Of all the high profile slasher franchises of the ’80′s, A Nightmare on Elm Street is the best. Sure, I have the reputation on this site of being the Halloween fanboy, and Shep is considered the Friday the 13th aficionado, but when it comes to straightforward scares and originality, Nightmare wins.
Then again, I’ve always been partial to supernatural horror, and a man who stalks and kills you in your dreams is downright chilling. Plus Nightmare actually took its time to develop its characters and gave you an interesting story and motivation for the killer.
And Freddy Krueger is just friggin’ cool. Whereas most killers of the decade were hiding behind masks, slowly stalking toward scantily clad victims and refusing to say a word, Freddy had a personality…and a way of manipulating an extremely cool and stylistic dream world so that we as audience members were always caught just a little off guard. There was the feeling that Freddy could kill anyone any time he wanted, but he just liked to toy with them…chase them through this dream world (which he controlled completely) for the sole purpose of mocking, taunting, and scaring the shit out of his victims.
Today we see the Nightmare franchise reinvented, and I’m happy to say that the basic DNA of A Nightmare on Elm Street remains in tact. But the script is weak, the tone is off, and the filmmakers forget to make the story accessible or fun. In short, it just doesn’t feel like a Nightmare film.
That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. From the get-go I said that if Hollywood wanted to reinvent this franchise, they should do something pretty crazy. The premise is a killer who stalks teens in their dreams…there’s so many possibilities to go in so many different, awesome directions.
Director Samuel Bayer does do some of that. The visuals in this movie, along with the carefully planned shots and camera movement, are extremely striking–and different–from the first movie. We get our iconic moments, but Bayer is obsessed with putting a sharp “twist” on the moments we know. His “version” of these moments, including the notorious “girlfriend on the ceiling” death scene, “the glove in the bathtub” scene and “my friend’s in a body bag being dragged down the school hallway” scene, often pale in comparison to the creepy simplicity of the original. They’re exaggerated via effects or over-action-ified simply because…well, it’s 2010, and he can. The most grossly annoying example of this comes from Bayer’s version of the “Freddy coming through the wall” scene. In the original, the effect was done practically with a solid, wide locked-down camera. It’s an effect done with lighting and trickery, and it’s eerie as shit even to this day.
I know it’s a detail. I know I’m going into intense specifics and I should really just get to the meat of this “review.” But, dammit, it’s A Nightmare On Elm Street, and I give a shit about the details.
To be fair, though, Bayer’s take on the quicksand steps and Johnny Depp’s death scene are fantastic…a true unexpected improvement on the original…
In general, though, Bayer’s approach to this movie is to take the premise of the original and make it just a little more sick and twisted and sad. The backstory of possible child molestation is fleshed out more, and Krueger’s character feels like a real creep–not just a maniacal madman. The teen characters seem isolated and haunted, and the film is shot almost exclusively with those long-lens close-ups that look pretty and creepy, but never really give the movie a chance to breathe.
Which brings me to two important points about the choices in this movie. First, Bayer seems perfectly happy to put visual style over substance. Scenes that should play out organically from both an acting and visual perspective feel forced, rushed, and overly dramatic, shot with multiple cuts and compositions that seem to scream “look at me, look at me!” For God’s sake, man, just give us a nice wide shot and let your actors do their thing every once in a while.
Second, the movie has completely jettisoned any sense of normalcy or levity, something that made the original film really work. With Craven’s version of this story, we met the characters as themselves…teenagers making mistakes, hoping to get laid, cracking dumb sex jokes and struggling with fledgling relationships. They were good people to hang around with, and they felt real.
Bayer’s teens are all dark, brooding terrified kids from frame one. The movie leaps into its story without really giving us a sense of who these kids are or what they’re about. And the movie is so obsessed with being dark, scary and serious that it doesn’t allow for a single moment of daily life or laughter. In fact, there is only one time in the entire movie that a character makes a joke, and that’s right at the beginning of act three. It’s punctuated with a scare.
