Written By Rebecca McCallum
In the pantheon of horror films, Wes Craven’s 1984 A Nightmare on Elm Street will forever retain its rightfully earned place. The simplicity of its premise is the key reason that over thirty years later (although it might look a little dated in places), it has lost none of its re-watchability and universal appeal. The film scares me just as much now as it did all those years ago but my fear that the knife fingered fiend will appear at any moment has now been replaced with a new and perhaps more complex set of worries about parenthood, trust and social justice.
This year saw the 2010 version turn ten years old and I realised that, like the parents of the film who steer their children towards a repression of any Freddy related memories, perhaps I have been attempting to do the same! In the spirit of objectivity and because on multiple occasions I have either a) been wrong about a horror film or b) grown to appreciate those that at first I didn’t have much affection for, I set out to humbly engage in a second viewing. What follows is a comparison of the fundamentals of both films in an attempt to dissect and explore how successful the remake is in recreating the core elements that made the original such an iconic slice of 80s horror.
Let’s start with Nancy Thompson, one of the greatest final girls of all time! In Craven’s film, Nancy is played by Heather Langenkamp in a role that as a woman and a horror enthusiast I have always felt close to and thankful for. Unlike many horror teen girls, Nancy has a true character arc and shows such gutsiness and determination as she is systematically let down by all the people in her life. Nancy might be young but she is resourceful and is not afraid to face fear head on. Unquestionably the lead character in a film that focuses heavily on her relationship with Freddy, Nancy and her adversary have numerous encounters from an early point in the narrative which builds suspense and sustains a constant tension.
In contrast, Samuel Bayer’s remake doesn’t utilise Nancy enough, (particularly in the early stages) and when we do see her, it’s hard to gage what motivates her, what makes her tick and how she relates to those around her. Furthermore, it is also hard to understand why we have to wait until almost 45 minutes into the film in order to see Nancy and Freddy together when such a relationship is so key to the narrative structure. Instead, the film seems to favour exploring the more general (and new) addition to the plot that all the children are linked by a repressed memory, many of whom we will never see or spend time with.
Take for example, the body bag scene where Nancy sees the now deceased Tina (in 1984) or Kris (in 2010) in the school corridor. Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy is faced with this horrifying image very early on in the film and not long after Tina’s brutal death. The shot is preceded and overlapped with a reading from Hamlet: ‘O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams’ (Act 2, Sii) almost becoming distorted towards the end. This creates an unsettling atmosphere and makes it difficult to distinguish at first if this is a dream or a post-traumatic experience. When Nancy sees her friend encased in the body bag, the shot is not fleeting but instead lingers for a few seconds and we are faced with the full horror of the disturbing image. Tina calls out pleadingly to Nancy, who has already been established as a close and caring friend and therefore this packs a stronger emotional punch. As she moves into the corridor to investigate (therefore demonstrating her fearlessness) she finds a trail of blood and Tina is seen once again, being pulled across the floor offscreen in a beckoning call for Nancy to follow which of course (being Nancy) she does.
In the remake, Nancy, played with an emotionless indifference by Rooney Mara does not see the newly named Kris in the body bag at the bottom of the school hallway until much later in the film. Therefore, with the death of Kris having occurred many scenes previous, the insertion of this image here loses its relevance and therefore some of its impact. Coupled with this is the fact that the paths of Nancy and Kris have barely crossed and no relationship has been cemented between them. This lack of character depth and development turns a horrifying and cleverly uncanny moment (as seen in Craven’s film) into a fleeting and forgettable jump scare. There is no attention paid to the shot which is over in an instant and is not helped any further as Nancy tells her friend Dean what she has just witnessed which is immediately thrown off with a quick remark about her: ‘being up too long’. This is just one example which serves to illustrate how the choices made in both films work both for and against creating character in order to evoke two crucial responses: empathy and fear.
The opening of any horror film acts as a litmus test allowing us to decide if we will continue watching or not and the best examples either whet an audience’s appetite for more or manipulate expectations by doing something unexpected. The 84 Elm Street does both and what’s more, it does so effectively. The now infamous shots charting the genesis of Freddy’s glove illicit terror and suspense, firstly because of the threat the knives represent and secondly because as the image is set within a separate frame within the wider shot, the person to whom the hand belongs is kept a mystery. Both score and incidental sound effects also work in harmony as we hear a combination of Bernstein’s synth chords juxtaposed against the sound of Freddy working away with his tools. Instead of providing a shot of Freddy and Tina together we first see the gloved hand rip through some material followed by an image of the teenager alone looking frightened and we instantly put these two things together in our minds, creating a strong sense of anticipation. What will happen when the gloved hand meets the girl in the white nightgown? Out of nowhere, a lamb appears, bleating and scurrying down the seemingly endless tunnel. This is not what we were expecting but again, the clever use of the imagery of a lamb intertwined with a girl in a white nightgown encourages us towards thoughts of innocence.
