Nightmare on Elm Street, A (United States, 2010)

April 29, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Nightmare on Elm Street, A Poster

With remakes available for both Halloween and Friday the 13th, it was only a matter of time before the third member of the trio of '80s horror icons was provided with a new opportunity to greet a new generation. Welcome to 2010, Freddy Krueger. You were scarier in 1984.

In many ways, Wes Craven's original movie was innovative. It arrived in theaters when the slasher era was peaking and postulated that a gory movie could also be rich in ideas and misdirection. A Nightmare on Elm Street toyed with the lines between reality and fantasy in ways that no previous motion picture had done. Many of the things Craven accomplished in that production have been copied so often they now feel like clich├ęs, but they were fresh in 1984 and that freshness imparted energy to the movie. The energy is missing in the remake because the techniques, which are replicated in a straightforward fashion, are stale. For 2010's A Nightmare on Elm Street to emerge from its inspiration's shadow, he filmmakers needed to discover a new way to enliven this chapter in the Freddy Kreuger saga, and they didn't.

Like Rob Zombie's Halloween, this version of A Nightmare on Elm Street is part prequel, part remake. Using altered bits and pieces of Freddy Krueger's back story as shown in the 1984 film and its sequels, screenwriters Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer provide a half-assed origin for the villain which absorbs an inordinate amount of screen time. Freddy, like most horror icons, is more interesting the less one knows about his background so, by starting things out with his case history, he is inherently less terrifying. Random, seemingly unmotivated violence is more unnerving than something with a "rationale" (no matter how twisted) behind it.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 has been assembled much as a "best of" collage of moments not only from the original but from other horror movies. Classic images from Craven's edition appear: the little girls jumping rope, the claw breaking the surface of the bathtub waterline, and the acrobatic bedroom slaughter. But there's also at least one moment lifted from Halloween and a few allusions to the Nightmare sequels.

The storyline isn't a strict replication of its predecessor's narrative, but it follows a similar trajectory. The central characters are a group of five high school teens: Nancy (Rooney Mara), Quentin (Kyle Gallner), Jess (Thomas Dekker), Kris (Katie Cassidy), and Dean (Kellan Lutz). All are experiencing nightmares featuring a scarred, burned man (Jackie Earle Haley) wearing a striped shirt, wide-brimmed hat, and a glove equipped with razor-sharp nails. He likes to use those cutting accessories like utensils on his victims and, when someone dies in their dreams, which is where Freddy Krueger exists and preys, they die in real life. One-by-one, the kids are eliminated until the only two remaining are the sleep-deprived Nancy and Quentin, who use stimulants to stay awake but can't keep the narcoleptic moments at bay. For them, it's a race against time to uncover the truth behind Freddy and find a way to stop him before sleep overtakes them for good.

Director Samuel Bayer, a man with an impressive music video resume who was personally recruited by producer Michael Bay, spends considerably more time refining the look of the film than developing the characters or helping the actors bring them to life in a convincing fashion. Nothing hurts horror more than lifeless performances and A Nightmare on Elm Street is full of those. Maybe there's another Johnny Depp to be found in this group of performers (Depp, it should be noted, was unimpressive in the original), but it seems unlikely. It might even be a stretch to say there are five Heather Langenkamps.

There are no cameos, which is both a surprise and a disappointment. I'm trying to remember when it became "uncool" to have members of an original cast make bit appearances in a re-make. At one point, this sort of thing was almost a requirement; lately, it rarely happens. It's somewhat mystifying that Robert Englund, one of the few original A Nightmare on Elm Street participants willing to go on record as supporting the remake (Craven, for example, has voiced his opposition), doesn't appear in a single frame of the finished production. There are plenty of opportunities for cameos, but apparently no one thought of it or worked hard enough to make it happen.

When it comes to set design and atmosphere, the film is on stable ground, but many of the locales (both in the real world and the dreamscapes) seem cloned from those in other horror movies. Originality is at a premium. A major conceit of the 1984 version, that Nancy is a typical girl in a normal community (doesn't nearly every town have an "Elm Street"?), is removed. There's nothing stable or conventional about Nancy or her friends. The dreams start before the first frame of the movie and the participants are strung out by the time the first murder heralds the title card. It's a way to open with a flair but is not an effective manner to develop identifiable characters.

It's easy to forget that the original A Nightmare on Elm Street was more about Nancy than Freddy. He was the demon in the background - an implacable force of evil that motivated events without being at their center. Understandably, because Freddy became such a recognizable figure during the '80s and into the '90s, he is given a more prominent role here. Unfortunately, the greater exposure diminishes him. One thing that distinguished Freddy from Jason and Michael was his personality. He was a vicious sadist with a ready barrage of one-liners. The sequels gradually changed the character into a parody of his early self, but in his original incarnation (and the one re-imagined by Craven in 1994's A New Nightmare), Freddy was chilling. Here, he is distressingly bland. His limited arsenal of one-liners is delivered with less relish than one might expect. And the make-up is unimpressive. The layers of latex applied to Robert Englund turned the mild-featured man into a frightening monster. Jackie Earle Haley appears vaguely reptilian, like an old guy with a bad skin condition. He looks like the "classic" Freddy in silhouette, but the illusion disappears in close-up. The producers argue that the new-look makeup was designed to make Freddy more closely resemble a "real" burn victim, but since when did "reality" become important in a movie that deals so forcefully in dreams?

A Nightmare on Elm Street makes the remake authors of the late-'70s/'80s horror staples a perfect zero-for-three. Halloween could never have been re-created with Carpenter's flair, but Rob Zombie botched the job completely. The bar was low for Friday the 13th, but the filmmakers nevertheless undershot the target. And now, perhaps expectedly, A Nightmare on Elm Street has re-invented this series into something depressingly generic. Bayer provides a few good "boo!" moments but not a lot more. The hope is that this will be a one-and-done, but the true nightmare is that we'll be subjected to a sequel.

Nightmare on Elm Street, A (United States, 2010)

Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2010-04-30
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1