A Nightmare on Elm Street
If nothing else, A Nightmare on Elm Street’s remake serves to yield a degree of respect for Wes Craven’s rickety craft in fashioning the original. I was aware of Platinum Dunes’ churn ’em out approach to remaking horror properties, but I still didn’t expect an Elm Street iteration to be quite so devoid of personality, imagination and ambition. Even the least of the series’ predecessors – and there are a few, let’s be frank – couldn’t be denied sincere intentions on the parts of their makers. There’s no trace of that here. Samuel Bayer’s movie is simply a machine, the kind of functional slasher from which Craven’s film was seen as such a refreshing departure.
The screenplay, credited to Wesley Strick (the Cape Fear remake) and Eric Heisserer (The Thing prequel, Bird Box and Oscar-nominated Arrival) offers a couple of scraps that suggest a different take, but they’re either dropped or illustrate – due to the blundering impersonality of the project – the kind of insensitivity the earlier movies were shrewd enough to avoid, however ironically, given the theme and content. But then, this was the post-torture porn era, an anything-goes for horror in terms of banally explicit depiction.
The chief change Brad Fuller et al made was one Craven and Shaye had shied away from: citing Freddy Krueger outright as a child molester. This was, apparently, not due to an express wish to tackle the ramifications of the subject, but simply because his being a child killer couldn’t logically have been kept a secret in the age of the Internet (newsflash: it wasn’t remotely believable in 1984 either). Which, as daring moves go, is rather perfunctory. In its place, we’re expected to believe all the affected kids buried their memories, including of each other. What, did their parents call in a master hypnotist? The CIA? The only real benefit of this is that we get to see Jackie Earle Haley as creepy gardener Fred Krueger in flashbacks, so we’re able to appreciate that he’s doing his best to give a decent performance somewhere in the mess of a movie.
Haley had previously played a child molester in Little Children, and more crucially, had just been Rorschach in Watchmen. The latter is a great performance, the best thing about the movie (which is, most of the time anyway, no slouch). But casting him here is symptomatic of the two-dimensional thinking characterising Platinum Dunes’ remake cycle. Successfully embodying one masked pyscho killer doesn’t mean Haley’s suited to any masked psycho killer. If cast your mind to the classic horror creations, those behind the makeup/fangs/face wigs/bandages tend to have fairly memorable mugs. Haley does too, but not once he’s been plastered with prosthetics designed to make Freddy “more realistic”.
Rorschach was a blank, his voice everything; this Freddy’s visage is also a blank, and his voice has been augmented electronically, banishing any iota of personality. The results are bland, indistinct, shrouding any performance. He looks more like Ron Pearlman’s Vincent from Beauty and the Beast with a splatter of pepperoni. It doesn’t help either that Haley’s a diminutive fellow. The only imposing aspect of this Freddy are his claws, as this version (being more “realistic”) is very much about Freddy slashing his victims, rather than creatively doing for them through exotic dream scenarios.
Bayer plied his trade as a music video and commercials director – Bowie’s The Heart’s Filthy Lesson is his, along with a raft of promos for The Cranberries, Garbage and Green Day – and a fair few from this field have graduated to the ranks of proficient film directors. None of that here. Bayer’s movie hits the obvious beats of the hunt and kill, but its tone is perfunctory for the most part. Make it more horrifying? This translates as amped-up cheap shock scares (usually via an over-cranked soundtrack and things lunging into the frame). And for someone making their feature debut, and therefore presumably trying to impress or leave a calling card, he does a singular job of rendering the most generic-looking picture possible, comprising the two-tone colour schemes so favoured by post millennium moviemakers.
A Nightmare on Elm Street serves up indifferent remixes of the original’s bath scene, ceiling walk scene, prison scene, Freddy bedroom wall face – in less-than-glorious CGI; the original was a marvel of simple but effective physical effects – and Freddy clumsily trotting out a greatest hits of quips (“I’m your boyfriend now”; “How’s this for a wet dream?”; “You’re in my world now, bitch”). The cast are… well, you’re wishing Clancy Brown was a repeat of John Saxon’s detective, as he’d at least have something to do beyond growling protectively over his son (Kyle Gallner). Rooney Mara makes an impression because she’s Rooney Mara; she hated making it apparently, so it’s lucky (well, depending how you see it) that David Fincher and his two hundred takes per shot were waiting in the wings.
About an hour into A Nightmare on Elm Street, though, there was a brief glimmer of a genuine curveball, one that wouldn’t have made it a good movie but might at least have justified its existence. Quentin (Gallner) becomes convinced Freddy’s out for revenge because he was unjustly accused: “You killed an innocent man” he tells dad: “We got him killed. Our stories. Our lies”. This doesn’t last, of course, as once he and Nancy arrive at the preschool and discover Kruger’s basement, hidden room and photos, the truth of his crimes becomes clear. Platinum Dunes is the last outfit to think out of the box, so I doubt there was ever a serious possibility they’d have gone that course, but A Nightmare on Elm Street in the mode of High Plains Drifter would have been a genuinely distinctive take (it might even have gained some retrospective cachet in the post #MeToo era, as a riposte).
What we have is utterly indifferent, forgettable, anonymous. New Line made money from it, a quick brand awareness cash-in, but even they were forced to recognise the backlash from pretty much everyone. So no sequels for them (although, their Friday the 13th was unable to muster any either, albeit for lawsuit wrangling reasons). Another take is bound to happen, though. Some bright spark will do a Halloween “re-quel”, claiming authenticity to and reverence for the original yet offering none of those things.
Elm Street Ranked
Apart from recognising none of the series as unadulterated classics, my ranking probably differs most from consensus in rating The Dream Child as actually mildly worthwhile, The Dream Master not quite as worthwhile as its rep and Freddy’s Revenge having its own quirky merits. Mainly, though, this is a series that bears the legacy of Wes Craven’s generally choppy/sloppy quality control, even when he wasn’t involved. As such, most disappointing of the bunch is New Nightmare, which had untold possibilities but settled for exploring the least-interesting characters with the least-inspired “reinvention” of its villain.
1. Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors
2. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
3. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child
4. A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master
5. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
6. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge
7. Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare
8. Freddy vs. Jason
9. A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
First published by Now in Full Color on 25/02/22.