In the Fatal Foursome of 1980s iconic slashers, Freddy Krueger was always my least favorite.  Jason Vorhees was a giant who would slice a teen with a machete as soon as look at him;  Michael Myers wore a demented William Shatner mask and was the Boogeyman personified;  Leatherface… well, he carried a chainsaw.  And he would eat you.  Lagging far behind those three heavy hitters was Freddy Krueger, a wisecracking, razor-gloved burn victim whose tagline with each subsequent sequel seemed to be, “Can I get a little yuk-yuk with my snik-snik?”  Freddy would bounce out of a TV, turn a teen into a cockroach, then make an addict’s track marks open up and speak to her, all the while making Z-grade jokes that would have gotten him thrown out of any halfway respectable comedy club.  There was nothing scary about this clown at all, especially compared to his franchise brothers.  Those guys were all massive, silent killing machines, who went about their dark slaughtering with no sense of joy at all.

It  was X who pointed out to me that it hadn’t always been this way.  “Go re-watch the original,” he said.  “You’ll see Freddy isn’t so much of a clown in it.  He’s actually pretty scary.”  I disagree with X about films all the time, but he’s a smart guy.  And he was dead right on this one.  Going back to the beginning with the 2-disc DVD, I found that Freddy used humor in a few spots, but in a grim sort of fashion.  And he was mean.  He was mean like he was in THE NEW NIGHTMARE, the only NOES sequel I really enjoy, specifically because Freddy is angry in it.  Going back to the original, I learned a lot about Freddy the way Wes Craven intended him to be.  Thanks, X.

When the Platinum Dunes people decided to pilfer their next horror franchise from the 1980s, they apparently decided to go back to the original as well.  And going back, they made a satisfactory NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, with good scares, an angry Freddy Krueger, and the broad, rich world of nightmares.  Therein lies the reason it works as a perfectly satisfactory horror movie.  And therein lies the reason it fails to be anything but a retread of the original.

I’ll spare you the normal plot synopsis, because if you’ve seen the original NOES, then you already know where this is going (and if you haven’t seen it, please don’t see the remake first, as you owe it to yourself to see Wes Craven’s vision prior).  Though it changes many of the minor details and character names, it follows the overall plot from start to finish.  What you really want to know is what works and what fails.  So have at it.

What works: 

  • Jackie Earle Haley.  No, he’s not Robert Englund, so get over it.  But he is an accomplished actor who’s vastly adept at portraying dark characters with an edge, as he proved in WATCHMEN.  He’s right at home in Krueger’s skin, and stands up behind the makeup, bringing a creepy quality that Englund had in the first film.  I’m not fond of his Krueger voice, though.  It’s sluggish, which was an inspired choice, given he sounds as if he’s not fully awake.  But Krueger would have been that much more frightening if it didn’t sound as if each sentence should be followed by a yawn.
  • The dream world.  Sure, much of it’s cribbed from Craven’s original, down to specific scenes that are shot-for-shot (the glove in the tub, particularly).  But if I dug down into the darkest parts of my unconscious id, I know it would look a lot like this.
  • The music.  Again, much of it is Craven’s.  But the new themes and motifs blend in nicely and don’t sound out of place.  It’s uniform and creepy.
  • The tone.  Forget all those sequels where Freddy was showing up as the meatballs on a pizza and the son of a hundred maniacs was shooting seltzer down his pants.  This is Freddy at Ground Zero:  a malevolently angry pedophile with sharp fingers and an attitude Hell bent on revenge and suffering.  The kids are in peril from the opening credits, and the movie has its audience by the throat, heading along full throttle toward the big showdown between Nancy and Freddy.

What fails:

  • The first 1/3 of the movie follows Kris, who is essentially the Tina character from Craven’s film (she even dies the same way).  For the opening 30 minutes or so, Nancy qualifies as a minor character, as the film uses Kris to set up all the exposition, when we already know she’s not the heroine.  More time spent on Nancy upfront should have been a prerequisite (as should be an explanation of why Nancy works at a diner on a lonely highway, a conceit the film drops after its opening scene).
  • Rooney Mara as Nancy.  I think she misunderstood it when director Samuel Bayer said, “Staying away from sleep is important to your character.”  She thought he said, “Play your character for the entire film as if she’s asleep.”
  • Kyle Gallner as Quentin.  This kid’s been in more than one film, but he only owns one expression:  maudlin depression.  Johnny Depp he’s not (in acting ability or in checkbook).
  • A few silly implausibilities, such as:  a character who commits a spectacularly violent suicide in public, then gets buried on holy ground after the last rites from a priest;  a character who jumps to Freddy’s defense after a dream where only Freddy’s claims of innocence would suggest he wasn’t guilty;  and the idea of micro-naps, in which the insomniac falls asleep every few seconds while on a sleepless bender.  As a Catholic, a logic thinker and a card carrying insomniac, I can attest that things just don’t work in those ways.  But these are minor contrivances, in a film that pretty much sticks to the logic of its world.

And then there’s the new NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET’s greatest sin.  The sin of repetition.  Many people, myself included, railed against the FRIDAY THE 13TH remake for being so far afield from the original that you may as well have not even called it FRIDAY THE 13TH.  NOES goes in exactly the other direction.  It tells the same story with basically the same characters and provides exactly the same scares.  It doesn’t go as far as Aja’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES remake or Van Sant’s shot-by-shot PSYCHO, but it’s on the same track.  The real shame is that the NOES remake stays comfortably at home with the abstract, general idea of nightmares, when 25 years out, it could have dealt with a whole new world of things for kids to fear.  Think of all the possibilities:  Internet stalking, the post -9/11 world at war with a crumbling economic job structure, even Meagan’s law.  All are developments that didn’t exist when Craven conjured up Freddy, and all were ripe for the picking.  Commenting on any of these would have spoken to the contemporary audience.  Instead, NOES chooses to cleave ever so closely to its predecessor, adding absolutely nothing new to the mix.  In remaking this film, the people behind it squandered the opportunity to do anything fresh, and instead produced a slight variation on the original with different actors.  Which brings up the question I gather many of us older fans will ask:  If you’re not going to do anything with the original idea, why remake this film at all?

For passing entertainment, the remake of NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET works.  It’s a pretty good horror film, with some decent scares, and one very good performance of one very bad character.  But for all of us who outcry against horror remakes, this is one more shining example of just how much our beloved genre is in a rut.  The reason Wes Craven, Romero, Carpenter and the like are so loved today is because they had original visions.  If you want proof of that, go back and watch Craven’s A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, where Freddy Krueger holds up not only Jason, Michael and Leatherface, but to the weight of his creator’s genius.

–Phil Fasso


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