Lost in Translation:The Cultural Problem of Re-imagining our Beloved Movie Monsters

Posted by Dr Sorcha Ni Fhlainn on February 18, 2011 in Dr Sorcha Ni Fhlainn, Guest Blog tagged with , , , , , , , ,

In recent years, Hollywood has returned to its begrudgingly necessary bedfellow, the horror film, in order to finance other blockbuster projects onscreen. While I firmly agree with the BBC’s film critic Dr. Mark Kermode, who, vocally and repeatedly, blames the success of films by Michael Bay (Transformers (2007), Pearl Harbour (2001), Armageddon (1998) etc.) for the lobotomy of intelligent cinema in exchange for special effects and pyrotechnics onscreen, my ire is significantly stoked when such special effects directors cast their eyes onto horror classics in order to recapitalise upon their cultural significance all in the pursuit of filthy lucre, thoroughly stripping the cultural, historical and social importance of these seminal texts. To illustrate the genuine anger of some critics, I have linked some of Dr. Kermode’s reviews for your interest.

Mark Kermode\’s review of Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen

Yet, the registered disgust at such remakes has been largely derived from film critics, horror fans, and scholars – the remake factor has weathered this storm before, but now, rather unkindly, it deigns not only to remake such texts simply as an exercise to finance other projects (such as the dreaded Transformers 3), but also attempts to ‘re-imagine’ those monsters which pervaded the cultural psyche of the period, reducing them to mere parodies of their former glory. Simply put, by remaking films that teenagers of the 1980s regard with a certain fondness, the studios know not only that horror fans will watch the film to see what has been dismembered from the original film, but also view these remakes as an opportunity to introduce younger viewers to the horror genre. What remains genuinely depressing is that those new viewers will believe that these remakes are regarded as ‘good’ horror films, simply by virtue of the fact that they are updating an ‘old’ film. Quality and box office returns are oceans apart in terms of importance when horror cinema is concerned. By reeling them in and spitting them out, as Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes regularly does, soulless horror remakes prove that horror is a regenerating commodity still regarded as a financially necessary evil, but culturally valued as nothing more.

A Nightmare on Elm Street Trailer (2010 Remake)

Mark Kermode\’s review of A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010, Remake)

Specifically, the remake of A Nightmare on Elm St (1984), released in May 2010, warrants interrogation. Being a genuinely terrifying monster of the Reagan era, Freddy’s surreal presence onscreen is unnerving, unsettling and visually quite unorthodox in the age of slasher or slice’n’dice horror cinema. Breaking into reality from the dream world to wreak havoc and violently murder the teenagers of Elm Street (an ideological setting, considering  almost every town has an Elm Street, a place of suburban bliss in Reaganomic America, and that President Kennedy was shot on Elm Street, Dallas), Freddy (Robert Englund) became a frightening spectre of cultural nightmares throughout the 1980s – both President Reagan and Freddy claim the youth of America as their own neoconservative progeny.

\”You are All My Children Now!\” from A Nightmare on Elm St. Part 2

Financially, the possibility of being stalked and murdered in one’s sleep proved to be a cinematic masterstroke by writer/director Wes Craven and New Line Cinema’s CEO Robert Shaye. New Line Cinema, until its conglomeration under parent group Time Warner in 2008, was fondly monikered as ‘The House that Freddy Built’.

A Nightmare on Elm Street Trailer (1984 Original)

So what is wrong with the remake, aside from the fact that it is a remake? Plenty. Freddy is a caricature of his former nasty glory, layered under so much prosthetic make-up to render him inexpressive, and unthreatening. Nancy Thompson (Rooney Mara) , the final girl of the piece, looks thoroughly bored with her predicament – one gets the distinct impression that the whole film was beneath her. Hopefully, her performance as Lizbeth Salander in David Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) will prove vastly more interesting onscreen (but again stokes the fire on remaking a recent and excellent Swedish film just merely because it requires subtitling.) Only time will tell.

What made the Nightmare films so important in the 1980s is also precisely the touchstone of its undoing in this decade – the potential sequel-ization (or remake) of every (box-office) successful film. Like the rise of the Friday the 13th films, horror films cashed in on their own cultural caché and rapidly diminished in quality. What remained, however, was the cultural adoration of these monsters, psychopaths, and masked killers. 

While Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street (including others) have all seen a return or remake of their debut films in recent years, few filmmakers have grasped the carefully cultivated fanship which surrounds each franchise. Furthermore, horror fans are a rather unforgiving lot – we tend to favour the cinema which shaped and defined our tastes and interests, and view remakes, on a whole, as disrespect rather than genre-specific adulation.

That said, horror sequels of the 1980s/early 90s proved to be the undoing of all three of these important horror series. Both Friday the 13th (11 installments) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (8 installments) have nineteen installments between them (excluding remakes but including cross-over film Freddy Vs. Jason (2003)), alongside Halloween‘s eight installments before Rob Zombie’s 2007 reboot and 2009’s Halloween 2. Is this a redundant exercise as we have already been saturated with too many inferior sequels? I think not. The sequels built upon the premise of supporting the killer/monster/psychopath of the series as he was the only continuity factor that held these franchises together. By remaking/re-imagining the very core of the films themselves, our beloved monsters, we have little to nothing left to cling to. Remakes sever the bond to the past that created these screen villains in the first place.

In conclusion, not all franchises which have been condemned to direct-to-video hell are to be remade it seems. In recent years, Clive Barker’s seminal horror film Hellraiser (1987) was to be remade by the author/director himself, but has since been relegated to ‘development hell’. Strangely enough (and for which I personally applaud Barker), rather than the usual problems of script re-writes or casting issues, the redesign of Pinhead was not to Barker’s liking – a good enough reason to delay its progress by any horror fan’s standard. While the make-up is revisionary and certainly abstract and dark enough for any of Barker’s work, Pinhead is painfully beautiful donning his bejeweled pins which punctuate points of vertical and horizontal lines etched onto his head (see original picture of Doug Bradley as Pinhead below). The re-imagined design (below right), though interesting, plays to a certainty of gore by making Pinhead’s pins into nails which protrude from facial gashes. Interesting, but not the same serene Pinhead that championed 1980s piercing and S&M subculture.

A video of the proposed make up for re-imagining Pinhead dated 2008:

Re-designing an Icon: proposed \’Pinhead\’ make-up from Hellraiser remake

Perhaps, when we know our beloved cultural monsters are cared for, cherished and thoughtfully resurrected, we can come to terms with their unveiling to a new generation of horror fans, such as Barker’s Pinhead is sure to do should the project be completed. What’s at stake for those to remake horror film franchises is simply this: without heart, and due care, which the fans will inevitably detect, the films are sadly reduced to the Michael Bay formula of filmmaking – quality is cast aside for cold hard cash, resulting in a slew of soulless, and therefore, redundant castrated monsters.

Tiny URL for this post: http://tinyurl.com/47vnfco