I’ve never been really into horror movies. The extent of my knowledge of the Freddy from the 80s, for instance, is that I’m aware of a song that DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince did about him. So I’m not a very good candidate to comment on how this new incarnation of A Nightmare on Elm Street compares to its predecessor, but that’s okay, because I’ve always held that a film needs to be judged on its own—more or less in a vacuum—anyway. But I felt the need to get that caveat out of the way… plus, any time you get the opportunity to make a DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince reference, it’s hard to pass up.
Here we have the story of some high school kids from Ohio—guess which street they live on—who are all haunted by similar dreams featuring a familiar-looking guy with a burnt face and knives on the fingers of his gloved hand. For the first half of the film, we don’t know who the main characters are; it’s an ensemble cast of kids who take turns being the main focus of Freddy’s torment. This is kind of a fun approach for the movie to take, because we’re never sure if any of the kids are safe. At first, it seems they’re all dispensable, and indeed they take turns being dispensed in order. It goes like this: one kid attempts to stay awake, fearful of what may happen at the hands of Freddy (Jackie Earle Haley) if they don’t. Eventually they fall asleep, and Freddy gruesomely murders them, which results in their real-life death (it works according to the same rules as The Matrix, I guess). This should be scary, as one of the best ways for a movie like this to startle you is for it to surprise you with who dies and who survives. Unfortunately, though, it’s so uncreative in how it goes about this that the shock and surprise is all but lost. A kid falls asleep, narrowly escapes Freddy by waking up in the nick of time, and then falls asleep again and isn’t so lucky. Likewise, when Freddy shows up in their dreams it should scare us, but for the fact that we know exactly what’s coming and see it from miles away.
Eventually there are only a couple of kids left, and it becomes obvious that they will function as the protagonists, and thus immune from death. And then for the rest of the movie, these two—Quentin (Kyle Gallner) and Nancy (Rooney Mara)—must discover why Freddy is after them in the first place, and how to defeat him. They uncover a deep secret of their town, something their parents have been keeping from them, that sort of explains why Freddy is trying to kill them, but happily eschews any explanation of how it is he came to occupy their dreams in the first place. There are some cringe-worthy moments during this period of discovery, not so much due to the story being unfolded but due to the way the parents, played by Connie Britton and Clancy Brown, do such a poor job of lying to their kids about the past. There is, as there always must be, a clue that ties everything together, which Nancy finds with surprising ease. And then there’s the requisite scene where she just happens to find a book that just happens to explain—kind of—the particular type of mythology she’s dealing with.
This incarnation of that mythology—the iconic and overwrought Freddy Krueger—is a bit disappointing. While I appreciate the decision by the filmmakers to stick with old-school-style makeup effects to transform Jackie Earle Haley into the nightmare embodiment, I have to say I found them to be more distracting than scary, so much so that it took away from the intended effect. Haley, of course, is a good and capable actor, and it’s nice that flashback sequences depicting Freddy’s origins give him a chance to act without the makeup. His Freddy voice is similar to his Rorschach voice from Watchmen, but necessarily even more overdone. This isn’t a movie that relies on shadows to be its ally of fright, though; rather, director Samuel Bayer—a music video veteran making his first foray into feature film—is happy to show Freddy much more than necessary, drawing extended attention to his rubbery visage.
The rest of the cast is a predictably mixed bag. The two main teenage characters do a serviceable job—I guess Kyle Gallner did well enough as the emo kid in Jennifer’s Body to warrant a chance to carry a horror movie on his own—but the rest of the young actors are pretty bad. Usually in a horror movie this is a sign of them being cast more for their willingness to get naked than for their acting ability, but in surprising indifference to perhaps the most tried-and-true horror-movie cliche, this Nighmare is gratuitous-nudity-free. It makes up for that, I guess, by adhering to the second-most famous cliche of this genre, by setting up a sequel in its final frames. Like the rest of this movie—especially its attempts to scare its audience—that’s not exactly what I’d call surprising.