The Dream That Became a Nightmare: Looking Back at the 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' Remake 10 Years Later
Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is one of the scariest films of all time. It did to sleep what Jaws (1975) did for swimming to movie goers...
...It also gave us one of the most indelible and terrifying villains in cinematic history in Robert Englund’s menacing portrayal of Freddy Krueger. Needless to say Platinum Dunes (Known for their remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), The Amityville Horror (2005), and Friday The 13th(2009)) had their work cut out for them when attempting to reboot the franchise after a couple of misses and Freddy Krueger becoming a punchline.
Horror purists weren’t receptive to the idea of a remake without Robert Englund. Then the pieces started coming together. Influential Music Video director Samuel Bayer was attached as Director; Wesley Strick, the writer of Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1990) was penning the screenplay; and the biggest piece of news was Oscar nominated actor Jackie Earle Haley was cast as Freddy Krueger. The pieces were there, but sadly the film was a dud in more ways than one. With the film officially turning ten years old this month, it presents an interesting case study for horror.
That case being: Why did this film not work?
Before I continue, did I like the film? Nope.
Was it a failure of incompetence?
No. I do not feel that the film’s faults stem from a lack of an honest effort from the filmmakers’ part, but a misunderstanding of what made Wes Craven’s original film so terrifying.
First and foremost, a lot of the issues stem from the Screenplay. I rarely pick on the screenplay as a writer and knowing the mechanizations of what happens to a screenplay once the studio and director gets their hands on it, but the issues could only have stemmed from the fundamental ideas in screenplay.
One issue with the script is the writing of the kids. The film reads confused as to whom the protagonist is. The remake opens with a character that dies five minutes in. Then we are introduced to our protagonist, Nancy (Rooney Mara), as seemingly a side character until they start killing off the other characters and the script is forced to go and give Nancy a bigger role. While many can argue that’s how the original film opened, the difference is the original took its time and let us get to know all of these kids. The original film opens with Tina and her nightmares of Freddy, giving us a context of why we should be terrified of this dream demon. It’s about twenty minutes in until the first kill even happens, but by then we get a fundamental sense of who these kids are. Nancy is the caring best friend, Tina and Rod are the rebels, and Glen is the pretty boy.
The remake gives us no time to know these characters or even give us something to empathize with them.
The remake avoids the clichés of killing teenagers who commit sins by giving us characters that didn’t do drugs, or have premarital sex, or basically any character flaw whatsoever. While some would call this realistic and grounded, sometimes you need clichés not only to set up the rules of the horror, but also to know where to bend them and define your characters. A lot of folks were quick to argue that it’s the acting that is to blame, but when your cast is filled with powerhouses of talent in Jackie Earle Haley, Clancy Brown, and Rooney Mara (who would go on to be nominated for her portrayal of Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)) it’s hard to blame the actors as they have proven time and time again to be immensely talented given the right material.
The screenplay also introduces the reality based concept of Micro Naps. Micro naps occur after 70 hours of sleep deprivation, where the brain shuts down and induces an REM cycle in order to recharge itself. What this concept introduced to the series was the idea that Freddy can get you anywhere even if you are awake. While this concept sounds like it would elevate the intensity, this only serves as one of the screenplay’s biggest flaws. The idea that made Freddy Krueger such a terrifying villain was that no matter what happened: You Had to Fall Asleep. The fun of an Elm Street film is trying to figure out when the kids are in a dream state. What this slowly paced concept brought was not only a sense of dread to the audience, but it also worked as a character defining element for Freddy Krueger. The idea that Krueger was patiently waiting for you on the other side for when you fell asleep is unsettling and terrifying. The film loses that character element when it just says he can get you anywhere even if you stay awake. A patient Freddy Krueger is more terrifying than a non-stop threat.
