I know that remakes or jumper-cable reboots are a necessary, and inevitable evil in the movie business, but I do get so tired of these disproportionately disappointing efforts. Regardless, I do admit I was looking forward to this remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street but only because of the casting of Jackie Earle Haley, an actor eminently qualified to inherit the role of Freddy Krueger from Robert Englund.
If you are going to do a remake of a horror classic, all I ask is that you bring something different to the table, another fresh interpretation that invigorates the material and ups the ante in the scare department. Director Samuel Bayer and writers Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer do indeed take a different approach. They leave behind the camp and biting humor of the original to play it straight. The serious tone and overt references to child abuse and recovered memories does make this version of A Nightmare on Elm Street relevant because these all too tragic crimes are more prevalent now or at least more high profile than they were in 1984 when the original film was released. But relevance aside, their efforts result in a grim, pedestrian film that neither raises a pulse nor makes the heart beat faster and which isn’t worth the effort or the dollars it took to make it.
One by one, a group of teenage friends each experience terrifying nightmares in which a hideously scarred man wearing a blade-fingered glove tries to kill them. Each makes desperate attempts to stay awake to avoid sleep and eventual death. After Dean (Kellan Lutz), Kris (Katie Cassidy), and Jesse (Thomas Dekker) die violently in their sleep, Nancy and Quentin (Rooney Mara and Kyle Gallner, respectively) investigate and soon discover that along with their dead friends they share a previously unknown history of abuse perpetrated against them when they were children by the man in their dreams, Freddy Krueger.
Bayer’s A Nightmare on Elm Street disappoints in so many ways. Visually, the director fails to make a palpable distinction between the real and dream worlds, unlike Wes Craven who created a hypnotic, off-kilter atmosphere for the dream sequences in the original film. The film’s musical score is forgettable. And, the young actors cast to play Nancy and friends don’t distinguish themselves as separate and unique characters. Mara in particular delivers a lackluster performance as Nancy, originally played as a resourceful, plucky girl by Heather Langenkamp. The expressionless Mara, by comparison, appears vacuous.
Bayer and the screenwriters also make a critical error in their vision for the character of Freddy Krueger. Bayer redraws Freddy the child molester in a more realistic shape. The problem though is Krueger is a ghost, a gothic character who inhabits the surreal netherworld of nightmares and whose power derives from his history as a horrific memory of violence and shame in the teens’ minds that has magnified over the years because it was repressed. Freddy attacks on his turf; he knows the terrain and physics of the dream landscape, his victims don’t, which further shifts the power in his direction. With these advantages, Freddy is able to re-establish with Nancy and her friends the “all-powerful adult perpetrator/helpless child victim” dynamic. If anything, these attributes make Freddy a terrifying, supernatural force and the character needs to be approached as such. Instead, Bayer cuts the character down to size and as a result, this Freddy lacks the mythic stature to be truly menacing.
Having said all that, none of the problems with Freddy can be laid at the feet of the Haley, who delivers a creepy and sinister performance with a kinky edge. Haley had the difficult task of acting through that awful melted face, botox-looking make-up that limited the use of facial expressions. His ability to project beyond that mask says a lot for his skill as an actor.
Even if Freddy Krueger were lying in wait to get you if you close your eyes, sleeping is still preferable to watching this uninspired remake of an exceptional horror classic.