At the height of MTV’s golden age, Samuel Bayer’s music videos helped to give a face to a generation of musicians whose talents forever changed the landscape of rock n’ roll. His style—grungy, grainy, blown-out—was not poetic or weighty like Anton Corbijn’s, but it was distinctive and purposeful all the same. Like Nirvana’s music, that style was also iconic. Of course, you wouldn’t know that photogenic aesthetic from the looks of this lazy, spiritless reboot of Wes Craven’s original A Nightmare on Elm Street, another predictably flashy hackjob from Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes, which in the past few years has sullied the memory of some perfectly fine horror films—and in some cases managed to churn out remakes far more deplorable than the originals.
As a producer, Bay is best described as a lascivious used car salesman. Unimaginative, even immoral, he asks his lackeys—Marcus Nispel, Dave Meyers, Andrew Douglas, among others—to leave nothing to the audience’s imagination, to shun wit, to amp up the sex and violence, and to shoot the world as if it were covered completely in Vaseline. What’s depressing about Nispel’s Friday the 13th and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Myers’s The Hitcher, and Douglas’s The Amityville Horror is that they could have all been made by the same person. To this fold we can now add Bayer’s Elm Street.
Let’s get this out of the way: The original Elm Street, for all its iconic moments, is no masterpiece. Though uniquely freaky, Freddy Kreuger was just a conceit, an idea of evil that never really felt flesh and blood—and to a certain extent, the makers of this film understood that when they decided to remake Craven’s original, considerably more patient vision. Freddy’s backstory, oft alluded to throughout seven films, was never grappled with head-on, but now it’s front and center. (Spoilers herein.) In this new Elm Street, Freddy (Jackie Earle Haley, in credible-looking burn makeup) isn’t a child killer, but a pedophile, and his killing of Springwood’s teenagers—the children of the men and women who burned him to death—goes beyond a simple and vague sense revenge. It’s something deeper, more disturbing: a continuation of his cycle of abuse.
In a way, Freddy finally makes sense in this version of Elm Street, but Robert Englund’s original Freddy is still preferable to Haley’s pervy Groundskeeper Willy. What was once playful, mysterious, and sinister is now just lurid, cheap, and weird, as neither Haley nor the filmmakers fully commit to grappling with whatever sense of torment compelled Freddy in life and now enrages him in death. Even worse, the parents are still ciphers. The tone of the film is never serious, never empathetic of either Freddy or his victims, just slick and flippant. Surely Bay and company learned nothing from Rob Zombie’s beautiful—yes, beautiful (the director’s cut, at least)—Halloween II: In that almost Lynchian freakout, Zombie’s prismatic aesthetic is cannily rhymed with Michael Myers’s graphic mood swings, every obscenely prolonged kill scene a stunning reflection on an iconic movie monster’s needs and distress.
Rather than focus on what made Freddy who he is in death, the filmmakers could have elaborated on the original Elm Street‘s sore spot: the failures and anxieties of Springwood’s baby boomer parents and why exactly the madman they killed haunts his victims in dreams. (Given the emphasis on abuse in this film, it’s almost inexplicable that some medical goof never appears to explain the elaborate links between regression and dreaming.) Freddy’s mode of killing and manipulation through dreams was just another very good but surface-deep idea that made the original films notable, and it’s one that Craven and others—even Renny Harlin!—awesomely, sometimes interestingly, played with, like Freddy treating a patient’s veins as if they were a puppet’s strings in The Dream Warriors, or his trapping of two characters in an endless loop in The Dream Master.
Rather than add to that memorable canon of images, all visions of helplessness, this film simply replicates them—and poorly so. When a character is pulled into the air and thrashed around her room, her body pounding against the wall is more forceful, and when Freddy tries to enter Nancy’s (Rooney Mara) bedroom from behind a wall, it’s (bad) CGI that evokes his arms and head trying to push forward and into the room. Bayer plays with shape and color interestingly in a scene where Quentin (Kyle Gallner) nearly drowns and dreams Freddy’s backstory, but beyond that, he settles for delivering the cheapest, lamest, and most unoriginal of thrills, and in so doing accomplishes something unlikely: making one hanker for the ‘80s and the beauty of analog-age special effects.
The warm, sweaty neon hues of the film's color palette come through with cartoonish clarity, and it's precisely because that cartoonishness is intended that we can forgive the intermittently sub-par shadow delineation. But if we're meant to feel as if we're watching, say, the panels of a comic book sprung to life, are we supposed to overlook how the dialogue sounds suffocated at times by the cacophonous—um, razor-sharp—surround work?
On "Freddy Krueger Reborn," the filmmakers discuss their rationale behind giving Freddy a more substantial backstory, though they shy away from any useful discussion on why they opted to make one of horrordom's most infamous boogeymen into a sex pervert. The WB Movie Maniacal Mode allows you to view the film with a PIP-style video commentary track on the lower-right-hand corner of the screen. It's a cool feature, though it makes watching the seven-part Focus gallery of features (topics include "The Hat" and "The Victims") completely redundant. Rounding out the disc is a series of alternate scenes, including an absurdly cut and performed alternate ending.
Like Rob Zombie's Halloween remake (and its sequel), this new take on A Nightmare on Elm Street gives a famous movie boogeyman an explicit psychological makeover, though Samuel Bayer directs his film with all the nuance of a "Stranger Danger" video.