By Erik Amaya
The original A Nightmare on Elm Street opens with the creation of the series’ signature prop: the glove with knives for fingers. Credits quickly role as the unseen maker uses all the technology at his disposal to assemble the deadly device. Soon, he is terrorizing a young girl who awakes in a cold sweat, only to discover the nightmare is just beginning.
In the new version, which opens today, we get a credit sequence more reminiscent of Seven, complete with jagged lettering, flittering, out-of-focus imagery, and scrap-book moments intended to tease coming events. Unfortunately, it looks like an uninspired music video playing with the modern tropes of scary.
Following that, we are introduced to Dean (Kellan Lutz) who, half-asleep in a moodily lit diner, is saved from a near-encounter with the striped-sweatered one by the timely intervention of waitress Nancy (Rooney Mara). As the scene continues, we meet Kris (Katie Cassidy), who appears to be dating Dean, but previously went out with Jesse (Thomas Dekker). Jesse’s pal Quentin (Kyle Gallner) has a thing for Nancy, but can’t quite express it. By the end of the scene, Kris witnesses Dean cutting into his own throat. Yeah, Freddy got him.
The difference in the opening moments reveals many of the problems of the Nightmare on Elm Street remake. It is over-thought, obsessed with backstory, and takes away the power of the female characters.
The biggest story difference between the two films is the suggestion Freddy did not harm the children, and his death at the hands of the local people was, in fact, a mistake. It is, actually, a good idea. It gives Freddy an interesting, if curious, motivation to attack the children of those who wronged him. There is one small problem: It turns out Freddy did it after all.
After the gnashing of teeth for a good chunk of screen time over this issue, Freddy basically gets to say “Fooled ya!” by having Quentin find some unsavory pictures the gloved one took of Nancy when she was in pre-school. Turns out Freddy molested all of the children he later killed in their dreams. There is supposed to be some small amount of horror in this moment, but the film is uncomfortable with any horrific concept that cannot be expressed with a startling musical sting. Ultimately, the ambiguity of Freddy’s culpability adds nothing to the film. He kills no matter what. Take the sub-plot out and you still get Freddy.
At the same time, you don’t really get Freddy. What makes the original character — played by Robert Englund from 1984’s original film to 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason — interesting was his ability to talk. Freddy gets to know his victims and that’s half the pleasure he gets from the situation. The new Freddy, played admirably enough by Jackie Earl Haley, loses a great deal of his voice. In conjunction with that, he also loses his ability to take the kids on a mind trip before delivering the fatal blow. The dream sequences, instead of a brief glimpse into the victims’ minds, take us into Freddy’s curious obsession with a factory from a 1980s rock video. He simply doesn’t have any fun and is practically reduced to the unknowable frights of Jason or Michael Meyers.
That is to say, he startles the audience a lot. In the first 15 minutes of the remake, there are 10 or 12 startling moments. In the original, there are two. Now, modern audiences like to be startled; it is the roller-coaster effect. The problem with that is, simply, the material was never designed for it. Freddy Krueger is the harlequin of horror. He is supposed to use his power in the land of dreams to be creepy, gross and sometimes funny. His underlying motivation is so mind-bogglingly sinister that we had to make him a clown to cope with it — and that’s what made him interesting for nine films. Here, he is just a boogeyman.
But by far the remake’s greatest flaw is Nancy. In the original, she is just an average kid who turns out to have amazing survival skills in Freddy’s domain. She is not special, but has a certain strength. Played by Heather Langenkamp, she was a girl you felt you knew, and you wanted her to succeed against the more dangerous version of Krueger presented in that film. In the new version, Nancy is already quite troubled when we meet her. She’s something of an outcast and draws disturbing pictures. She’s arty and, as it turns out, she was Freddy’s favorite girl back before he got roasted alive. Despite all of this added “character,” Nancy lacks the strength the Langenkamp version had. Rooney Mara presents a girl who might shatter if gently pushed. She cowers in terror when Freddy finally gets her cornered, where the original Nancy would be ready with a sledgehammer. The film sacrifices that strong female role for a pair of weak-willed survivors. Kyle Gallner’s character, Quentin, gets all of the outrage the original Nancy expressed when she learns the truth of the parents’ involvement in Freddy’s death. As the two characters learn more about what happened, we’re supposed to be endeared to them … but the film never gives us a reason why. In fact, they do not become the principle characters until half-way through the film’s runtime. In the original, we see Nancy reading a book about survival tactics and make-shift weapons.
The film does have high production values, and it is clear a lot of care went into its making. There are a couple of genuinely interesting shots, and one echo from the original film is pitch perfect. Unfortunately, that care does not seem to extend to the script or to understanding the reasons why audiences loved the original series. While A Nightmare on Elm Street will certainly please movie-goers who like to be startled, it does not have the surprising substance that led to Freddy Krueger’s longevity in previous years.