I want to be completely fair, so I'm going to pretend that I wasn't alive in 1984 and that I didn't see a certain influential horror movie that clawed its way into my brain and still plagues my subconscious. I'm going to pretend that sudden LOUD noises scare me instead of annoying me. And I'm going to pretend that I'm perfectly fine with the tiresome trend to remake movies with the sole intention of capitalizing on someone else's original ideas.
Full disclosure: That's harsher than I intend. I actually liked Samuel Bayer's new version of A Nightmare on Elm Street as I was watching it. Like the other remakes of modern horror classics perpetrated by production company Platinum Dunes, including 2003's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and last year's Friday the 13th, the latest Nightmare doesn't skimp on bloody, gruesome violence and is peppered with plenty of profanity, along with wisecracks to deflate the tension. It honors the spirit of the original by faithfully recreating several memorable set-pieces. It delivers, in other words, the most basic desires of horror fans, introduces young audiences to a classic character, and wrings a few changes of its own.
And if A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) fails to erase Wes Craven's original (1984) from the memory banks of all who've seen it, maybe that's because Craven created an unsettling picture that tapped into universal fears. The new version labors, initially, to establish its own unique take on the atmosphere, mood, and premise.
We're introduced to the anonymous town of Springwood, which has been struck with tragedy: a high school boy dies in unpleasant, mysterious fashion in plain view at a diner. Among those who witness his death are quiet part-time waitress Nancy (Rooney Mara) and the dead guy's girlfriend, Kris (Katie Cassidy). They've both been having bad dreams featuring a creepy guy in a sweater, with knives for fingers on one hand, and they're both feeling haunted.
Two boys are experiencing similar nightmares: quiet Quentin (Kyle Gallner), who yearns for Nancy, and angry Jesse (Thomas Dekker), Kris' ex-boyfriend. Worn out by grief, one of them gets sliced up spectacularly after falling asleep. The others realize they've been having the same dream, and that the creepy guy wants them dead. "Whatever you do, don't fall asleep!"
The name of the creepy guy is revealed to be Freddy Krueger (Jackie Earle Haley). He appears to have some connection with the teenagers, but none of them knows anything about him, and can't imagine why he's running through their dreams trying to kill them. Nancy's mother (Connie Britton) and Quentin's father (Clancy Brown) are no help to the kids, so they're left to their own devices to stay awake and solve the mystery of Freddy Krueger.
Throughout the initial scenes, the direction by Samuel Bayer is strictly stereotypical, jammed with music cues that startle due to volume rather than surprise, and false scares aplenty. The script, credited to Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer, is front-loaded with moments that feel perfunctory: a showy entrance for Freddy, the requisite spurting blood, and references to the original. It's almost like the filmmakers are following a checklist of necessary items for a modern horror remake.
Then there's a welcome shift into a more measured approach. Callbacks to Craven's original continue to pop up, but there are more extreme close-ups, sometimes moving so close to the faces of the young actors that the shot threatens to go out of focus. As the dream sequences take hold in earnest, the extreme close-ups retreat.
The nightmares are where Bayer would be expected to step up and assert his own vision. After all, this is the man who has made hundreds of stylish music videos and commercials, so he should know a thing or two about snappy visuals. The nightmares are ... er, fine. The best ones are the recreations from the original, with minor variations.
One of the beauties of dream logic in movies is that you can do absolutely anything, limited only by your imagination. Sadly, what's on display here is not very imaginative. The script takes a stab at adding another layer to Freddy Krueger and his connection to the kids. It's partly successful, but could have been devastating. Instead it feels half-hearted.
It's foolhardy to try and assign credit or blame for specific elements in a filmed script, at least as far as the credited writers are concerned, but back in the early 90s Wesley Strick worked on intense psychological thrillers like Final Justice and Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear, so I can't help wondering if some ideas on exploring the terrain of a serial killer who can kill people in their sleep got left behind at some point.
As far as the performances are concerned, Haley is definitely the star player. He takes a sober approach to the character, which is what's needed to reclaim Freddy Krueger from the excesses of the later, lesser Nightmare sequels. Haley's growling, menacing voice remains in the lower register, drawing out his words with a humorless, nasty chuckle. Kyle Gallner acquits himself well, while Rooney Mara is an incredibly soft-spoken, unexpectedly heroic heroine.
The new version of A Nightmare on Elm Street motors through its paces at a good clip and is an eminently likable, yet disposable genre picture. I can't help wishing, though, that it was more ambitious and daring: my brain has room for more nightmares.