In 1984 horror maestro Wes Craven created the characters, world, and lore of A Nightmare on Elm Street. The original masterpiece introduced Robert Englund as the iconic monster Freddy Krueger, spawned seven franchise sequels, turned New Line Cinema into a profitable new industry player, and launched the mainstream careers of its director and several cast members.
In 2010 a remake was announced, which surprised few as nearly every horror franchise was in the process of being remade. It attempted to establish new lore, Jackie Earle Hailey took over as Krueger, and it endeavored to re-launch the franchise as “true horror” rather than the comedy-horror many of the original series sequels tended toward.
Having main-lined the entire franchise I have to declare the remake to be an abject failure in its execution that, despite some very strong performances from its new cast, embodies every ounce of flawed thinking in Hollywood’s remake culture. To compare them I’ve tried to break down some broad concepts to analyze what works when it works and what completely fails.
Wes Craven’s premise is simple enough to be summed up quickly: Teenagers from the Elm Street neighborhood in the town of Springwood are having nightmares that turn out to be fatal. The cause is determined to be a monster named Freddy Krueger, a child killer in real life who was burned alive by angry parents and now his evil continues to be visited on their children.
The remake premise is similar but added elements that strangely made it less effective. In the remake kids are having bad dreams that also turn out to be fatal. The cause here is determined to be that they all went to the same pre-school where there was a gardener, Freddy Krueger, who seemed to be good to the kids but several children claimed he was molesting them. The parents track him down based on the kids’ accusations and burn him alive in a factory. After he dying Freddy hunts down the kids from the pre-school who accused him and kills them in their dreams.
What makes Craven’s premise so effective while the remake falls short? Craven made some conscious choices on how he built his story. The town of Springwood was designed to be “pure Americana” essentially any suburban town USA. Elm Street was chosen as a ubiquitous street name (as Freddy says in Freddy’s Dead “every town has an Elm Street”). It’s remarkably effective because it makes the audience of mostly teens feel like it could be their street, their town, and any one of them. Furthermore Craven chose dreams as the killing ground because everyone eventually falls asleep. As much as you fight it you will sleep, you will dream, when you dream he’ll get you. Craven’s entire premise was universal and broad. It could be any of us.
The remake surprisingly narrowed its field of victims. It isn’t generic street and town USA, it’s a specific school and within that school a specific population. We see a photograph of the kids who are being killed in their dreams displaying who the victims are and will be. Since we all didn’t go to Badham Pre-School while Fred Krueger was there, this means the audience’s “fear” is based wholly on their attachment to the potential victims and they feel no subconscious threat to themselves. It puts a lot of pressure on the narrative’s characters…which is what is covered next.
Watching Craven’s Nightmare especially in the wake of Friday 13th and Halloween, it has a surprisingly low body count. Three kids and seemingly one parent. BUT, because of the way Wes Craven uses his characters we feel every death. We first meet Tina, a pretty blonde girl from a troubled home. Less than 5 minutes in we meet Nancy, her straight laced boyfriend Glen, and Tina’s roguish boyfriend Rod. These three characters are all introduced in one scene, relationships established through visual cues during plot-based dialogue revealing all the characters are having similar bad dreams. When, in a nod to Psycho, Tina dies in the first 15 minutes (still one of the most brutal deaths I can think of in a horror movie) we then follow Nancy as she shows resolve, courage, creativity, and self-sacrifice in fighting to keep herself and her friends alive; against parents who don’t believe her; and Freddy who haunts her dreams. As other characters die we feel their deaths. We’ve spent so much time with them, experiencing their development and their world we fear for them. When Nancy cries for Glen we’re there with her. When she faces Freddy we cheer for her. As for Freddy, what can be said? Robert Englund created what is probably the most famous and iconic modern slasher villain. Used sparingly by Craven, always in shadow or obscured, Freddy hunts his victims, stalks them, teases them…Freddy enjoys his work. We love his charisma as a villain but dread his sadism and applaud Nancy’s ultimate victory over him.
