Sleep. It’s something we all need. After a long, hard day, nothing is better than plopping down on a bed and heading to dreamland. But what if you couldn’t fall asleep? What if somebody was haunting your dreams with the ability to kill you? That’s the premise that the Nightmare on Elm Street series has frightened us with for over 25 years. Now the series is getting the reboot with a fresh batch of victims and a new face, with Jackie Earle Haley taking over the role of Freddy Krueger from fan favorite Robert Englund, and, well, it’s not very good.
This Nightmare on Elm Street follows Nancy (Rooney Mara in the Heather Langenkamp role from the original). She’s a high school student who works at a diner and one night finds herself staring at the corpse of a friend who has just inexplicably died in his sleep. It turns out that she and fellow classmates Quentin (Kyle Gallner), Kris (Katie Cassidy) and Jesse (Thomas Dekker) have all been having the same nightmares involving a burnt, scarred, hideous man with knives on his fingers. It seems real to them and soon they find out that it is. They start to drop one by one in their sleep and must quickly find out what is happening before they find themselves asleep for good.
At its inception in 1984, A Nightmare on Elm Street was original and terrifying. Freddy Krueger wasn’t simply a psycho who you could outrun and escape from. He was in your head as you slept and if he cut you in there, you were cut in real life. It was a slasher done right. But as the years went on, and the movie studios pumped out more and more sequels, Freddy became a joke. The terror he once instilled in viewers vanished and was taken over by nutty one-liners that slowly diminished the character until he became irrelevant with Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare in 1991. It wasn’t until Wes Craven, who helmed the original, returned in 1994 with New Nightmare that people began to once again see the intense fear Freddy could bring.
Craven took a character that had become so marketed that children were walking around with Freddy dolls and somehow made him scary again. He is the only person that has ever seen the true potential in the character (as he should be since he created him). This remake, as promising as the trailers made it out to be, only reinforces that statement.
This is not the Freddy I want to see. It tries to balance the scary Freddy with the jokester and it doesn’t work. It becomes an uneven mishmash of two parts that never fit solidly into place to begin with. Although I’m sure there were a few quips in the original, Freddy was more subdued. His rhetoric never became so jocular that you stopped taking him seriously. He remained frightening through the conclusion. Here, the film sets up a scene for fright and sometimes succeeds, but it’s usually followed by some stupid pun that effectively sucks all of the tension away.
It’s trying to be fun, but then again, Freddy isn’t fun. He’s a child molester and murderer. He’s not a character to root for. This isn’t Friday the 13th. You don’t want to see the monster win, but this film sure tries to make you think you do.
In fact, for the entire movie it almost forces you to. Unless you’re familiar with the mythology of the character (and if you aren’t, I suggest stopping reading now because spoilers follow), you won’t know that he was a sick human until the end. He is not taken to trial and let off on a technicality as in the original. Here he is simply burnt alive by the town’s adults over the speculation that he may have molested their kids. Nothing was ever proven and the film makes you think that he’s really just doing this for revenge. In a way, it's twisted justification.
But the film’s biggest flaw is its rapid pacing. At a brisk 95 minutes, A Nightmare on Elm Street flies to its end, but tries to force in as many nightmare scenes as possible, resulting in far too much screen time for the monster. A new approach to dreams in this remake comes in the form of “micro-naps,” a phase insomniacs get to when they haven’t had sleep where they start to dream when they’re awake (which believe it or not, is actually real). Because of this, the film jumps from the dream world to reality and back as quickly as you can take in breaths. It has little downtime and shows Freddy too much.
And as the best horror films have taught us, the scariest monsters are the ones that are hidden. When one is shown often, it becomes the star of the movie and distracts from the eeriness that the character is supposed to emit. When Freddy is first seen, it’s from behind and from the chest down. You see only his claw as he slides the blades together. This is in the opening scene of the movie and is a great way to introduce the character. It establishes his presence while still maintaining the mystery behind him. This is ruined about a minute later where he is fully shown and dispatches his first victim. His frightening allure was gone before the title card even appeared.
This is no fault of Jackie Earle Haley, mind you, who is quite good in his first outing as Freddy. If there was going to be anybody to take the beloved place of Robert Englund and do it well, it was going to be Haley. He takes the character and reinvigorates him. He plays him in a way that promises dread and is hampered only by the screenplay which doesn’t allow him to reach it.
The look of the film is also very good. The visuals, especially for a horror film, are stunning. The director, Samuel Bayer, most known for his music video work with bands such as Green Day, Metallica and the Smashing Pumpkins, makes this thing look good. He brings his unique visual style and lays it all on the table, delivering along with Haley that desired sense of dread that is, again, hampered by the lackluster screenplay.
The idea of not being able to fall asleep and having no escape if you do is still scary to this day. It taps into a state of being that everyone regardless of age, gender, race or class experiences. With this amazing premise and a terrifying villain, I find it kind of shocking how easily this film misses the mark. It does some things well, but most things not and fails to bring back the scary Freddy I’ve pined for since 1994. Lower those high hopes now kiddies, because A Nightmare on Elm Street is bound to disappoint.
A Nightmare on Elm Street receives 2/5