Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Another New Nightmare: A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET

The main raison d’etre of the Nightmare on Elm Street remake is theoretically the casting of a mid-comeback Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy Krueger, the series’ dream-haunting serial killer. In practice, the great actor has been given significantly less than nothing to do with the role; he settles into a pattern of twitches and growls that are matched with equally tiring glares and stares of the ominous variety. To make matters worse, the changes to the character could have led to a film with interesting ideas to share, if the filmmakers had any clear way of saying them, if the makers even realized the existence of such ideas.

In the original 1984 semi-classic from Wes Craven, Krueger was a serial killer who met his demise at the hands of an angry mob of grieving, outraged citizens. He subsequently haunts the dreams of a collection of teens through the course of the film. Now that’s it is 2010, that’s just too simple a premise, I guess. Now Krueger was a pedophile who was killed by a group of angry parents. Years later, he haunts the dreams of his victims, now teens and young adults. That could be a powerful message for a horror movie; one that casts a stark light on the ways child abuse can leave an intense impact on the victims’ lives, one that says the damage some are capable of committing against the most innocent among us is the real nightmare. But first-time feature director Samuel Bayer and his team are content to leave the idea as a dully formed and dumbly wielded bludgeon of sensationalism in an otherwise dull, painfully adequate horror film.

If you find sudden appearances that are synchronized with loud blats or clangs on the soundtrack the height of scariness, then by all means you will be terrified by this remake which cycles through the memorable images of the original with all the energy of a boring routine and all the imagination of a checklist. The claw in the bathtub? Check. The bulging wallpaper? Check. The soupy carpet? Check. The slow-mo jump rope? The menacing boiler rooms? The levitating girl? The bloody body bag in the school hall? Check, check, check, check. They’re all accounted for, but in worse shape than before.

Craven’s original has a sluggish, dreamlike quality. Watching for the first time, I was never quite sure when we were in or out of a dream. The characters and the threat to their lives are revealed efficiently and creepily and the odd incongruous jolts of creepy imagery are genuinely shocking. I loved the quietly creeping mood of the film that slowly overwhelms. I loved the hall monitor’s sudden transformation, the stairs that melt underfoot, and the unpredictable, shifting Krueger. The remake gets this all wrong. The pace isn’t dreamlike; it’s just sleepy. It’s not creepy or shocking, just rote. Information is doled out in entirely inefficient ways. If I hadn’t seen the original it would have been quite late in the film before I even figured out what the exact nature of the threat was.

It’s a frustration, I suppose. This is a film that couldn’t even hurdle my very low expectations. There’s an attractive young cast who are quite excellent at moping with suitably tired expressions including Kyle Gallner, Rooney Mara, Katie Cassidy, Thomas Dekker, and Kellan Lutz. They are asked to do so little, they may as well be living statues. The movie really lets down its cast and its audience, but above all, the movie lets down Haley, who, from behind ugly, uninspired makeup, is just as unneeded as the film itself.

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