As the horror franchises go, A Nightmare On Elm Street has always seemed a bit lacklustre, due to its eventual focus on comedy over horror. Freddy Krueger is a great character (in the “oh he’s such a character” sense of the word), but as an iconic villain he’s always come up short. And it’s possibly because of the focus on him as a character, which changes the focus for the audience; it’s not about being scared by this mythical creature, it’s about coming to see the shenanigans of the character. Bloody, knife-glovey shenanigans set in dreams, no less.
The irony of this is that it means the Nightmare… sequels are all, more or less, relatively watchable due to the focus on Freddy; it means the series steers away from being a fully fledged horror franchise, but it means that as the sequels go on (and inevitably start to decline in quality), they retain some form of watchability because the focus isn’t on trying to scare the audience as much as the series’ contemporaries. Once Halloween and Friday the 13th became gripped in sequelitis, there wasn’t much left except disappointment.
Freddy Krueger on the other hand, though his films also became more and more not-good, always had some form of entertaining value. Which is why, with the focus on the character centred on what he became, and not where he started, it’s always a bit jarring to revisit Wes Craven’s original, to see that he was a much darker character.
The original Nightmare On Elm Street is a relatively pallid affair compared to the other franchises popping up around it (Michael and Jason’s aforementioned oeuvre most notably) but there’s still a lot to love.
Firstly, the special effects are amazing, and most still hold up today. The shot below, with Freddy looming over Nancy’s bed, is still awesome, and done so simply and practically (Robert Englund was leaning into a bedsheet). Most all of the effects were done practically, and the film is a good testament to the fact that an effect pulled off practically, and with creativity, will always outdo even the best computer effects.
Assuming there’s still some people out there unfamiliar with Freddy Krueger or his raison-d’être, the film follows a group of teens who have all started having nightmares about the same strange man who’s incredibly threatening. Things turn nasty when it turns out that this guy actually can hurt you in your dreams, and slowly, the kids start dying in their sleep while protagonist Nancy tries to figure out who this guy is and how they can defeat him.
The original conceit at the time is that this is a villain who teenagers can go and see at the movies, get scared by, and have nightmares about – and start the process all over again. How effective this strategy was is up for question, though it as at the very least a creative one – what better way to become scared of something than by making it scary and memorable. And despite the relative shortcomings of the series as a whole, Señor Krueger is definitely memorable.
In the original, Krueger was a much more sombre character. Here he is Fred Krueger, not softened by a nickname, and while he’s capable of the odd quip, his constant wise-cracks and puns are nowhere to be found. And nor is he centre-stage on the action. He’s kept mainly out of focus, as the mysterious villain of the piece, not the main character.
His voice is lower, he keeps out of sight until he closes in for the kill, and he’s established as a solid reality-warping dream-invader. This isn’t to say the movie is without its fun, though. The film has some great setpieces that show off the previously gushed-over special effects, and it’s told in such a way that there’s no sense of a pieced-together film. Craven clearly had the ideas of the film fleshed out before he started putting them together as the screenplay.
One of the things that goes by the wayside in the sequels is the sense of cohesion – the sequels became more of an opportunity to showcase Freddy than they did to frighten the pants off unsuspecting teens.
It’s also not without its moments of deeper insight as well, providing (light) social commentary on the hypocrisy of the American-Dream-Suburban-Family style of motive in parenting (the kids might be troubled by our past misdeeds, better lie to them and suppress their memories!) and the film clearly uses an opportunity to peter out the last of Craven’s thesis statements against the idyllic America pre-Vietnam:
Craven’s first feature Last House on the Left was mainly an allegory for what was happening in America and to America by the Vietnam War being broadcast into American homes – the destruction of America the Brave and the easy sentiment of the peace movement. This was continued in The Hills Have Eyes by a deconstruction (both literal and literary) of the family unit as it used to exist, and continues in Nightmare by literally taking kids away from their dream existence.
Of the film itself, it’s safe to say the quality is in the special effects and not the acting. Although it features Johnny Depp’s feature film debut for the curious, not much of the acting is of any worthy note (Heather Langenkamp as Nancy makes for one of the dullest heroines out there, though she was excellent in Craven’s only contribution to the sequels New Nightmare) with the exception of the man behind the villain. Robert Englund as Fred Krueger is a substantially ominous presence, and even after many repeat viewings, still holds up as a very threatening character. He of course crafted Freddy of the sequels into something of his own, but his best work is in the first.