The remake attempted to follow many of the same concepts but made several serious mistakes. Kris, a character reminiscent of Tina, is the one we follow and invest in at first but for one third of the film, instead of ten minutes. When she dies thirty minutes in the audience now must re-invest in Nancy, with whom we’ve spent meager time as she’s had to split so much screen time with Kris. We meet Nancy in the opening scene but know little about her character since we’ve spent so much time establishing the original lead. Based on their interactions we don’t even know the relationship between Kris and Nancy. She works at the diner. Has had some bad dreams. She’s an artist. We know the kinds of things that might appear in an obit, but nothing about her personally. And with an hour to resolve the story we also have to establish why we need to care about her struggle. We also have Quentin (who through several lines of dialogue and a few scenes is established as having feelings for Nancy, these filmmakers really need to learn how to tell a story visually…) who we also meet early but then have to establish as well over the film’s last 45 minutes to an hour. Then we have Freddy. He’s darker and “scarier” supposedly but in making him more menacing they’ve sucked all his personality away. Jackie Earle Hailey does a phenomenal job with the character he has, but he lacks the foreplay of Englund’s Freddy. He doesn’t toy with you with the same glee or mind-bend your reality like Craven’s Freddy. They made him far closer to the characters Craven and Englund actively tried to avoid. By breaking up the story amongst so many “leads” Kris, Nancy, Quentin, Freddy, we never fully establish whose story we’re telling which is the final point.
Whose Story is this?
Film historian Michael Jeck is fond of asking “who are we in this movie?” It’s a very effective way to analyze a story and see if a narrative works. So who are we in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street? It’s easy. We are Nancy. It is her story. Even introduced after Tina, we understand Tina relies on her for courage and strength. Glen comes to her for leadership. Rod comes to her for trust. Nancy’s parents are troubled; her mom starts out in denial then drinks heavily once her admission of her role in creating Krueger. Her father is protective but distant and also has to wrestle with his role in murdering Freddy. So we identify with, follow, and admire Nancy’s narrative. As for Freddy? He’s a dark menace. His story is told so quickly and so late we never bother to ask how or why. What he can do and who he is has been established through earlier action so he’s a mysterious boogeyman and his backstory provides just enough information to make us hate as well as fear him.
Who are we in the remake? I actually don’t know and this is a major, major flaw in its narrative and design. First we’re Kris, searching for facts about her friend Dean’s killer. Then we’re split between Nancy and Quentin. Then we are told in depth Freddy’s backstory via flashback and narrative. So we as the audience are Kris, Nancy-Quentin, AND Freddy (the villain stripped of his all mystery) all at once. The result is a mess of a story with NO anchors for the audience. Its protagonists seeing things, describing the things they just saw or did, and repeating the premise concepts endlessly. Dare I say, the filmmakers had the seed of a courageous new direction and balked at the last minute. I remember seeing this film and theaters and thinking, “wow what if Freddy is innocent?” It would turn it into Freddy’s story as the character you identify with, the one taking his vengeance on the kids who falsely accused him and the parents who brutally murdered him. But when we reveal the kids were telling the truth, that he was a despicable molester…we definitely cannot identify with his story, so we’re yo-yoed back into Nancy and Quentin, whose characters lack so much conviction and mettle we don’t really want to be them either. Would I have liked an innocent Freddy? I’m not a purist so maybe/maybe not it would have depended on the execution, but it would have at least justified the remake…
Why even do a remake of an iconic film? It’s a valid question considering how much of the industry relies on them. Modern remakes typically seem to be done to make money off the name, which is fine especially when given to writers and directors who realize what made the original successful and incorporate this into their own version. In A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 this was its greatest failure. It doesn’t have any idea why Craven’s film was successful and scary. It was about characters we identify with and care about fighting a monster from which there is no escape. It’s told with deft visual style, frame-filling narrative, iconic scenes, and uses every single second of its 90 minute running time.
The remake only seems to focus on a killer in dreams and telling his back story. It establishes no characters we believe in, no iconic scenes save for those from the original gruesomely updated with CGI or severely hobbled by nonsensical construction (a nightmare in the bath ends up in the snow?!), and muddles the villain’s backstory with over-exposition and ambiguous motivation for his victims to remember him. It took a tight, focused narrative and turned it into a chaotic, careless monstrosity. If nothing else it helps prove why Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street will stand as the magnum opus from one of the masters of horror and the 2010 remake a mere shadow of its effectiveness. Will the 2010 version ever achieve the same level of success and appreciation as Craven’s? Only in its dreams…