Recurring Nightmare; Elm Street Still Creepy, but Lacking Surreality

A Nightmare on Elm Street
(2010) dir. Samuel Bayer

This year’s latest film franchise reboot is A Nightmare on Elm Street, a remake of Wes Craven’s signature film from 1984 of the same name. The horror/slasher genre has been gobbling up and spitting out titles from the 1970s and 1980s with a vengeance in the last couple of years. Though it’s probably just part of a larger trend in Hollywood, where new ideas come at a rare premium and >remakes or reboots or just using a recognizable title come by far on the cheap.

Knowing that I was going to see this film, I watched Craven’s original A Nightmare on Elm Street just a couple of days prior, a refresher on a film that I hadn’t seen in a long time. As a result, my viewing of the 2010 version was very colored by that juxtaposition. And I have to say that all the best things about the original were all but forsaken in this new version.

The original concept — a mutilated killer with a glove of knife-fingers who comes to teenagers in their dreams to torment and kill them — was original in itself, but allowed Craven to created a number of visually surprising moments, which were semi-comical but striking; playing heavily with dream logic was a recurrent theme. It’s in part the Freudian elements of the history repressed by the parents — the crime they committed against a child killer — that made the film fresh and why it continues to be interesting. And the film did tap into the classic elements of the genre, giving a cast of teens a setting and place of believability.

The interesting twist that the new film takes is that by putting notable actor Jackie Earle Haley (who has played a child molester before in Little Children [2006], which brought him back to Hollywood’s eye), the film relies a bit more on his performance and the psychology of his character. In other words, in this film, Freddy Krueger, is more naturalistic, more like a human being. Not a morphing Plastic Man-like character who could stretch his arms across an alley way or have his face get pulled off for a shock gag. And he murders with his glove exclusively, not being capable of some of the stunts that Freddy achieved in the original.

With the characters, the back story is deeper. And here I will warn of a spoiler because I will unveil one new plot twist here, in that in this version, Freddy wasn’t a murderer, but a child molester. All of the children in the preschool where he worked, all of whom he was to have molested, are now his victim targets. As in the original, Freddy’s story, that the parents hunt him down and burn him alive and then try to pretend that he never existed, is revealed as the film works its way through the story. But this further detail and connection makes the whole thing that much harder to believe.

The children were all supposed to be five years old. And the assumption the film makes is that none of them remember going to pre-school together, none of them were taken to therapy, none of them exhibit any symptoms of child abuse. The parents successfully eradicated Freddy (until now). And that makes the whole thing just that much harder to swallow, and disturbing on the parents’ side. They are so committed to hiding the truth that they are angry when it returns, but it never really came out in the wash.

I suppose if the subtext were stronger or available or investigated, this could have worked in a way . . .perhaps the return child abuse-related memories on a whole class of pre-schoolers, and with a villain that is somehow the embodiment of the memory as well as the perpetrator . . . that their psychoses are real perhaps and that Freddy is more symbolic and questionably real. But … that’s not how they took it.

Additional to this, the “teenagers” do not any one of them look like teenagers. The actors are all 22-25 years old and they look it. They are young and beautiful, but young and beautiful 20-somethings, not teens. And while an argument could often be made like that about casting choices, at least in the original they seemed younger, more believably younger. I mean, it took until they had a scene at the high school until I figured out that these were supposed to be teenagers for sure.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (the remake) is not a horrible film, but it lacks the exact elements that made the original worthwhile, valuable, interesting, shocking. The film does cast a few mini-homages toward the original, redoing a scene or two (the hand/claw coming up between the girl’s legs in the bathtub, the bloody body in a bodybag dragged through the school hallway). But what is interesting, one of the very effective shots in the original film, Freddy looming over a sleeping girl’s bed by “stretching through the wall”, originally done with latex and a real person pushing through, is redone with digital FX. And it looks like a whole lot of other things done with digitial FX and is not nearly so striking or shocking as the original “analog” effect.

And that is perhaps true of the whole shebang. Haley as Freddy is creepy, sure. The original Freddy, even in the first film before he fell to such a caricature, had a more comic taunt, a surprise around every corner. And the effect, utilizing the elements of the surreal, made for a much richer film. So, as I noted, here in Nightmare-land we have a renewed commitment to the realistic, the naturalistic, the more believable and grounded villain…who comes in one’s dreams to rip them to shreds.

For the full, extensive archive of movie reviews by Ken, please see kennelco.com/film_diary

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