No candles were lit. No cake was eaten. But back in April, A Nightmare On Elm Street turned 10. No, not that Nightmare On Elm Street: Were it a person, Wes Craven’s 1984 classic would be old enough to run for president by now. It was the other Elm Street, the 2010 version starring Jackie Earle Haley as disfigured dream demon Freddy Krueger, that celebrated a significant birthday this year. To say that no one showed up to the party would be an understatement. A decade later, horror fans speak of the Elm Street remake about as much—and with as much affection—as the parents of Elm Street speak of Krueger. Which makes sense, given how the film was greeted upon release: like a child killer cornered in his boiler room and set ablaze by an angry mob.
It wasn’t a flop. Produced by Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes, which specialized for a few years in slick (and generally reviled) remakes of ’70s and ’80s horror films, the 2010s Nightmare ended its theatrical run the second–highest-grossing entry in the franchise. (For a while, it held the horror-movie record for most money made at midnight advance screenings.) But the fans really hated it—they saw a pale imitation, a lazy and ineffectual attempt to simply rip off Craven’s movie. That perspective was mirrored by the reviews, including our own: “The film cops virtually every memorable image from the original, but loses the depth that gave them power and the sense of place that grounded them,” went a characteristically scathing line from Keith Phipps’ pan.
The reception was so hostile that producers abandoned plans for a sequel, maybe leaving money on the table. More than that, they rethought the entire Platinum Dunes business model, pivoting away from the financially successful remake mill they had been running and redirecting resources toward original projects like The Purge and A Quiet Place. No one involved in the Elm Street remake has leaped to its defense since. In fact, many have basically disowned the film. Last year, screenwriter Eric Heisserer, who would go on to score an Oscar nomination for Arrival, took to Twitter to complain that his original script had been butchered somewhere en route to the final, 15th draft. A year after release, star Rooney Mara, who took over for Heather Langenkamp as Final Girl Nancy, went as far as saying that the experience making the movie was so dispiriting that she considered quitting acting altogether.
Look, let me be clear: The Elm Street remake is not some misunderstood masterpiece. It’s not in the neighborhood of The Thing or The Fly, of genuinely transcendent remakes that surpass their inspiration. It has plenty of problems, many cited by the reviews that hit in 2010: not enough memorable scares, some mediocre CGI, scenes lifted wholesale from the ’84 Elm Street but not improved upon. No one needed this movie. Yet for all its blemishes, the film is much better than its reputation suggests. It does have some ideas of its own, and it builds on the subtext of Craven’s original in interesting ways, while productively deviating in others. At the very least, it’s a fascinating misfire, not the soullessly derivative copy job so many have decried, torch and pitchfork in hand.
Craven did some borrowing of his own. His first nasty trick in A Nightmare In Elm Street is basically pilfered from the great-granddaddy of slasher cinema, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho: Like Marion Crane, teenage Tina looks like the heroine of her movie, right up until the moment that Freddy pulls back the proverbial shower curtain and takes her out of commission. The Elm Street remake of course replicates that famous bedroom death scene (less effectively, it must be granted), but it also stretches out, like Freddy’s Gumby arms, the period before the protagonist swap to a full half hour, offering an extended prologue in which the Tina character, Kris (Katie Cassidy), has a series of increasingly frightening dreams, until her stalker finally finishes the job. It even more deceptively positions her as the main character, before yanking the rug. Of course, no one who’s seen the original will fall for the ruse, but that raises the question of who a remake is really for and how we should evaluate it.
The nightmare sequences in this Elm Street lack the foggy, otherworldly spookiness of Craven’s. As staged by director Samuel Bayer, the music-video veteran best known for the actually-pretty-dreamlike “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video, they’re more straightforward, at their best approximating that seamless slip from reality into fantasy that marks so many of the scariest nightmares. (One reason that we often don’t realize we’re dreaming is that the dream feels real.) Truthfully, this series has never really captured the unnerving dislocation of actual dream logic—that quality so successfully conjured by David Lynch, or even by (of all filmmakers) Joss Whedon, whose Buffy season-closer “Restless” nailed the poker-faced irrationality of a nightmare better than any of Freddy’s rampages through the subconscious. But credit the Elm Street remake at least for supplying some new wrinkles to the franchise’s nocturnal mind games, including dreams within dreams, the concept of the brain still running after the body dies, and microsleeping, which the film cleverly exploits during one sequence where Freddy keeps blipping in and out of a sleep-deprived Nancy’s reality as her brain toggles on and off like a rapidly thrown light switch.
Bayer’s film is the first and only Elm Street movie to feature anyone other than Robert Englund in the role of Krueger. By now, Englund has basically passed into the monster hall of fame; he’s as iconic as Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff, his made-up visage splashed across warehouses worth of T-shirts, lunchboxes, and other memorabilia. No actor could ever hope to make fans forget Englund’s Freddy; one might argue, in fact, that part of the backlash against the remake comes down to a kind of cognitive dissonance—a reflex rejection of someone else daring to don the fedora, stripped sweater, and razor glove.
