The original “Nightmare on Elm Street” series had a strangely profound impact on me when I was a kid. The third film (“Dream Warriors”) was the first R-rated horror movie that I was allowed to watch on my own, thanks to a birthday gift of a VCR, and a few blank VHS tapes on which I recorded the movie during a late-night cable airing. I was in elementary school, and yes, it was violent and sometimes exploitative and corny, but I remember watching the movie and feeling the same sense of creativity and imagination as when I was reading/watching “The Hobbit” or “The Uncanny X-Men,” or any number of other fantasy books and movies. When my friends somehow managed to get a “Friday the 13th” or “Faces of Death” movie for a late-night sleep-over, they’d all go wild. But for some reason, it didn’t compare.
Yes, there were lots of crazy kills in those other slasher films, but Freddy existed in a dream world. The movies offered both your greatest fantasy (turning into a wizard! turning into a superhero!) and also the most crushing terror (even in your fantasy world, you were defenseless). I somehow found a way to rent or record every single “Nightmare” movie up until that point (this was 1988 or 1989, I think), and I could eventually recite all of the different dream sequences, describe all of the imaginative dream worlds in which the hapless teenagers found themselves. I knew all the punchlines, scared my parents and teachers by singing the “1-2, Freddy’s coming for you” song. And every movie had the perfect paranoid theme lingering just beneath the surface: that no one would listen to the kids, that the parents were terrible and why wouldn’t anyone believe what the kids were saying? Etc.
I forced my mother to take me to see “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare” (“Mom, it’s in 3-D, and it’s rated R, and I can’t go without a parent or guardian! Mom! Mom! Mom!”), and then “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” became the first R-rated movie I was able to see by myself, as my mother walked me up to the ticket booth and bought the ticket and handed it to me and then headed back to the car while I sprinted into the theater and hoped nobody would throw me out. When I first bought a DVD player, the only Christmas gift I wanted was the “Nightmare on Elm Street” Platinum Series box set, and for awhile (while I was a poor college student), it was pretty much the only DVD(s) on my shelf.
It’s strange, then, to consider a remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” given my lifelong obsession with the series. When I first heard that a studio was “re-imagining” Freddy Krueger from scratch, that there would be a series without Robert Englund, I felt…old and hollow. Because I remembered when I was a kid and I would laugh at my own parents when their favorite movies and television shows were remade, and I’d tell them how much better the remake was. It’s in color! It’s got new actors in it! So much better! You don’t understand, Nathan, they said. It’s like someone is screwing up the memory of my childhood. And yes, viewed from a perspective of twenty years later, I think we can all say that “The Flintstones” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “The Little Rascals” were best left alone. I don’t think the world needed a “Psycho” remake.
And after watching “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” I know that the world didn’t need Freddy Krueger re-imagined.
Let’s get this out of the way first: the movie is a slap-dash piece of storytelling, with poorly established characters and a shaky story structure. By the thirty-minute mark in the movie, I wasn’t sure who the protagonist was (yes, there was a character named Nancy, just as in the original, but the movie seemed undecided on whether it cared about her), and by the forty-five minute mark, I had decided that I didn’t care about any single character. They all felt like props. Just moving from here, to there, saying this, saying that, as if it was all pre-ordained by some previous film released 25 years ago. The dream sequences were all similar, but just slight upgrades in terms of special effects…some were even so CGI or big-budget-glossy that they looked fake, and I preferred the gritty low-budget original.
And I think this is one problem with re-imagining Freddy Krueger. The filmmakers didn’t actually want to re-imagine him. They only wanted to “update” him for a new generation, to update the special effects and the music and the actors, and so everything felt artificial.
The main problem, though, is that I hated the new Freddy. Listen, I think Jackie Earle Haley was fantastic as Rorschach in “Watchmen,” and it’s a tough job to play two different iconic characters. There will always be disappointed fans somewhere. But Haley–perhaps in an effort to make this movie more “complex” or “mature” and to downplay any of our memories of the wise-cracking pop icon version of Freddy–really played up the “pedophile” side of Freddy Krueger, and it started to really make me uncomfortable. And not a good “horror movie” uncomfortable.
When I saw Englund, I was scared of Freddy’s glove, scared of the dream world, scared of death. When I saw Haley, I was scared for my old 10-year-old self. Someone protect Little Nathan from the pedophile Freddy! It was as if my favorite relative or teacher from childhood–someone I respected, someone whose lap I’d sat upon, or who had counseled me after-school–was suddenly revealed to be a child molester twenty years later. Now you start to view the relationship differently.
And what’s more uncomfortable for me: if this new “Nightmare” is in any way similar to the new “Star Wars” films, with the generation latching on and identifying with the CGI/ADD version of the story and the characters and dismissing the old and “stupid” versions, I have this feeling that there will be a Nathan Jr. someday who develops his own fascination with the “Nightmare” series. I just hope I can get him attached to the originals before he sees these; I’ll start him young.