Remaking horror films is a dicey proposition that hasn’t fared well in recent years. Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of John Carpenter’s Halloween was such a wrongheaded failure that it should put producers off from ever giving Zombie such an opportunity again. You’d have to go back to David Cronenberg’s re-imagining of The Fly to come up with a horror remake that reworked its original material to an entirely new level of entertainment. It’s this elevated transposition that’s nevertheless missing in the Elm Street update by screenwriters Wesley Strick (Cape Fear) and newcomer Eric Heisserer.
More contemplative and thematically muscular than Wes Craven’s 1984 original slasher flick, Samuel Bayer’s updated version has a quieter, surreal edge rooted more in suspense than in the former film’s regular bloodletting.
That’s not to say plenty of quarts of the red liquid don’t flow freely from a group of teens who had the misfortune to be molested by Freddie Krueger when he worked as a nursery school janitor a dozen years earlier. Jackie Earle Haley breathes fearsome life into the horribly disfigured monster that lives in the dream-lives and waking realities of his victims. The movie has a sustained sense of morbid dread abetted by the narrative’s adult characters who conspire against the truth of their own complicity in their children’s sustained terror.
In place of constant electronic music cues, there’s a brooding silence here. Subtle nods to films like Psycho, The Exorcist and The Shining work to create a grotesque universe of the sleep deprived where nightmares nestle like Russian dolls. While Craven’s film was campy, Bayer’s movie is just plain dark.
Where the contemporary film gains on the original is in the casting of Haley as the demonic monster with a mission. In flashback we see the small frame of Haley’s pedophile character playing with small children in the school yard as narration informs us about how much he enjoyed spending time with the kids. Bam! We’re drawn into the psychological aspect of the narrative that sides with the traumatized victims who, as older teens, must now be sacrificed on an altar of warped insanity. Where audiences got a googly-eyed, disfigured Freddie that hid behind a mask in the original, we now see the grotesque scars of a man punished by fire in an act of public mass vengeance similar to the treatment the Frankenstein monster received in James Whale’s 1931 film.
The new Elm Street also eschews the false-start scares, self-referential jokiness and teen-sex frolicking of Craven’s franchise starter. There’s no lonely Johnny Depp character announcing “morality sucks” while listening to the exaggerated moans and cries of his friends as they get it on in the next room. The teens in Bayer’s film are too damaged to engage freely in sexual expression. Absent too is the religious iconography that the original overstated with crucifixes that fell from their wall hooks.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is ultimately about the post-traumatic nightmares that pedophile victims experience. That the murky imaginings fold inside one another between waking reality, points out the depth of mental destruction such experiences inflict on human beings. Like the never-ending stream of revelations about sexual abuses by Catholic priests, Krueger represents a pernicious threat that will not go away. Hence the film’s final shock of terror. Taken in these terms, Elm Street is a cautionary horror film that links the participation of negligent parents to sociopath molesters that prey on children in their own churches, homes and schools. If this doesn’t scare you, I don’t know what will.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (R) ★★★☆☆