Permanent Midnight: 30 Years After "A Nightmare on Elm Street," Modern Horror Hasn't Matched Its Originality

Thirty years after Wes Craven's "A Nightmare on Elm Street," why can't modern-day horror match its originality?

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Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.

So many horror movie remakes, so many embarrassing shit-stains on the pages of the genre’s history books. This weekend, which marks the 30th anniversary of Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (originally released on November 9, 1984), I can’t help but think about the lamest one of all.

Compiling a list of the worst horror re-imaginings of all time would be a fool’s errand. A rough estimate: eight out of 10 scary movie remakes suck, some as bad as the 2005 redo of John Carpenter’s The Fog. Occasionally, though, one or two gems do surface, like Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead or Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes, and what separates those best-case examples is a sense of audacious innovation. Instead of slow, shuffling zombies trapping four survivors in a mall, Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead more than doubles the number of still-living protagonists and goes all The-Return-of-the-Living-Dead on them with supercharged flesh-eaters; whereas Wes Craven’s O.G. The Hills Have Eyes is about backcountry psychopaths and favors suspense, Aja’s version ups the grossness with genetic test subjects gone wrong and roars with visceral bloodshed.

However, there’s definitely a clear winner for “Worst Horror Remake of the New Millennium”: the 2010 bastardization of A Nightmare on Elm Street, lazily directed by music video veteran Samuel Bayer (Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Green Day’s “American Idiot,” most notably). It’s the nadir of horror remakes because Bayer, screenwriters Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer, and its producers (including Michael Bay) essentially spit on the faces of Wes Craven and Robert “Freddy Krueger” Englund for 94 minutes.

Blessed with an actual budget ($35 million), the 2010 Elm Street’s creative team could have done anything with Craven’s ingenuous premise, that of a disfigured serial killer who lives in teenagers’ dreams. That dream-space setting afforded them endless possibilities to conceive the wildest murder set-pieces, surrealistic imagery, and visual palettes imaginable. But what did they end up doing? They just rehashed Craven’s film’s most iconic scenes, thus epitomizing the worst possible scenario for a movie remake.


When the obligatory Friday the 13th remake opened in 2009, I initially attacked it for half-assing its kills. After all, Jason Voorhees is the genre’s reigning king of over-the-top homicides—without the hockey-masked slasher, we wouldn’t have death-by-sleeping-bag-smashed-into-a-tree, death-by-smashing-a-frozen-face-into-little-pieces, death-by-impaling-while-the-victim’s-taking-a-dump, and countless others. But Friday the 13th '09 deserves a pass when compared to the newer Elm Street. Restricting Jason Voorhees to a series of basic machete slayings is nowhere near as reprehensible as turning an expensive Freddy Krueger dreamworld into a despicably basic distillation of Craven’s meagerly priced $1.8 million production.

Especially when you consider that Craven’s movie is horror at its peak creativity. In honor of A Nightmare on Elm Street’s anniversary, I revisited the film last week and was struck by something that’d never really clicked with me before: The concept of a wisecracking slasher who occupies dreams and nightmares is brilliantly macabre, yes, but it’s also an anomaly.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is the rare example of a horror filmmaker pushing his imagination to new heights; rather than simply create another ghost, masked killer, or modernized genre monster staple (i.e., the vampire, zombie, or werewolf), Craven designed a wholly unique construct with a villain unlike anything ever seen before. The logic behind A Nightmare on Elm Street is perfect for scare-driven cinema: we all sleep and dream, so therefore we’ll all be scared shitless by something that wants to murder us while we essentially have no physical control over ourselves. Freddy Krueger is the quintessential universal monster. Plus, Craven’s idea naturally lent itself to a franchise, because, really, how can you eliminate a monster who doesn’t exist in reality?

Granted, Freddy Krueger grew progressively funnier, more culturally ubiquitous, and, as a result of that, less frightening with each A Nightmare on Elm Street sequel, but none of that diminishes the first movie’s timelessly spine-chilling impact.

But that was 30 years ago—where the hell are horror’s new A Nightmare on Elm Street-caliber examples of ingenuity?

The genre is big business these days—Annabelle and Ouija both cleaned up at the box office this month (with domestic grosses of $82 million and $35 million so far, respectively), and anyone who’ll attribute that to Halloween season should look back to last summer and assess The Conjuring’s staggering $318 million worldwide intake. And in the independent genre scene, the quality has been high as of late. This month, three of the year’s best horror flicks will open: Starry Eyes (out next Friday, November 14), a vibrant blend of Repulsion-esque feminine dementia and freaky occultism from co-directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer; A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (November 21), a black-and-white Iranian "vampire Western" from exciting rookie writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour; and The Babadook (November 28), a superb Shining-minded exploration of motherhood and the supernatural from Aussie filmmaker Jennifer Kent.

Although those films are based around preexisting genre tropes, they excite genre fans partially because Starry Eyes, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and The Babadook don’t fall into horror’s most overly used conceits of the moment: cash-out remakes, tiresome found-footage, exorcism-based tales of demonic possession, and/or James-Wan-inspired supernatural films about haunted houses.


Fortunately, thanks to this year’s editions of the Fantasia International Film Festival and Fantastic Fest, I’ve recently seen two new horror movies that have given me that A Nightmare on Elm Street feeling of optimism about the genre’s future. They won't be out 'til next year, but they're worth the wait.

The first one could tangentially be considered a found-footage movie, but it’s technically not one. It’s called Cybernatural, and—like two similar but inferior 2014 genre films, The Den and Open Windows—it’s presented entirely via a computer monitor. A group of teenage friends are spending an otherwise normal school night ignoring homework, chatting via Skype and Facebook, and sharing YouTube links, Spotify playlists, and Instagram pics. We quickly learn that one of their classmates committed suicide a year earlier; she shot herself after being bullied over a viral video that showed her doing something embarrassing while drunk at a party. As the night progresses, the six friends are terrorized online by someone claiming to be the dead teen.

Directed by newcomer Levan Gabriadze, the unnerving Cybernatural uses its Internet-savvy concept for all its worth. Played via the characters' web cams, the party game "Never Have I Ever" becomes a hellish gateway to death. In a time when everyone’s addicted to social media, it could become horror’s next big thing when it opens next April, via Blumhouse/Universal. Just as A Nightmare on Elm Street tapped into mankind’s indiscriminate ability to dream back in 1984, Cybernatural directly connects with our inability to turn our computers off today. It's a horror gem for the digital age, the hokey title notwithstanding.


Horror’s other source of hope could actually be hyped up as the genre’s new A Nightmare on Elm Street by its distributor, Radius-TWC, when it opens theatrically early next year—it shares a bit of narrative DNA with Craven’s film. Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell (The Myth of the American Sleepover), It Follows is already being ranked as one of the best American independent horror movies ever, and I’m not about to argue with that. Taking cues from both ghost stories and slasher movies, It Follows introduces an all-new kind of predator: an entity that’s transmitted through sexual intercourse and takes the forms of random zombie-like, human-looking ghouls who silently and slowly follow their prey. In It Follows, they’re stalking Jay (Maika Monroe), a fully formed heroine straight from the lineage of Halloween’s Laurie Strode and A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Nancy Thompson.

There are so many components that make It Follows work so incredibly. It’s powered by a loud, frantic, amazing electronic score composed by video game alum Rich “Disasterpeace” Vreeland, whose music for the film deserves praise comparable to John Carpenter’s best scores (Halloween, The Fog) and Goblin’s iconic soundtracks (Deep Red, Suspiria, Dawn of the Dead '78). It’s seat’s-edge terrifying, too, in how Mitchell harkens back to Carpenter’s wide-angled shots to keep the audience’s eyes constantly scanning beyond Monroe’s Jay in the forefront to see if anyone’s out there “following” her. (Think this scene stretched out to nearly 90 minutes.) Most importantly, Mitchell's concept's effectiveness lies in its simplicity—like how A Nightmare on Elm Street exploits how we all dream, It Follows utilizes our human love of knocking the boots to make its inhuman antagonist so universally scary. Crazily enough, David Robert Mitchell is the first person to think of that. He's dreamed up the coolest horror concept since Hideo Nakata's Ringu (1998).


Whether or not Cybernatural and It Follows jumpstart any horror trends in 2015, both films should give dedicated fans like myself a new hope. And for that, they’re this generation’s answers to A Nightmare on Elm Street, though minus the obvious franchise potential. And neither one has a marketable villain, so don’t expect another Freddy Krueger—simply anticipate the thrill of seeing something fresh, for the first time.

Come to think of it, in these unoriginal times, there’s nothing simple about that.

UPDATE, 11/12/14: Cybernatural's title has been changed to the no-less-terrible Unfriended.

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