New Line Cinema held off screenings of A Nightmare on Elm Street
until yesterday, after press deadlines. But we've been up all night thinking about it.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
WW Critic's Score:
Freddy Krueger is like baby teeth and spelling tests: You pretty much forget he ever existed once you have your first wet dream and enter a world of real terror. He's never been earnest or brooding enough to be anything more than a Tiger Beat
boogeyman. Michael and Jason and Leatherface, lumbering reifications of mute cruelty, aren't so shakeable. When I stumble home through fall fog, it's a big galoot in a mask matching my steps. Freddy's burnt face and bad puns haven't haunted me since I figured out that a blow-job involved more than just blowing warm air onto a penis. He's a joker, a clown, a prankster, a weird uncle with bad skin and a neat quarter trick.
For sensitive sorts born between Nixon's resignation and Reagan's second term—Freddy's kids—Wes Craven's Krueger was profoundly terrifying until, by some blessed magic, he simply wasn't. The later sequels were hip to the transformation. Freddy became an excuse for elaborate Grand Guignol slapstick. When Craven returned to the fold with New Nightmare
, he took his creation out for a little pre-Scream
meta-horror test drive. Freddy was finally dead, bound in chains of irony, buried deep, a mere memory of terror.
Which is to say that A Nightmare on Elm Street
has all along been the only horror classic worth “rebooting.” There's potential for a truly traumatic reimagining here. Forget Freddy for a minute. Close your eyes, relax. Dig through your cobwebby memory for that silly, harmless thing that freaked you the fuck out when you were small. Something only a nervous kid could attach dread to. A cockeyed doll you imagined would watch you while you slept? Corn stalks that seemed to sway with malicious volition? Whatever it was, repeated exposure to your maturing brain rendered it powerless. Now picture yourself rooting through some boxes marked “kid stuff.” You find that doll. Oh, right, I remember this old thing. Used to scare me half to death. How could I have ever been so—WHAT THE FUCK!? The doll just blinked, and now its tiny hands are reaching for your neck.
Freddy's that doll, and Samuel Bayer had to do one simple thing with his remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street
: convince us that we were right about Krueger all along. Make us believe that the fear wasn't false, but merely repressed, waiting to stalk and slash again. Well, Bayer did it. Almost. For 30 minutes, his new Nightmare
is a panic-inducing bad dream come true. Yes, it's chockablock with the familiar horror flourishes—soundtrack sideswipes and bathroom mirror sneak attacks—and they're not fooling anyone at this point. Yes, the images are tinted and treated to within an inch of Law and Order
's aesthetic SOP. And yes, anyone who's seen the original will know where it's going and how it's going to get there, more or less. Etc. Throw any complaint about contemporary horror at Bayer's film and it will stick.
But—and this is a big but—those first 30 minutes are thrillingly brutal, and they derive all of their malevolent force from Freddy's new face. Robert Englund's fried Freddy visage was architectural. It looked like what it really was: a made up face, an artist's daub, skin subtraction by latex addition. Jackie Earl Haley, here splitting the difference between his recent roles as child molester (Little Children
) and masked sicko (Watchmen
), is more subtly singed. His Freddy actually looks like a burn victim: lipless and lidless, with a black canyon of missing flesh where a cheek should be, he wears the same featureless agony I've seen in photographs of real immolated bodies.
He's the cartoon Freddy from childhood made “real,” and it's devastingly intense for a while, but confronting him is ultimately more reassuring than terrifying. For the teenagers in the movie, Freddy is a repressed memory of child abuse made manifest. For us, Freddy is a repressed memory of Freddy. The characters find peace by defeating him (at least for now). We don't have to work so hard. Bayer neutralizes the terror for us; he traps Freddy in a plodding and shoddily constructed final hour that unfurls like one long reaction shot to some scary thing that we just can't see anymore. Turns out Freddy needs more than a makeover. Turns out he still needs a sharp eye for cinematic horror behind the camera. Bayer just doesn't have what it takes. He has no sense for the spooky backround shadowing and patient editing that makes scary stuff click. Freddy is poison looking for a needle—he can't really get under our skin without it, so his melted face peels away to reveal a growling clown.
By the end of A Nightmare on Elm Street
, Freddy's jailbait victims look terrified, tired, defeated. They're hallucinating from lack of sleep. Waking life edges into dream dread. It's almost a relief that the film never finds a way to sneak the same sickening feeling into us. Those first few glimpes of the new and improved Freddy were too much. I hid in my hood, I averted my eyes, I bit my nails to the quick. I'm thankful Freddy didn't have Craven pulling the strings. I might not have made it out alive. (But this is a horror film, so I also kinda wish I hadn't.)
Freddy's not so scary after all, at least for me. But I'm happy to know there will be kids losing sleep this weekend, kids who will grow up and forget about Freddy, kids who will be adults when the inevitable remake of the remake comes out. And they will go see it for kicks. Oh, I remember this old thing. Used to scare me half to death. How could I have ever been so—HOLY FUCKING SHIT!! R.
Opens Friday at Century 16 Cedar Hills Crossing, Century at Clackamas Town Center, Century Eastport 16, Cinema 99 Stadium 11, Cinemas Bridgeport Village Stadium 18 IMAX, City Center Stadium 12, Cornelius 9 Cinemas, Division Street Stadium 13, Evergreen Parkway Stadium 13, Hilltop 9 Cinema, Lloyd Center Stadium 10 Cinema, Movies On TV Stadium 16, Oak Grove 8 Cinemas, Pioneer Place Stadium 6, Sandy Cinemas, Sherwood Stadium 10, Tigard 11 Cinemas, Wilsonville Stadium 9 Cinema.