#9 in my ranking of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise.
Ugh. I really like the first Nightmare on Elm Street film and have a pretty good time with most of the sequels, even as they got more comedic to certain degrees. The effort to bring the series back to its more dangerous and dark roots (despite the existence of New Nightmare, I guess) goes awry from the moment it starts. Oppressive in tone, confused in storytelling, and obsessed with the worst kind of lore, the sole feature film made by noted commercial director Samuel Bayer is an embarrassment that has no idea what made the original series appealing at any point while offering nothing more than bad rehashes of old ideas inelegantly thrown together with no concept of how stories work.
The film begins, much like the first film, with a nightmare. Dean (Kellan Lutz) hasn’t slept in three days and falls asleep while trying to stay awake in a diner where he is greeted by Freddy Krueger (Jackie Earle Haley) and terrorized into waking up. In this diner in the middle of the night, we get a glimpse of all of the main teenagers of the film including Nancy (Rooney Mara), Quentin (Kyle Gallner), and Kris (Katie Cassidy). The defining feature of this scene, though, is the oppressive tone. This movie can’t spare a second to let you forget that you are watching a horror movie, and in a misguided attempt to build atmosphere it never, ever lets up. Every moment is incredibly dour no matter what’s going on screen, and it creates a monotonous feeling that tries to create an endless series of high notes, but, because it is all the same, the high notes quickly become just a repetitious tone that never goes away. There’s no sunlight to this film, no moment where these thirty-year-old teenagers act like teenagers with cares about school or anything else.
There seems to have been a fear that if a hint of Freddy didn’t appear every five minutes, or so, then the audience would lose interest in this horror movie because they’d forget it was a horror movie. It makes the whole thing shockingly hard to sit through.
Anyway, teens start dying in strange ways. Kris (much like Tina in the original) dies in her sleep in her room by a force that throws her around in the air (the original’s locked-down shot in a rotating set is more effective than the over-edited wirework here) while Dean watches helplessly. Covered in blood, he’s immediately arrested, put into an orange jumpsuit that very night, and struggles to stay awake in his cell before he falls asleep and gets cut up by Krueger in his dream, leaving his cell mate in hysterics. There’s something going on, especially when one of them notices that they are in a picture of the deceased from when they were both children, but they only knew each other from high school on. There’s a hidden history going on here.
And this is where the movie decided to try to “dig deeper” into Freddy Krueger. Lore is probably one of the least interesting things in a story you can quickly stuff in. Lore is backstory, and while it does have some importance in framing characters, it’s not nearly as compelling as what characters are doing here and now. Freddy was never interesting in the original franchise when they dug backwards. He was always more interesting when the writers were trying to push him forwards. Here, they simply just go backwards, inventing a new variation on the backstory and really getting into it. Freddy wasn’t a janitor at a school now, he was a gardener at a preschool that loved all the little children. The children began telling stories to their parents about the secret cave Freddy took them to (they also had torn up clothing), and instead of going to the police (to save the children from testifying, or something), the parents tracked him down and burned him alive. And, for some reason, Nancy and Quentin go down the path of, “maybe Freddy was innocent.” I guess it was supposed to be a new twist on the idea, but this is a Nightmare on Elm Street movie. Freddy isn’t going to be innocent.
Jackie Earle Haley also seems to have misjudged how to play Freddy. Even when Robert Englund was playing Freddy “straight” and purely terrifying, he still had a sense of wit about it. It wasn’t one-liners, it was that Freddy obviously loved what he did. It was one of the reasons that he was so fun to watch. Here, Haley pretty much just growls through every line like he assumes the only way to make Freddy terrifying is to be as humorlessly mean as possible. There’s an episode on RedLetterMedia’s YouTube channel where one of the guys describes hearing Haley talk about seeing the first film in his hotel the night before his first day of shooting on the remake, and Haley hated the original (before going on late night talk shows to talk about how much he loved it). It seems like Haley was making a conscious decision to play Freddy very differently from Englund, and all he succeeded in doing was turning Freddy into something more generic. The added details of sex predation seem to have been added to create another layer of danger and ickiness, but it’s just another bit of grossness introduced late in a movie that had already lost its audience.
The surviving teenagers go in search of the truth, easily find the hidden cave that the parents could never find, and we get our final showdown. The dreams in this are also pretty standard, corporate filmmaking dreamlike stuff. There’s no real sense of the surreal. They also end up feeling like jumping into a fantasy world, sort of like the Upsidedown in Stranger Things rather than something in the kids’ own minds.
There’s really nothing to recommend here. This is dreary, unpleasant, unscary, and monotonously dull. It is consistently in focus, and the very final kill is actually pretty neat, even if it makes no sense.