In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve never actually seen any of the original Nightmare on Elm Street films. I’ve never been much of a horror fan and I typically prefer moody (The Blair Witch Project) to hack-n-slash (Friday the 13th). But even if you’ve never seen any of the originals, you know the drill: Freddy Krueger stalks the dreams of teenagers in a quest for undeserved vengeance. Even though I’ve never seen one, don’t take that as a sign that I don’t have respect for the series. It’s a testament to the power of the Nightmare franchise that it has permeated pop culture to the point that even the uninitiated know its mythos. That’s no mean feat. Sadly, that permeation is also a hindrance to the effectiveness of its remake.
Jackie Earle Haley takes over the infamous role of Freddy and, honestly, it’s an inspired casting choice. With a thirteen year gap in his acting resume, perhaps no other actor has ever had his career resuscitated to that degree that Haley has. It’s easy to forget (given his work of the last few years) that he originally came to fame as Kelly Leak in The Bad News Bears. After his recent turns in darker fare such as Little Children, Watchmen and Shutter Island, it can be difficult to believe that he began his career featured in the pages of Teen Beat. (And seriously, click that last link. It’s all kinds of awesome.) With his sunken features, gaunt frame and sinister speaking voice, he’s tailor made to tackle the part. Unfortunately the script gives him very little to work with. Director Samuel Bayer is so slavishly faithful to the film’s forerunner (at least according to Wikipedia, and we all know that’s never wrong) that he sucks the spontaneity out of the film. Even with only cursory knowledge of the series, it still felt as if Bayer we’re checking items off of his “to do” list. Compounding problems is the fact that much of the humor associated with the character is missing. True, the original Freddy at times bordered on self-parody. But, while this makes Freddy 2.0 more menacing, it also makes him less special.
The main focus is on Nancy (Rooney Mara) and Quentin (Kyle Gallner). Freddy waits eagerly for the kids to drift off so he can strike but the jokes on him. This generation have all been diagnosed with one disorder or another and, in an admittedly clever twist, Quentin uses his ADHD medication to stave off slumber. (Who’s laughing now, Tom Cruise?) As the teenagers continue to try and find new and unique ways to remain awake (Red Bull, self-mutilation, purloined adrenaline from a hospital), one can’t help but wonder, “Haven’t these kids of ever heard of meth?”
Unfortunately, the film all but squanders its central conceit of blurring the lines between sleep and wakefulness. While it makes nice usage of subtle continuity errors to hint at the transition to dreaming, the dreams themselves never fully exploit their logic-free nature nor fully maximize their surreal possibilities. What should be a trippy thrill ride through a frighteningly fantastical universe ends up being nothing more than repeated “gotchas” when we discover what we’re witnessing is actually a delusion.
The new Nightmare on Elm Street isn’t so much a bad film as it is an unnecessary one. It’s well assembled and has a few stylistic flourishes. But it spends too much time withholding Freddy’s back-story only to reveal that it’s remarkably unchanged from the original run of films. Furthermore, it spends too much time with its intended victims. When we finally do see the main attraction, he’s too often relegated to quick cuts or one line of dialog. The end result being that Freddy often feels like an afterthought in his own movie.
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the original Nightmare on Elm Street and 1 being Nightmare on Elm Street for the NES, Nightmare on Elm Street gets a 6.