Mess with Freddy Krueger and you’re asking for trouble. The highly regarded horror icon, the star of Wes Craven’s inventive original Nightmare on Elm Street (and countless uneven sequels), is so beloved and mythologized by the fright fanbase that, if you do him wrong, there will be a supreme slice of cinematic Hell to pay. Luckily, music video ace turned feature film director Samuel Bayer really delivers with his stylized, serious remake of the film that introduced the world to the man with the knife glove hand. More “inspired” by the 1984 classic than a straight carbon copy, this Nightmare makes the material its own and as a result becomes one of 2010′s most unexpected delights.
For the teens living on Elm Street, nighttime is frighttime. Almost everyone suffers from awful visions of a burned man named Freddy (Jackie Earle Haley) in a tattered red and green sweater, faded fedora, and a fistful of deadly metallic blades. When Dean (Kellan Lutz) seemingly kills himself in front of his girlfriend Kris (Katie Cassidy), it makes his pals Jesse (Thomas Dekker), Nancy (Rooney Mara), and Quentin (Kyle Gallner) more than a little nervous. Before he died Dean was muttering something about his dreams being real…and the melted murderer who was in them. Soon, the fried fiend is showing up in everyone’s unconscious, leading Nancy and Quentin to find a connection. Everything hearkens back to a pre-school long forgotten, whispers of child abuse, and a friendly if odd little gardener named…Freddy.
Without disrespecting Craven’s characters or undermining his inventive narrative, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 is the latest example of a “re-imagining” that actually does succeed. With its deliberate pace, atmospheric approach, and desire to tell a more serious, somber story, Bayer and his cast create a truly memorable monster movie. Sure, there’s an over-reliance on false scares and “gotcha” shocks that gets old after a while, and without a strong heroine like the original’s Heather Langenkamp as a rooting interest, it’s hard to find a source of sympathy. But there are enough solid, seasoned scares here, as well as an excellent social subtext, that make this remake a unique entry into the franchise.
Those who remember the horrors of high-profile sex abuse cases like L.A.’s McMartin or New Jersey’s Wee Care will instantly recoil at the storyline switch presented. Freddy is no longer some random maniac who stalks and slaughters kids. Instead, he’s interacted with his victims before, crafting an entire “was he or wasn’t he” pedophile premise for us to deal with. Nancy and Quentin act as investigators (as well as past participants in the facts), the plot-points they uncover providing their own sense of dread. As they put together the pieces and expose a version of the truth, Haley makes a harrowing argument for carrying on Krueger’s legacy. He is brilliant in the role — not too comical, always too cruel — and imbued with a sinister tragedy that is hard to shake.
Anyone coming to this movie hoping for some of the stand-up comedy callousness in which many of the sequels indulged should perhaps stay away. Screenwriters Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer make the wise decision to dump the punchlines and shower us with suspense. This is a tightly wound experience that gets even more tense as it builds toward its shattering finale…with, of course, ample room for its own series of spin-offs. With a villain as vital as Freddy Krueger, all this new Nightmare on Elm Street had to do was remain faithful to its founders without compromising the things that admirers adored about the original. Surprisingly, this update survives on its own terms, becoming a quasi-classic in the process.