Freddy’s back, in all his gory glory, but revisiting him in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is less likely to inspire an attack of night terrors than to elicit a bored yawn, followed by a restful sleep, wherein one’s pleasant dreams are disturbed only by the eternally unanswered question: When will all these pointless remakes end?
The 2010 NIGHTMARE ON ELMSTREET is not a bad film in the usual sense – it is technically competent and reasonably well acted – but it lacks the kind of inspiration that would justify dusting off the burned-up old bogeyman and turning him loose on another generation of terrified teens. Although the credits list Wes Craven only for “characters created by,” the new film is simply a slicker, glossier remake of Craven’s 1984 original: the narrative follows the same overall progression, with most of the key scenes and settings intact (the boiler room, the victim levitating to the ceiling, the gloved hand rising out of the bath water);* some of the character names and relationships have been juggled around, but the “updating” consists mostly of adding cell phones, laptops, and Internet search engines (here represented by Gigablast in some of the most prominent product placement in recent memory). The grim and gritty feel of the original has been lost, drowned in a sea of CGI and modern makeup effects that duplicate but seldom if ever surpass the source material.
What this NIGHTMARE has going for it is the same great premise that fueled the old ELM STREET movies, an idea so profound and so simple that it’s like a great song, whose melody can survive even a mediocre rendition. The concept of a demon who stalks your nightmares, blurring the line between dream and reality, opens up vast vistas of cinematic potential – which, sadly, go mostly untapped here. Fortunately, there’s more to the franchise than that.
Unlike their slasher brethren of the ’80s, the ELM STREET films depicted a reasonably believable high school milieu peopled with students punished not for sexual promiscuity but for the sins of their fathers. This gulf – between the teens who need to know the truth and their parents who want to bury the past – effectively isolated Freddy’s young victims from the assistance of the adult world. Perhaps all teens feel isolated; here, the isolation was not a sullen pose, but a plot point. It is here that the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET remake fares best. The sad-eyed cast look not merely sleepless but often hopeless, and the dialogue does a nice job of etching their concern and despair without descending into bathos.
The script Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer (for which Strick inexplicably receives a “story” credit, even though it’s the same old story) manages a few interesting changes. The back story of Freddy’s immolation is revealed through a dream-flashback instead of dialogue. Somebody obviously thought through the big question: If Freddy lives in the dreams of his victims, what happens when all his victims are dead? Also, his victims are no longer merely the children of the vigilante gang that burned Krueger to death; they were, years ago in preschool, his intended victims – an ugly past that all of them have forgotten, which makes Krueger’s eruption into their dreamworld an almost literal example of Freud’s “Return of the Repressed.”
This last is a very nice touch, but it is not properly explored, simply offered as a plot device, in case anyone asks, “Why did it take this long for Krueger to manifest?” (Answer: because it took this long for the repressed memories to return.) The uncomfortable suggestion is that we’re better off with memories suppressed rather than bringing them to the surface (which is in fact the exact opposite of what psychology teaches us). This bungles the movie’s theme, which is that the parents, in trying to protect their children, actually made things worse; the way the script presents it, if the parents had achieved their goal, and everyone had forgotten about Krueger, then everything would have been okay.
Also, this plot device raises questions that the film doesn’t bother to answer, at least not in the theatrical cut. Are we really to believe that each and every child has absolutely no recollection of what Krueger did to them? The film is vague on this point: one could argue that only Nancy was actually molested, and the other kids were merely telling frightened parents what they expected to hear; but even so, someone should remember Krueger’s existence. One wonders whether the original idea was that the memories had been deliberately suppressed, through drugs or hypnosis – supposedly to protect the children’s fragile minds but really to hide the guilt of their parents.
And speaking of the parents, unlike those in the original, this seems to be a group of rather dim bulbs. Yes, the original parents were understandably reluctant to believe that their children were being murdered in their dreams by someone they had torched years ago, but these new parents seem completely oblivious to the fact that their children are systematically dying in inexplicable ways. Yes, the first seems to be suicide, and the second is passed off as murder, but the third takes place in a jail cell with a surveillance camera – but no one ever looks at the tape to see what happened; apparently, the police simply assume he was killed by his cell mate. Case closed.
Director Samuel Bayer manages some competent but unexceptional professionalism. He occasionally puts you on edge with the “is it real or dream” question, but for all the slick production values at his disposal, he seldom generates any other suspense, and even the shock-scares seem tame. As for the moral horror associated with vigilante justice, and the despair of seeing your friends die helplessly – forget it. Those are just arbitrary plot points linking the effects scenes together.
The effects themselves are occasionally impressive, but they lack real punch; their CGI origins lend a fanciful fantasy feel to what should be grim, stark terror (the image of Freddy’s shape pressing from behind a suddenly rubbery wall was much better two decades ago, when it was a physical effect).
Likewise, Krueger’s makeup has been updated, supposedly to render a more realistic depiction of a burn victim, but the results are negligible and misguided. What makes Freddy frightening is not the fact that he’s a burn victim; it’s that he resides in the rubber-reality of a dreamscape wherein he is virtually invulnerable.
If we had any reason to raise our hopes for A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, it was the casting of Jackie Earle Haley, who was so memorable in WATCHMAN, and turned in a great bit in SHUTTER ISLAND as well. He comes up short here; he is sinister, but his version of Krueger never as deeply disturbing as Robert Englund in the best of the previous films. The occasional one-liner – a sop to those who prefer the wise-cracking Krueger of the lesser sequels – hardly helps, but at least Haley delivers the dialogue in a voice intended to chill the audience rather than spoof the character. No one is likely to mistake this Freddy for a stand-up comedian, at least not yet.
The attempt to magnify the character’s evil, by having him gloat over how much longer he can toy with his victims, comes across as fading echo of the torture porn genre. They diminish Krueger, making him seem more like a human monster than a dream-demon; long before the surviving teens get the idea of dragging him back into reality, where he will be vulnerable, you wonder why someone doesn’t just punch him out and kick his ass.
Remakes and sequels based around characters (rather than situations) have a better chance of succeeding, but there is little that is done here with Krueger, even though Haley gets top billing. Dracula, Frankenstein, and other classic characters can benefit from a do-over as times change (making them more misunderstood than monstrous), but it’s not as if the cultural context of 2010 has measurably changed our attitude toward child-molesters. There is not much to do with the character or the concept to bring it up to date for 2010, and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET barely even tries. We seem to be living in an era when, according to Hollywood box office theory, ticket-buying viewers are bored with old movies and want to see something new, but the “newness” consists of slapping a fresh coat of paint upon the same old structure.
Although labeled “re-imagining” of the Freddy Krueger franchise, this “New Nightmare” (per the poster tagline) is in fact much less original than WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE, the 1996 sequel that actually did re-envision the Krueger character as a more profound, archetypal incarnation of evil. If there are going to be any future NIGHTMARE’s, it would be well if producer Michael Bay (also responsible for the recent FRIDAY THE 13TH, THE HITCHER, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE) would hire some writers and/or a director who truly could dream up something new for Freddy.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET(April 30, 2010). Directed by Samuel Bayer. Screenplay by Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer, from a story by Strick, based on characters created by Wes Craven. Cast: Jackie Earle Haley, Kyle Gallner, Rooney Mara, Katie Casidy, Thomas Dekker, Kellan Lutz, Clancy Brown.
- But not the phone tongue or Johnny Depp’s death in the bed that erupts with a geyser of blood.