Hunky, drowsy, brain-scrambled Dean (Kellan Lutz) walks, or sleepwalks, through the Springwood, Ohio, diner. And finds Freddy Krueger (Jackie Earle Haley), the razor-fingered dream stalker. Back in his booth, Dean seems to be struggling with himself, then takes a knife and slits his own throat, deep and deadly. The title card A Nightmare on Elm Street snaps onto the screen, and the audience at last night's Times Square press screening erupts in a gleeful cheer.
Or maybe that was from the Dolby, because much of the postscreening chatter at least what I overheard the New York bloggerati say about this remake of the 1984 Wes Craven half-classic was enthusiastic only in its contempt. They'd behaved themselves during the screening, but on the street afterward they could have been Tea Partiers at an Obama Is a Commie rally. "How can you not do the face-suck?" one of the Cravenists asked with a rhetorical sneer. "Did they think they were remaking West Side Story?", another contumelied. Their tone of dismissal echoed this morning throughout the geekosphere.
I liked the new Nightmare, but I know that any new version of a revered text a favorite old book, play or movie invites invidious comparison. In this case, your fondness for the remake may be in inverse proportion not just to the extent of your admiration for the Craven original but also to how recently you saw it. I last watched Heather Lagencamp battle Robert Englund's Freddy (with baby-faced Johnny Depp an early victim) about a decade ago. It was fine, and it had the advantage of being the first.
The new one, directed by vide-auteur Samuel Bayer and written by Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer, is what I'd call a fine copy. Yes, it offers a higher frequency of Freddy interventions. And it's as scrupulous as Kick-Ass in applying today's technology to the old story: a boy video-blogs his Freddy fears before his head is smashed into the screen; as an exhausted girl works at her PC, it flashes "Computer entering sleep mode." But this is not a "reimagining" that would be what David Cronenberg did in his 1986 masterpiece The Fly, based on the so-so 1959 film. The new Nightmare is a straight, shiny, honorable remake.
Bayer replays dozens of the elements Craven established. (If you are one of the few people who never saw the first Nightmare, you should probably STOP READING NOW.) Of course this film retains the notion of a fiend from the past who torments a group of small-town teens as they sleep. But also: the Psycho strategy of investing the audience's interest in one character, only to kill her off and switch focus to another woman; the frisson of Freddy's form seeming to lean out of a girl's bedroom wallpaper; his possession of the girl's body that summons the levitating powers of Linda Blair in The Exorcist and Fred Astaire's dancing on walls and ceilings in Royal Wedding; the visitations of dead schoolkids; one girl's burning her arm to say awake; and the final grim twist a parent finally feels Freddy's wrath.
Bayer, who directed such music videos as Nirvana's "Smells like Teen Spirit," brings a craftsman's loving attention to every aspect of the movie, from the opening credits (which appear in a child's script, like an S.O.S. jotted desperately on a sidewalk, and where the sign "Badham Pre-School" turns into "Bad School") to flicked references to old scare movies like Cronenberg's Shivers (a somnolent teen in a bathtub, her legs asprawl, with Freddy's claw rising briefly, teasingly). Bayer isn't Orson Welles, exactly, but he has plenty of assurance and the props to back it up.
I also enjoyed watching the young cast, even when they had to enact horror-film tropes like the guy who leaves his girl alone near the climax. The five actors in the teen leads might look a little mature for 18-year-olds (they range from 22 to 25), but the characters have surely been aged and withered by their psychic torment, and they have the dead-seriousness of U.S. soldiers on their fifth and perhaps terminal tour of Iraq. Serious is also the word for Haley unlike Englund, who devolved in the five or six sequels into a campy lounge act. He's pure predation, and he's responsible for the film's definitive blecccchhh moment: when he approaches Nancy (Rooney Mara), whose back he had scarred when she was in preschool, and growls, "You're my little Nancy," then licks her face.
Bayer also conducts, a bit more cunningly than Craven did, a symphony of cinematic sadism on the viewer's nerves. Most horror films have downtime between the gross-out scenes, space for audiences to grab their wits and prepare for the next shock. Often a movie lets you know when to relax. With The Exorcist, for example, we soon learned that we were safe as long as the camera stayed out of poor Regan's room. Sea-monster movies like Jaws taught us we were safe if we stayed out of the water (except for last year's craptacular Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, in which a really great white leaps from the water to attack and devour a 747 cruising at 30,000 ft.).
Nightmare at first seems to offer periods of downtime, since we're led to believe that a kid is in jeopardy only when she or he falls asleep. Ah, but whose nightmare is it anyway? Whose frantic brain are we inside? After some adjustments, we figure it out and realize with a shiver that Freddy's in there too: the weirdo in the red-and-green striped sweater and the burn-victim scowl. He'd be among the creepiest villains ever if it weren't for the kids' parents.
The adults, you'll recall, are the ones who, 15 years earlier, turned Freddy from an eccentric preschool janitor, a toxic influence on the children he doted on, to the maleficent undead creature who haunts their sleep. (The new movie has a more sensible explanation of Freddy's crime we'll just say it coincides with the crime Haley's character was convicted of committing in his Oscar-nominated role in Little Children a few years back.) Now teenagers, the children still don't know what happened, so when Freddy comes back to play inside their skulls, they are both terrified and baffled.
The story's sociopolitical message is blunt and potent. Your parents, it says, are sedaters, trying to control you with their silence, evasion and lies. These guardians of the official adult culture, the soothing, fraudulent status quo, want you to be ignorant of both the man who can harm you and the knowledge that might save you. When the kids beg for help, the grownups advise them to "try and get some sleep." Only Freddy tells them the truth "You really shouldn't fall asleep" just before he slaughters them.
But since Freddy is also the ultimate horror image of an abusive father figure, the plot of the original Nightmare and this borderline-gripping remake plays like a emergency session in psychoanalysis. Interpret your dreams, come to grips with the past, confront your demons, and you shall be free. Unless audiences make the movie a hit and a sequel appears in a year or so and the whole cycle of torture and revenge recommences like a dreadful dream from which you can't awake.