“A Nightmare on Elm Street” Freddy Goes Cutting Edge

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Jackie Earle Haley is Freddy Krueger in the New Line Cinema film "A Nightmare on Elm Street"

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Recently, a horror aficionado asked me, “Why did they go and do a remake of ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street?’ The 1984 original was so perfect.” Since it’s incorrect to have two people speak in the same paragraph, I answered by rubbing my index finger and middle finger with my thumb. He nodded, “Yeah. But still…”

No “But still…” for me. Icon of the subgenre, Slasher Teenager, genus, Horror Movie, or not, I don’t share the notion of sacrilege. Nor am I concerned with the volumes of lore and franchise minutiae this reprise is causing to seep up from beneath rock and gurgling black pool. Perhaps more curious, I do feel an obligation to estimate its fright value.

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Hence, slicing and dicing to the chase, on a scale of 1 to 10—10 being the scare factor accomplished by “The Exorcist” (1973) or a viewing of “Dracula” (1931) when you were seven—“A Nightmare on Elm Street” is about a 4. We’ve become inured to the tricks. Instead of feeling terror, we’re exhausted from being on guard to the hackneyed ploys.

In all fairness, director Samuel Bayer does impart a few surprises. But much of it is a manipulative byproduct of the plot, which flits between consciousness and dreams. Teenagers, again the sacrificial fodder, dare not sleep for fear Freddy Krueger will enter their reveries and kill them. The madman’s supernatural gift is never quite explained.

No matter. We’ll give ‘em that. However, like his dastardly protagonist, director Bayer doesn’t play fair. Oops, it was just a dream. Now they’re awake; now they’re asleep. Oh, sorry…no, they’re sleeping. Or, better yet, there’s the dream that they’re dreaming, or, that they’re awake.

It’s a rather ghoulish form of recycling, allowing the filmmaker to practice-kill each of his innocent victims a few times before letting Freddy do his worst for real. For pleasing viewers who measure their thrills either by the number of perceived gory murders or the volume of theatrical blood splashed, there is a certain, fiendish economy.

Of course these are but the inept sarcasms of a non-fan, an unwelcome reviewer from among the great unwashed. I can’t tell you what Freddy Krueger’s favorite breakfast cereal is, or who played so and sos’ mother in the umpteenth follow-up to writer-director Wes Craven’s original film. Horror fans have their own, in-house critics/mavens for that.

Rather, my venture among the eerie netherworld of Filmdom is a just in case…in case it’s surprisingly good: a film that might be enjoyed outside the coven. Which, happily, was the case with “An American Werewolf in London” (1981), “Misery” (1990) and “Shaun of the Dead” (2004), though some might say those really aren’t horror movies.

That is, they don’t belong to this nihilistic scare tactic which probably first saw the light of silver screen with John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (1978). Shunning the need for a justifying metaphor, unlike the nuclear scare-inspired, mutant-populated sci-fi thrillers of the 1950s (i.e.-“Them” [1954]), these bad boys assert horror for horror’s sake.

But the flimsy plots betray the anarchy. Implied in the sinews of their creepiness, parents are clueless ex-flower children; Social Security won’t be there for them, assuming they aren’t hacked up before turning sixty-five; and how come things haven’t gotten better even after they’ve had a hand in picking the President?

But while the perfunctory angst is often sinisterly playful in these films, “A Nightmare on Elm Street” distastefully steps out of bounds. The back-story of how Jackie Earle Haley’s Freddy Krueger became the monster that he is essentially informs of the monster that he was, back at the pre-school when all of our endangered teens were tots.

Though stopping short of having the degenerate tout a tell-all book on “Oprah,” combining a real horror of human psychology with the insensitivities of this fringy film phylum is disingenuous at best. Injecting the hot button into such morass offensively suggests it’s a proper forum for discussing the mental illness in question.

By so tactlessly draining the fun from the story, all it leaves is a bunch of computer-enhanced depravity: the better to make even more indiscernible the back-and-forth transitions between the wakened and dream states. Naturally, whether the high tech effects are hip or heretical will more or less depend on the age of the beholding devotee.

For the rest of us, who care about as much about Freddy Krueger’s return as we do about what Lady Gaga wore to the premiere, “A Nightmare on Elm Street” is sad proof that some neighborhoods just can’t be rehabilitated. Unless you’re cruising to be demeaned, spare the horror and set your movie GPS to steer clear of this blighted address.

“A Nightmare on Elm Street,” rated R, is a Warner Bros. Pictures release directed by Samuel Bayer and stars Jackie Earle Haley, Rooney Mara and Kyle Gallner. Running time: 95 minutes


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