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Entries in Nightmare on Elm Street/A [2010] (1)

Sunday
May022010

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

We'll Always Have Englund

After several months of outrage and speculation, fans of A Nightmare on Elm Street can rest easy. The Internet has been ablaze with the cries fans wondering how Platinum Dunes could sully the franchise’s legacy by not casting Robert Englund in the remake. The actor has portrayed child-killer-turned-dream-demon Freddy Krueger in every Elm Street movie since the 1984 original, and in doing so has become a beloved pop culture icon. Never mind that producers Brad Fuller, Andrew Form, and Michael Bay cast veteran actor Jackie Earle Haley and promised a return to the darker tone of the first couple of films—before Freddy became a wisecracking, murderous cartoon. For the die-hards, it was Englund or bust, and no replacement would do.

Having recently watched the truly awful remake, I’m happy to report that Robert Englund’s legacy is solidly intact. It’s not that Haley does a bad job. No, the problem with this vision of Freddy—and with the entire movie—is that everyone involved in the re-imagining seems to have confused Freddy Krueger with Jason Voorhees (easy enough to do, I guess, since Platinum Dunes also re-made Friday the 13th last year, and confused Jason Voorhees with Leatherface).

The original Elm Street was not a movie about Freddy Krueger as a person or a personality, but rather as the vague bogeyman that stalked the dreams of a group of teenagers—who were the ultimate focus of the story. The film’s heroine, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), came of age during the picture, with Freddy representing the thin, cruel membrane separating childhood from adulthood. In later installments, Freddy—and, more to the point, his razor-tipped glove—became a pop phenomenon, and the series wandered from a sinister exploration of the teenage mind into slasher territory, where the goal is to out-do the gore and creativity of the previous kill.

The opening scene of Samuel Bayer’s remake delivers some of the edge we were promised, as a teenager named Dean (Kellan Lutz) struggles to stay awake at the Springwood Diner. His eyes are red and he wears the distressed, worried face of someone who desperately wants to sleep. When he slips into the dream world, there’s a great shift in atmosphere that’s marked by the exaggerated neon lights of the diner marquee flashing green and red (the colors of Freddy’s sweater) across everything. Dean follows a waitress into the kitchen, and he dazedly wanders past giant cauldrons of boiling pig’s heads and flames shooting out of stove burners. It’s a creepy moment that recalls some of the imagery of the original series while grounding the nightmare landscape in a slightly off-kilter version of reality.

But then, Freddy’s gloved hand drops into the extreme foreground, accompanied by a loud crashing sound, and the whole picture takes a swan dive into cheap-scare hell.

For all the phony hype about Bayer’s credentials as a music video director, his take on Freddy is embarrassingly pedestrian. In the original Elm Street, Wes Craven used eerie music and unsettling imagery to creep his audience out; his nightmare world was full of moaning corpses with centipedes spilling from their mouths and long-armed specters chasing teens down alleys. He didn’t need to slap moviegoers across the face every ten minutes with loud noises and people jumping into frame. Bayer has confused alertness with fear, and replaced imagination with iconography.

What do I mean by that? Let’s look at the glove. In the opening of the original, we see the glove being made. A heavy-breathing, soot-handed man welds blades to copper hinges and hammers together this scary, weird thing whose purpose we can only imagine. In the new movie, the glove is just The Glove, a useless trademark that’s as intimidating as a McDonald’s hamburger. Freddy scrapes it along pipes, producing more sparks than an 80s metal music video, and he occasionally scratches people to death with it.

Bayer and company don’t understand that the glove is like Freddy Krueger’s war paint, an intimidating tool that represents the killer’s sadism and creativity; it was never meant to be the whole show. If you’re not convinced, think back on the iconic kills of the 1984 Elm Street. The hanging in the jail house; the bloody whilrpool bed; Tina getting flung around the room; only one of these involved the glove, and even then, you couldn’t see it being used. Bayer might as well have put a machete in Freddy’s hand, and a hockey mask on his face, for good measure.

A deeper problem with this interpretation of Freddy is that the screenwriters have rewritten his fundamentals. The only origin story we got of the killer in the original was a great two-minute monologue about a local child killer who was tried and released on a technicality; a gang of angry parents trapped him in the boiler room in which he worked and set it on fire.

The new movie envisions Freddy as the kindly janitor at a nursery school, who loved all of the children he helped take care of. Jackie Earle Haley plays these flashback scenes with genuine sweetness, and I thought for a moment that some of the ‘net rumors might be true: that Freddy was framed and killed by mistake—which would have been a bold, fascinating choice. What made things more complicated was Haley’s portrayal of Krueger not only as a kind man, but a possibly retarded one—sort of a Dark Night of the Scarecrow kind of thing.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, Freddy turns out to be a child molester—the really dumb kind who leaves giant claw marks on the backs of five-year-old girls whose parents might, I don’t know, give them baths and stuff. The problem here is the huge narrative disconnect with what we’re shown of Krueger and what people say about him. We don’t see him act creepily towards the kids except in one brief scene that could just as easily be interpreted as the inappropriateness of innocence.

