Remakes aren’t inherently bad things. In rare cases, they can be better than the original. Most of the time they modernize the material and introduce classic stories and characters to new audiences, who might be inspired to check out the real deal. At the very least, even if they suck, they don’t detract from the original. I was excited for the remake of “Nightmare on Elm Street,” but then it got mixed reviews from critics and fans. Having finally seen it for myself, I understand why, because the film is a bit of a mixed bag.
In case you were born yesterday, “Nightmare On Elm Street” tells the story of a group of suburban high school students who all start having nightmares about the same scary man. His body is covered in burns. He wears a glove with knives for fingers and calls himself Freddy Krueger. He can also kill them in their dreams. (If you’ve really never seen the original, stop reading now and go see it, as it’s a great horror film, and the rest of this review contains spoilers.) As the teens struggle to stay awake and figure out a way to stop the supernatural killer, they slowly uncover a terrible secret. Krueger was a real man, a child killer whom their parents burned to death more than a decade earlier.
The biggest change in the remake lies in that core premise, and it’s actually a pretty good change, although criticized (not by me) for its subject matter. In the original, Krueger is always referred to as a “child killer”; I believe it’s implied he may have also molested children, but it’s never explicitly stated. Here, pedophilia is a fundamental part of the story, and we learn much more about his character. There is some ambiguity as to whether he actually molested children, at least for most of the film, and I also appreciated that. It’s the film’s greatest strength.
Somewhat surprisingly, the second best thing about the remake is Freddy Krueger himself. As the “Nightmare” series continued with increasingly disappointing sequels (and a few highlights, such as “Dream Warriors” and the brilliant “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare”), Krueger became a parody of his formerly terrifying presence, a jester who delivered punch-lines while killing teens in comedic fashion. He was always played by Robert Englund, who always did a fine job and turned Krueger into an iconic character, but that was part of the problem; he became as familiar and cuddly as Mickey Mouse. In the remake, Krueger is played by Jackie Earle Haley, a talented actor who almost seems typecast to play child molesters at this point. His take on the character breathes new life into Krueger. Not only does he look different (the make-up completely re-designed), but he finally makes Freddy scary again. Part of it is due to the fact that Krueger feels foreign (and not so familiar), and part of it is because the film takes him seriously and wants him to be scary again. It’s a new Krueger and at the same time a throwback to the original where didn’t joke around as much.
The rest of the film misses the mark a bit, and it’s because I couldn’t watch it without thinking back and comparing it to the original. The film invites the comparison, because it sticks too closely to the original’s plot, right down to borrowing many iconic scenes. It was in the latter half, where a lot of the story’s changes were revealed that the film started to win me over, but I couldn’t help but think back to the original’s cool finale where the main character, Nancy, set up a maze of booby traps for Krueger in her house. The finale here is not nearly as exciting.
Besides Krueger’s back story, the characters lack their former depth and strength. The cast is not as likable or memorable as actors like Heather Langenkamp, Jsu Garcia, and Johnny Depp. Worst of all, Nancy (this time played by Rooney Mara) is a much weaker heroine, and the subplot about her mom’s alcoholism has been completely removed.
And it’s a real shame that so many have of the dream sequences have merely been re-arranged and slightly modified instead of the being completely new. There is always room for homage in a remake, but this film in particular demands creativity and fresh dream sequences; so much more could have been done. Instead, we get many of the same dream sequences, except they’re not as effective because they don’t use as many practical effects. Some good ideas were implemented, such as “micro naps,” but ultimately they only made the dream sequences shorter. As a result, the entire film feels a bit like a cheap, routine, by-the-numbers cash-in that moves along a little too quickly, like the filmmakers involved were on auto-pilot and not fully invested in the project.
The “Nightmare On Elm Street” remake makes Freddy scary again, but that was never a problem in the original. The 1984 film was actually creepier than the remake despite tamer subject matter. It was also original and imaginative. The remake lacks that creative spark, which is disappointing considering it deals with dreams and anything could have happened. On top of the creative bankruptcy, every character except Freddy Krueger feels short-changed. If the film didn’t feel so rushed and out of ideas, it could have been a fresh revival for the series. As it is, it’s merely passable.
2.5 out of 5 stars