Before Samuel Bayer’s re-imagining of horror classic “A Nightmare on Elm Street” hit theaters, moviegoers split in two groups. There was the “Robert Englund Reigns Supreme, Idiots!” camp; on the other side stood the “Jackie Earle Haley Almost Won an Oscar, So Give Him a Chance!” camp. (There were rumors of a splinter cell, known only as “Who Cares?”) Post-release, aside from the few odd defectors, both camps have remained intact.
Ipso facto, how this 21st-century recreation stacks up to the 1984 original depends on which camp you call home. For more than a year I held tight to the belief that Jackie Earle Haley is one scary-as-brimstone chap when he doesn’t wear knife-fingered gloves. He did not let me down. If anything, I like this Freddy Kreuger better than Robert Englund’s. (No, I’m not sorry I typed that. And yes, I am prepared to die for this cause.)
But in truth, so grim and bloodcurdling is Haley’s turn as Freddy Kreuger that it defies comparison to Robert Englund’s more impish trickster/murderer; the characters are that different. The sweater-and-hat getup is all the two have in common. Haley uses every part of himself — slitty eyes, body language, voice pulled up from the bowels of hell (thank you, voice enhancement) — to plunge the Sleepytime Slasher to new depths. Gone are the wordplay and sly sarcasm of yesteryear; Haley’s Kreuger has no time for trifles. There’s only one thing on his mind: killing the Elm Street teens who have forgotten him. But first comes the psychological torture. The glee he takes in that task is worth losing some R.E.M. sleep over.
Calling other aspects of this redux an unqualified success isn’t so easy. Some rearranging of the cast causes Bayer’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street” to lose some of the vigor Wes Craven’s film had. Bayer places so much emphasis on the sadistic murderer himself that the young actors disappear into the background, important only because they feed Kreuger’s perverted appetite. That’s not to say that wasn’t the case in other films in the “Nightmare” franchise and in 85% of horror films overall, but it’s a problem when the heroine, Nancy (played here by Rooney Mara), looks relatively unimportant until the last 45 minutes. We can’t help but compare her to Heather Langenkamp, the quick-thinking protagonist of Craven’s film who was capable of so much more than weeping and running for dear life. Bayer’s Nancy, through no fault of Mara, comes up short and leaves the 2010 update without a “good” to Kreuger’s “evil.” The setup of Nancy as Kreuger’s opponent needs to happen much sooner and much more clearly than it does. As a tradeoff, some of the dream sequences — especially Nancy’s — are more fluid while others are cheesy.
All this talk of Nancy requires for some kind of plot rundown for Bayer’s film. Anyone who saw the Wes Craven version has the idea, but Bayer exercises some liberties. Most notable is his re-envisioning of the story of Freddy Kreuger’s life and death, which includes allegations of physical abuse and pedophilia that may or may not be true. (This story, in my opinion, is more believable and less convoluted.) In 2010, Kreuger, with his burned face and soulless eyes, begins showing up in the dreams of Springwood’s teens: Kris (Katie Cassidy), Dean (Kellan Lutz), Jesse (Thomas Dekker), Quentin (Kyle Gallner) and Nancy. Because they don’t run in the same social circle, they barely know each other — or so they think. The element of parental cover-up is there, so the teens don’t realize that they share a history that might kill them all. Dead Teen-Ager Movies have a lot in common with Shakespearean tragedies that way.
By the you-saw-this-coming close, Bayer has made a few noteworthy changes as well as a few mistakes. Has he reinvigorated the series? Let’s not get crazy. But Jackie Earle Haley has made Freddy Kreuger a demonic force to be reckoned with, and his performance makes all the difference.