The question isn’t if the new A Nightmare on Elm Street lives up to the original. Of course, it doesn’t. At the time of its release, Wes Craven’s 1984 classic redefined the slasher, rescued New Line Cinema from bankruptcy, and paved the way for seven sequels, a late-night television show, as well as several comic book series. What fans craving a revival ought to ask is whether the remake compares to one of the better sequels, bringing enough life back to a franchise that jumped the shark sometime between the Freddy rap and Roseanne Barr’s cameo.
Most A Nightmare on Elm Street sequels come off like remakes anyway, carrying the same old plot with different teenagers and set pieces. Director Samuel Bayer mixes things up a bit by reproducing the same kill sequence over and over again but introducing an element of mystery: once again, the kids of Elm Street are dropping like flies, picked off in their dreams by a burn ward reject with a funny-looking sweater, but is the ghoulish Freddy Krueger (Jackie Earle Haley) seeking revenge for a wrongful death or merely resuming his child molesting ways through supernatural means?
Yes, Freddy is an alleged pedophile in this version, something to which the original alluded but had the good taste to leave ambiguous. I’m not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, it allows screenwriters Eric Heisserer and Wesley Strick to merge the franchise’s two main themes, deadly denial and bad parenting, by having the grown-ups medicate the children to erase their memories of abuse, real or imagined. On the other, the subplot never leads anywhere, and I don’t think child rape is the sort of notion one ought to just mention in passing.
Besides, it leaves the kids too damaged to function as effective slasher protagonists. In keeping with the plot point, they all seem to limp through existence, which diminishes the terror Freddy is meant to bring into their lives. I started the movie tickled the characters had names from different entries in the series, a clever way to keep hardcore fans such as myself from guessing who’ll make it to the end. By the time the film reached its climax, though, I was too depressed to care.
Mind you, the relentlessly ominous mood doesn’t help. Whatever happened to the sun in Springwood, Ohio? Too busy putting two scoops in every box of Raisin Bran? Meanwhile, composer Steve Jablonsky seems to think every car passing by and teenage girl scratching her nose deserves an eerie sting. Even Freddy, once known as the Bugs Bunny of scary movies, looks a bit morose. Sure, he quips every now and then but always with that low, raspy voice actors use when they want to strike fear in the hearts of evildoers or, you know, teenage cannon fodder.
Despite Haley’s inspired casting, I suspect the creative team might have missed the point of Freddy. Consider the villain’s more realistic burn scars, which have the unfortunate effect of making him look like Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia. Do the makeup artists realise dead tissue doesn’t heal? More importantly, by trying to turn Krueger into a grittier, more serious threat, the filmmakers have removed the very traits that make him unique. Freddy shouldn’t be portrayed as an enigmatic menace. His trademark glee evokes a more familiar evil, that of a pathetic sadist or schoolyard bully with the means to indulge his most perverse instincts.
The new Freddy also suffers from a severe lack of imagination. The man has dominion over his victims’ nightmares, yet all he can come up with is a short chase down a boiler room before going to town with his makeshift Wolverine claws: no dream logic, no variety, no point. The only set pieces to break the monotony are lifted from the original film, but even then Bayer screws the pooch by ramping up the digital effects. The iconic levitation kill, for example, offers little suspense because the girl never gets a chance to fight back.
Therein lies the biggest problem. Neither trying to understand the franchise nor bring anything new to it, Bayer drowns his film in so much nihilism I nearly stepped out mid screening just to get some air. Instead, I spent an hour and a half watching competent but bland leads wade through a consistent but predictable plot with slick but creatively bankrupt visuals while struggling against a charismatic but boring monster. Incidentally, I think that’s the most words I’ve ever used to convey a simple “meh”.
Why are today’s slasher remakes so bent on demoralising us? This may seem counterintuitive, but horror fiction doesn’t celebrate pain. We wouldn’t call the genre “horror” if it did. Rather, a good scary movie uses its disturbing images as context to comment on the human spirit, something that’s sorely lacking here. Say what you will about the original series’ excesses, out of the eight A Nightmare on Elm Street flicks formerly released, only one got that notion wrong. I guess I should grant the remake this much: it’s better than Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991).