Too bad the new Nightmare on Elm Street IS a nightmare

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

The new Michael Bay-produced remake/re-imagining/reboot of Wes Craven's iconic 1980s horror film A Nightmare on Elm Street is a remarkable cultural achievement.

By "cultural," I mean in the sense of something penicillin-resistant that's been "cultured" in a petri dish, with all the intelligence and infectiousness one would expect from such a slide-ready pathogen. Nightmare has all the edginess and transgressive punch you'd find in a bag holding a tweeny-bopper's Saturday purchases from Hot Topic. It's a dispiriting, boring, pointless enterprise.

Don't know how to break it to you guys, but just because you can direct a video or a freakin' shampoo commercial doesn't mean you can make films. Yes, George Romero, David Fincher, Tarsem and Ridley Scott all started out making commercials, and they've all made mighty fine films. But when you look at the utter mess that is this Nightmare, you have to wonder what guys can really bring to the creative table whose whole careers as "artists" consist of pleasing corporate knuckle-walkers in boardrooms with eyes as glazed as day-old oysters left in the sun.

Look at the crap-tacular job underwear commercial director Marcus Nispel did with his Michael Bay-produced Texas Chain Saw Massacre remake. Then look at just the better overall filmmaking that Jonathan Liebesman (a ... y'know ... actual filmmaker) brought to the prequel The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. Breathe in the aroma finer than gangrene that is commercial director Dave Meyers' remake of The Hitcher. Then look at filmmaker Dennis Iliadis' remake of Last House on the Left. Notice a pattern here?

You see, a movie has ... y'know ... a plot that requires pacing, a narrative arc and characters. Just because you can coagulate a bunch of images into a cinematic scab doesn't mean you can make a film, and that's all Nightmare helmer (and Mountain Dew commercial auteur) Samuel Bayer can muster.

I don't need to tell you that Nightmare is about (accused?) undead child molester Freddy Krueger surrealistically preying on teens in their dreams. Freddy and his antics are part of pop culture folklore now. Doing a plot recap would be like summarizing "The Three Bears."

Bayer, who cut his chops on the unreality of music videos as well as the sequential Pavlovian programming that is directing commercials, utterly fails creating a viable unreality for this Nightmare, because there's no mundane reality established for his dream-based unreality to subvert. The movie starts out in a visual unreality set in a diner that's just a goddam quote of the "nightmare diner" scene that starts off Alone in the Dark (not the Uwe Boll abomination, but the 1982 thriller made by A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge and The Hidden director Jack Sholder). Dreamlike unreality can't get any narrative traction if there's nothing mundane for it to move against, if there's nothing "normal" to throw the weirdness into greater relief.

If there's nothing "normal" to ground the narrative, there's nothing that can ground the characters and make it matter when Freddy does the vivisection tango on their innards. A filmmaker gets this. Look at how Sam Raimi sets up the utterly bitchin' and at times frantically surreal Drag Me to Hell. A commercial director doesn't get this. Filmmakers get you to care about characters. Commercial directors get you to care about products.

Filmmakers also know how to direct actors. Whatever merits the cast of this Nightmare might have aren't in evidence, and under Bayer's will-never-do-Shakespeare-at-RADA guidance, they all seem like dropouts from the Megan Fox School of Dramatic Art (with the exception of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles vet Thomas Dekker, who actually does something with his generic "bad boy" character).

Even the images that Bayer cooks up are for the most part duds, the one exception being some pretty interesting uses of creepy, otherworldly snow. The best images in this flick are just CGI rehashes of moments created with physical effects much better in the original Elm Street a quarter of a century ago. I won't list them for fear of spoilerage, but there's at least five of them taken from Craven's Elm Street, at least one from Sholder's Freddy's Revenge, a big one from Carpenter's Halloween and a big one from Pulp Fiction. Yeah. That's right. Pulp Fiction. Though if the image in question had been Freddy doing a Travolta-like take on the Batusi, peeking from behind his knife fingers, that would have been kinda neat.

The big question arises—how does Jackie Earle Haley do taking over the mantle of Freddy from Robert Englund? The answer—I wish I knew! Haley's Freddy is barely in the movie. There's hardly any sense of menace built up around the character. Sure, his disfigured mug pops out now and then like a jack-in-the-box. But the threat of the character isn't there in any immediate sense. Englund did a whole lot with Freddy via body language and twisted motion. All Haley seems to muster is moving his knife fingers in a way that might remind some people of the hand motions of the woman tickling the furry belly of the cat in the YouTube Surprised Kitty video. Haley's walk-on in Shutter Island was a much better and much more viable demonstration of his chops as a creep than this Nightmare.

This flick going to make a lot of money, make no mistake. But it will do so as a product, made by someone who knows how to sell. This Nightmare is just its own commercial, shilling itself as a movie that it's not.

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