannot be the same as its 1980s counterpart. Ultimately, if your movie has no reason to exist beyond a solid opening weekend profit, then why bother?
Brad Fuller, one of the co-founders of Platinum Dunes, announced in 2018 that the company was moving away from remakes and horror reboots in favor of original properties. Horror remakes are a crucial part of the genre's history, from John Carpenter's The Thing to David Cronenberg's The Fly, but it shouldn't surprise anyone that audiences have a decreasing tolerance for mediocre regurgitations of familiar properties.
Original horror is experiencing a real boom right now thanks to films like A Quiet Place and the works of Ari Aster. Let new generations of horror fans be sated by this output — because let's be honest, we're only 20 years or so away from a terrible remake of Hereditary that entirely misses the point.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.