Title: A Nightmare on Elm Street
Year of Release: 2010
Date Viewed: October 13th, 2010
MPAA Rating: R
When the news broke that the planned Freddy versus Jason sequel had been scrapped in favor of rebooting both of the respective horror franchises, I was disappointed and a little excited at the same time. Even though the Nightmare on Elm Street series had strayed far from his frightening roots in later sequels and often crossed the line into self-parody, I still found the Freddy Krueger character to be incredibly intriguing and entertaining even when the studios weren't taking him seriously at all. As far as the Friday the 13th series went, there was less to sacrifice and much more to gain. Its star character Jason Voorhees had a great look but acted as carbon-copy as horror villains could be. Any sort of reboot would be a step above the franchise that launched this character's popularity.
When the 2009 Friday the 13th movie was released, it killed (no pun intended) any optimism I had regarding New Line's decision to restart the franchises. Sure, it was better than the 1980 cult classic. That didn't take much effort. But it took no risks nor did it justify a reason to separate itself from the original series. It was a remake in name only and could have easily been just another sequel. If this dismissive attitude is what they had in store for the new Nightmare franchise, there was plenty of reason to worry.
After a good thirty minutes into watching this new Nightmare, I breathed a sigh of relief and realized that things were going to be okay. It reminds me how sometimes the production crew can make a bigger difference than the studio label. The movie won't be a classic but it does exhibit a surprising amount of respect for the path that Wes Craven paved to make this one happen.
The original setup hasn't changed. To the world, Freddy Krueger doesn't exist. But for a few select teenagers, he is as real as the bed they sleep in. One at a time, these kids get slashed apart while they dream, killing them in reality. After realizing that they all are dreaming of the same person, the survivors try to discover the meaning behind the madness in an effort to save themselves from becoming Freddy's next victim.
Freddy is played by Jackie Earle Haley, taking over the role made famous by Robert Englund who had played the character in all eight previous Nightmare movies. Unlike Jason Voorhees, Freddy has a personality and a dark sense of humor. This time around, the character returns to his roots in the way Wes Craven wrote him. He is more interested in making his victims feel terror than cranking out one-liners and chasing them through elaborate set pieces. His backstory is also given a more thorough examination through flashbacks. Freddy wasn't always a monster. He was once a normal human being, working as a gardener at a preschool. And he loved children so much that the parents would become concerned over how much alone time he spent with them. The concern turned into growing paranoia until one day Freddy found himself trapped in a warehouse with all the angry adult residents of Elm Street surrounding it. One of them throws in a burning torch that results in the building getting engulfed in flames with Freddy burning to death.
Save for an unnecessary revealing moment in the finale, we do not know if Freddy is really guilty of a crime or not. This assists in making his character all the more interesting. Neither us or the victims are quite sure what to make of this maniac who has somehow found a way to enter the dreams of all the children that he interacted with at that preschool and murder them in revenge.
Director Samuel Bayer does an exceptional job presenting the atmosphere of Freddy's nightmare realm. Especially when you take into consideration that his prior filmography consisted solely of rock music videos. Funny how a lot of rock artists seem to have an affection for horror films. Day turns to night and night turns to darker nights faster than it takes to realize that you have fallen asleep. What's missing is the doubt that the audience needs to feel over whether what they are seeing is reality or the dream world. The overblown shadows make it far too obvious when the characters are really in danger. So what lacked in the psychological scare department needed to be made up for in atmosphere and general anticipation of what would happen next. This is where the film is strongest.
The use of "jump scares" is the most overdone technique in horror films. It's the best way to get a six year old to scream and the best way to get a seasoned movie watcher to roll his/her eyes. In this sort of movie, it's actually a very welcoming feature. Still overdone perhaps, but it's necessary to hammer in the idea that we are watching a dream world. Think back to any nightmares that you may have experienced in your own life. Chances are, most of the time you were awakened with a "jolt" where you reacted to an event that would have been traumatic had the experience been real. The characters in this movie are "jolted" back to reality if they are lucky enough to survive the night. It's all part of the atmosphere psychology that's necessary to sell the audience into suspending disbelief.
Since so much focus was placed on the atmosphere, it also had to sacrifice development of the Freddy Krueger character. Even with the new backstory, I was still left wanting more. My wishes may be answered soon since it was recently confirmed that a sequel in on the way. It's clear that Haley studied the character closely and possibly even changed himself a bit to do him justice. Many of his lines were improvised and he has all the mannerisms down to the ever important claw threats nailed down perfectly. Having said that and no matter how unfair it may be, I think I still prefer Englund's work since he demonstrated such versatility with Freddy's personality. His unpredictable nature is a valuable asset to this "anything goes" idea that the franchise is all about. Haley and Bayer however still have time to swing my opinion.
For the always important death scenes, longtime fans of the franchise might be pleased to see some familiar scenarios being reworked with new special effects to improve its credibility. Others may be upset at the lack of new ideas. My hunch is that Bayer and the writers wanted to show appropriate homage to the series first before letting loose with their own creativity in future installments. I hope they do not make me regret giving them the benefit of the doubt.
Unlike the revisiting of the Camp Crystal Lake killer, this new Nightmare franchise seems to be heading somewhere. And better, it seems aware of what has succeeded in the past and what needs to be reinvented. When Freddy makes his next return to the big screen, let's hope to see some big dreamers behind the scenes with him.