The M/C Review: ‘A Nightmare On Elm Street’ is dead on arrival

04.29.10 8 years ago 18 Comments

Warner Bros.

I found this film deeply upsetting, but not in the ways the producers or the director intended.

“A Nightmare On Elm Street” has always been a franchise I’ve found deeply uncomfortable.  I saw the first film theatrically.  I was 14 at the time.  I thought it was effective and inventive and stood out from the typical slasher fare that was being released by that point in the ’80s.  I still think it’s one of the best things Wes Craven ever did.  Beyond that first film, though, I find the franchise loathsome.  Freddy Krueger is an uncommonly grotesque creation even in the world of movie killers, and if there’s any flaw with the original Craven film, it’s the way he sidesteps the nature of Freddy’s real-world crimes.  He was described as a “child killer” in the first film, and the idea of molestation was carefully avoided by Craven entirely.  By softening the point in the first film, it made the character more palatable, and by the time there were Halloween costumes for kids based on the Krueger design, it was obvious that no one really understood the monster they were watching or releasing.  The way they quickly turned him from a figure of fear into a bad stand-up comic with claws rendered pretty much every one of the sequels a gutless mess.  I listened to someone at a press day recently explain which ones are the “good” sequels and which ones are the “bad” sequels, but I’ve never been able to get behind that idea.  I think the entire notion of spinning him into a recurrent character robbed him of all effectiveness and led to incredibly mean-spirited and wrongly-silly films.

Shooting dreams on film has always been tricky, because the real nature of dreaming is non-narrative.  You may wake up and remember the broad strokes of what happened in a dream, but the vast majority of what happens between our ears while we’re out cold is random and strange and so surreal that it would be impossible to film.  The notion of tapping into that in the form of a person who can step into that landscape and shape it to his own rotten ends is a powerful one, and the original film by Craven gets that as right as any of them do.  There’s a mood in the film like reality is totally up for grabs, and the style, mandated in large part by the film’s budget, works in its favor because there’s no easy indicator of what’s real and what’s not.  The Freddy Krueger in that first film (and even in the second one, to some extent) is anything but funny.  He’s a vile, twisted thing, and the punishments he heaps on the kids in the first film aren’t wacky and jokey.

Samuel Bayer, ostensible director of the new remake of “A Nighmare On Elm Street,” makes lovely images at times, and his work as a music video director has been marked by any number of stylish and inventive clips over the years.  Based on the evidence of this film, though, I’d say he has no understanding of how to stage a scene between actors or how to create any sort of sustained narrative tension.  This movie is inert, so pretty that it seems unconcerned with being scary, and it fumbles the good ideas contained in the script with an almost willful efficiency.  It doesn’t help that he’s put together an attractive cast that manages to bring a collective near-total absence of charisma to their roles here.  I would never hold Heather Langenkamp up as an example of great acting, but I can’t call Rooney Mara’s non-performance much of an improvement.  She mopes and mumbles her way through the film, just like her co-star Kyle Gallner, who appears to have made a career out of the one particular open-mouthed sad-eyed look of crumpled horror that he wears for most of this film’s running time.  Katie Cassidy is a long-legged stack of gorgeous, which explains why she’s appeared in other slasher remakes like “Black Christmas” and “When A Stranger Calls” as well, and she looks great while she walks through these extravagantly art-directed dreamscapes, but she has little to do besides flash those stems and die.

The adult cast fares almost as badly.  Connie Britton and Clancy Brown are the two main Elm Street parents in the film, dealing with the buried guilt over what they did to Krueger all those years ago, but there’s no real sense of urgency to any of their scenes.  Considering what we see in the flashback to Krueger’s death and what he’s supposed to have done, it all feels like surface.  These are good actors… given real depth to play, they could easily have made this matter.  And I think there’s one truly great idea introduced in the script by Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer, the notion that Freddy may have been innocent of the molestation accusations that led to his death, and his revenge is on the children for lying and getting him killed.  The film introduces the idea but never really commits to it, and for all the busy work involving the kids running web searches via Giga Blast (a weird Google-stand-in that gets a whole lot of screen time), the mystery is never very compelling.  Everything’s offered up at the exact moment it needs to be.  I’ve seen “Scooby-Doo” episodes with better mysteries than this, and if that’s the case, then why bother trying to build any mystery into the film in the first place?

I haven’t addressed Freddy himself yet, and that’s because it’s the most frustrating part of this remake.  Yes, casting Jackie Earle Haley is a good idea.  I’ve said for years that Englund was no longer capable of playing the part as a monster, and Haley certainly talked a good game in all his press on the movie.  He is betrayed first by the make-up, which makes him look like a wet alien cat.  It’s not scary.  It’s not memorable.  And for most of the film, it’s barely visible.  And yet they hew so closely to his wardrobe that it just strikes me as a redesign for no reason.  He’s given way too many one-liners here, and his performance never walks that line of did-he-or-didn’t-he that the script wants to suggest, so the result is pretty much one-note and never manages to bring anything fresh or interesting to our understanding of Krueger as a character.

I vented a bit about karaoke culture last night, and this is one of the films that set me off in the first place.  Bayer’s rendition of this particular song adds nothing to the mix, and manages to mute everything that Craven’s original film got right.  I’ve only liked one of the Platinum Dunes remakes, last year’s “Friday The 13th,” and that’s because the original film was such a lightweight little doodle that it’s hard to get it wrong.  With both “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and this film, they’ve managed to take movies of real weight and substance, movies that stand above the rest of the genre precisely because of how perfectly they blend theme and style and real fear, and they’ve turned them into MTV videos.  Slick, soulless, overly stylized MTV videos.  I hated sitting through this film because there was no point.  There’s no point in making it.  No point in watching it.  The only “point” here is the cash it’ll put into Warner’s pockets this weekend, and the worst thing about it is how they took a genuinely promising and rich property, one that could have easily been reinterpreted by a strong filmmaker, and turned it into another forgettable cash grab that no one will be talking about a year from now.  In a way, I wish the film were worse, because that would make it easier to dismiss.  It’s the dull mediocrity of the entire endeavor that I find so upsetting, one more case of a pale echo being passed off as something new. 

“A Nightmare On Elm Street” will give me bad dreams, but only of studio executives counting up their filthy lucre made off of a generation willing to accept this sort of spoon-fed garbage, and not of the monster they’ve so completely neutered by this point.

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