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I've been a horror movie fan since I shook my fear of Frankenstein at about eight or nine. By the time I was in my teen years--and especially once video stores started popping up--I became a ravenous gore hound. Luckily for me, my late-teen to early-adult years were spent in the 1980s, the decade of the slasher movie (and slasher movie sequel) boom. I wasn't too fussy either. I could be just as happy with Terror Train or Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night II as a genuinely scary movie.
Discriminating or not, I could appreciate the difference between schlock and quality. The general pattern of the big horror movie franchise was that the first one was the best, the second occasionally okay, a few better-than average chapters sprinkled in, and most just a tick above crap. Halloween started the trend with a genuinely excellent first chapter, a sequel that made folks like me happy, but left critics cold, and then a string of lesser and lesser sequels. Friday the 13th cribbed from Halloween making a first installment that is only good due to nostalgia (and in comparison to the rest of the series). And then A Nightmare on Elm Street managed to be different.
The first Nightmare is one of my all-time favorites. It's low budget to be sure, but diverted from the mindless killer stalking nubile teens motif of other shockers. Its villain, Fred Krueger, was a child murderer who was himself murdered by the neighborhood parents. Somehow, Freddy manages to get revenge by attacking the neighborhood children in their dreams. If you die in the dream, you're dead for real. The genius of the first film is that as it is playing out, you are often unsure if what is happening is in the dream world, or the real one. And the dreams had an authentic quality to them that was truly unsettling. It didn't hurt that the actors were either good (Johnny Depp, Robert Englund), memorable (Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon) or endearingly bad (Ronee Blakely). And the villain was extra creepy, and seemingly omnipotent in a way that made more sense than writers ever bothered to think up for Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers.
Part 2 diverted from the first by bringing Krueger into the real world (with mixed success), Part 3 had troubled teens with the ability to team up in the dream world (to great effect), Part 4 followed the theme of the previous one, and the rest don't much bear mentioning (though you can find a breakdown here if you are interested). And while I enjoy them all to one degree or other, the first was and remains one of the most-watched movies in my collection. Still, there are those that argue that after 8 movies and a TV series, Freddy Krueger was over-exposed, and not scary anymore. And so (finally), they decided to reboot.
The new A Nightmare on Elm Street attempts to start over at the beginning, giving a fresh take on the story. Freddy's original origin--which had been hinted at, then fleshed out (continuity be damned) in the sequels--is changed to a much more disturbing one. The characters are all different (though a couple retain the same names), as is the story. The previews are a little misleading here to a veteran Nightmare watcher, giving the impression that this is a shot-for-shot remake. Not so, though several scenes take their inspiration from the original story. What remains is a pretty good thriller, a definitely creepy Freddy, and an enjoyable, good time.
What makes this film difficult to review objectively (aside from presenting spoilers), is my extreme familiarity with the original and its sequels. They couldn't change much about Freddy, or fans would revolt. So they also couldn't surprise me very much. And since I've seen the original a couple dozen times, I can't say if it still holds up, or was even as good as I remember it to be. It is too colored with nostalgia, and my affinity for the original actors is too strong. This was not a problem with the Friday the 13th remake, since the original wasn't all that great to begin with. And I can't speak to the Halloween remake, which I still have not seen. But I can tell you, it was better than I thought it would be, and I did not walk out disappointed.
What works: They kept the old Nightmare theme music. They kept "1, 2, Freddy's coming for you. . ." They explored the science of sleep deprivation more. Freddy looks like a real burn victim. Freddy does not feel like an anti-hero in this one. The ambiguous ending is different from, and better than the original.
What doesn't work as well: The slow-motion effect of the jump rope wasn't used, making it feel less like a dream. The main house looks far less iconic, both inside and out. The cast is capable, but the kids mostly look too old, or just. . .not special? There's no Heather Langenkamp or Johnny Depp in it, literally or figuratively.
Over all, I have to recommend it to a newbie or an old-hand like myself. It's a damned sight better than it could have been, and it is obvious that effort went in to make it a notch-above-average reboot. But I doubt that I'll watch it 25 times. Oh, I'll get the DVD, maybe even the blu-ray. And who knows, maybe it will grow on me. But my copy of the original is not going anywhere.