Directed by Samuel Bayer
It can happen. When Wes Craven returned to his signature creation in 1994 he used it as an opportunity to examine the psychic affects of horror art on its creators. The fact that we don’t get that very often is no reason to give up hope. This is why I refuse to be disappointed that Platinum Dunes’ remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” is the same as all their other remakes: a carbon copy with lots of flash but no soul.
The plot is near identical to the original. Springwood’s teenagers have begun acting strangely, afraid of sleeping because their dreams have begun to be infested with a strange man named Freddy (Jackie Earle Haley) who wears a glove made of knives. The dreams are also terrifying the teens with lost memories of their childhood and a horrible secret in the basement of the local preschool, a secret they discover as they start to die off one by one.
Freddy — as the personification of the id coming to life to kill you — remains a great idea. There’s lots that can be done with that, which is what made the original “Nightmare” so entrancing. Of course, the other thing was the gore, as it combined with the first “Friday the 13th” to bring the slasher film into the mainstream. Inevitably, it seems, when insight and creativity mix with surface flash and visceral thrills, it’s the surface stuff that tends to get carried over into each iteration with what creativity is visible applied to making the death scenes more intense and over-the-top.
This has always been what delineated the horror film from the slasher, as one requires a prolonged amount of actual uneasiness while the other is concerned almost solely with visceral thrills, with the tension coming not from uncertainty about what will happen, but only when. Scare versus startle. The visceral is going to play a lot better in theaters (at least once), and it’s certainly a lot easier to do it that way rather than focus on the characters or narrative or themes, but it also suffers terribly from diminishing returns as seen by the near death of the genre by the early ’90s.
If you’ve never seen the original “Nightmare” or it’s been a very long time, most of what was fundamentally entertaining about it still holds true for the new one, as the filmmakers stick closely to the “if it ain’t broke” doctrine. Freddy tracks his victims down through their dreams in a game of cat and mouse with the film veering dynamically between startling and quiet fear like some sort of psychotic Pixies album.
But that’s all it does and if you’ve seen every “Nightmare on Elm Street” sequel many times over, there’s nothing to be had from the new version but more of the same. This is fine if you like that sort of thing in and of itself, but tiresome if you don’t.
Jackie Earle Haley (“Watchmen”) does make a fine replacement for Robert Englund in the signature role. He doesn’t have Englund’s insane clown physicality, but that actually works in this Freddy’s favor, pushing him more out of sight, forcing first-time director Samuel Bayer to focus more on mood and Haley to garner chills with his voice. It’s often quite affecting in the first half, though eventually they all fall prey to the desire to overdo it, applying menacing dialogue and dark humor that actually detracts from what they want. The less aware you are of Freddy, the more effective he is.
Producers Andrew Form and Brad Fuller have maintained a policy since the beginning of the current remake trend of using these films as a way to offer first films for new directors, which is undoubtedly a good thing. On the other hand, you also always end up getting a new director’s first film which tends to be uneven at best, with lots of attention paid to individual moments but not always to how they fit together.
New “Nightmare” suffers from that in droves, particularly in regards to how to stop Freddy, an idea that was more than a little preposterous in the first version and is doubly so in the latest as it comes somewhat out of nowhere in the last act after heroine Nancy (Rooney Mara) pulls a piece of his sweater into the real world. Perhaps if they’d introduced the element early in the film and let the kids grapple with the significance of that rather than focus on whether they were all as a group suffering from repressed memories it would have been more believable.
Instead, the urge to squeeze in as many dream sequences as possible–leading healthy teenagers who were fine for 30 minutes until it was their turn to be scared to spontaneously develop narcolepsy–trumps everything, leaving just enough space to squeeze in the exposition needed to move the plot forward.
For fans of the “Nightmare” franchise, and slasher films in general, the new version does exactly what you want and not much more. Haley makes for a good Freddy and as with all sequels, there is still opportunity available for real exploration of the concept even if this “Nightmare” is content to just go through the motions. Better luck next time.