A 'Nightmare' Indeed
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
I've never seen the original "A Nightmare on Elm Street," Wes Craven's 1984 horror film, which may be the only thing I have in common with the 18-year-olds whose dollars New Line/Warner Brothers is chasing with this remade reboot. I avoided the original "Nightmare" film because by the time I got into horror, the franchise had already descended into parody as the series' slasher, Freddy Krueger, turned into Rodney Dangerfield with a knife-glove at the ready, delivering bad one-liners and dispatching teens. Apparently, Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes, which has already produced such retro-horror remakes as "Friday the 13th," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "The Hitcher" and "The Amityville Horror," is of the same mind, as this new "Nightmare" promised, early on, less camp and more chills, fewer jokes and more scares.
So while I can't offer you an A-to-B comparison of the two films, I can also appraise the new "Nightmare" without the fear of any nostalgia creeping into the process. Directed by Samuel Bayer, a video-directing veteran in his feature-film debut, "A Nightmare on Elm Street" looks gloomy and gritty and expensive, well-shot and nicely-designed. A group of teens are all having the same nightmares, and dying, one by one. The common thread in the bad dreams is a badly-burnt bogeyman, Fred (Jackie Earle Haley), which leads scared, suffering Nancy (Rooney Mara), Quentin (Kyle Gallner) and their friends to try to figure out why this psychotic phantom is after them.
But like many modern horror remakes, "A Nightmare on Elm Street" is more interested in jump-scares and BOO! moments and CGI-aided death scenes than actually exploring ideas in the plot around those brief bloody moments. Knowing that they're vulnerable in their dreams, one of the kids chases an ADD pill with a swig of Red Bull, and later a parent signs the papers to have her injured daughter sedated, not knowing she's essentially signing her death warrant. A more interesting film would have looked at what's behind those things, how, nowadays, it can seem easier to medicate kids than to listen to them. But "Nightmare" is more interested in getting to the next slaying of someone than it is in saying something.
Craven, who wrote and directed not only the original "Nightmare," but also "Last House on the Left," "The Serpent and the Rainbow" and "The Hills Have Eyes," was, in his early work, a horror genius whose low budgets never got in the way of his ability to deliver real terror; Bayer's a competent gun for hire going over someone else's film. It's like watching a brilliant garage band's sparse, smart singles turned into loud, expensive, overproduced karaoke sing-along versions with the same notes and lyrics but none of the passion and power.
Even the film's real underpinnings, a mix of John Hughes and Carl Jung, in which teens find out that their parents are fallible people even as they're confronted with the idea that their dreams can kill them, get remarkably short shrift. The kids' parents are either never seen or given blips of screen time, making them ciphers when in fact they're the true engines of the tale. Haley's Krueger is creepy-looking; featureless and melted, he looks like an animal nuzzling and sniffing its way through the night to strike. And he does not quip and chortle his way through the slaughter (until the end, at least). Mara, Gallner and the other teens (including Kellan Lutz and Thomas Dekker) are fine, with Mara a real standout as Nancy. Mara's Nancy believes what's happening to her, and so we believe it, too.
And Mara's concerns and scenes are the closest we get to anything resembling tension in the new "Nightmare," a film that, like too many modern horror films, can't be bothered with the difference between shock and suspense, between disgust and horror. The original "Elm Street" films struck a chord with audiences because they offered audiences a different kind of monster, a new set of rules, a previously unexplored set of themes. And that, you might say, is the problem with modern Hollywood: Instead of giving us a new equivalent to Freddy Krueger, they just reheat the old Freddy Krueger and arrange some CGI and hot young actors on the plate as garnish. Everything about the film's finale, right down to the last phony, adrenaline-spiking gross-out moment, suggests that Platinum Dunes will try to bring Freddy back for more films, and that prospect is far more terrifying than anything the new "A Nightmare on Elm Street" has to offer.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.