I knew I was going to sucker myself into seeing this one regardless of who was behind it. As much as Michael Bay and his plundering production company Platinum Dunes have scoured movies from the past like “Friday The 13th” and “The Hitcher” subsequently laying waste to them intentionally or not, I knew that I was going to witness what they did to Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare On Elm Street.” Wes actually wasn’t involved in this remake the way he was with his other works like “The Hills Have Eyes” or “The Last House On The Left,” and he has made no secret over how much he is against this one. That’s definitely not a good omen for this particular remake, and that’s even if the original Freddy Krueger himself Robert Englund has no problem with it being redone for a new generation.
Still, I couldn’t help but be very much interested in this particular remake, reimagining or whatever the hell you want to call this for one reason: Jackie Earle Haley. Since Robert Englund has retired from playing the man with the claws whose makeup work takes HOURS to complete, they could not have found a better actor to take his place. Once he made his comeback with astonishing performance in “Little Children,” Haley has proven to be one of the most superlative character actors working in films today. In addition to “Little Children,” he also gave us the best Rorschach we could ever have hoped to see on the big screen in last year’s “Watchmen.” Seeing him take on the role of Freddy Krueger made me want to see it regardless of the horrendous reviews this movie has been receiving (that always seems to be the case anyway).
This new “A Nightmare On Elm Street” follows the same pattern as the original; kids are haunted by the same burned handyman who they come to learn is the same man their parents burned alive. As you would expect, many of them do their best to stay awake so that Freddy won’t kill them in their sleep (a perfect product placement for Red Bull). But they all have to sleep at some point, otherwise they will go insane and fall into a coma which soon leads to their death. Thanks to Freddy, these kids appear to be screwed either way. This version also has the advantage of using better special effects than what Craven’s original could have afforded, and seeing what the filmmakers could have rendered the dream sequences with CGI made this one full of promises.
Looking back on it, this new “Nightmare” was much better than I thought it would be, and I wasn’t expecting much. But you had to go into it knowing full well that it had no chance of outdoing the original. When Craven’s 1984 version came out, there was a plethora of slasher movies being released, but this one was unlike any other in its genre. Plus, Craven has more going on than just a bunch of bloody killings; there’s a lot of thought put into the story and the characters, and he effectively exploited our fascination with dreams and how we interpret them. There’s always more going on with Craven’s movies than just what’s on the surface.
Actually, one thing that really worked to this film’s advantage was that of insomnia where you have been awake so long that you end up having micro-naps. At that point, you can’t tell what is real and what is not. Now that’s an interesting device that really messes with your head and adds to the last half of the movie quite a bit. Perhaps if that had been exploited a bit more, the movie would have been as intense as the original, let alone just as imaginative.
But this new one doesn’t try to go quite as deep as the original. To his credit, screenwriter Wesley Strick (who penned Scorsese’s exhaustingly intense remake of “Cape Fear”) doesn’t regurgitate every single scene from the first of them all, and his story has an interesting twist in that the kids in the story all have a connection with each other, and not just because Krueger is viciously haunting their dreams. It’s not clear right away if this burned psycho deserved the fate that was thrust upon him, or if he was innocent of the heinous crimes he was accused of. The answer will become apparent soon, so I won’t bother spoiling it for you here.
Whereas the parents in Craven’s film wanted to cover up what they did to Freddy, the 2010 version is about them making sure their kids never remember what Krueger did (or may have done) to them. While the parents may have the best of intentions for their kids, the truth has a remarkably strong power which will burn its way through to the surface no matter how hard we try to repress it. Then again, what would you have done if these were your kids? You actually feel a bit sorry for the parents in this one instead of simply angry with them for what they did. That old line of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions is unavoidable to think about in conjunction with this.
The really big mistake made with this remake though is that the emphasis is put more on Freddy than on Nancy and her friends. Craven gave us characters to care about in his original vision, and that was one of the reasons why what he came up with was so damn scary. With the 2010 version, we don’t have the same luck. Much of it is about rushing right into the murders, so a lot of the power in the story is rendered useless as a result. We also learn a lot more about Krueger’s back story, and that makes him less threatening. It worked for me in Rob Zombie’s take on “Halloween,” but not here.
As for Jackie Earle Haley, he gives Freddy Krueger a very menacing presence that is felt throughout, All the same, the script doesn’t give him much to work with, and the one-liners he is saddled with are lame to say the least. I understand the filmmakers intention in not making this Krueger the jokester he became in the sequels, but if you are gonna make him crack the occasional one-liner, please make it a good one. Haley’s Krueger is much more perverted than the one Englund gave us, but it feels like there could have been a bit more dimension to him. With Englund, he gave us a villain we had to admire in some ways, and Haley could have brought that to this version had the screenwriters worked a little bit harder in developing the character.
Then there is Krueger’s new face, and we see that way too soon. We shouldn’t have to think about what went into the makeup creation here because the less the audience knows, the scarier things will get. When we do get a look at his face, he threatens to look like Ralph Fiennes in “The English Patient.” Haley could have been scary without the makeup in retrospect.
The actors cast as the teens are all great looking of course with their acne resistant skin and extensive dental work (never mind the plastic surgery or botox), and they do serviceable work here. I mean you really can’t expect Oscar winning performances here from them. You just hope they don’t suck too much. Rooney Mara may not have much on Heather Legenkamp when it comes to playing Nancy, but she does well enough here to keep us enthralled. Kyle Gallner also does good work here as Quentin, the guy with the big crush on Nancy. All the other ones are hot looking, but they could use another acting class or two.
As for the music video director whom Michael Bay employed on this remake, it was Samuel Bayer this time around. To his advantage, he did direct one of the definitive videos of the 90’s with Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” so there was hope that he was more than your average MTV video maker. For me, I thought he did a good job of maintaining tension throughout the proceedings, but his reliance on cheap scares (however effective they were) is further proof that the script is not strong enough to rely on characters and story alone.
The best way to enjoy this remake of “A Nightmare On Elm Street” is through reduced expectations. Compared to the other Platinum Dunes productions, this one fares a bit better than the rest. But when we come to the film’s end, which is much like the original, we see that the whole thing is generic at best. There’s not much new to be found here, and the best things about it will only last so long. It’s a shame because Jackie Earle Haley could have made this whole thing quite a rebirth, and while the movie has its moments, it’s not his fault the thing doesn’t quite work.
Then again, after my experience watching “Paranormal Activity,” nothing seems that scary to me. This remake is not going to keep me up nights the way that one did.
**½ out of ****
The above rating is in relation to the other Platinum Dune remakes. Comparing this version to Wes Craven’s original is just asking us to hate it. In relation to Craven’s original, I’d give it ** out of ****.