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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Horror classic delivers in contemporary setting

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“Try to get some sleep” is not good parental advice to the teenagers of the heartland town in A Nightmare on ElmStreet. A group of friends discovers a shared nightmare: A charred-faced figure with a steel-clawed glove, wearing a ragged sweater and battered hat, waits beyond the wall of sleep for the portal of their dreams to open wide. Once inside, he will lash out with those claws and kill them.

Despite strenuous efforts by everyone to suppress those things that reason can’t accept, to shout “You’re not real!” at the monster stalking them, the fear only builds. It’s hard to dismiss those nightmares after several teens die bloody, awful deaths when they nod into the sleep they had come to dread.

Writer-director Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street was an important contribution to the horror genre/slasher division upon its release in 1984. It became a franchise, starring gruesome Freddy Krueger as the steel-clawed boogeyman, but the brand was worn down through overexposure and thin scripts. Of course, a Hollywood franchise that once worked is too valuable a property to let go and every effort will be made to “reboot” the crashed product. And so the original installment of A Nightmare onElm Street, made for a mere $1.8 million, has been redone with a new cast of able unknowns and a $35 million budget, much of it apparently spent on shape-shifting computer-generated images. Amazingly, the new Nightmare is not bad.

The screenplay revisits the original scenario in a contemporary setting of cell phones and Google, stripping away the accretion of bad faith and bad humor introduced by the sequels to recover some particles of the unsettling scariness of Craven’s vision. The story’s adults are duplicitous, hiding something, and the kids are left to find their way in the dark. Director Samuel Bayer captures his characters’ sleep-deprived jitters, especially in the suspenseful moments before they fall into Krueger’s lurid dream dimension. Cameras swing jarringly, as if the monster hides in every shadow of the film’s dark palette. Acute attention is paid to creaking sounds of menace; the soundtrack music is pitched in the key of panic.

The contemporary, ripped-from-the-headlines twist is that in life Krueger wasn’t a child killer as in the original, but a pedophile, preying on the pupils at the preschool where he lived and worked as the janitor. In Craven’s film the parents of victimized children burned Krueger alive after a court released him on a technicality. This time, the parents dispense with the justice system altogether. The result in both cases is the same: a cackling, deformed face of evil with a voice like Clint Eastwood having a very bad day. Freddy wants revenge.

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