Any film remake fairly or unfairly invites comparison to the original. Are the new filmmakers finding different and engaging things to explore in the material or are they simply going through a rote rehash of the original story? Does the new version adhere too closely to its progenitor, never finding its own life, or does it veer too far from the source material, leaving one to wonder if the filmmakers really understand what made the original film work?
The new version of A Nightmare On Elm Street is a bit of all these approaches. Its basic story and many of its scares are familiar to those who have seen director Wes Craven’s 1984 original. But the variations this new version introduces fall flat, never letting the film become its own piece, never escaping out of the long-cast shadow of its forerunner.
On it’s surface, the plot of Nightmare version 2010 is roughly the same as the 1984 part. Several high school students discover that they are all having the same dreams about a man with a burned face and a glove with steak-knife claws stalking them through various grungy, industrial settings. It soon becomes apparent that if the mysterious figure is far more than a figment of dreamtime and he wants these teens dead.
This new version of A Nightmare On Elm Street is a movie whose idea of characterization is placing a protagonist in a Joy Division t-shirt. It’s this kind of lazy shorthand that hobbles whatever good intentions the filmmakers may have had when they embarked on this project. But instead, we are left with the teens that Freddy terrorizes through the film being fairly nondescript cannon fodder for a script that doesn’t really give us a reason to care whether or not they survive to the final credits or cheer if they do. The original film played with the idea of the disconnect between teenagers and their parents. Here, however, the parents are drawn just a flatly as their children and we just don’t care about them either.
The script does no great service to franchise villain Freddy Kruger. It’s mutation of pre-supernatural transformation Kruger from serial child murderer to a pedophiliac day care center worker who succumbs to the brutal mob justice of outraged parents feels like an attempt to be edgy, but comes across as just plain lurid. It creates an “ick” factor that causes one to pull back from their engagement in the story at a time when the movie should be further reeling in the audience’s attention. The movie does try to float a “Was he really a pedophile or wasn’t he?” mystery at one point, but it is introduced out of left field, goes absolutely nowhere and is just as summarily dismissed before the climax.
Perhaps thinking that fans were expecting them to recreate some of its scares verbatim, the filmmakers stage several scenes familiar to anyone who has scene the original Nightmare, occasionally trying to put a different twist on them, subverting expectations. But each and every time they try this, the attempt falls flat. The famous sequence where Freddy tries to drown the film’s heroine in a bath tub gets a nod. The scene plays out as a bit of feint against your expectations, but does it so badly that it comes off as laughable. Early in the original, there’s a moment where Freddy seems to be pushing through a wall, stretching it like rubber, above an unsuspecting teen’s head. The new version replicates this scene, but uses CGI to realize what had been done as a practical effect by Craven in 1984. Amazingly, the newer version looks worse than the original in terms of just being a special effect! Peter Jackson had a similar sequence also created through CGI in his horror comedy The Frighteners made a decade and a half earlier that looked markedly better.
But it is not just when it tries to echo the original film that this new iteration of Nightmare fails. The movie restructures its beginning somewhat for a more Psycho-like bait and switch. But let’s face it, director Samuel Bayer is no Hitchcock and no one in his cast approaches the level of an actor like Janet Leigh. In fact, the film is so blandly directed – the only time the movie makes you jump is when a sudden, loud noise thunders across the soundtrack – that it is a little sad that the most ominous camera work is devoted to a scene where Nancy’s mother is asked to sign a “consent to treat” form at a hospital. When you’re trying to make a clipboard seem scary, you really should be re-thinking your career goals.