Horror remake fever creeps on- though 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street isn't the youngest major American film to get the remake treatment (The Hitcher, from 1986, was only 21 when it got its very own do-over), it feels like we've hit ourselves a sea-change, doesn't it? Maybe it's just me. Anyway, it feels like the bulwark has fallen, and we can expect a deluge of mid- and late-'80s horror films to get revamped for the modern age, though after Nightmare, it's hard to say what remaining title has the name recognition for anybody to bother. Quick, who wants a Witchcraft reboot? Yeah, me neither.
On the other hand, it's hard to say what drove anybody to bother with this particular well-known title, if all they were going to give us was the floppy, dimwitted 95 minutes of criminally mediocre horror that the new Nightmare represents. Now, every viewer surely comes to this or any other movie with a separate set of expectations, but here was mine: one of the hallmarks of all seven films in the original series was their garish, surrealist killing scenes, even in the relatively more sober first two films. The killer Freddy Krueger was, after all, a dream demon of sorts, and he first terrorised his victims in elaborate, effects-heavy nightmares. Now, every single one of those films save the last was produced before the dawn of the CGI Golden Age in 1993, and it would be a good seven or eight years after that until computer effects became de rigeur in everything from summer tentpole movies to quirky romantic dramedies. So I, at least, was anticipating - with some tiny level of enthusiasm - a veritable CGI blizzard, endless waves of delightfully gaudy deaths taking place in ambitious nightmare-scapes that could never have been realised in the 1980s and '90s. That's not out of line, right?
Well, apparently, the filmmakers of the remake felt it was, because all in all, the 2010 Nightmare is the least effects-driven film in the whole franchise. There are only three scenes that use much CGI at all, and in one of those at least, the effect is far less convincing than the similar moment in 1984. Otherwise, it's so much slasher film boilerplate: Freddy jams his knife-glove through somebody's abdomen, or slices their throat, and they bleed to death, all inside a run-of-the-miller boiler room, or sometimes a creepy abandoned preschool. It's staggeringly ho-hum, not even bad enough to be delightfully bad fun.
Writers Wesley Strick (a very well-established name, running all the way back to Arachnophobia back in 1990) and Eric Heisserer (not at all well-established) have largely stuck close to the template of Wes Craven's essentially perfect original, much more faithfully than the great majority of slasher remakes have done: in the town of Springwood, Ohio, a group of fairly nondescript high-schoolers are being stalked by a terrifying figure in their dreams: a man with a horribly scarred face, dressed in a ratty red and green sweater and battered fedora, with a clawlike glove on his right hand (for the first time ever, Freddy is being played not by Robert Englund, but by Jackie Earle Haley). None of them has shared their nightmares with the others, until one night a young man named Dean (Kellan Lutz, one of the unimportant shiny vampires from Twilight) cuts his own throat in a diner, while apparently asleep and mumbling to an unseen assailant. At his funeral, everybody begins the gradual process of comparing notes, and we find that four other Springwood teens have been seeing the same dark figure: Nancy Holbrook (Rooney Mara), Quentin Smith (Kyle Gallner, who is positioned in the film's credits as its second "name" actor, apparently because the producers noted that smart people watched Veronica Mars), Kris Fowles (Katie Cassidy) and Jesse Braun (Thomas Dekker). Clearly, the killer has a secret that involves the kids' parents, and possibly their mysterious past in preschool; but more people have to die before that secret can be revealed. It's not exactly the same as in the original film, but the nugget is close enough: Freddy's angry ghost is killing the kids for revenge against their parents for killing him.
(Incidentally, none of those actors looks even vaguely like a teenager - the youngest, Dekker, is 22 - which hasn't been as much of a problem these past few years as it was in the '80s. Also, they're all very bad. But they've been given a pretty lame script, so let's not hold it against them.)
Comparing this film and the 1984 edition of the same material is nothing but an exercise in frustration and pain, so I won't. But it is a hell of a way to make all of the logic gaps and Idiot Plot moments (the plot can only advance if the characters are idiots) that much more obvious. Damn, does the new Nightmare ever have a sloppy middle: it's nothing but one big grindathon to boost the thing up to a respectable length. Wes Craven got around that by extending the beginning - by making it more of a mystery what the hell was going on, and having fully the first half of the movie be something of a whodunnit. Of course, the new writers have to assume that the audience comes in knowing that Freddy Krueger is a vengeful ghost who kills people in their dreams, and they couldn't play the material as ambiguously; but you know what, I've seen the '84 Nightmare four times, and I never find myself getting bored during the first half.
Wait, I said I wouldn't compare the two, didn't I? Well, it's the remake's fault, for not trying hard enough - or at all! - to carve out its own identity. The closest it comes is that it restores the genuine seriousness of the first movie, before Freddy had been reduced to a black comedy clown. Even that doesn't really count as "originality" according to any definition of that word that has any meaning.
At best, the film's purpose as a unique thing, other than putting asses in theater seats, is that somebody observed that Haley's two most prominent roles have been as a pedophile and a merciless killer, and since Freddy is basically a merciless pedophilic killer... But Haley doesn't do much to make the role his own, either, hiding behind a remarkably inexpressive sheath of latex, and intoning things menacingly. He's also way too short to have any credible presence; or maybe the filmmakers were so apocalyptically incompetent that they just didn't know how to get around that. Either way, in just about every wide-shot, we're faced with the question of why a hobbit is fighting teenagers.
I'm tempted to blame the filmmakers for that one. Director Samuel Bayer - a music video veteran making his feature debut - and cinematography Jeff Cutter don't have any concrete ideas about making the images remotely interesting or evocative, other than observing that hey, the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre looked good, and amping up the video noise on flashback footage. Indeed, Bayer's treatment of the material is so slackly proficient and unmemorable that it falls to editor Glen Scantlebury to make things distinctive, which he does by ripping the thing apart and letting continuity and coherence die a withering death on the curb. A more distractingly-edited movie I haven't seen in months, and by the way, do you know what Scantlebury's last credit was? Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I nearly died of ecstasy when I found that out. (That was just an "additional editor" credit. His last full "edited by" credit was... Transformers. God bless us, every one).
There's not a single reason on earth for this Nightmare to exist; and other than the siren call of R-rated horror, not a single reason to bother watching it. By the way, don't assume that said R-rating means that the film is full of outstanding Grand Guignol moments; the gore is just as tepidly-presented as every other element of the film. If not for its title, and the memories it conjures up of one of the slasher subgenre's few out-and-out masterpieces, the film wouldn't have enough of an impact to last through the end of the credits.
Reviews in this series
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven, 1984)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (Sholder, 1985)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Russell, 1987)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (Harlin, 1988)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (Hopkins, 1989)
Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (Talalay, 1991)
Wes Craven's New Nightmare (Craven, 1994)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Bayer, 2010)