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My Halloweek Post: One two, Freddy’s coming for you…

27/10/2010

In the spirit of the season, I’d like to review a horror film.

Last week, I finally saw the new Nightmare on Elm Street re-make.

Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a horror movie buff, but I am a horror movie fan, and my first horror movie series was Nightmare on Elm Street. I grew up loving the fantastical gore and droll one-liners of Freddy Kruger. My brother all but forced me to watch my first movie, which was part 3 of the series, at age 7. I later saw the original (I didn’t see the terrible and almost non-sequential part 2 until my twenties), and the rest of the series as it went on, all the way through Freddy vs. Jason, which was downright silly.

Side note: I had always found the Friday the 13th series to be a bit of a yawn-fest. A silent, developmentally disabled zombie killer who only kills couples he finds in flagrante delicto? ‘Scuse me while I have a nap (at least with Freddy, even if it’s boring, you’re too afraid to fall asleep).

Therefore, when I heard that a new director would be re-envisioning the original Nightmare film, I had serious doubts. The original was actually quite scary. Even though the sequels went for laughs, Freddy’s first appearances were terrifying. The iconic images of dead Tina being dragged in the body bag and the clawed glove cutting through Nancy’s bathwater still give me chills (the director of the new one graciously kept these in). I was afraid of several things: they would change the story, the cgi effects would be too slick and therefore distracting rather than scary, they would try to explain away the nightmares somehow.

Only one of these fears was warranted.

The scene of Freddy pressing through the wall, achieved with a rubber wall in the original, subtle effect, was instead done with cgi and it was a bit silly and out of place.

There were some story changes, too, but the changes were quite good. In fact, they raised some surprising issues.

(*SPOILERS AHEAD*)

First, they made Freddy sympathetic, and the parents monsters. He was portrayed, in life, as a sweet man who loved children – just a little too much, and the parents were out of control vigilantes hunting down their monster. In the original, Freddy was a murderer of children who got out of prison on a technicality, so the parents’ actions were a just reaction to an insufficient legal system. The parents were heroes.

Secondly, in the original, the victims were chosen as the children of the parents who burned Freddy. It was a simple revenge story. In the new one, it is the continued work of a serial paedophile turned into a monster by the flames of vengeance.

Which brings up the interesting third major plot change, the victims now were the victims then. The parents are therefore not only covering up what they did to Freddy, but what Freddy supposedly did to their children (it turns out he did do it, but they leave some doubt for a while). The fact that the teenagers have no recollection of what happened to them as children, that this supposed damage Freddy did to them had no lasting impact, completely invalidates the parents’ act of violence.

I found this new film’s message to be quite extraordinary. In our society, the only people we are really allowed to hate and portray as absolute monsters are child molesters. If a child is kidnapped, locked in a basement, beaten and abused, we sigh and thank whatever god that at least she wasn’t molested. Child molesters are the most hated of all criminals in prison, and it’s a well known fact that they suffer the most abuse from other inmates, to which we are encouraged to think, serves them right. Our society finds it completely acceptable to dehumanise the perpetrators of child sex abuse. They are called “monsters,” “sickos,” and worse. We are not satisfied to allow these people to be tried by courts of law, to serve their time and be released. We want them to suffer for the rest of their lives, if not to die horribly at the hands of other criminals.

Why?

Because their victims are children, and their crime is sexual.

Sex crimes are, according to the opening sequence of Law & Order SVU, “considered especially heinous.” But really that is only within the context of a society that depicts sex itself as shameful. Child victims of sex abuse can suffer severe psychological damage, but I wonder how much of that comes from being taught that sex is “dirty,” and feeling ashamed of what has happened to them. I would never claim that children should not be protected from sexual abuse, or that it does not cause serious harm, but the claim that sexual abuse is so much more harmful than poor family environment or other forms of physical abuse, could be based on society’s fear and shame about sex. I may be way off base on that opinion, and I’m the first to admit that I don’t know that much about it. However, Nightmare on Elm Street seems to make the same point. The kids were not as damaged by their childhood abuses as their parents expected. They have their problems, but as they don’t even recall their experiences, it’s difficult to argue that they were cause by their abuse.

I have another unpopular opinion that has got me into some interesting arguments: child molesters are people, too. I agree they have done something disgusting, deserving of some punishment or at least treatment, but that does not make them monsters. In Nightmare on Elm Street, the message is clear: Fred Kruger was not a monster, he was sick and probably needed psychological help, but the real monsters were the parents. Driven by their rage, their fear, and their mistrust of the legal system, they took the law into their own hands and they turned Freddy into a scarred spectre, more powerful and more evil than he was in life. He was a product of their actions, their vengeance.

Overall, the film was not great. The actors playing the teenagers were a bit bland and it didn’t live up to the creators’ intention to make Nightmare scarier. It was scary-ish, but the social commentary was the most striking change. A sympathetic villain is always more compelling than a monster, and this re-invention of Kruger as including some vulnerability, the controversial notion that this monster was once a man, was what kept this remake from being a total snooze.

Although, I still wouldn’t fall asleep watching it, just in case…

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