The filmmakers behind the new remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street promised that they were aiming to get back to the scares of the original film, with none of the jokiness that followed. But they failed. Freddy still cracks jokes, and thereare precious few scares to be had. The remake does capture the grimness of the first film, but combines it with the shittiness of the sequels, creating an ungodly hybrid that is both not scary and no fun. A nightmare, indeed.
The movie’s storyline will be familiar to anyone who has seen the original, or was alive in the 1980s. A group of teenagers in the seemingly idyllic town of Springwood, Ohio, discover that they are all dreaming of the same thing: a burned, horribly scarred man who wears a striped sweater, a fedora and a glove equipped with razor-sharp nails. And if he kills you in your dreams, then you die in real life.
The kids—Nancy (Rooney Mara), Quentin (Kyle Gallner), Kris (Katie Cassidy), Jess (Thomas Dekker) and Dean (Kellan Lutz)—struggle at first to figure out what connects them. Then, after they discover the truth about Freddy Krueger (Jackie Earle Haley), the child molester murdered by their parents who is looking for some postmortem revenge, they try to figure out how to stop him as he picks them off, one by one.
Wes Craven’s original film appeared at the height of both the slasher movie craze and the Reagan years. It had a casual, low-budget surrealism that was quite powerful, and the idea (right there in the title) of unspeakable horror lurking under the surface of an affluent, all-American suburban neighborhood was a particularly effective one. It’s also an idea that the people behind the remake utterly fail to understand—which at least makes sense, since they also don’t understand how to scare us or how to create characters we care about.
The remake’s script was written by Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer, and it proves to be almost singularly ignorant of how to scare people outside of the normal jump scares that can be found in every horror movie. To be fair, there a few nice moments here and there. Freddy’s line “Why are you screaming? I haven’t even cut you yet” is a good one-liner without being too jokey. And the movie brings up the idea of micronaps, in which insomniacs can fall asleep for a few seconds without realizing it.
The script does flirt with one particularly interesting idea, that Freddy was innocent, and he was killed because the children lied and he has now come back to seek revenge. In this post-McMartin time, this idea is a potentially powerful one [Editor’s note: The McMartin Preschool case in California, in which defendants were falsely accused of child abuse]. However, Haley’s performance never makes Freddy seem particularly innocent (particularly when he tells one of the girls she “smells different”), and the film dismisses the concept fairly quickly.
The film rips off most of the iconic moments from the first film, then doesn’t do them nearly as well, draining them of most of their power and context. For example, we get the scene in which Freddy stretches out of Nancy’s bedroom wall, unbeknownst to her. It was eerie and elegant in the original film, and done with a sheet of latex, but the moment is done in the remake with gaudy CGI that robs it of its power. We also see Nancy fall asleep in the bathtub, and Freddy’s glove emerge from the water between her legs. But the scene is placed late in the film, after she knows everything about Freddy, and who takes a warm, relaxing bath after knowing that a dude is waiting to carve you up if you fall asleep? Showers, people!
Part of the power of the original film was watching normal teenagers brought low by the horrors they are experiencing, but the characters here are sullen weirdoes to begin with. Nancy is a glum outsider who makes disturbing charcoal drawings in her spare time. And her would-be boyfriend Quentin is a goth cliché, sporting both a Joy Division T-shirt and a black knit cap.
The characters are kind of betrayed by the script, but the actors’ performances don’t help. Mara is so withdrawn and monosyllabic that we’re uncertain whether she was ever awake in the first place. And Gallner, whom I liked in the TV series Veronica Mars, has shown in his film work that he seems to have only one expression of crumpled, sad-eyed dejection. We may not find any Johnny Depps here, but it would be nice at least to find a Heather Langenkamp.
Haley is a fine actor, and he does his best here, but he can’t single-handedly save the movie, particularly when saddled with this script. He’s probably more frightening in Watchmen, and definitely in Little Children. Haley makes Freddy more of an angry little fireplug than Robert Englund’s iconic performance, but this script’s conception of Freddy also makes him seem smaller and more uninteresting than Craven’s version. Conversely, though, we see more of Freddy here than we did in the original, which also robs him of some of his power. He gets positively chatty at some points, and we want to remind him that less is more.
The movie was directed by Samuel Bayer, who is making his feature debut but is a veteran of TV commercials and music videos (including the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which is both more atmospheric and more disturbing than this film). Bayer shows a facility for pretty pictures, giving us an artfully grimy dream world and showing us how CGI can make the nightmares more beautiful, but what we really want is to be scared, and Bayer seems unable to provide that. Bayer does provide a few scenes that nicely blur the lines between dreams and reality, but he mostly gives the film a burnished look more suited to an episode of television than a horror film.
I don’t hate the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street as much as I did the new versions of Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but I’m not entirely certain why. This film fumbles its concept as thoroughly as those films did, but perhaps the last few years have just lowered my expectations on horror remakes to the extent that I’m merely disappointed in a film like this. It is a tone-deaf muddle that utterly fails to understand why the original had such lasting power, but in a world where Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake exists, perhaps we can take comfort that this movie is merely a mediocrity, and has the few frightening moments that it does.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.