It may not be the best film to come out of the late-70s-early-80s horror boom, but it’s memorable and most certainly iconic – it’s easy to see how it managed to spawn such a franchise from its strong presence, and it’s a fun time to be had, with some suitably spooky moments and some fantastic special effects.
The Platinum Dunes produced remake on the other hand hasn’t crafted itself such a response, or an opportunity for any nostalgia. It was met with negative reception (to the tune of a dismal 15% on Rotten Tomatoes) and fan backlash of an incredible degree.
The obvious shortcoming of the remake is that it lacks the sense of fun from the original. It returns Krueger to dour form, albeit with more in the way of quips, but the film is unrelentingly insistent on being morose and miserable.
The film also replaces the inventive practical effects of the original with CGI, and although this allows some scenes to be pulled off without any potential hokiness, the end result is just a weak comparison. It doesn’t look as effective because it’s obviously grafted in after the fact – no one would ever mistake the original’s special effects for reality, but the fact that so many of them were able to be captured at the time of shooting adds at least a sense of genuineness to it. This isn’t present in the remake.
The remake also introduces the concept of micro-naps, whereby a character that’s been awake for too long inadvertently falls into a subconscious state mimicking sleep. This is a concept that could have been very effective in blurring the lines between reality and the dream world, but is only employed to haphazardly shoo in some jump-scares that are neither effective or contextual.
Jackie Earl Haley gives a growling performance as Krueger, which, suitable baritone aside, serves only to remind you how effective Robert Englund had been in originating the role. 2010’s Krueger also has the needlessly expanded backstory to make Krueger a paedophile as well as a child-murderer.
This is something that was always implied in the original, but rings as particularly distasteful in the remake; the film goes out of its way to portray Krueger in a sympathetic light during flashbacks, even leading the possibility that the parents of Elm Street murdered an innocent man, which may have been an interesting angle from which to play the impetus of the story. The motive behind his killings is that he’s taking his revenge on the parents by killing their kids.
Instead, the reveal at the end that Krueger was as bad as the parents had been saying removes the “take-revenge-on-the-parents” motive for Krueger and replaces it with “finish-what-I-started” given that he’s targeting the kids he molested when they were in kindergarten, now grown up into teenagers. It loses the opportunity to add in some interesting moral greyness about a misunderstood man presumed to be a predator who’s killed by a pack of protective parents, and instead just makes the monster more monstrous.
The film offers no insight into the long-lasting effects of sexual abuse, and quite cruelly manipulates its presence in the film to be a cheap twist, which could be passable in a horror movie that played it for the horror it is, not in a slick over-polished film remaking a film that was scarier without that element. The end result is an offensive misappropriation of a matter like child sexual abuse in a film that doesn’t have the narrative heft to tackle such a subject, or at the very least acknowledge the subject with some real world consideration.
Rooney Mara replaces Heather Langenkamp as Nancy in the remake, and while it’s not a performance that would give any clues as to her later acting abilities, Mara’s Nancy is considerably more interesting to watch than the original. She’s still completely doused in misery and angst, but she’s not the awkward goofball that is Langenkamp’s.
Kyle Gallner is present as a nervous, skittish update of Johnny Depp’s character, and his performance is nothing new to anyone who has seen Kyle Gallner act in anything else, and Thomas Dekker is on form as an uninteresting jerk of a character, which is nothing new to anyone who has seen a Platinum Dunes movie.
The film, poorly executed though it is, probably doesn’t deserve the sheer level of scorn it’s received however. Although it’s tone is dissonantly morose when compared with the original, it is a consistent film, and a lot of effort has been put into its visual presentation. The film is perhaps too nicely polished, which makes the already-tepid atmosphere a little too safe, but all the same it’s easy to look at.
The 2010 A Nightmare On Elm Street is not the most egregious sham of a remake out there, but it definitely doesn’t live up to the original. It’s greatest sin is not that it’s actively terrible, but that it’s thoroughly unremarkable, except for its inclusion of paedophilia. One offensive element in an otherwise unremarkable film sadly doesn’t translate into anything that’s really worth the time in either praise or scorn.
The original is still not the best of the horror films out there, but it’s at least easy to see why it’s created the legacy it did. It’s not remotely scary these days, but it is an impressive film, even if only for its special effects. Goofy protagonists aside, that is the film that deserves your attention, and, if it can wring them from you, your nightmares.