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TBTS Reviews: Two Remakes & a Throwback – A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Crazies and The House of the Devil

June 5, 2011

An actual scene from the 2010 "Nightmare on Elm Street."

If you’re going to remake 1984’s horror classic A Nightmare on Elm Street, you should at least have some fun with it. After all, one of the greatest things the franchise hands you on a silver platter is that the premise deals with dreams, which alone offers a million directions and styles to explore and chew upon. The Elm Street franchise’s later years, in fact, had so much fun with the exploration of dreams that the entire series nearly ceased to be frightening at all and rather turned into some sort of imaginative horror parody wherein the dreams became mini horror-movies-within-a-horror movie. There were dreams which took place within Nintendo games, in the pages of comic books, on television talk-show sets, in sticky human roach traps and in school buses atop the spires of hellish mountaintops. You never knew what you were going to get, and unlike the Friday the 13th franchise — which was consistently the same film after film — you always found some variety in the Elm Street films, even if the storyline was the same.

The first great step, I think, in hiring a director for an updated Elm Street would be to turn toward the music video industry — which the producers did by bringing on Samuel Bayer, who has shot videos for the likes of Metallica, Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day and Blink 182. After all, music videos have long been a hotbed for young filmmakers eager to commit new and unique styles to film, and it would seem a match made in heaven when choosing a director for a film like Elm Street: with several dreams within a movie, each could be treated like a new and interesting music video, and a director could really show off his chops.

If only that great idea paid off. Instead, we’re treated to several scenes involving the standard “boiler room” landscape (the villainous Freddy Krueger’s lair) and a series of sequences with each looking nearly identical to the last. Gone in the 2010 version is Krueger’s macabre wit with those morbid puns, and in its place is Jackie Earle Haley sporting burn-victim makeup possibly hackier than the 1984 original’s. There’s also a discomforting spotlight put on the fact that all the main teen characters were sexually molested and abused by Krueger as young children. If we as a society go to horror movies for the fun of getting scared, a note should be sent to the producers that the  sexual abuse of children isn’t “fun” scary. It’s sad and disturbing and skeevy. With what could have been a great opportunity to have a lot of fun and create something bizarre and unique from a remake, Bayer’s Elm Street is beyond pedestrian. It’s hard to believe that, upon seeing this screened for them the first time, studio heads shook Bayer’s hand and said “Great job, you knocked it out of the park” — it more likely went something like “Thanks, this is good enough.”

The Crazies, which is a remake of a 1973 George Romero thriller by the same name, fares better than Elm Street as far as remakes go. For one, it’s not based on a source material as readily seen by as many members of the current moviegoing public as Elm Street was, and secondly it forgoes any fanciness to deliver a straightforward horror-thriller — even if it seems to exist as if some extended episode of The Twilight Zone.

The premise is fairly simple; a small-town Iowa sheriff and his pregnant doctor wife (Deadwood’s Timothy Olyphant and Melinda and Melinda’s Radha Mitchell, both lending some credibility to the production) discover — after several bizarrely violent outbreaks from their friends and neighbors — that a military plane carrying a biochemical weapon has crashed into the town’s water supply and everyone’s been partaking. As a result, the entire town’s turning slowly into raving psychopaths, and a squadron of ominously gas-masked military personnel quarantining and doing God-knows-what with the townspeople doesn’t help matters either.

The Crazies is interesting, a nailbiter, and it works as a remake. There’s nothing outwardly special here; it’s simply a quick and  thrilling story about people trying to escape the madmen and women around them and keep from falling prey to the same fate. The film’s villains come in two varieties — the fellow citizens our lead characters know and love, now turned into bloodthirsty lunatics, and the faceless military, none of whom we’re ever truly introduced to nor get to know anything about, leaving them completely anonymous and nefarious. There’s no big reveal and no crazy twist ending, but it’s a solid story even if it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and The Crazies succeeds on precisely the level on which it’s well-aware it exists.

If both The Crazies and Nightmare on Elm Street were attempts to take movies of the past and make them appear current, director Ti West has gone in completely the opposite direction with The House of the Devil. Made in 2009, the film looks — almost eerily, unsettlingly so — like it was made in 1983. From the opening credits to the synthesized music and spot-on sets (a pizza parlor in the first third of the film is dead solid perfect), West relishes in the 80’s style without patting himself on the back for how clever he’s been about replicating it.

The interesting thing about The House of the Devil is not that aforementioned gimmick, however; West’s uncanny knack for ratcheting up suspense is one sorely missing in the money-grabbing young directors of mainstream thriller/horror movies today. The movie focuses on Sam, a young college student trying to make some extra money by answering a babysitting want ad on campus only to arrive at the home and find something’s terribly, terribly wrong here. Undoubtedly many critics of Devil will argue that the film’s almost all build-up and no action, and those people would be missing the whole idea that the build-up is the action, and it’s much more frightening than the fairly standard climax. Don’t be put off by the fact that ultimately The House of the Devil features a cookie-cutter storyline — the fun’s in the ways in which West feeds our nerves and turns up the spooky heat on Sam before tossing her into the fire. At the end of the day, sure, you haven’t seen much, but you have seen how suspense is supposed to work, and West (who’s enjoying new press from his follow-up The Innkeepers, which was recently a huge SXSW hit) delivers a modern-day symposium on the study of all things Hitchcockian. It’s nice to see, fun to watch, and it shows what sitting down and taking a second to think about what one’s directing might actually pay off. It’s fine to emulate something else, as long as you’re bringing new sensibilities to the table. That’s what West and The Crazies did; unfortunately, the minds behind Elm Street never got that memo.

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