On top of that, there’s no trial, so we miss out on the miscarriage of justice angle that enriched the previous origin. The new story doesn’t know what it wants to say, and it certainly doesn’t have a point, so by the time we figure out that he really was a bad guy, we’re so confused and annoyed that his motivations don’t carry any weight.

Okay, enough about Freddy—we’ve established that he’s not scary or interesting—what about the teenagers? Utterly forgettable. I get what the filmmakers were going for: by ensuring that their actors looked strung-out and ragged the whole time, we would buy their sleep struggles and get more into the story. The trouble is, you have to have really solid actors to pull this off, ones who can perform through the mask of insomnia and display some sort of charisma or drive. Everyone in this movie has two modes: disaffected, monotone delivery or flipped-out, screaming hysteria; it’s like two hours of watching Hot Topic clerks go off their meds.

Some argue that it’s unfair to compare a remake to its original, but especially in terms of the main cast, it’s inevitable here. In 1984, Heather Langenkamp played Nancy, the good girl who watched her friends get murdered, and who had to become powerful in order to survive; she had an alcoholic mother and a police captain father whose overbearing nature put her in real danger. Today’s Nancy, Rooney Mara, plays the whole movie as a shy Goth Chick and ends it as a machete wielding bad-ass, in the exact same out-of-fucking-nowhere character transformation that happened at the end of the Friday the 13th remake (down to the scene structure, where she shouts a one-liner at the killer before nearly decapitating him).

To further defend my tireless contrast of the two movies, I submit that if the filmmakers wanted this Elm Street to stand on its own, they should not have stolen so many visual gags from the original. Either that, or they should have just committed to a shot-for-shot remake with modern special effects.

As it stands, they half-assed everything. All of the scenes that were re-created from the first Elm Street pop up as bizarre mile markers that don’t work with the rest of the picture. Hey, kids! Remember when Freddy’s face came out of the wall? Here it is again, made “better” by CG, the addition of claws, and a big roaring sound!

A Nightmare on Elm Street’s biggest sin is the climax. Few things stun me into slack-jawed disbelief, but Samuel Bayer made it happen. In the original film, Nancy discovers that she has the ability to bring objects out of the dream world and into the real world. She decides to drag Freddy out so that he’ll be vulnerable enough that her father can arrest him. Using the knowledge she acquired from books (!), she rigs her house with booby traps; she knows that he’s a devious killer, even without the advantage of dream powers, so she gives herself as much of a leg up as possible. The last ten minutes of the movie are made of exciting chase scenes around the house, with Nancy struggling to get out alive.

In the remake, Nancy pulls Freddy into the real world, where he throws her and her boyfriend around a room for about two minutes. Somehow Nancy gets the best of him and slices his throat open. He gags on some black blood, falls down, and dies like an utter pussy.

Oh, and if you think the fright gag that ended the ’84 Elm Street was bad, just wait until you see how Bayer decided to close out his picture. It’s much, much worse.

For all the advancements in technology and storytelling that Hollywood has made in the twenty-six years since A Nightmare on Elm Street debuted, you’d think that some talented director and screenwriter could, if given a sizable enough budget, create a unique and terrifying movie about teenagers being killed in their dreams. I was all for this remake, in principle, because Freddy Krueger is a character who has the powers of the mind as his weapon. Dreams are unpredictable phenomena, ruled by repressed memories and current fears, and signified by shifting perceptions of time and reality. I’m still waiting for someone to successfully put that on the big screen (Joss Whedon did it on the small screen nearly ten years ago, on a great episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

If Platinum Dunes’ idea of a visionary director is a guy who repeatedly puts Freddy in the right of the frame and his interchangeable victims in the left of the frame like an early Kevin Smith movie, then I would hate to see what kind of person they’d consider a hack. This movie is not wholly devoid of ideas, but it doesn’t know what to do with any of them. It is full of dull actors, failed homages, and, yes, a wisecracking, cartoon killer (the key here is that Jackie Earle Haley’s Freddy delivers his awful jokes dejectedly, as if he would rather be reciting Shakespeare; whereas Robert Englund sold the lines with black glee).

There’s no reason for this movie to exist, and no reason for anyone to watch it. Unlike its predecessor, a bona fide classic horror movie, this garbage is best shaken off like a bad dream.