Haley, who was coming off his turn as Rorschach in Watchmen (a performance that helped him secure this gig), smartly doesn’t attempt to imitate Englund. He genuinely puts his own spin on the character, one that extends past the more realistic, digitally abetted illusion of burnt tissue slathered across his face. It probably goes without saying that his Freddy is far from the prankster pun-loving vaudeville comedian Englund’s would become in the Elm Street sequels. But he’s also not the bogeyman Craven introduced, that cackling fiend emerging from the smoke and shadows like fear itself. There’s a sick, bitter, and recognizably human nastiness to Haley’s interpretation. His “zingers” barely even qualify as jokes: “Why are you screaming?” he croaks at one victim-to-be. “I haven’t cut you yet.” This Freddy doesn’t shape-shift or distend his limbs like Stretch Armstrong or open up his own festering body. And that’s because he’s as much man as monster: a depraved misfit granted new, beyond-the-grave methods of inflicting his twisted desires on the world.
That’s crucial to the most significant and interesting new direction the remake takes. In Craven’s movie, Krueger was a child killer, with only a whisper of implication that his crimes may have had a sexual bent to them. In Bayer’s Elm Street, buried subtext becomes explicit text: This Freddy was a child molester, not a child murderer, in life. According to Heisserer, the original plan was to take that change in backstory even further. He wrote a draft where Freddy was actually innocent of all wrongdoing, murdered by the community for crimes he didn’t commit. That certainly would have taken the politics of Craven’s movie, which condemned vigilante justice, a step further. It also would have waded into the murky waters of false allegations, while humanizing Freddy in a way that fans might not have disliked quite as much as they did comparable measures in other Platinum Dunes remakes. (Their Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for example, supplies Leatherface with a cute, sympathetic kid brother.)
This abandoned plot element tends to be held up as further evidence of what a missed opportunity the Elm Street remake was. Truth be told, I’m not convinced it’s actually more interesting than the direction the film did end up taking. Freddy, in this new context, isn’t just a specter of perverted justice, come back to make children pay for the sins of their parents. He’s now childhood trauma incarnate: a literal return of the repressed. That puts a disturbing new twist on Craven’s blueprint. When Nancy and prospective boyfriend Not-Glen (Kyle Gallner) go looking for answers about the man their parents burned alive, what they’re really doing is digging up their own dark past; there’s a more complicated dimension, in this version, to the adults’ decision to hide the truth about Krueger from them. The A.V. Club’s original review condemned “the creepy way Bayer tries to wring gross-out thrills from images of child molestation.” But beyond the fact that we don’t actually see those images, I’d argue that this queasy element activates an undercurrent of dread that’s always been percolating under the surface of the franchise. The scene where the teens finally unearth photographic evidence of what happened to them as children is haunting in a way none of Freddy’s eight other Nightmares were.
Maybe it’s not the most tasteful subject matter for a multiplex slasher reboot to tackle. But horror isn’t always tasteful—it risks crossing lines in violating our comfort zones. A part of me wonders if audiences weren’t just repelled by an Elm Street movie that dared to pull on the implicit ickiness of the premise like a loose thread on Freddy’s sweater. There’s fresh horror in this incarnation of the character, who poses not just a physical and sexual threat but also a psychological one: His creepy innuendos drip with the truly loathsome reality of an abuser returning to drag his young victims back into the nightmare he once put them through. “He brought us here so we could remember what he did to us,” Nancy shudders late into the film—a realization that’s chilling in a way that Freddy’s admittedly run-of-the-mill attack scenes aren’t. It’s not hard to imagine that audiences didn’t want that kind of skin-crawling horror from an Elm Street movie, and fair enough. But it’s not recycled.
The film could have gone further with its deviations, honestly. The callbacks—the gloved hand rising out of the bathwater, that tinkling resurrected score, the sequel-teasing final twist—only serve to remind viewers that they’ve been down this haunted suburban street before. And the more daring qualities seem at times to be competing with the film’s crasser commercial aspirations—which is to say, A Nightmare On Elm Street does often play like a compromise. It’s certainly possible to imagine a better version, maybe the one Heisserer first put on paper when he got the assignment. This Elm Street seems caught in a dead zone that all but guaranteed its unpopularity: somewhere between not different enough and not similar enough, given that Bayer neither completely reinvents the material nor offers the kind of nonstop fan-service winking that helped David Gordon Green’s Halloween revival earn big bucks and hosannas.
But it’s also possible the project was doomed to be hated from the start. Horror fans are a protective lot; they tend to treat remakes like Dad’s new girlfriend—an imposter, a pretender, someone trying to replace the one they love. There’s a case to be made that it’s a fool’s errand ever trying to do over a classic as cherished as Craven’s Nightmare On Elm Street. But Bayer’s version couldn’t replace the old one even it wanted to; it is its own film, with its own flaws and merits. And though it may have been needless, it’s not pointless: Beneath the phantom shadow cast by an old favorite, a new Nightmare probes new anxieties. It’s worth a second look, or at least a fairer shake than the mob gave it.