Whatever happened to movies like Psycho and The Birds? Alfred Hitchcock is lauded as one of the horror/thriller genre’s most significant forebears, yet there seem to be no attempts made by modern day Hollywood to recapture his unique approach. These films were effecting in their lack of blood and guts, yet somehow the genre has come to entirely ignore that concept, leaving us with a trend of gory one-upmanship. Scary movies no longer leave anything to the imagination (unless the MPAA insists on it), and the supposed thrill that an audience gets from seeing so much human destruction takes utter precedence over the kinds of subtleties Hitchcock tended so masterfully. Nightmare on Elm Street lives safely in this trend; an absurd, callow, unoriginal assemblage of grisly vignettes with no obligation to story or plot or character development or, well, anything that might make a movie worth your nine bucks. To put it another way: I want my nine bucks back.
I was 1 when the original Nightmare was released, and as a little kid I would unfailingly peruse the boxes at the video store. I was fascinated and horrified, and coupling that VHS box imagery with the synopsis from kids who had seen the movie was enough to convince me I would have nightmares for the rest of my life were I to actually watch it. Of course years later, when I finally did see the original, the reality was far less intimidating than the one I had constructed. Such is life. What I’m getting at is that I understand the impetus for a remake. Nightmare is a legacy film that is guaranteed a huge box office, and to be fair, it’s one of the better premises for a horror film. To brief: Years ago a mob of incensed parents chased Fred Krueger (Jackie Earle Haley) into an old abandoned factory intent on revenge. The true nature of Krueger’s relationship with the mob’s preschool age children had come to light, and his punishment came in the form of a flaming gas canister. As those same children near the end of high school, Krueger returns, appearing in their dreams scarred and wielding a glove of knives. Somehow the violence he perpetrates in dreams follows through to the real world, and the result is an insomniac blood bath. Fair enough. If a horror movie’s goal is to take something commonplace and make you terrified of it, sleep is a brilliant choice. This is the Nightmare series strongest element, and though it carried the first few films into success, it is definitively NOT enough to keep this thing going more than 25 years later.
A remake is inevitably a kind of homage; recognition of something that was great, or at least had the potential to be great (or made so much money that everybody convinced themselves it was great). But a remake has to distance itself from the original, a job director Samuel Bayer seems entirely unprepared for. Of course there are a few differences. The new one looks a little better, the story has some minor alterations, and there’s surprisingly less sex (some sort of misguided idea that removing that old amorous standby might up the legitimacy quotient?). But ultimately this is a mildly updated carbon copy. None of the possibilities that all our 21st century technologies allow for have been taken advantage of. The film dips relentlessly into a dreamworld, and I found myself constantly wondering, “why didn’t they do something more with this?” Dreams can be anything! These sleepy teens are walking lazily through Freddy’s endlessly boring factory, with only occasional visual suggestions that this world is malleable. It’s the kind of missed opportunity that could have seriously altered my opinion of the film as a whole.
The chief frustration though is Jackie Earle Haley’s Krueger. Haley was the one element of this film I could get behind. After his career revitalizing role in Little Children, and his scene-stealing Rorschach in Watchmen, I kind of thought he could do no wrong. I expected a Freddy Krueger far removed from Robert Englund’s. But this Freddy Krueger is just a twisted facsimile. Just another horrifically burned face, and grated voice, and slithering nightmare. What’s the point in even casting a talent like Jackie Earle Haley if all you’re really trying to do is recreate? Freddy Krueger has the potential to be the most interesting, most charismatic aspect of this film. Yet he lies pitifully flat on the screen. Just a murderer, just a replacement.
If this were the first Nightmare on Elm Street to live on the big screen, perhaps I’d be more impressed. But all the best parts of this movie are the things that were already established. Namely the plot and the killer. Otherwise this film is so unremarkable, and so poorly written, and so convoluted, it’s just awful. It spits on the opportunity to do something new with an already tired franchise, and falls inelegantly in line with it’s predecessors. And perhaps the worst part is that a sequel is already planned. It’s guaranteed money, no matter how much quality may be lacking. They’ll keep churning out these boring, overly aggressive and stupid films, because it would be financially irresponsible not to. I suppose, if I could make any request to the studio behind it, I’d ask that they leave Jackie Earle Haley be. This guy has legitimate talent, and tying him to your reconfigured garbage could quite effectively halt any forward momentum he’s built over the last few years. And that would be such a shame.