Okay, I take that back. Freddy’s got some real knee slappers in the final twenty minutes of the movie. It’s pitch black comedy that only a demented freak like myself would laugh at, but it’s nice to know that Jackie Earle Haley wasn’t afraid to have just a little fun with this extremely dark and creepy character.
And the man does a fantastic job. This is not the Freddy we know and love…not by a long shot. And it’s not a better or worse version of that character, either. Instead, it’s something new. Haley’s Freddy seems to be cut from a more realistic cloth, and you can see the deep sickness behind his horribly burned face. This is an evil man, yes, but it’s also a man with SERIOUS and real psychological issues.
Freddy seems to really enjoy torturing his victims in a way that Englund’s character never did. In the original, Freddy was having fun and being evil. In this new version, he’s getting off, and it’s unnerving.
The makeup, however, is questionable. I understand how going with a more realistic burn-victim look sounded great on paper, but I think the makeup is significantly less effective than in the original. Freddy prime had a horribly disfigured face full of red muscles and blood. Most importantly, it always looked as if it was constantly wet and oozing…and you couldn’t help but infer a disgusting texture to the mangled face. More than that, though, Freddy was incredibly human. Behind the burns, there were human eyes and lips and expressions. Sure, Freddy’s makeup got bastardized in the sequels, but in the original it was flawless. And when Wes Craven updated his own creation in New Nightmare, well I’d argue that that’s just about as perfect as Freddy can get.
Haley’s version becomes more of a monster. The eyes are almost reptilian with broken blood vessels, and the rounded, burned lips make the character even more unrecognizable. There’s no wetness to the texture, and the face, to me, looks more like someone to pity than to fear. It’s more inhuman, too, and somehow less frightening. It’s all fine and good to update elements of the story that won’t work for modern audiences, but Freddy’s look is effective to this day. And I would have loved to see what Haley could have done in the Englund makeup.
Still, the man makes it work. This isn’t Freddy; it’s Freddy’s creepier second cousin. The way he stalks his victims and the things he says to screw them up in the head…it was really a joy to watch. And that’s the most important thing here, because if you get Freddy “right,” I’ll go with you. So even though this movie is flawed intensely, it has potential as a franchise. And Freddy showed up, which is more than I can say for Jason in that Friday the 13th abomination.
So far I’ve been analyzing the style and tone and details…things that, to me, are interesting and important. I want to look at how this movie works and how it relates to the original movie, and there are enough interesting choices to keep it afloat.
Unfortunately, though, this movie has one big flaw that has nothing to do with the original film: the script.
The dialogue is convenient and obvious. Characters state key plot and character points for no other reason than to inform the audience of things we know already. Scenes that should be slow and subtle are written dramatic and fast. It’s like the screenwriters are actually terrified of having their characters talk at all so they push forward the necessary plot and character points as quickly as possible so we can get into the next dream sequence.
The transitions are choppy and weird, and the story never really takes the time to find its bearings. The whole time, I felt like the screenwriters were so worried about telling a boring story that they forgot to really tell a story at all. There’s a whole mystery investigation about Freddy’s history ,and there are characters figuring out their relation to the madman in their dreams, but never do I really feel like I’m there with the characters or that they really have any type of emotional center. It’s like watching sleep deprived grad students doing research for an hour and a half. Only they’re being stalked by a maniacal killer in their dreams.
I hope this issue can be resolved in a sequel. And I do want a sequel. While this movie is flawed as hell, it still does a good enough job of establishing our iconic villain and creating a world and style in which he can exist so that I’m ready to see where other directors and writers might take this.
With the original series, I always said that even when it wasn’t very good it was always fun and interesting. I’m hoping the same will be able to be said about this new franchise. My advice to the filmmakers, though, is to loosen up a little. Get to know your characters. STOP BROODING and let your horror movie be a horror movie…a movie can still be affecting and scary if your characters are real people with a sense of humor and everyday lives.
And for God’s sake…don’t let Rob Zombie or Marcus Nispel NEAR this franchise.