Before we get too comfortable, another sudden change – Tina is now in a boiler-room, navigating the labyrinth of pipes where we only catch a momentary glimpse of half of a burnt face but we don’t know where in proximity to Tina the threatening presence waits. There is a detectably evil cackle and we see a shot of the gloved hand encrusted with knives and a repetition of the hand tearing through a sheet. As Tina stands in a thin passage of space blocked off from escape at one end a furnace lets out an air piercing scream and we see a brief shadow of Freddy at the opposite open end of the space. Although she is trapped, she is still able to grab a makeshift weapon in order to take on the threatening force. However, just as we allow our breathe to exhale, Freddy appears behind her menacingly, she has now become vulnerable and is about to fall victim to his knifed fingers. Craven takes us on a thrill ride that twists and turns at once making us belief there is hope for Tina and then pulling the rug out from under our assumptions by making Freddy appear.
If all this wasn’t enough, before we get to find out what happens next, she screams a second time as we see her wake from a nightmare. We can breathe again, she is safe-it was all just a dream! But hold on, Craven isn’t finished with us yet. Again, creating the illusion of comfort and safety by having Tina’s mum come to check on her, Craven then shows Tina discovering slashes on her nightgown made from Freddy, irrevocable proof that surely this was all real. The sense of danger and tension is ramped up again as it becomes obvious that Tina’s mother is disinterested in her daughter’s trauma, succumbing to the ploys of a man rather than providing comfort to her child. Alone and without help, Tina grabs a crucifix to protect her. As she lies down looking terrified the famous 1, 2 Freddy’s coming for you rhyme begins to drift in, affirming that Freddy is in pursuit of her and ‘grabbing a crucifix’ is her best hope for survival.
Unfortunately, the 2010 film does not have the artful sophistication of its predecessor as it opens first with a series of disconnected images of building blocks and a chalked hopscotch that feel designed purely as a shorthand to childhood trauma. However, there is a notable humorous nod to the original in the inclusion of a building block that bares a picture of a sheep and later a lamb. With its carefully selected images that come in and out of darkness and standard typeface, in its pristineness it has also lost the grittiness of the original. The melancholic string score is reminiscent of a nostalgic lament which should be fitting given the subject matter, however this does nothing to create fear or intrigue. Inside a diner sits tormented teenager Dean who is alone and trying to get a refill of coffee from a waitress that does not acknowledge him. As he makes the cross into the kitchen which, with its steel works and hot fires is a clear metaphor for Freddy’s boiler room, we get our first shot of Krueger to the left of the screen but we only see his arm and gloved hand. Upon waking, Dean notices the palm of his hand bears the mark of Freddy’s slashes and although this is still hitting the point that what happened within the dream was real, it doesn’t have the sexual or intimate connotations of Tina’s torn nightgown. The nightmare and Freddy’s attack have also occurred whilst Dean is in public and not in his own bed, a space that is highly private, personal and associated with safety.
Female classmate Kris soon joins him but their interactions feel unnaturalistic: ‘maybe you should talk to someone’ she says and he responds with: ‘I have and he says it all stems back to my past and we’ve been going over my childhood’. The themes that should be hidden subtlety within their conversation stand out glaringly and in doing so the dialogue is not convincing. Meanwhile, in the background is Quentin (a soon to be key character) and his friends who are being served by Nancy who makes the briefest of appearances. Dean accidentally spills a cup of coffee over Kris, an action which seems designed to get her out of shot for a while. Now alone again, the troubled teen falls into a sleep where Freddy is ready and waiting for him. Here, instead of the shadows and silhouettes of the 84 version, we are given a full close up of his face and thus one of the biggest reveals a horror film can have (that of its monster’s identity) is given over before the prologue is out. We witness Dean struggle against Freddy with a knife in hand and Kris makes it back just in time to see him slash his own throat. All in all, there is far too much going on in this opening scene that is of little importance and at the same time there are also aspects (such as the full reveal of Freddy) that are overdone and others that feel underdeveloped (Nancy and Kris’s relationship for example).
