A Nightmare on Elm Street Synopsis:
Teenagers Nancy, Quentin, Kris, Jesse and Dean are all neighborhood friends who begin having the same dream of a horribly disfigured man who wears a tattered sweater and a glove made of knives. The man, Freddy Krueger (Jackie Earle Haley), terrorizes them in their dreams, and the only escape is to wake up. But when one of their number dies violently, the friends realize that what happens in the dream world is real, and the only way to stay alive is to stay awake.
There can be a desire, however fleeting, to overinflate the merits of any given piece of art when drafting a colloquial “Defense of” piece. After all, the core motivation is to defend something that’s been unfairly maligned, and that style of writing almost incentivizes hyperbole. What’s good must suddenly be great, the line of thinking goes, lest the entire enterprise collapse and crumble.
The remake of Wes Craven’s seminal, subversive A Nightmare on Elm Street turns eleven next month. And while time hasn’t been exceptionally kind to it, it’s been at least a little kinder. While still not a great movie, the eleven-year gap has provided ample time for reconsideration. And all things considered, A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) is a serviceable reinterpretation of a classic text. One that, while wildly inconsistent, does enough differently to make for a worthwhile entry in the long-running franchise. NOES (2010) is a very good movie constrained by the trappings of a remake. Plus booting a darker turn and a stellar performance from Oscar-nominee Jackie Earle Haley as the monstrous boogeyman Freddy Krueger.
The parts that do work, it must be noted, work very, very well. Principally, Krueger’s mythology is reworked into something darker and more resonant. Controversial at the time (and, if we’re being honest, still controversial among franchise hardliners), the decision to rework the nocturnal stalker’s origin story into one of repeated, systemic abuse in lieu of simply child murder is a leaden, glowering decision that, ultimately, works in the movie’s favor. The idea comes from Craven’s draft of the original. Though it was ultimately jettisoned for the less exploitative “child murderer” through-line on account of a spate of highly publicized child abuse cases in California at the time.
The darker undercurrent lends profundity and meaningful stakes to what would otherwise have been a benign scaffold of Craven’s original vision. Though handled with all the tact one might expect from an early-2000s Platinum Dunes horror property. But still, the idea writ large is effective, a hypnagogic, filmic interpretation of the living trauma of sexual assault. For survivors, it often feels like a nightmare you can’t wake up from. And as the movie shifts into more original territory in its third act, having exhausted enough audience goodwill with tepid, poorly rendered shot-for-shot remakes of the original’s most potent scares, those additional stakes work.
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In the final act, Rooney Mara (who, it must be said, infamously despises this movie, having remarked that it almost led her to ultimately quit performing) is trapped on the bed in her old schoolgirl dress as she pleads to some unknown entity to please, please just wake up. Haley’s Krueger caresses her with his gloves and says, “You’re my girlfriend now”. Mara, a two-time Oscar-nominee herself, screams helplessly. And not only is it the remake’s most frightening scene, an augur of just how nightmarish the lived-in, enduring trauma of assault is, but it is also one of the franchise’s scariest scenes overall. Little beyond Craven’s original is that horrifically raw and real.
The darker tone, too, works in fits elsewhere. Much hoopla was made of Haley’s grungier, serious interpretation of Freddy Krueger. Even original actor Robert Englund himself is critical. But it’s undeniable that there’s a dour, threatening malevolence to the proceedings. And a mood that the latter Elm Street sequels slowly and methodically did away with. They’re fun, yes, but there’s little there to warrant jumps or chills. The 2010 version hybridizes the flashy kills that have become series hallmarks with the unmitigated terror of the first, scares that elevates some of the weaker material.
And, yes, there is some weaker material. A lot of it, actually. Mara and Kyle Gallner– both exceptional performers in their own right– are nearly sedative here. Perhaps they misunderstood the narrative hook– the gist is to stay awake, not sleepwalk through it. Katie Cassidy fares considerably better. But as this iteration’s Tina, she’s only around for a handful of scenes. She’s in the beginning before she’s unceremoniously offed in a laughably over-the-top rendition of the original’s most gruesome death.
There is, too, the issue of homage versus outright replication. As wonderfully dark as the atmosphere is throughout, it matters for naught when so much of it is refracted through the framing of the original. Freddy reaching toward Nancy through her bedroom wall is less scary, more ridiculous when Freddy’s silhouette looks like PS1-era ripple effects. Nancy’s bathtub encounter with Freddy, too, carries an uncomfortable subtext on account of the reworked mythology. One of the few instances where the revamped mythos are conspicuously at odds with the framework of the original.
The instances of something new, though, work like gangbusters. The micro-nap idea, though short-lived, is a fun subversion on the original’s “sleep and die” compression. And likely one of the few ideas left over from Eric Heisserer’s draft. This movie has a number of Oscar-nominees attached. And the context of the Pied Piper fable adds ominous gravitas to Krueger as the perennial nighttime boogeyman. Is it brilliant? Not always. Is it so bad that it warranted Platinum Dunes all but ceasing production for two years? No, not by a longshot.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) isn’t the best in the franchise. And it’s not even one of the better remake offerings that defined horror in the early half of this century. That honor goes unimpeachably to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That desire to perceive the movie as more than it aspires to be is difficult to resist. NOES (2010) isn’t a great movie, but it is a good one. And on account of its legacy warrants even a defense that qualified. There are considerably worse movies out there. And as a microcosm of living with trauma made tangible, it’s a fitfully frightening fable. More than anything, even if just in fleeting moments, it made Freddy Krueger scary again. Twenty-six years after his first appearance, that’s no small feat. Elm Street is still scary, and eleven years after release, I cannot wait to visit again.
What do you think?