After all, as the entertainment pundits heartily declared following
the $32.9 million opening weekend of the current reboot, the previous
Krueger canon managed a number of first-place box-office victories in
each of the last four decades. For the record: The first five entries
were quickly ground out between 1984 and 1989, all boasting degrees of
idiocy and/or creativity, while Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare—the one with cameos from Alice Cooper and Roseanne Barr—came out in 1991, New Nightmare was issued in 1994 and Freddy Vs. Jason hit screens in 2003.
This terror tentpole is notable for two key reasons. For starters,
it put then mini-studio New Line Cinema on the map. Pre-Freddy, the
company was a shoestring operation better known for its 1970s on-campus
screenings of cult hits like Reefer Madness and John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, while also dabbling in art-house specialties (some Lina Wertmuller flicks, plus the Oscar-winning Get Out Your Handkerchiefs)
as well as exploitation items like Sonny Chiba’s martial-arts mayhem.
(Industry watchers, alas, know what eventually happened to New Line,
which hit its high point with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, then tanked following the troubled 2007 release of The Golden Compass, which soon led to New Line being absorbed by its parent company, Time Warner.)
And Freddy legitimized New Line as much as he did Nightmare’s auteurist godfather Wes Craven, known beforehand for his low-budget shock cinema, specifically the forever infamous Last House on the Left (1972) and the more stylish audience-rouser The Hills Have Eyes (1977). With a few other subsequent thrillers under his belt, such as Deadly Blessing (1981) and the camp fave Swamp Thing (1982), writer-director Craven had enough genre experience by 1984 to ensure that the original A Nightmare on Elm Street would be a well-made good time despite its budget limitations.
He had the craftsmanship to make believable the dream-vs.-reality
conceit, as Craven stayed one step ahead of audiences—then always
pulled out the rug underneath them. And that was central to the
storyline concerning dream invader Freddy Krueger, the immolated child
killer who bewitches, bothers and bewilders a gaggle of high school
kids with the promise of delivering some slashing, painful deaths.
Also essential to the Nightmare success was Craven’s savvy casting of Robert Englund as Freddy. Englund, likewise a veteran of the drive-in scene (Buster and Billie, Eaten Alive),
incarnated a scary, enthusiastic villain, right down to delivering
punny one-liners as if he was the Roger Moore of bogeymen.
Dream weaver: Jackie Earle Haley premieres his Freddy Krueger riff (above) while Katie
Cassidy (left) falls asleep in class during A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Now cue the remake-obsessed moneymen of Platinum Dunes, the shingle
of blockbuster filmmaker Michael Bay, the guy behind those annoying Transformers features. Platinum Dunes has gone the reboot route with second helpings of The Amityville Horror and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, both slick yet soulless, empty exercises in the slice-and-dice body counter game, although the outfit’s 2009 remake of Friday the 13th
had a tad more murderous moxie to qualify as a slightly guilty
pleasure. The company is now purloining New Line’s past, and since
remaking John Waters’ Pink Flamingos is probably not in their
viewfinders (although maybe casting Nathan Lane in the Divine role
would boost its potential), focusing on the Freddy fright franchise
seemed to be a no-brainer.
Too bad the most shocking aspect of the new Nightmare on Elm Street
is just how ho-hum it is. The 2010 model doesn’t deviate very far from
Craven’s original template, although rewriters Wesley Strick (the Cape Fear redo) and Eric Heisserer add meager layers of subtext, such as a reference to The Pied Piper of Hamelin and the usage of childhood drawings that could provide clues, a wrinkle previously employed in Dario Argento’s Deep Red.
(For that matter, check out the Tarantino nod at the climax.) Strick
and Heisserer also ratchet up the sicko content with a backstory that
implicates Freddy as a child molester, thus adding a sleazy subtext
that links the teens on Freddy’s hit list to his unsavory past.
Yet director Samuel Bayer, a music-video veteran associated with
Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” work, can’t lick those
dream-vs.-reality transitions that Craven could master with ease, so
viewers no longer feel discombobulated. Bayer’s Nightmare plays more like a teen riff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers,
only instead of the threat that the REM-deprived kids might turn into
pods, they’ll turn up dead instead. Bayer cadges the expected emotions
and little more from his cast of would-be victims, played by Rooney
Mara, Kyle Gallner, Katie Cassidy, Thomas Dekker and Kellan Lutz;
continuing a tradition that dates back at least to the Beach Party era, Nightmare’s high schoolers are all portrayed by 20-something actors.
Bayer also pulls out every scare tactic from the playbook,
especially when people suddenly pop into the camera frame, accompanied
by a sudden aural goose from the musical score. To be fair, however,
Bayer’s not alone in this endeavor; during a 1997 interview with
director Jim Gillespie for I Know What You Did Last Summer,
when asked about that technique Gillespie just laughed and said that
director David Lean did exactly the same thing for 1946’s Great Expectations.
Bayer replays some of the original’s most memorable bits, with
special effects jazzing up one sequence that has a teen getting bounced
off the walls and ceilings, kind of like Fred Astaire’s dance moves
from Royal Wedding being taken to the extreme. (Also aboard for
another go-round is the scene in which one teen tries hard not to
sleep, but she takes a warm bath!) Still, there’s nothing in the new Nightmare that can beat the low-tech effect from 1984 when Freddy’s lascivious tongue emerges from a telephone receiver.
And as the new Freddy, Jackie Earle Haley is merely OK in the role,
perhaps because we’re so used to Englund’s gleefully gruesome elan from
the previous eight installments. Haley’s malevolence sounds more
mundane in his interpretation, and there’s not much in the way of
caustic put-downs (when Rooney Mara’s character falls into a hallway
that turns into a blood-filled moat, Freddy can only crack, “How’s this
for a wet dream?”), but his creepshow facial makeup is certainly
repellent to behold.
Despite the fact that this scare-free take on A Nightmare on Elm Street
is no funhouse ride like the original, the box-office results have
nearly assured that another stanza will soon be greenlighted, perhaps
as a 3-D showcase. Until then, audiences can empathize with the kids in
this lame revamp; whenever the characters are desperately attempting to
stay awake, bored-out-of-their-gourds moviegoers will surely
commiserate right alongside them.