May 8, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street [2010]

DIR: Samuel Bayer
CAST: Jackie Earle Haley, Rooney Mara, Kyle Gallner,
Katie Cassidy, Connie Britton, Clancy Brown

Last year I revisited and reviewed the entire Nightmare on Elm Street series as part of my Long Halloween series for the blog. You can see the reviews here and here. As a series it has moments of genius and plumbs astounding depths of awfulness, but even in its worst moments (Freddy’s Dead) I’d rather be watching that series than this remake. I have nothing positive to say about Samuel Bayer’s presumed new franchise launcher, and so there really is only one way I can address it.

Nightmare on Elm Street, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.

This isn’t especially new territory for the Nightmare franchise, indeed the only truly frightening entries are the original film and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, but, like most of Platinum Dunes films to date, A Nightmare on Elm Street is deeply, deeply unscary. The frights in the original come from some distinctly freaky moments, several of which are replicated here, with all the scares sucked out of them. Most notable is the death of the Tina character (here called Kris and played by Katie Cassidy, who is actually a pretty good match for the original’s Amanda Wyss). Here, instead of being slowly dragged up the wall and across the ceiling as the unseen Freddy is cutting her up she’s thrown around the room, slammed into the ceiling and off the walls, in a manner which, if you put the appropriate music under it, would be ideally suited to a Looney Tunes cartoon.

Freddy himself isn’t scary either, but we’ll come to that a little bit later. The reason that the film isn’t scary, beyond its imagery being both uninspired and so visually murky (with that greenish brown tinge that all Platinum Dunes directors seem contractually obliged to use) that it’s often hard to see what’s going on with any great clarity is the simple fact that it has no characters. Filmmakers seem to have forgotten, lately, that having a body in a film isn’t enough, that there has to be some personality imbued in each of them. It’s not like the teenagers in the original Nightmare were the world’s best or most rounded characters but they all, especially the girls; Tina and Nancy, had some semblance of personality. That’s not the case here, indeed, and again, we’ll get to this in more detail later, they seem to have been stripped of personality. The thing is, personality is what induces you to care about characters, and caring about characters is what leads you to be scared. Sure, you might jump a couple of times during Nightmare on Elm Street, if only because, given the sheer amount of cheap boo scares, one or two are bound to get you, but that nailbiting fear, that psychological terror of Freddy? Gone, as much a part of your dreams as the character himself.

It really shouldn’t be a difficult story to tell. Accused child molester Freddy Krueger (Haley) is burnt to death by the parents of his victims. About 15 years later, Freddy, now a supernatural being with a razor fingered glove, begins stalking and killing those children in their dreams. Nancy Holbrook (Mara, taking over from Heather Langenkamp, whose Nancy Thompson is one of horror cinema’s truly iconic ‘final girls’) attempts to survive by staying awake, but when she can’t attempts to find a way to take Freddy out of the dream world and destroy him. Simple, right? Apparently not. That IS the story of this film, but if you don’t know the original then I’d imagine you’d be hard pressed to tell me that story after seeing this mess of a movie.

There’s no structure to this film, I’m not even sure of the timeline, of how many nights it takes place over. The key to the structure of the first Nightmare was that it stayed with the characters over several full days as they tried to escape Freddy by staying awake, here the narrative is so choppy that any sense of that struggle goes completely out of the window, this is terrible, because the timeline is key to the new plot concept of ‘micronaps’; waking dreams that kick in after about 70 hours without sleep. The film leans heavily on this concept, but we also see the characters sleep quite a lot, so it doesn’t track at all.

The original was also quite careful about giving you context for when and where characters fell asleep, notably by frequently having concerned parents forcing them to do so. Here the dream sequences emerge out of nowhere. The most strikingly illogical is an exposition filled dream that Quentin (Gallner) has after falling asleep in the middle of swimming a length of the school pool, seriously, did anyone give that even a second’s logical thought? If you really want him in his trunks then have him sit down in the showers after swimming and fall asleep there, but honestly, IN THE MIDDLE OF A LENGTH?

As well as stripping its characters of all discernible personality (Jesse, Thomas Dekker’s character, has literally no trait apart from the fact that he wears more eyeliner than Nancy). This version of A Nightmare on Elm Street betrays them, especially Nancy, the parents and Freddy on a much deeper level. The original Nightmare was a sins of the fathers (and mothers) story; Freddy was a child murderer, released on a technicality and hunted down by the parents when he returned to his old home. The fact that they burned him to death wasn’t exactly positive, but at least you understood it. Here Freddy is an accused child molester. A hideous crime to be sure, and one that should be punished, but these parents apparently go right from ‘my kid said Freddy touched her’ to ‘lets set him on fire’. In the first film they certainly behave in a disgusting fashion, but it is so compounded here that you no longer understand their actions and, like Nancy, question why they didn’t just call the fucking police.