The plot and structure of the screenplay revolves around the mystery of whether or not Freddy Krueger was innocent. This is particularly confusing in the film’s ambitions. We are meant to sympathize with the character that is committing the atrocious crime of killing children. While a lot of antagonists in cinema have used the trope of understanding the villain’s motives, there is a difference between sympathy and empathy, especially when it comes to a subject as touchy as a child killer. During one of the dream sequences, Freddy attacks a terrified Jesse (Thomas Dekker) that asks “What do you want from me?” to which Freddy screams “You think you can turn back time or bring the dead back to life? No, I didn’t fuckin’ think so.” A few scenes later we are shown Freddy running from the parents of Elm Street as he screams very vulnerably “What do you want? I didn’t do anything!” The way it’s written and played by Haley, it places Freddy as the victim and the kids and parents as the transgressors. Which is an interesting direction to go in, until you get to the reveal that Freddy DID kill children. For what kind of message that sends out, where the film asks us to in some way think Freddy was innocent only to reveal he was a monster all along, it unsettles me and feels like a cheap way to pull the rug out from the audience. The filmmakers seemed to have overthought this element in order to get an emotional response from the audience, but I ask “What is more terrifying?” A Krueger that feels he was wronged by the kids for telling the truth? Or a Krueger that knows what he did and enjoyed it?
Evil is as Evil does.
The other element that was disappointing was Samuel Bayer’s direction of the film. Bayer was well respected as a music video director who was behind Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirits.” Looking at that video and knowing that someone who has delivered emotionally driven and culturally impactful content with breathtaking imagery consistently in two-minutes for over a decade was going to be tackling A Nightmare on Elm Street? How can you not get excited?
Unfortunately, the direction was lacking.
The dreams are uninspired, with just a dark version of whatever setting the kids are in. Also, the imagery is far from terrifying. Bayer and the producers unfortunately settled for standard fare, maybe due to budget or trying to ground the film in realism, but that doesn’t lend to a nightmarish feeling film. Just a bland one. The element that was missing was that Freddy would tailor make every one of the nightmares to whatever character flaw the kids had. Going with the bland nightmares, the kills are even blander as they all end in the same way: Krueger uses his claws to slash the victim. For a character that is known for having razor fingers, if you look at the original films, Krueger hardly uses the razors. If you hated bugs, Freddy turned you into a cockroach and crushed you. If you had an eating disorder, Freddy fed you to death. If you were afraid of drowning, Freddy would trap you in the shower as it slowly filled with water. Freddy knew your weaknesses. He didn’t just taunt you for having a weakness, he punished you for it. If you look at the original Elm Street films, they were innovative, but they all used clever filmmaking tricks, surreal imagery, and terrifying ideas to compensate for a budget. Admittedly, some of them don’t hold up nearly as well and come off as cheap at points, but the ideas behind the nightmares transcend the limitations the filmmakers had. There’s been several films since that have delivered truly scary and surreal imagery with a budget. The filmmakers should have taken cues from films such as Jacob’s Ladder (1990) where the scares came from atmosphere and the editing to deliver a truly unsettling and terrifying experience, and not relied on jump scares and CGI to scare the audience.
If I have so many problems with this film, why do I choose to write about it?
Simple, this film was an interesting case study for horror films in terms of why some of them work and some don’t. Again, I don’t think the filmmakers set out to make a bad remake, (no offense to the creatives behind this project), they just didn’t stick true to what made the Elm Street films as horrifying as they are. Having had 10 years to think about this, I don’t think the film is without merit. Like Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (1998), this film provides an interesting study to the question of how far should a remake go before you lose the essence of what the original film was. Whereas Van Sant’s film was stuck so closely to the source material, this film went the other direction and there’s a lot to learn from its mistakes and what it got right.
That’s not to say I think Nightmare shouldn’t be remade. I think there’s every chance that this film should be remade.
Freddy Krueger is just too good of a character to let go to waste. I wouldn’t be opposed to Platinum Dunes tackling Krueger again. It seems after the terrifying A Quiet Place (2018) and action horror The Purge films that they really found their footing. We shouldn’t judge a studio or creative for their mistakes, but look at their wins and the lessons learned and what they produce going forward. To this day, this remake is one of the biggest disappointments I’ve had in a theater after Dunes produced some of my favorite and best horror remakes out on the market. Its failures only hurt and stay with me after 10 years because the potential and the talent was certainly there.
Here’s to Krueger’s next foray.
Whenever that is.
By Andres Gallego