A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010): Anatomy of a Failed Reboot

Movies Features Robert Englund
A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010): Anatomy of a Failed Reboot

You can be certain that when we reach the 10 year anniversary of a horror film like Get Out, you’ll be reading no shortage of remiscenses and think pieces on how it molded the course of the genre for the past decade. When a horror film comes along and truly crystalizes in the cultural zeitgeist, it becomes part of a recurring conversation that has no real end.

The A Nightmare on Elm Street reboot from 2010, on the other hand…well, its 10 year anniversary passed last week with only the most die-hard horror geeks and genre sites bothering to note the date. For a film that made more than $115 million at the international box office—considerably more than the previous year’s Friday the 13th reboot—it has been viewed in the years since as an abject failure, an un-asked-for retread of the 1984 Wes Craven original that sullied the legacy of Freddy Krueger and introduced some new implications to the character that made audiences deeply uncomfortable. And not in a good way. It manages to be the black sheep of the series, even when said series contains equally flawed entries like Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare.

As rumblings about a series revival intensify, however—the Wes Craven estate once again owns the rights and has been listening to pitches for both film and TV reboots—this seems like a fitting time to look back on ANOES 2010 and isolate what exactly it was that made critics and audiences react so poorly. For a film that tried to “make Freddy scary again,” what went so badly wrong?

We even spoke with the legend himself, Mr. Robert Englund, who offered up his own take on the film’s weaknesses. Read on, and see what the one and only Freddy had to say.

Freddy Krueger’s 2000s Makeover

The 2000s had been a decade of high-profile horror reboots, and the production company behind many of them was Platinum Dunes. Beginning with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 2003, Platinum Dunes produced a string of financially successful horror entries, including remakes of The Amityville Horror, The Hitcher and Friday the 13th, before their gaze turned to A Nightmare on Elm Street. None of these films had been particularly well received by critics, but that’s no big surprise—what mattered is that they turned a tidy profit. That all came to a halt with Nightmare, which was so reviled by both critics and audiences upon release that it signaled an unofficial end to the horror remake craze, setting the stage for a new wave of original horror releases in the 2010s.

This has led to the popular perception that ANOES 2010 was a box office bomb, but that really isn’t the case. On a budget of $35 million, it turned around the aforementioned $115 million worldwide, making it technically the highest grossing film in the A Nightmare on Elm Street series to date. That’s not terribly surprising given the effects of inflation, but even with inflation taken into account, it still made slightly more at the box office than the 1984 original—although it loses handily to Craven’s film in terms of per-theater grosses, which points to the way that horror had become a far more mainstream genre by the time 2010 came around. The point is, though, that ANOES 2010 made plenty at the box office—it wasn’t the financial blunder that fans of the series now make it out to be. Rather, its failure was to satisfy its fanbase, and to examine that we must first look at how this film decided to treat Freddy Krueger.

Krueger, as recurring villain, is obviously the true star of the series. Each film must of course assemble a cast of teens, and some of those performers, like Heather Langenkamp, would eventually become icons of the genre. But Freddy is the constant, and the reason for attendance. Like Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers or Chucky, he’s a symbol that is bigger and more important than the series of films in which he resides. And so, the success or failure of ANOES 2010 was always going to hinge largely on the choices of who would play Freddy and how Freddy would be portrayed.

The safest choice would no doubt have been original star Robert Englund, who had last portrayed the character seven years earlier in 2003’s patently ridiculous (but lovable) Freddy vs. Jason. Despite his advancing age (Englund was 62 at the time), he represented an option that any fan of the series would have been happy to see, as Englund’s performance was the entire draw of A Nightmare on Elm Street for many. The catch, however, is that Englund had no real desire to remake the original Nightmare—not after seven proper sequels. Instead, Platinum Dunes turned to veteran actor Jackie Earle Haley, who was fresh off critical and popular acclaim for portraying Rorschach in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, and only a few years removed from an Academy Award nomination for 2006’s Little Children. The casting made sense, and Englund, while speaking to Paste, affirmed he was a fan of Haley’s, saying the following: “I’m a big fan of Jackie. I’ve been a fan ever since I saw him in this movie Breaking Away—he was actually sort of playing the first cinematic ‘slacker’ in that movie. So I’ve been a fan of Jackie’s from way back.”