The Dream Sequences
One of the most unsettling things about Craven’s Nightmare is the blurring between the dream world and the real one or perhaps, as Craven has said himself, the entire film having the potential to be read as one long dream. Beyer’s film seeks to define the dream sequences as elaborate set pieces and although they are arguably visually impressive, by establishing them as totally separate from reality, they lose much of their affect. When Kris falls asleep at her desk, the scene changes instantly from a functioning classroom where she is surrounded by students to an empty and destroyed room with just herself and Freddy inside. The original however, shows the real world as it was when she falls asleep at her desk but layers the dream-like elements on top of this in a way that reflects how when we dream, the world often looks the same with just minor differences. Its subtleties such as Nancy’s feet sinking into the stairs (reimagined in the 2010 version as corridors of blood) as she attempts to run up them or the tongue coming out of the phone that make the dream sequences in the 84 version so relatable.
In the 2010 remake, dreams are also used as plot exposition which makes no sense. When Quentin falls into a sleep whilst swimming at the school pool he emerges to see Freddy being chased by the baying group of revenge-seeking parents. In only a pair of swimming trunks, Quentin stands amidst a backdrop of an abandoned industrial site and watches the parents arrive and set fire to the building which Freddy has ran to in order to seek solace. As Freddy flees the building covered by flames what could be a nice juxtaposition of the imagery of water and fire is so glaringly obvious and forced that is holds no power. Ultimately, this whole dream sequence is utterly confusing and unexplainable with Quentin only dreaming about this in order to advance the plot.
Unfortunately, the parents of the teenagers in both films fail to come out on top in the nurturing stakes. It would be difficult to create fully rounded parents of all the teens but whereas in the 2010 film the parental characters feel as though they are barely even present (and even when they are, they say / express very little), in the 84 version Nancy’s Father and especially, her Mother, have more to contribute. There’s a strong relationship in particular between Nancy and her mother in Craven’s film that can be both tense and touching. The parents in the original are all shown to make the wrong decisions for their children, Tina’s mother pays little attention to her daughter, Nancy’s mother adds bars to the windows that will imprison her and Glenn’s parents deny Nancy’s phone call which in affect could have saved his life. In this way, the parents are consistent in their incompetence’s and its therefore more believable to conceive that they acted as a group. In Beyer’s film, we have almost no screen time of the parents with their children and they have no depth or connection to any other characters.
The original Freddy (or Fred as he is known in the film) is a true icon of horror cinema, this is not just because of his instantly recognisable silhouette and costume but for Robert Englund’s stand out performance. Therefore, it was always going to be a tough job for the actor undertaking the role in the 2010 remake. Jackie Earle Haley does what he can and he gives more of a convincing performance as Fred before he falls prey to the Elm Street Parents than he ever does as the Freddy of nightmares and perhaps this is because this belongs fully to him. The computer- generated imagery that makes up Haley’s face is overly done and off putting and the voice is difficult to hear at times. What’s more, this incantation of Krueger doesn’t seem to relish toying with his victims and instead is represented as being so disturbingly real at times that its impossible to actually enjoy the film. It’s often said that when it comes to monsters in horror less is more and in the 2010 version it feels as though in such desperate need to do something different they chose to over explain the character and ratchet up the realism which in turn, produces messy and ineffective results.
The Death Scenes
The death scenes in Craven’s original masterpiece are iconic; not only are they imaginative and beautifully crafted but they are also utterly terrifying. For me, Tina’s death scene is the most memorable of all as she is lifted out of her sleep and up into the air. There is something really discomforting about the way in which her body creeps up the walls scrunched up tightly before she is pierced with the knives of Freddy’s bladed hand. In the 2010 version, Kris is thrown about the room violently which feels less subtle and uncharacteristic for Freddy. Perhaps the most famous death scene of Craven’s film is Johnny Depp being pulled into his bed before his insides are sprayed out across his bedroom. There are no death sequences that match this fun, inventiveness and horror in Beyer’s film which instead prefers to dwell on quick, sharp, brutal shocks.
The original 1984 A Nightmare On Elm Street was a landmark film for horror; it engaged audiences with teenagers who felt young and who were shown as having fun before the horror started whereas Platinum Dunes’s teens feel dull, numb and take themselves far too seriously and thus its hard to really care for them. Craven’s iconic slasher mixed the real and the surreal beautifully in order to evoke the sense of dreaminess and nightmarish quality that we all recognise from our own experiences with sleep. By contrast the 2010 A Nightmare On Elm Street takes great pains to point out that there are two distinct worlds. the real and the imagined. In doing so it misses the point, that the subtle blending (or blurring) of the two is what makes the original so effective. Swapping the notion of children suffering for the crimes of their parents for parents repressing their children’s memories of abuse also feels like the wrong move and the reduction of one of horror’s greatest Final Girls is a real disappointment. I could have predicted that a revisit of the 2010 film wouldn’t overtake my love, adoration and respect for the original but it’s always good to look at films afresh when they’ve been given more time to breathe. It’s safe to say though that (at least for this genre lover) Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street still outshines the remake in every single way.