In the original film Nancy is smart and resourceful. She’s proactive, in fact she takes on the traditionally male role of being the fighter while Johnny Depp (making his debut as Nancy’s boyfriend) fills the more traditionally feminine role of simply watching from the sidelines. In this film Nancy is such a blank slate that when she does figure something out about how to bring Freddy into the real world (a LONG time after it should have become painfully obvious) we don’t buy it because the character demonstrates absolutely no intellect and her sudden transformation, in the final scenes, into a fighter is completely risible, first because Rooney Mara is so slight that you don’t buy the idea of her surviving more than three and a half seconds against Haley’s Freddy and secondly because there is, in the rest of the film, so little fight in Nancy. In the original Nancy makes things happen, here she is present when they happen to her.

As for Freddy…

The thing we’ve consistently heard in the film’s pre publicity, right from the first greenlight, was that this film was taking Freddy back to his roots as the ultimate evil bogeyman, and eschewing the comedy stylings of Mr Freddy Krueger which ‘graced’ the sequels. Well, that’s just bollocks. Okay, so there aren’t too many of the cheesy one liners that sequel Freddy followed each kill with, but that’s not to say that his dialogue is either menacing or indeed serious here. About eighty percent of Freddy’s dialogue (all growled by Haley in a voice something like Christian Bale’s Batman gargling with cement) is at least attempting to make us laugh (and some of the subjects for this dialogue are skin crawlingly uncomfortable). Freddy has precisely one menacing line, and that one you’ve heard in the trailers (“What are you screaming for, I haven’t even cut you yet”). The other problem with Freddy’s dialogue is that it is all delivered in a series of non-sequiters, he talks a lot, but there’s no sense that any of the dialogue helps establish a character for him, it’s all just him popping up and saying something almost entirely random. Freddy doesn’t come across as evil here, he doesn’t come across as anything, either he’s trying for unsavoury laughs or he’s vomiting up raw exposition, including one moment in which he essentially lays out how to kill him for Nancy (then again, this Nancy would probably struggle with it even if he showed her a fucking flow chart)

Freddy’s make up is also disappointing, the look of Freddy always changed from film to film, but frankly the new look is distracting and, though arguably more realistic, it detracts from the concept of the character as the bogeyman. Here he looks like a burnt man, fine, but that’s not what Freddy Krueger is any more, he’s a creature not of reality but of dreams, and the realistic look, even after you take away the fact that the CGI giving him holes in his face is pretty distracting, undermines that. The look isn’t strange enough to feel like part of a dream reality. It’s also not scary but that, here, is par for the course.

There is so much exposition in this film, so much explaining, so much clarifying. Of course Freddy’s backstory has to be told for people coming fresh to this film, but that’s not what I’m talking about, the problem is really the incidental stuff, the endless explanation of things that anyone with a brain cell knows. Take the amount of times that Quentin clarifies that Clancy Brown is his father. Every time Brown appears poor Kyle Gallner gets stuck with a line like “Oh, there’s my Dad”. I KNOW. Not only have you told me three previous times that that’s your Dad, but he had his hand on your shoulder at your friend’s funeral earlier, I didn’t assume you were lovers. But my ‘favourite’ piece of exposition for idiots comes when Quentin warns Nancy of the dangers of staying awake for too long and says something like “Then you’ll fall into a coma. A sleep you won’t wake up from”. I almost stood up and yelled “I KNOW WHAT A FUCKING COMA IS” at the screen. Christ, if you’re 18 and don’t know what a coma is then you are probably in one. WHY EXPLAIN IT?

Now, clearly I’m not about to argue that the original Nightmare on Elm Street set some gold standard for movie acting. Theere are actually some pretty bad performances in there; notably from Johnny Depp and from Ronee Blakey a Nancy’s mother. But overall most of the acting was pretty solid. Here, wow, I struggle to describe what this cast are doing as acting.
Rooney Mara was decent enough in a small part in Youth in Revolt that I began to have a little hope for this film. That hope was sadly, sadly misplaced. Mara is a pretty girl, and clearly that’s why she’s got this job because throughout the entire 95 minutes that A Nightmare on Elm Street runs she fails to betray a single emotion through facial expression, gesture or vocalisation. Listening to her dialogue is like listening to monotone static for the length of each speech while her pretty face sets itself into a vacant expression that suggests that she’s gazing out of a window and thinking ‘look at the pretty birds’ rather than being chased by a maniac in her dreams. The writing is godawful, so it may not be entirely her fault, but this is still one of the worst leading performances I’ve seen for some time.

As the parents with the most screentime Connie Britton and Clancy Brown aren’t bad (though Britton, a striking redhead, is woefully miscast as the mother of Mara, a rail thin, doe eyed brunette) and they fight valiantly to deliver their exposition heavy dialogue with something resembling feeling, but ultimately they are defeated by the words.

The kids are really the problem. Aside from Mara Kyle Gallner, Katie Cassidy, Thomas Dekker and Kellan Lutz have significant screentime and watching them all act opposite one another is like watching a bland off. Dekker takes an early lead in the utter tediousness stakes, by letting his eyeliner do the acting for him, but he’s overtaken by Gallner’s impressive dedication to not having any expression at all, despite the fact that his character is supposed to be in love with Nancy from afar (an idea utterly destroyed by their kiss, which has all the heat of a canister of liquid nitrogen at the north pole). Cassidy and Lutz aren’t any good either, but they escape the movie early on and so don’t have time to be quite so impressively dull.

