Hollywood only needs one reason to keep churning out unnecessary remakes of horror movies: People keep going to see them. This one made nearly $33 million last weekend, even though Wes Craven’s original A Nightmare on Elm Street and its seven sequels have played so many times on cable that it’s difficult to imagine a kid old enough to see this movie who would be shocked by a single thing that happens in it.
Over the lifespan of the Nightmare franchise, from 1984 to 2003, undead child killer Freddy Krueger has been played straight, camped up, postmodernized (in the metafictional outing Wes Craven’s New Nightmare) and teamed with Jason from Friday the 13th. Maybe it’s time to give those razor gloves a rest.
Or not. Like most of the recent scare remakes, this Nightmare from music video director Samuel Bayer and producer Michael Bay purports to “reboot” the series by returning it to its simple origins. What this means is that we watch a bunch of twentysomething catalog-model types with last names for first names (Rooney Mara, Kellan Lutz, Kyle Gallner) impersonate high schoolers who keep getting slashed up in their dreams.
When they wake, they’re still slashed up, a violation of the general rules of nightmares (and ghost stories) that the film makes no effort to address. After he witnesses his friend being hurled around the room by an invisible force, filleted by invisible razors and dropped, lifeless, in front of him, one of the teens (Thomas Dekker) observes, “Oh, shit,” as if he’d forgotten his homework. Another character’s mom dismisses the string of bizarre deaths as symptoms of repressed memory syndrome. That’s the closest the screenplay comes to comic relief.
True, the original Nightmare on Elm Street required some suspension of disbelief, but it had likeable, everyday teen characters and disturbing dream sequences that blended seamlessly with the film’s “reality.” Between 1984 and now, the is-or-isn’t-this-a-dream scene has become a staple of fright films and TV, and the audience knows to look for the slightest signs of something “off” in the sleep-deprived character’s surroundings. The only way for a director to get us off kilter — as a real dream would — is to disrupt the standard pacing so we don’t know when the monster’s coming.
Bayer manages that maybe once. Not coincidentally, it’s also the only time when Freddy’s appearance isn’t signaled by a loud crash or slash. Someone needs to remind these remakers that things appearing soundlessly in a character’s blind spot — as in The Strangers — are closer to the stuff of actual nightmares than monsters that go “boo!”
There is just one reason, besides Krueger completism, that a level-headed adult might choose to see this Nightmare. If you pitied Jackie Earle Haley as a despairing pedophile in Little Children and shuddered at him as a psychotic vigilante in Watchmen, you may wonder how he would play an iconic psychotic pedophile. (Yes, Freddy in this version is not just a child murderer but a molester.) The answer is: with a fake deep voice and lots of makeup. Haley’s “burned” face is memorably grotesque; his performance is not. And the scene where he revisits his sexual violation of heroine Nancy (Mara) is cringe inducing to no purpose. The original Freddy had a perverse sense of humor; this one’s just a perv.
Movies like the original Nightmare may not be art, but they get under people’s skin the way urban legends do. As for these risk-free remakes, all that’s scary about them is their profits.