Monday, May 10, 2010

Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

With some sense of trepidation, I recently subjected myself to the latest Platinum Dunes remake/reboot/re-imagining of a classic eighties slasher film -- A Nightmare on Elm Street.


The Good News: It appears that the screenwriter read my blog entry of a few weeks ago, then went back in a time-machine, and created a Freddy legend that is more "psychologically correct." It now makes sense that Freddy pops up in the dreams of his teen victims because of their past connection to him. He molested them as children.

The idea of Freddy as a "filthy child murderer" in the original always felt incomplete and unbelievable. Incomplete, because nobody just murders kids for the sake of murdering them. Unbelievable, because it would be impossible to keep the story of a local child murderer from the kids in the neighborhood.

So where the original merely hinted that the Freddy in their dreams was a traumatic flashback to childhood molestation, the remake explicitly makes that link between Freddy and the kids he stalks.

And it makes more sense.

The Bad News: The movie just is not scary. It moves in a rushed, ADD kind of way. Frenetic, yet flat. Never feeling real enough to force the audience to invest in the characters or feel their dread.

I wish I could say I liked it, but I didn't -- and I've grouped my reasons into three categories.

1) Disposable Teens

Freddy's new victims are written in such a way that they show almost no traits of survivors of sadistic childhood sexual abuse. If these kids were truly violated by a creep like Freddy, it would affect them in their waking lives, not just their dream lives.

They would have drug addictions, sex addictions, social phobias, and/or intimacy issues. Instead they are shown to be relatively well-adjusted high school students -- a jock, pretty girl, a shy arty girl, a shy arty boy -- with nice enough parents whose biggest waking problem is Dawson's Creek level dating drama. Based on what we learn of their past, they should be much more fucked up (and much more interesting) than they are.

Biology is so, like, stressful

I must give credit to Rooney Mara. She plays Nancy as a sort of mumble-mouthed introverted misfit. Of all of the kids, she comes the closest to hitting the right notes of a girl layered in the toxic shame of an abusive past.

And there are a few scenes where you feel a bit of her distress. One scene where Freddy puts Nancy in a little girl dress and starts to molest her again is particularly freaky.

But these moments of ick are fleeting and never last long enough to sustain a true feeling of dread.

2) What's the rush?
There are moments in horror movies where the filmmaker should violate your trust. He should show you something too raw, take you someplace too dark, and do it much quicker or slower than you expected.

But in this film, there seems to be a concerted effort to cut away from the more disturbing elements before the true horror can really sink in. It all just goes by too fast.

This remake hums as quickly and efficiently as a music video. You don't worry too much about what is around the corner, because (a) you can usually see it coming a mile away, and (b) you can trust that there will be an edit that will take you out of the scary place before things get too disturbing.

I've never found movies with constant quick cuts to be scary -- just irritating.

3) How Evil is He?

There is no real explanation of what exactly Freddy did to these kids, so the depths of his evil is never fully understood. Did he rape them or just fondle them? Did he torture them? How were the finger knives involved? Did he threaten them if they told the secret? Your average episode of Law and Order: SVU would have more details than we are provided with here.

"Show me where the bad man touched you."

It's just hard to judge the magnitude of this Freddy's evil. When Nancy discovers the proof that Freddy molested her vis-a-vis Polaroid pictures, we don't see them. We get no sense of what is on them. By not knowing the extent of Freddy's treachery, we are again distanced from the suffering of the protagonists and it all seems kind of remote and abstract.

Childhood sexual abuse is really disturbing stuff and the filmmakers were correct to bring that element of the Freddy story out into the forefront. Horror is one of the mediums we have for confronting such evils in our society. In fact, one might argue it is horror's sole purpose.

Our protagonists were victimized as children, which is bad enough. But then they are re-victimized through their subconscious years later. This idea has a lot of potential for evoking empathy in the audience and delivering a truly frightening and grueling horror movie experience.

But we never quite get there. It never feels quite real.

When Nancy finally "kills" Freddy, it's generic. We don't feel the years of Nancy's repressed rage bubble to the surface. Nancy never calls Freddy to account for all of the horrible things he did to her and how it fucked up her life. Sure, she kills him, but we never see her truly take her power back. We are robbed of what could have potentially been an awesome catharsis. We get no "Ripley v. Alien 'Get away from her you bitch!'" moment. We don't even get a "Mom v. Orphan 'I'm not your fucking Mommy!'" moment.

Nancy just kills him. It just kind of happens. Then we move quickly on to the next scene.

Efficient as clockwork -- and about as scary.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Happy Friday!

That's to Final Girl Stacie Ponder for posting this so I could steal it. :)

Psycho-Babble: Halloween (1978)

Anyone who reads this blog knows the story of Halloween. Michael Myers is the boogeyman. He is a soulless child who kills his teenage sister, then goes to the nuthouse, then comes back years later to kill more teen girls. Add some nonsense psychology spewed in Shakespearian intonations by Donald Pleasance about Michael being pure “e-e-e-e-vil” and you’re done.

Simple, effective horror.

Halloween was arguably the first in a long line of “violent-sexual-repression-symbolized-as-psycho-with-knife” horror that emerged in the 70s/80s.

Our shy and sensible final girl Laurie Strode is a virgin with a crush on never-seen Ben Tramer, but lacks the extroverted, brazen lustiness of her pals Annie and Linda.

