I have to give the people behind A Nightmare on Elm Street credit for avoiding two mistakes that easily could have been made. Firstly, they did not try to make it a parody, which is more than I can say for last year’s very disappointing remake of Friday the 13th. Second, they remembered that Freddy Krueger is meant to be frightening; he’s not meant to be a pizza-faced comedian with a repertoire of really bad puns and cheesy sight gags. After many, many years, he’s once again a figure of fear, and just like in Wes Craven’s original 1984 film, it’s for reasons other than his melted skin, his demonically deep voice, his dirty stripped sweater and fedora, and his distinctive clawed right hand. 2010’s Nightmare gets not only the antagonist right, but also the consistently creepy atmosphere, a blend of eerie shadows, dirty rooms, and muted colors.
The weakness is in its story, which is both routine and subject to severe lapses in logic, especially as it nears the end. The characters are also problematic; they may not be like the promiscuous youths of the average teen slasher film (and for that, I’m grateful), but they are awfully bland, having been given little in the way of personality and depth. Granted, I too would be sapped of energy if I spent all my time trying to stay awake. After the apparent suicide of a high school student in a diner, classmates Kris Fowles (Katie Cassidy), Jesse Braun (Thomas Dekker), Quentin Smith (Kyle Gallner), and Nancy Holbrook (Rooney Mara) all begin having nightmares. Strange that they all dream of the same thing: A burnt man wearing a clawed glove on his right hand.
No more of the plot need be described. We all know about Freddy Krueger, both as a dream demon and as the man he was in the waking world. Taking the reins from Robert Englund is Jackie Earle Haley, who fits into the role perfectly. None of his expressions emerge, for his face is both buried under a ton of makeup and mostly kept in shadow. And yet, the makeup and lighting are expressions in and of themselves, and they truly do convey the sheer malice of his character. You will not see this Freddy Krueger turning anyone into a cockroach and squashing them in a roach motel, trapping anyone in a video game and playing them to death, or slitting anyone’s arms and legs and using their veins to move them along like marionettes – the goal of this movie is to scare you, not make you laugh.
If only the filmmakers had made more of an effort with the screenplay, which at times is incredibly inconsistent. When Nancy and Quentin confront their parents for not being forthcoming about Krueger, for example, they’re told that it was only in an effort to keep them from remembering. “From remembering what?” Nancy pleads. We do eventually find out, although we may find ourselves confused, for it seems highly unlikely that anyone could ever forget events of such extraordinary emotional magnitude. And then there’s the ending; I, of course, will not give anything away. But I will say that it raises serious questions as to the nature of Krueger’s existence and why certain characters did what they did because of it. What rules are they playing by, here? Up until that point, the story was more or less within the realm of common sense.
Many people will see this movie and say that it was bad. I take the approach that it could have been a lot worse. That may not be much of a compliment, but there you have it. There are elements of this movie I liked a great deal – the sets, the lighting, the makeup, the special effects, the serious tone, Haley’s menacing performance. Superficial, you say? I suppose you’re right, but keep in mind that this is a horror movie, meaning that if it’s going to play scary (and it does play scary), it might as well look scary too. As for the actors besides Haley, I will say that they do the best they can considering the shortcomings of the material. Mostly, they just go from one scene to the next with permafrost expressions of horror on their faces; that may be fun to look at from time to time, but eventually, there does come a point when we need less character and more development.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is by no means a great movie, but I do think it’s better than some have suggested. Still, I can’t help but wonder if there’s going to be an entirely new series of films, and if it will only continue going downhill. The last thing I want to see is a frightful-looking Jackie Earle Haley doing something goofy on the screen, like Robert Englund had to do for five sequels and a spinoff (I exempt Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, a thoroughly absorbing example of cinematic metafiction). To be so cavalier with a well established horror franchise would truly be a nightmare.