The original “A Nightmare on Elm Street” was one of the best horror flicks of the eighties, marked by a clever plot hook and a great villain, and skillfully packaged by Wes Craven, then at the top of his game. Sure, it looked pretty chintzy, and has pretty terrible performances from lead grownups John Saxon and Ronee Blakley (as well as a hideous hairdo on ingenue Heather Langenkamp). And the script, to put it mildly, didn’t always make much sense. But as compensation it not only introduced Johnny Depp but gave one the opportunity to watch him literally explode in a shower of blood. What’s not to like?
As is usually the case with these sorts of pictures, the remake doesn’t have much to offer. It looks somewhat better, of course; effects have progressed over the past quarter-century (though the ones here aren’t all that impressive), and the budget was clearly larger this time around. But the new “Nightmare” still has a grainy, washed-out appearance, with cinematography by Jeff Cutter that’s mediocre at best. And the direction by newcomer Samuel Bayer is at best workmanlike, at worst flat.
As to the cast, it’s just okay. The big selling point is presumably Jackie Earle Haley, who assumes the mantle—or sweater, actually—of Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger. He’s adequate but not much more, lacking the jovially nasty personality of his predecessor. And scripters Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer trip over themselves trying to come up with new versions of the cruel witticisms that were the character’s trademark. Their level of inspiration is low; when he engineers a swampy mess for the heroine to sink into and makes a remark about a wet dream, it’s obvious they’re trying too hard.
The rest get by, barely. Rooney Mara is a decent replacement for Langenkamp, though she’s a rather gloomy Gus. And Katie Cassidy, Thomas Dekker and Kellan Lutz are fine as early victims of the gloved one. Clancy Brown, who seems to show up in most of these horrorshows, glowers in his usual fashion as one of the murderous parents. One really has to worry about poor Kyle Gallner, who plays what amounts to the Depp part. Within the past year the kid has been haunted in Connecticut and killed by Jennifer’s Body. Now he has to go toe-to-toe with Freddy. For heaven’s sake, give the guy a break—a role in a romantic comedy or something. (One does have to admit, though, that his sad face is perfect for angst-ridden parts like this.)
And what of the plot? Well, Strick and Heissener stick pretty closely to Craven’s original, though they try to freshen things up by copying signature scenes from the first picture but usually taking them in a somewhat different direction, thereby aiming to satisfy those who expect the familiar as well as those who’d like a new slant. It’s a tactic that flops more often than it works. Presumably because they wanted to give Haley a chance to do scenes sans makeup, they provide a much more explicit backstory on his crimes, which pretty much brings the story to a halt (especially because the way Gallner observes it all makes no sense whatever). And they offer a largely revamped final confrontation, no worse than that of the original (the weakest part of that picture), and a new “gotcha” coda (which doesn’t hold a candle to the much creepier close that Craven provided). In short, a mixed bag, with the balance on the downside.
This new “Nightmare” might appeal to somebody who’s never seen the 1984 version, or any of its sequels, or even the short-lived TV series based on it. But it’s hard to imagine that anybody who’d be moved to go to a contemporary horror movie wouldn’t have been introduced to at least some of them. And so as is most often the case, the result is a flat, lifeless remake that’s totally unnecessary, except of course to the studio executives who want to extract still more profit from the property. These, after all, are the people who drained every drop of blood out of the concept over the course of eight earlier movies. They’re more guilty of overkill than Freddy ever was.