Whore. Slut. Survivor.

So Michael Myers comes back to town – the embodiment of Laurie Strode’s inner animus. Michael is, to put it crudely, the cockmeat Laurie wants and fears made manifest. He keeps coming after her again and again, breaking down doors, trying to break through her skin with his big, thrusting knife. In Michael’s nightlong attack on Laurie, we see her hormone-driven inner conflict played out in a suburban cat-and-mouse horror show.

"Is it supposed to hurt?"

What works about the original Halloween is that (without the Rob-Zombie-esque explanation of Michael’s inner world) we are free to project anything we want onto Michael. An effective boogeyman, like an effective prostitute, should be able to become whatever we need him to be.

But what is a boogeyman?

The boogeyman exists, first and foremost, in everyone’s personal subconscious. He is an archetype within our monkey brains, inherited from our knuckle-dragging forefathers and foremothers who had the good sense to fear, and therefore avoid, bad people bent on doing them grave bodily harm.
"You're welcome!"

In our modern world, we still need our boogeyman archetype, because there are still plenty of assholes and crazies who want to fuck with us and those we love. Our modern manifestation of the boogeyman includes, but is not limited to, the serial killer, the rapist, and the terrorist.

Even today, 1978’s Michael Myers remains a great target for our projections of the boogeyman because he is so vague – faceless, shadowy, nightmarish. Whatever is freaking us out at the moment -- whether it be a touchy substitute teacher, a person-shaped shadow in our closet, Osama Bin Laden, or one of the Olsen twins -- can be projected onto the Shatner-masked creepo with the big butcher knife.

I'm your boogeyman. That's what I am.

At 9-years-old, my boogeyman lived in my bedroom closet that (thanks to the rotted wood around the latch) would never quite close. Every night, I would stare at the dark sinister crack, shrink into my Scooby Doo blanket, and wait for the shadowy humanoid-shaped hanging coats and shirts to start talking, moving, and plotting my lengthy and painful demise.

So as I watched Michael’s violent rampage at the Drive-Ins from the front seat of my Dad’s Chevy Nova, I found a masked representation for the evil, scary boogeyman in my closet.

But Myers was more to me than just some vague imagined thing that hated me and lurked among the toughskin jeans and Braggin’ Dragon shirts in my closet. He was more than an echo of my half-monkey great-great-(to infinity)-grandmother’s “avoid-the-scary-man-with-the-sharp-thing” survival code.

Michael Myers was the projection of a demon I was battling inside of myself -- a malicious and ugly motherfucker called internalized homophobia.

I will haunt your dreams...

By nine, the first strains of homo-lust had already begun to permeate my psyche vis-à-vis Patrick Duffy, Tom Wopat, Grant Goodeve, and other dark-haired, light-eyed stud-muffins of the era. Unfortunately, I had also already begun to internalize the violent homophobia of the culture around me.

What is a nine-year-old gay growing up in a blue-collar section of Boston in 1978 to do with thoughts of getting lost in the tangles of Tom Wopat’s magnificent chest hair? These were strong, powerful thoughts that – according to God and television – were very, very bad and needed to be violently crushed.

The face of evil.

So I developed an inner mechanism -- a violent interloper that would come in to exterminate any intrusive thoughts of Patrick Duffy’s nipples or the bulge in zipper area of the Marlboro Man’s jeans. By developing an inner gay basher, perhaps I could crush these evil thoughts and avoid an actual gay bashing in real life.

So, as I watched the last scene of Halloween, with Laurie hidden in a closet as marauding Michael smashed his way through the thin membrane of the slatted closet door, it was at precisely the same time that my closet (as a personal symbol) was transforming. The dark closet that housed my childhood bedtime boogeyman was quickly becoming a secret place where I could hide my emerging homosexuality from the hostile world around me.

And Michael Myers, whether symbolizing my repressed homosexuality itself, or the violent homophobic reaction to said homosexuality, could tear right through that psychic slatted door of denial.

Who you think you're kidding, girl?

(Carol Clover in her brilliant essay “Her Body, Himself” posits that the final girl is actually a boy made female to allow the audience to accept his/her vulnerability. This explains why final girls are often tomboys, sometimes with unisex names. Accepting that thesis means that it isn’t a big leap to view the final girl as a gay boy, no?)

So do I think John Carpenter and Debra Hill intentionally sought to create Michael Myers as a symbol of violent internalized homophobia and Laurie as a closeted gay boy? Not at all. But they did create a film that was universal enough in its dread and symbolism that anyone could project their personal shadow drama onto it. Clearly many, many others who had different struggles, passions and fears were able to project those up onto the screen as well, which is why it made so much damn money and fostered so many sequels and remakes.

But, what did I learn from Halloween? I learned that the safety of the closet is an illusion. The door can be stripped away at any time, and you better be ready to stick a wire hanger into homophobia’s cursed eyehole or you just might find that prison to be your final resting place.

Come to the light!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

She likes me ... she really likes me...

Hey look at me ... Stacie Ponder interviewed me about my horror blog from her much more popular horror blog, Final Girl ... it's like the scene in Grease where no-nonsense alpha-dog Rizzo finally accepts Sandy as one of the Pink Ladies ... just before she dresses her up as a hosebag so people will like her ... that's me ... right now ... because of this ...