Released in 1984, in the middle of a decade that knew no shortage of horror movies, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street could never be mistaken for just another slasher film. While it played by some of the genre’s well-established rules by making its victims sexually active teens—and making characters who stayed chaste those most likely to survive—it broke loose in other ways, using the premise of a killer capable of invading dreams as an opportunity to create unsettlingly horrific sequences out of the everyday materials of American suburbia. Its setting played a role in its success as well, letting Freddy Krueger a child-abusing demon, loose in the safe-seeming confines of an era that idealized the sleepiest corners of Middle America.
In retrospect, it’s no surprise that, while the low-budget film did well at the box office when it came out that November, it found an even wider audience on video and cable, watched in terror in huddled sleepovers in houses much like Freddy invaded and spoken of in hushed tones at school the next day. Craven had found the perfect horror story for the age in which it appeared.
As with most horror remakes, the new Nightmare on Elm Street finds the tune but loses the rhythm.
Craven had pulled the trick off before. In 1972, as a young director, he saw his first film released to a handful of disreputable theaters. Written as Night of Vengeance, it reached the public under the subtler title Last House on the Left, accompanied by a promotional campaign that threw subtlety out the window. Promising unimaginable scenes of violence and degradation, the trailer advised audiences, “To avoid fainting, just keep telling yourself it’s only a movie… It’s only movie.”
If anything, the ads undersold the horror. In Last House, two parents warily let their teenage daughter leave with a friend for a rock concert, fighting back generational instincts that would rather have her at home even give her a peace-sign necklace to show their approval. After trying to score some weed off the wrong people, both girls are kidnapped, raped, and murdered, explicitly depicted crimes from which the film’s grainy images offer no relief. Later the murderers try to seek shelter at the house of the main girl’s parents, where the stolen peace emblem gives them away, leading the parents to kill them in turn.
Born into a strictly religious household that forbade him from watching movies, Craven worked as a professor of the humanities before shooting Last House, a remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring that exploits the generation-gap fears of an America still reeling from the changes of the 1960s. (By dispensing with its source’s miraculous ending, Last House, however accidentally, ends up expressing Bergman’s pet theme of God’s silence more directly than the original.) It’s a film very much of its time and all the more powerful for it. Its villains can trace their lineage to Charles Manson, a general discomfort with all those scruffy hippies, and the sudden blossoming of new freedoms the previous generation never got the chance to explore. The blood-and-guts violence that Last House helped make into horror movie fixtures comes on loan from images from Vietnam, then invading living rooms on the nightly news. That war has ended and those fears have passed—or at least mutated—but Last House’s engagement with them has helped keep it powerful. It’s at once a product of its times and timeless.
Flash forward to 2009 and the release of a Craven-produced remake of Last House on the Left, stylishly directed by Greece’s Dennis Iliadis. It is, by any technical standard, a better movie. Craven later developed into a skilled craftsman, but in 1972, he was still green. Iliadis’ film looks better and features more seasoned actors. It’s filled with pregnant pauses, audience-startling jolts, distressing scenes of torment, and cheer-inducing acts of revenge, all timed for maximum impact. But it has little to say about 2009. Its criminals are just criminals. The necklace that tips off the parents merely a necklace. Well-versed in the sorts of moments that make horror movies work, Iliadis’ Last House is a mechanically proficient film, but a year later, does anyone even remember it? Does it haunt anyone’s dreams? Or is it, in ways the original never was, only a movie?
So it so often goes with modern updates of classic horror films, many of them the product of Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company, which kicked off the current wave with its 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Commercial and music-video veteran Marcus Nispel brought a cold, body-dispatching proficiency to the film, but dispensed with all the youth-adrift-in-Nixon’s-America unease of Tobe Hooper’s classic original (despite keeping its 1970s setting). In 2009, Nispel would do the same for the long-lived Friday The 13th series, replacing the franchise’s shaggy cheap thrills—and the moral panic beneath the boobs-and-blood formula of the original films—with a relentless succession of shocks and a secondhand collection of disturbing imagery.
The soundtrack blares. The actors pose against patches of darkness waiting to be filled with killer’s faces. Doors slam with the impact of jets crashing. There’s always something waiting to appear when some unfortunate character closes a bathroom mirror. (Or waiting nearby if the mirror gag seems too obvious.) There are motions that need to be gone through, and any familiar monster from films past will do to go through them, be they the zombies of Zack Snyder’s 2004 take on Dawn of the Dead or the disgruntled miner of last year’s—enjoyably trashy, I have to admit— My Bloody Valentine remake.
There are exceptions. Rob Zombie—the rock star-turned-director whose The Devil’s Rejects spoke to post-9/11 politics by portraying the soul-eroding costs exacted by endless cycles of revenge—turned in a Halloween that delved uncomfortably into the trauma that forms the serial-killer psyche of slasher villains. Though not particularly satisfying, this spring’s The Crazies, a remake of a George Romero obscurity, drew on contemporary fears of government surveillance and chemical warfare. Alexandre Aja’s extremely violent 2006 remake of another Craven film, The Hills Have Eyes, pitted a vacationing family against some nuke-created desert-dwelling mutants who doubled as stand-ins for anti-American terrorists anywhere, turning an ordinary family into barbarians in the name of self-defense.
But mostly, horror remakes just look lazy because, well, they are lazy, dragging yesterday’s monsters into a world they’re ill-equipped to scare. Though imitated to exhaustion, the technology-wary films of the Japanese horror cycle (the original version of The Ring, for example) and the torture porn sub-genre—particularly Eli Roth’s Hostel films—have roots that sink deep into millennial anxieties. Most rehashed monsters never even touch the ground.
Opening this weekend, the new version of A Nightmare on Elm Street—another Craven remake and another Platinum Dunes production—does nothing to break the cycle. If anything, Freddy should have even more relevance in an era when reports of child pornography and the Catholic Church’s never-ending molestation scandals are very much on the public mind. But, as with most horror remakes, the movie finds the tune but loses the rhythm. It borrows heavily—almost comically—from Craven’s original, adding nothing but flash and mechanical muscle. It reflects the default cinematic style of our era but not the spirit of the age or the worries that keep us up at night. Our times deserve some boogeymen of their own. It’s time to let the old ones rest in peace.
Keith Phipps lives in Chicago and writes about film, television, books and music. He has contributed to Slate and serves as the editor of The A.V. Club and was a co-editor of Inventory: 16 Films Featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls, 10 Great Songs Nearly Ruined by Saxophone, and 100 More Obsessively Specific Pop-Culture Lists. You can follow him on Twitter here.