Look, I’m all for exploring dark subject matter, and I’m not, in principal, against the idea of making Freddy Krueger a child molester rather than a killer. The problem with the idea (we’ll get to the attitude in a second) is that it does make Freddy a different animal, and actually undermines the plot of the film. By the time this film takes place his former victims are supposed to be around 17 (actually they are all very obviously at least 23, but I digress) so the problem is that his character, as established here would not be interested in them. He’s a paedophile; these ‘kids’ wouldn’t do anything for him anymore. Furthermore, Freddy is never established as a killer, so why does he kill at all? Surely given his psychology in this movie he’d be using his dream invading abilities for other nefarious purposes, and choosing far younger victims. Leaving that aside. It’s just really offensive when the movie tries to use repressed memories of child abuse for laughs.

As I said above, despite what we were promised, Freddy puns a lot in this movie, and several of his attempts at humour revolve around reminiscing about the abuse he committed when he was alive. It’s really uncomfortable, in all the wrong ways, when he says to Nancy “Your mouth says no but your body says yes”. There’s nothing wrong with discussing child abuse in cinema, or even, providing you do it sensitively, with depicting it, but playing it (and, in that line, a threat of rape) for laughs is just flat out wrong and the filmmakers should be absolutely ashamed of themselves for taking that route.

The micronaps idea is great. Just a hell of a concept, it means that at any moment we could be plunged into the surreal dreamworld, that Freddy might be lurking at any moment. If only. As I mentioned briefly above though, the concept is utterly fumbled, first by a screenplay so devoid of structure that you’re never sure how much time has passed or, for the most part, which dreams result from micronaps. The other problem with these micronaps is how they are used. There’s never a developed dream sequence, instead Freddy pops up for a quick boo scare and then we carry on with our scene, already in progress. Insultingly, some of the most iconic moments from the original film are dealt with in this way.

More criminal still is the utter wasting of the talents of Jackie Earle Haley. Like most people I was impressed and intrigued when Haley signed on for this film, assuming that it must mean that there was something more here than your usual remake offered. Not the case. I really hope Haley was nicely paid for this film, because he’s getting nothing else out of it. His performance feels strained, as if the make up has shackled him. He works hard, but all he’s been allowed to do is pop up in ‘unexpected’ parts of the frame and say some random line before disappearing again. That’s no work for an actor as talented as Haley. The only really notable thing he brings to Freddy is a neat little twitch with the glove, rubbing two of the knives against each other to create a signature gesture and sound.

Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is a fine film, and it deserves a place among the line up of horror classics, but it isn’t impossible to improve upon. Certain moments and performances do clunk and while many of the effects still look great some are a little ragged now. Instead of devoting itself to fixing these problems (most notably the hideously anticlimactic ending) Samuel Bayer’s film adds gloss and sheen (it does look pretty) but strips the film of interest. It removes character and metaphor, abandons subtlety and storytelling and becomes a collection of stuff, some of it quoted from Craven’s film, other bits drawn from parts of at least four separate draft screenplays. It is when Bayer quotes the original film that this film’s failings are most apparent. One notable is the bathroom scene, with Freddy’s glove coming out of the water. We get that image, but follow up to it, the terrifying moment in which Nancy is dragged through the bathtub and nearly drowns, is gone, replaced by a different dream sequence which contains plenty of exposition, but no scares.

The worst moment though, the thing which for me sums up the utter redundancy of this 95 minute train wreck, is the famous moment when Freddy’s face emerges from the wall above Nancy as she sleeps. In the original film (whose total budget was $1.8 million) the effect was achieved by replacing the wall with a sheet of spandex and having FX supervisor Jim Doyle lean into it. If there’s a creepier image in all of 80’s cinema I’m not sure I know it. Here, sub-Frighteners CGI emerges from the wall, looks fake for a few seconds, and then we cut to the next scene. For me, that moment sums up Platinum Dunes entire approach as a company; they’ll update things because they can, not because it will be better. Well, fuck that, fuck Platinum Dunes, fuck Samuel Bayer and fuck this movie. If you care at all about horror cinema don’t see A Nightmare on Elm Street at the cinema this weekend, spend £3 on the DVD of the original, and enjoy a real movie instead.


  1. Sam, I think you were holding back. Tell us how you REALLY feel. ;-)

    As usual it is a pleasure to read your reviews. This certainly looked like a stinker and I trust your opinion.

  2. Great Review. You put more thought into writing this than the screenwriters put into the actual film.

  3. the death of nancys mother marge was the strangest unexplained death in the whole nightmare on elm street series we all saw freddy out of dream world into the real world and he ran upstairs and jumped on top of marge who was asleep for some reason even though all the noise goin on around her would wake the dead and he burnt her as he was on fire but she disapeard into the bed into some strange world but freddy was not in dream world no more?? and waved goodbye to nancy and her husband then at the end of the film she reapeared fine then got ragged into the window? and the only times she is mention after that is in the second movie where it is said she comited suicide in the living room and in the 3rd film nancy says she died in her sleep so what really happened this has always confused me???