4 stars, (R)
When it comes to remakes, the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" rule no longer applies. With reboots such as Casino Royale and The Dark Knight putting their characters in rich, new contexts, remakes may no longer be disreputable. However, recent horror remakes (Halloween, Friday the 13th) prove detrimental by tastelessly amping up sex and violence. A Nightmare on Elm Street, the reimagining of Wes Craven's classic 1984 slasher film, adds depth instead. And unlike most remakes that depend on your nostalgia for the original film, it stands on its own. It does so by capturing the mood of the modern teen world and reinventing its iconic monster.
The basic plot is the same. Freddy Krueger (Jackie Earle Haley), a horribly disfigured man with a knife-glove, attacks teenagers in their dreams - the one place they thought was safe. This is Krueger's way of punishing the parents that burned him alive for his pedophilic behavior. In the '80s, the idea of our nightmares bleeding over into our waking lives was truly terrifying. Now, after countless slasher movies, audiences are desensitized. Screenwriters Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer cleverly comment on this through the teens' behavior in the new film.
The teen characters are very much of our time - sullen, medicated, plugged-in youths. The characters in the original film lived in a more innocent time. Comforted by the societal security of the Reagan era, their violent nightmares seemed to come out of nowhere. In today's world, teens are exposed to multimedia, omnipresent violence. Unlike the teens in the original who had never heard of a slasher movie, the new characters, like the viewers, quickly accept the violence around them and its rules. "If you die in your dreams, you die in real life," one boy explains the plot bluntly. While the original film is a scary, surreal, playful fever dream, the remake is a straight thriller.
The remake's dream sequences match the gothic sensibilities of the characters - their drab wardrobes and dreary artwork. Nightmare suggests that today's teens are so shrouded in somber darkness that they cannot separate their nightmares from reality. This idea is conveyed through the smooth, seamless transitions to the dream world. Using refreshingly old-school smoke and mirror effects, director Samuel Bayer keeps you guessing about what is real. A veteran of music videos, Bayer proves himself a capable film director with this debut. In addition to bringing an interesting visual style, he draws great performances from his cast. Jackie Earle Haley is particularly effective, breathing new depths to the classic boogeyman.
Beneath his horribly burnt face, Freddy Krueger was a figure of camp amusement. Although Robert Englund was engaging in the role, he never felt more than a cartoon manifestation of evil. Jackie Earle Haley and writers Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer make you feel the man behind the monster. When Freddy is hunted down for his impulsive crimes against children, he reveals fear, vulnerability and resentment. As Freddy takes his revenge, Haley smolders with malice and menace. It's ironic that Haley, an actor whose career died in the '80s, is back and better than ever in a remake of a film from that decade.
The teen actors deliver equally rich performances. Unlike most actors in these films, leads Kyle Gallner and Rooney Mara are quiet and pensive. We see them analyze their visions of terror rather than simply scream in fright. The cast members are also rather normal looking. They are not the supermodel types typical of this exploitative genre, but soft, approachable teens.
I didn't think A Nightmare on Elm Street would benefit from a remake until I saw this film. If only more remakes provoked that reaction. With thoughtful, well-acted reboots like Nightmare, there is hope.