The horror genre, more than any other, is cyclical. A smash hit in the genre almost guarantees a series of sequels, knockoffs and remakes. We’ve already seen the remake of two the most popular horror franchises from the ‘80s, Halloween was remade just a few years ago and last year saw Friday the 13th. While both series have their merits, it’s the original A Nightmare on Elm Street that stands as one of the most creative, effective and imaginative popular horror series of the ‘80s.
Of course, any remake will pale in comparison to the original 1984 A Nightmare on Elm Street, but the core concept allows for the crafting of surreal, bizarre and unsettling dreamscapes. Going in, I knew that alone would sustain my interest in the film and differentiate it more from similar slasher films. And while I do think the remake retains some of the cool dreamscape that I love from the series, it does a smash up job of making sure everything else in the film is as tedious, dull and tired as the rest of the slasher subgenre.
Take for instances the cast of kids in this film. For a good thirty minutes I couldn’t tell who was whom and how they related to each other or anything. I did recognize Jesse Braun because he’s played by Thomas Dekker who was that angsty teenaged John Connor in that Terminator show. However, for the longest time I couldn’t tell who was playing Nancy. In part, this is because the filmmakers are trying to throw off fans by taking some of the iconic sets and moments from the original and playing with them for a bit.
I did appreciate this to some extent because it made things a bit more on edge when the thing I thought that was going to happen didn’t or when a character I expected to be important got quickly disposed. It’s a great way to throw off the expectations of fans but the film ruins the effect when it recycles those moments later. Yet they lack the same sense of subtlety and realism that made the original so effective.
For instance, the original had this compelling structure that made it so that after a certain point we were left guessing as to whether a character was in a dream or reality. Here, the film makes it as obvious as possible when a character has fallen asleep by showing them close their eyes, having an entire change of lighting, or even scene, and then playing up the creepy music. Part of the suspense of the original was in wondering whether or not a given moment was a dream, and here the film absolutely undermines it.
So what’s the big deal about falling asleep anyway? For those who know absolutely nothing about the series, it revolves around a group of teenaged kids haunted in their dreams by a burned man with a set of fingerlike blades for hands. His name is Freddy Krueger (Jackie Earle Haley) and whatever he does to the teens physically in the dream world has effect on them in the real world.
The real magic of the film is in these surreal dreamscapes. For all else the film fails to do, the dream sequences are simply cool and imaginative. They allow for a compelling visual nature and the ability to make these uncanny and bizarre spaces. The way the film plays with the spatial arrangement in particular makes for some unnerving moments.
And the film explores is that when the film reaches that point where the kids start involuntarily slipping in and out of dreams. The original had a line about it, suggesting that at any moment the characters could be dreaming, but here when the characters slip in and out there’s a fascinating clash between dreams and reality. The editing, pacing and visual style of these moments make for an effectively postmodern look at what A Nightmare on Elm Street could be today.
Another element the film gets right is the character of Freddy Krueger. Over the series of the films he’ become more dominant, but here the film gives him a compelling backstory with a bit of good misdirection. The film lacks a lot of the subtext of the previous Freddy Krueger by casting Jackie Earle Haley. He’s channeling a lot of Rorschach from Watchmen with a not so subtle dash of pedophilia from Little Children. Yet the overall effect is still creepy and even without the makeup Haley is a scary looking guy. He lacks the comedic playfulness of Robert Englund but makes for a much more menacing and malevolent Freddy, similar to New Nightmare’s take on Freddy Kruger.
In a lot of ways, A Nightmare on Elm Street regresses into the stereotypical stalker film where generic teens act stupidly, get killed and the audience cheers with glee. It’s a shame because the original was such as smart picture, both in the filmmaking and in the behavior of characters. However, the fantastic dreamscape and iconic characters are still there. For many it will simply boil down to how much of a fan you are. Do you love it enough to simply enjoy the dreamscape and endure the mediocrity or do you love it so much that anything that doesn’t live up to the intelligence of the original is unworthy of your time? If you don’t care for it at all, the film doesn’t have anything enough outside the dreamscape world to sustain any interest in the least, the ultimate failing of the film and the reason why it’s among the lesser films of the series.
© 2010 James Blake Ewing