30 April 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) *

I was invited to a midnight screening of this and went with the expectation that the film wouldn't even be good by horror standards -- which more and more I am defining very simply as "legitimately scary" or "legitimately creepy" and ideally both. But I know better than to expect too much of either from a slasher film, at least a non-classic slasher film, so I went into it as research, as I have done to many films lately. My goal was to think about what makes a thing scary or not, which techniques work and which don't. Unfortunately, the only things this movie considers scary are jump-out-at-you shock moments which are always accompanied by a loud, sharp metallic burst on the soundtrack. Remember those rickety old carnival haunted-house rides where you sit in a little metal car and plastic skeletons leap off walls at you? Modern horror films seem to assume that those carnival rides are the ultimate experience of "horror." I didn't learn a single thing about how to scare you that I hadn't already learned elsewhere. Anticipation is fun, but surprise is better if you can truly pull it off. Videotaped stuff can be creepy. When in doubt, lean hard -- and I mean hard -- on the sound designer to beef up your scare factor for you. And if you can't scare 'em, just make 'em jump (it's basically the same thing). So it was a bust, in terms of research. And in terms of being actually scared (sure, I jumped a couple of times, but it was so LOUD how could I not?).

However: I don't want to go into a whole thing here, but I gave a lot of thought to the dramatic structure of this particular movie. Who's your protagonist? What do they want? What is the story's inciting incident? What is the point of no return into act two? What actions do they take to reach their goals and what stands in their way? And so on. I guess one answer to "who is your protagonist?" is, there are several, passing the protag-baton (which is not a sex device from a Woody Allen movie) forward every ten or fifteen minutes -- whenever it's time to die. The story begins when the kids begin to realize they're all having the same dream. What they want is the most basic thing in the world: to survive. What actions do they take? Precious little. All they do is react, over and over. Their occasional actions -- burning themselves to stay awake, shooting up pure adrenaline -- have zero effect on the story, not even affording them five more minutes of sleeplessness. It was pretty ridiculous, and hard to buy this group of bland pretty people as protagonists. They don't do anything.

The other answer then, is that the protagonist of the story, whose action drives the plot, who makes crucial choices and decisions, is Freddy. He constantly takes actions, makes choices, in fact he creates and populates the world of your dreams as far as I can tell: he is the master storyteller here and he holds all the cards. So what does he want? He wants to punish those who burned him alive by killing their children, sure; and he wants to punish the children who turned him in, yes; but more than either of those things he is forcing these teens down a path, luring them to the preschool they've all (all!) blocked out entirely, into his hidden sex dungeon, showing them recaps of his death and allowing a select few to pool their resources and know his story. He is telling his story. And for a while it seems he is telling his story because the children lied, or were confused, and that Fred Krueger was an innocent man. But no, he wasn't. He wasn't innocent of anything. And so, what's that leave us with? Well, as far as I can tell, the protagonist wants desperately to be given full credit for molestation and/or child pornography, and then he wants to kill the people who he's proven himself a monster to.

So, yeah. I guess I'm confused. Either that, or this is a shitty movie that doesn't make any sense.


I know I'm already running long in this post, but it's my blog and you can't stop me. Anyway, I was talking about the protagonist issue of Nightmare with my friend and professional film critic Eric D. Snider, who actually gets paid for thinking too much about these things (the lucky bastard). Eric pointed out that one of his favorite films, Psycho, is arguably the source of all slasher films, and that Psycho's pointedly unique structure -- a twenty-minute misdirection where we follow a would-be protagonist who turns out to be prey; a bait-and-switch where we don't meet the story's actual protagonist, Mr. Norman Bates, for quite a while -- is exactly what's been hollowed out and aped by all the killer-stalks-victims movies of the last forty years or whatever. Bates of course had a distinct arc and was the ultimate anti-hero protag, and the trick of following a false-protag was deliberate and jarring. When Psycho was made, it wasn't intended to be the blueprint for a whole genre; it was supposed to stand out as unique. Everything it does, it does for a reason, and every "cheat" is to an end. But it's become a formula, and that's why the dramatic structure of the slasher film feels so damn weird. You are given a bunch of semi-protagonists who move the story along in fits and starts but ultimately just end up fodder for more killing, and you are given a mysterious killer whose backstory creates the ultimate framing piece and explanation for all the bland mayhem and hackery. ("Hackery," in this sentence, is a double entendre. I don't want you to miss that.) None of it means anything, and all of it is trying to capture what was magical and frightening about a 1960 thriller film. But each one is just a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, and like xeroxing a xerox, all you end up with is a vague amorphous shape and no detail. It's disappointing, but at least it's interestingly disappointing. Or something.

Seen at Lloyd Center Cinema.

No comments: