I think I was nine when I first saw Friday the 13th and A Nightmare On Elm Street. They were playing on TV back-to-back as part of a Halloween marathon, and for whatever reason my mum thought it was okay for me to watch them. In hindsight, probably not a good idea on her behalf but from there I started tracking down as many horror films as I could. A few years later I finally saw Halloween and completed the trilogy of iconic slasher films. Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers – three of pop-cultures most recognizable figures, all of whom have persevered in our collective psyches for over three decades. Even if you’ve never seen one of their films, you know the significance of a hockey mask or a razor-clawed glove. Their names alone carry a huge amount of weight.1
They’re films that tap into basic human fears – Nightmare is all about confronting our deepest, unconscious fears while Friday the 13th and Halloween take the concept of being stalked to the extreme. With the actual Halloween rolling around, I decided to take a look at the original films (which I had seen) alongside their modern remakes (which I’d never seen before) to see how well the slasher classics held up over time and to see whether any of the recent reboots could pass muster.
Halloween [dir. John Carpenter (1978) / Rob Zombie (2007)]
John Carpenter’s Halloween isn’t just a slasher film – it’s the slasher film. Made on an incredibly low budget for the time, it’s a fantastic example of creating so much from very little. Apart from some brief exposition and one of the best opening scenes in horror film history, barely anything happens in the first two-thirds of the film; it’s just Myers relentlessly stalking Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie. Some might argue that this slow pacing is boring, especially by modern horror standards, but I think that misses the point. Everything is so well put together with the sole purpose of making the viewer reach uncomfortable levels of tension. You’re just waiting for Myers to appear on screen because you know he’s out there somewhere, circling his prey like a great white shark.
And even when we finally begin Myers’ murder spree, the kills themselves are less scary than the very idea of his constant unfailing gaze. He’s the physical embodiment of the feeling that we’re being watched. They never even explain why Myers is menacing Laurie and her friends, he just is and that’s so much more terrifying than any actual explanation.2 He’s just pure evil, and that’s enough.
I don’t think Rob Zombie is a bad director. House of 1000 Corpses is a decent throwback to ‘70s exploitation films, and The Devil’s Rejects is one of the most underrated horrors of the 2000s. Before even watching his remake of Carpenter’s classic, I felt like he was probably the wrong person for the job. He’s clearly a huge fan of both the original and Carpenter as a director but he is a very loud director and the original Halloween is such a quiet film.
He’d be better suited tackling a Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake or even Friday the 13th. That’s not to say bringing his own take on the film is necessarily a bad thing; if you’re going to remake something you need to own it and make it yours, but he never fully commits to it being a ‘Rob Zombie film’. While he brings a lot of his own aesthetic to the table –visceral violence and gore, a lot of grit and grime, the inclusion of Sheri Moon Zombie3 he’s always incessantly reminding us that we’re watching Halloween. There’s a moment early on in the film where Michael’s mother is discussing his behavior with the school principal when the original Halloween theme kicks in for literally no reason.
One of the film’s biggest problems is that it spends its first half on Michael’s backstory and attempts to paint him as a sympathetic character. It makes no sense, as Michael is irredeemably evil – the film opens on him torturing his pet rat to death. During his stay in the asylum he establishes a familiarity with one of the janitors, which amounts to nothing as Myers’ brutally murders him when escaping. Zombie wastes so much time developing character, something Carpenter achieved with much less and within the first five minutes of the original. One thing that does benefit from following Michael from childhood is that we get to see Malcolm McDowell’s portrayal of Dr. Samuel Loomis, who goes from being an enthusiastic doctor who wants to genuinely help Michael to becoming so utterly exhausted and defeated that he accepts Michael’s fate.
I don’t think Zombie’s Halloween is a blasphemous take on the original, or even the worst film of the franchise – there are some really nice shots and most of the deaths are pretty brutal – but on the whole the exercise feels misguided. Its biggest fault is that Zombie seems torn between wanting to honour the original whilst also making the story his own. With all of this noted, though, it was pretty good for a mid-to-late 2000s horror film from America, a genre which found itself populated by torture-porn films thanks to the Saw series.
Friday the 13th [dir. Sean S. Cunningham (1980) / Marcus Nispel (2009)]
Friday the 13th is by far the weakest of the famous original slasher trilogy. As a whole, the series has always been a weird and uneven mess; its signature icon – Jason’s hockey mask – doesn’t appear until the third film and the first actually good feature doesn’t roll around until the fourth installment, The Final Chapter.4 The point is, the original Friday the 13th was and will always be a bad movie that desperately wants to be Carpenter’s Halloween but just stumbles through its entire runtime. It’s an incredibly dull slog, populated by unlikeable and interchangeable characters whose inevitable deaths feel par for the course rather than tragic.
It terms of style, director Sean Cunningham does some pretty interesting stuff for the time. Much like the opening of Halloween, he uses a POV shot for the killer, which combined with concealing their identity creates a really nice sense of tension. It operates much like Carpenter’s film, with its own voyeuristic stalker Myers, but adds an additional layer of fear by making the killer this faceless entity. The problem is that this tension feels wasted. It’s hard to feel afraid for the victims when you’re struggling to care about them in the first place.
While there are few other slightly redeeming features – that iconic audio cue is still chilling and Tom Savini’s practical effects are always fantastic – they don’t make up for Victor Miller’s incredibly weak script. There are just some flat-out weird moments throughout, like the character Crazy Ralph who just randomly appears at the camp to deliver warnings of doom like some Scooby Doo-esque villain. The reveal of the killer’s identity is one of the most nonsensical twists ever5 which leads into a final confrontation that drags on for so long that the reveal’s initial shock wears off. Even the final scare of the film6 – which is still genuinely terrifying – ends up leading into one last scene which goes on and on.7
While the 2009 remake directed by Marcus Nispel is by no means a masterpiece of horror cinema either, I think it’s actually better than the original – although barely. It stays true to Cunningham’s original by also having an incredibly messy script, populated by mostly terrible characters that don’t deserve your empathy. That said, the first third of the film isn’t too bad. It’s very much Slasher 101 –a group of teens go camping near an old abandoned summer camp, one wanders off and meets a shadowy figure, hijinks insure, etcetera– but it’s enjoyable. Where the film makes a massive misstep is that instead of building on this situation, it rushes through so it can get to the significantly less interesting plot of Jared Padalecki looking for his missing sister, complete with a bunch of one-dimensional murder-fodder.
The film was released under the banner of Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes, so it carries a few of his weird aesthetic choices like the sickly over-saturated colouring which makes it look way too too clean for a horror film. It also tries to jam too much lore into the already disjointed story. The opening credits quickly run through the plot of the original Friday the 13th, and during the first murder spree establishes the incredibly lame plot point that Jared Padalecki’s sister looks like Mrs. Voorhees. While the original film is pretty weak, it kept things simple.
Another thing that bothered me was that Jason starts running after a victim, which feels wrong. Part of his menace has always come from the fact that he’s this giant, lumbering juggernaut that will always catch up to you no matter how fast you run. As a remake it doesn’t bring anything new or noteworthy to the table, but it does a pretty decent job of honouring the franchise. There’s a lot of neat little nods to previous movies, like Mrs. Voorhees amazing old lady sweater. In short: it’s not a great movie, but it’s by nowhere near the worst thing to come out this franchise.8
A Nightmare on Elm Street [dir. Wes Craven (1984) / Samuel Bayer (2010)]
The set-up to Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is genius. It takes the traditional slasher opening established in Halloween and Friday and transforms it with a unique, inescapable twist. You can run from Jason and Michael all you want, you might even manage to get away but at some point you have to sleep. It totes some of the best practical effects to ever appear in the genre – the scene where Tina is recklessly thrown around her room by an unseen Freddy and the iconic moment where a young Johnny Depp is pulled into his bed, only to emerge as a gigantic torrent of blood moments after. Craven does a fantastic job of blurring the line between the real and the dream, and at times you’re can’t be sure exactly which state the characters are in. To the film’s credit is also never goes for the cheap scares and throws some remarkable leftfield spooks at you. Even in its end it has one of these great moments, which is still absolutely terrifying no matter how many times you watch it. Hell, the entire film has held up magnificently.
Which brings us swiftly to Samuel Bayer’s remake of A Nightmare On Elm Street only five years ago. I don’t how they managed to release a film in 2010 that uses CGI so laughably bad it makes made-for-television effects look good, but here we are. This is a film so terrible that apparently Rooney Mara almost quit acting because she hated it that much.
By far the biggest problem is this version’s portrayal of Freddy Krueger. I can live with the lackluster covers of the original film’s kills, the incredibly weak script and uninteresting characters, but getting Krueger’s character wrong is inexcusable. He’s the core component to the series, the reason why people watch Elm Street films in the first place. Jackie Earle Haley does a fantastically lame Christian Bale-as-Batman voice, and the crew’s attempt to make Freddy look like an actual third-degree burn victim ends up being something closer someone whose had way too much plastic surgery. Haley also lacks any of the charisma of Robert Englund, delivering the lamest and “darkest” Freddy possible.
They especially flounder when trying to play up Freddy’s wisecracking side, which is something that was developed throughout the course of the original franchise. For example, in Elm Street 4 a character is drawn into his waterbed by a sexy mermaid, only to be drowned by Freddy, who comments: “How’s this for a wet dream!” I use that specific example because remake Freddy drops the exact same line, except this time it’s when Rooney Mara is drowning in a hallway full of blood.9
One of the biggest changes is this version is that Freddy is now a child molester, because apparently being a child murderer wasn’t edgy enough.10 This change shifts the film into being an allegory about PTSD, which if executed well could have been a genuinely interesting film. Instead, we get the most basic subtextual version possible with Krueger being the literal manifestation of the disorder for each character and Only By Killing Him Will They Be Cured. The motive for Freddy’s revenge is changed as well – he’s now killing them because they told their parents what he was doing to them. You’d think he’d be madder at the guys who burnt him to death, but you’d be wrong.
One of the more interesting ideas it brings to the table is the use of micro-sleeps as a means for Freddy to get you –you can feel how both physically and mentally exhausted the characters are– but it’s just used as a means for cheap jump scares. And for what it’s worth, it isn’t badly shot. It was also produced by Platnium Dunes, and the sickly over-saturated lighting does lend to some nice looking shots, particularly in the dream-world, but getting to see those is a pyrrhic victory at best. While the Elm Street franchise did succumb to the inevitable horror-series fatigue, it’s the most consistent in terms of quality.11 This film, though, is an embarrassing remake that tries way too hard to make Elm Street more edgy for a modern horror audience, and doesn’t matter to capture anything that made the original work so well.