A Nightmare on Elm Street
- Directed by Samuel Bayer
- Written by Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer
- Starring Jackie Earle Haley, Rooney Mara and Kyle Gallner
- Classification: 18A
The new "reinvention" of A Nightmare on Elm Street, the ninth film in the horror franchise, is the latest in a series of remakes ( Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th and Halloween), all under the auspices of Transformer director Michael Bay's production company. The current film is directed by Samuel Bayer (known for music videos and commercials), who has promised to correct the drift of the series toward a campy formula of gruesome murders and wisecracks, and get Nightmare back on a scary footing.
According to filmmaker Wes Craven, his inspiration for the original 1984 movie, A Nightmare in Elm Street, came from news stories about Cambodian refugees who were terrified by nightmares and sometimes died in their sleep. There's a slim basis of fact here - the phenomenon of "sudden unexplained death syndrome" among southeast Asian males, first documented in the 1970s, appears to be a cardiac issue, unrelated to bad dreams - but it was a seductive concept for a film about night terrors. The series' premise always allowed for sudden transitions between two worlds, banal teen life in suburban Ohio and the surreal violent dreamscapes of its inhabitants' sleep.
As well, Nightmare is the series that launched the very pretty Johnny Depp in his career and made the very ugly Freddie Krueger, the knife-fingered man with the burned face, fedora hat, and red and green Christmas sweater into a pop-culture figure known well beyond the movie's audience.
The result of the new Nightmare is, at best, a kind of stand-off between predictability and competent execution. The film is better than the other recent horror series. Bayer, along with writers Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer, has reshaped the back story while borrowing liberally from Craven's best scenes (the girl thrown against the ceiling in her dreams, images of creepy kids playing skip rope). There's also a bit of The Blair Witch Project here in a child-abuse subplot (the film is otherwise carefully non-sexual) and barrels of the crimson stuff flowing around the sets.
There is not, though, much here to freeze the heart or fire the imagination in a film that is pedestrian in its direction, all medium shots and jump cuts, like any number of scary television series.
As in the original movie, our heroine is named Nancy (Rooney Mara), one of a group of teenagers who discover they are sharing a consistent dream about the ominous knife-fingered Freddie, who, when not threatening them, seems to be leading them to an old elementary school where he has a secret. After three teenagers die in their sleep, the last two surviving dreamers, Nancy and her would-be boyfriend, Quentin (Kyle Gallner), decide to get pro-active. Nancy's mother (Connie Britton) is obviously hiding secrets from the past, and together Nancy and Quentin go on a sleuth hunt through the town, trying to uncover the dirty secret that might explain the origins of Freddie and his vengeful spirit. Both Mara, fine-featured and earnest, and the puppy-eyed Gallner, are well-cast. They're the kind of emo kids who, if not exactly outsiders, are more introverted and sensitive than their peers.
The other major innovation here, the subject of much Internet buzz, is that there's a new Freddie, as veteran Robert Englund is replaced by Jackie Earle Haley. Haley was a 1970s teen actor ( Bad News Bears, Breaking Away), who made a comeback as a child molester in Little Children (2006) and went on to star in last year's Watchmen. He's a gifted actor with a flare for creepiness. In keeping with the new story, he emphasizes Freddie's anger more than his macabre playfulness. The moment when he growls "I'm r-r-r-real" produces a nice shiver, but opportunities for emotional nuance - under the mask of scabby make-up and with distorted vocals - are limited.
In a few flashbacks we see Haley playing plain old Fred Krueger, a boyish school janitor, in his more carefree, if not more innocent, days. If there's one lesson to be learned from his example, it's that years of shift work can be a nightmare for your complexion.