Consider this: Would there have been a Lord of the Rings trilogy without A Nightmare on Elm Street? In the middle of the post-Halloween slasher craze, an upstart Hollywood distributor took a chance and bought director Wes Craven’s concept for a film about a dream demon with a bladed glove who savagely attacks sleeping teenagers in an Ohio suburb. New Line created a legend, and became “the House that Freddy Built,” but 26 years later it was just another intellectual property to be exploited.
A Nightmare on Elm Street was the first movie that New Line produced, and like Lord of the Rings nearly 20 years later, it was a make-or-break gamble financially for the studio. Craven’s ambitious vision, culled from a variety of inspirations including Eastern philosophy on dreaming and sleep deprivation, would end up costing $1.1 million to realize. It was a princely sum in 1984 dollars when you consider that Silent Night, Deadly Night, which was released the same month in 1984, and was made for the low cost of $750,000.
“[…] the movie’s plot, at many points, is a cover version of the best bits from the original A Nightmare on Elm Street [but] You don’t re-write Hamlet from page one because you’ve decided to mount a performance of Hamlet, do you?“
Of course, A Nightmare on Elm Street cost more than the average slasher movie because of the special effects involved in realizing Freddy Kreuger’s dream realm attacks on Nancy Thompson and her friends. In one scene of a girl falls up a wall and across the ceiling while being attacked by Freddy in her sleep. In another scene, a girl sinks into the stairs like they’re quicksand. Then, in what may be the film’s most famous scene, a bed erupts in a geyser of blood that covers the room like a Krakatoa of gore. It was ambitious beyond its means, and frankly, ambitious beyond the goals of most of its horror contemporaries.
While most slashers at least grounded themselves in the basic idea of a corporeal man with a knife, or an axe, Freddy Krueger was a creature of the ethereal. He attacked you in your nightmares where running was pointless, hiding even more so, and by the time you figure out that you’re dreaming, it’s too late to escape his clutches. Until A Nightmare on Elm Street you never questioned the reality of the horror movie, and the killer was a one-trick pony that was easy to anticipate.
On top of that, Nightmare confirmed the 80s slasher franchise trend that the psycho killer was the star: Halloween III had bombed without Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and his hockey mask had reached icon status with the fourth Friday the 13th, and Norman Bates had just returned the year before in Psycho II. Fittingly, A Nightmare on Elm Street was all about Freddy, and there was no Freddy without Robert Englund. With each passing film, Freddy became more central, his murderous plots became more elaborate, and his wisecracks ever more indulgent in all the worst kind of pun-related humour.
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As the series went along, Freddy was more akin to Beetlejuice than something truly frightening, but in those first three entries both the films themselves, and Freddy’s portrayer Robert Englund, managed to walk the fine line between creepy and campy. Any remake was going to have to overcome the indelible mark that Englund left on the character, and long before any remake started production people were already asking the question: Could there be any Nightmare on Elm Street without Robert Englund as Freddy?
“A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) came at the tale end of an overwhelming trend […] it was seen as just another cynical cash grab.”
Platinum Dunes finally got around to remaking A Nightmare on Elm Street in 2010 after revisiting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, The Hitcher, and Friday the 13th. But that was the output of just one production company; Halloween, The Wicker Man, Black Christmas, The Omen, Willard, Dawn of the Dead, Prom Night, and so many more had gone through the Hollywood photocopier before this new Nightmare hit theatres, and by 2011 the idea was being soundly mocked in Scream 4 by Craven himself.
The shame is that because this A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) came at the tale end of an overwhelming trend that was built on the pure economics of low-budget production based on recognizable brands with big returns on investment it was seen as just another cynical cash grab. On the other hand, that’s kind of like saying the original A Nightmare on Elm Street was just another slasher movie. In rewatching the 2010 A Nightmare on Elm Street, it has some surprisingly deep thoughts about why it wants to exist beyond the fact that Freddy Krueger is a well-liked and well-known movie bad guy.
To that end, casting the new Krueger was going to be a near-impossible feat. Unlike most slasher movie villains, who were mostly played by stuntmen in masks, Freddy had a real face and personality essayed by the charismatic charms of Englund over the course of 20 years and eight movies. The honour ended up going to Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen), and it was a casting stroke of genius to replace Englund the showman with an actor so understated that he disappeared from Hollywood for decades until being “rediscovered” with an Academy Award nomination as the paroled sex offender in Little Children (2006).
Haley was a working man’s Freddy Kruger. He came in, did his job, and didn’t make a big show about it. Englund’s Freddy enjoyed the thrill of the hunt, but Haley’s Freddy was a man on a mission, and there’s real malevolence in his subtlety that was never really there for Englund. Make no mistake, there would be no place in the Villain Hall of Fame for Freddy without Englund, but Haley and director Samuel Bayer knew that using a copycat Freddy in the movie was going to do them no favours.
“Englund’s Freddy enjoyed the thrill of the hunt, but Haley’s Freddy was a man on a mission, and there’s real malevolence in his subtlety that was never really there for Englund.”
The casting remix extended to Freddy’s adversary Nancy, played by Heather Langenkamp in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street as the All-American girl next door, but played by Rooney Mara in the remake as a young woman already tortured before dream master Freddy starts chasing her down dark halls in her nightmares. Mara’s Nancy spends all night making art that even William Blake would find a little off, which foreshadows her remembering suppressed trauma from her past. Langenkamp’s Nancy gets to be proactive from the jump because she isn’t already dragging Freddy-related baggage behind her. In the remake, we learn that Mara’s Nancy is more than just hunted by Freddy, but she was victimized by him too when he was human.
One big change between 1984 and 2010 was that it was no longer taboo to talk about the idea of adults victimizing children. In Craven’s script, you can practically hear them talk around the idea that Freddy wasn’t just a “child killer” but that he was a child killer, with a wink. There is no wink in the remake, and on top of that, the film does a pretty job of making you think for a minute that the adults of Elm Street had falsely accused Freddy of molesting their kids. Right in the middle of this horror remake is an episode of Law & Order: SVU that makes you surprisingly sympathetic to Freddy for a moment.
The difference in treatment and tone helps disguise the fact that the movie’s plot, at many points, is a cover version of the best bits from the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, from the famous scene with Freddy’s glove in the bathtub, to one of Nancy’s friends being accused as the killer and being murdered by Freddy in prison. Perhaps that’s a tribute to how tight Craven’s screenplay is, or perhaps it’s because Bayer brought a theatrical eye to the idea of remaking a classic by playing with the staging more than the story. You don’t re-write Hamlet from page one because you’ve decided to mount a performance of Hamlet, do you?
Back at the start of the 2010s, it was easy to understand the ennui of seeing another established horror film get remade with the latest crop of CW castmates and think it was a symptom of a Hollywood system that gave up on creative to chase money. Some of that may be true, but the case of A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) reminds us that a good cover version of a classic can be enjoyable in its own way by finding some new notes to play.
“A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) reminds us that a good cover version of a classic can be enjoyable in its own way by finding some new notes to play.”
What’s your opinion on the A Nightmare on Elm Street remake? Do you think the film was deserving of it’s harsh criticism, or do you think it’s time for horror fans to finally give the film another chance? Let us know your thoughts, and tell us all about your favourite horror re-imaginings deserving of a Remake Redemption, over on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club.