But as far as portraying Krueger again in 2010’s ANOES, Englund says it would never have been something he was interested in.

“Here’s the thing about actors,” he said. “We don’t do remakes; we do sequels. You’re never going to see Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon 1 again, so you shouldn’t expect to see Robert Englund in Nightmare on Elm Street 1 again. I’ve already made that movie. Now, you might see Mel in Lethal Weapon 14, or you might somehow see me in Nightmare on Elm Street 9, but we don’t do a remake of something we’ve already done.”

Unfortunately, a combination of scripting and performance leaves Jackie Earle Haley’s version of Freddy Krueger feeling curiously hollow. This may have been the result of a desire to “make the character scary again,” which resulted in the remake largely abandoning the more playfully sadistic side of Krueger’s character that had grown through the franchise’s sequels. This new Freddy doesn’t so much toy with his victims, or play psychological games with them, as go straight in for the kill. He’s given a significantly less sardonic personality, which is only amplified by the choice to electronically alter and deepen Haley’s voice, removing the performer further from his own performance. The audience is left with a few decent instances of cinematic slasher violence and some passable gore, but Haley is never able to (or free to) give the character enough charisma to make him his own. He projects a sour, pent-up dissatisfaction, like he knows he could be doing more.

That puts the burden of making this version of Freddy distinct onto the script, which is ultimately where most fans’ biggest grievances with the remake seem to reside. Whereas the original film stated only that Krueger was a child killer, the remake doubles down on a more problematic path, making it clear that Krueger was also a sexual predator who abused the teens as children, when they were all students at the same preschool. In fact, it even goes a step further by having the middle of its plot revolve around its teenage protagonists investigating the possibility that Krueger was actually innocent of these crimes, and is now taking justified revenge for being burned alive by the vigilante parents of Elm Street.

Although a horror film is supposed to be disturbing, this was a badly miscalculated attempt to insert an entirely different type of horror into what is nominally a remake of a 1980s slasher movie. It’s disturbing in the wrong way for a corner of the horror genre that thrives on lighter popcorn entertainment, and audiences were put off as a result. Fans of A Nightmare on Elm Street don’t want to think about Freddy Krueger being sexually gratified by the memory of abusing Nancy as a child—they want to think of him as a mischievous slasher imp who stylishly bumps off teens because he’s filled with indiscriminate evil. Nor do they want any kind of even-halfway-serious exploration of whether he could be innocent, because they already know that he isn’t. This isn’t a psychological drama; it’s a slasher movie. One that unfortunately forgets its first priority should be gleeful, cheap thrills.

Nearly every aspect of how this film approaches Freddy, and its kills, contributes to that overall dour, muted feel. It slavishly recreates several sequences from the original, like Freddy stretching through the wall above Nancy’s bed, or the famous bathtub sequence, but in each case renders those scenes inert with particularly garish CGI that suffers in comparison to 26-year-old practical effects. Nor does it use CGI in ways that might have taken the franchise in new directions, such as playing with the more fantastical elements of what is possible within one’s dreams. Almost every dream sequence, in fact, is shot to look the same as reality: a missed opportunity to use modern CGI to take fuller advantage of true dream psychedelia.

One could say that, ultimately, ANOES 2010 takes all the “wrong chances.” It redesigned Freddy’s character in ways few fans wanted, while discarding the most well-liked elements of classic 1980s slashers in favor of oppressive mundanity, lacking even significant visual ambition in its dream sequences. It took a series known for its fantastical approach and brought it turgidly down to earth.

Robert Englund on ANOES 2010

When you talk to Robert Englund about the A Nightmare on Elm Street remake, however, he doesn’t linger long on something like Jackie Earle Haley’s performance. Rather, he suggests that the film suffers from issues of pacing, and the decision to turn up the heat on its teenage protagonists too fast. Indeed, there are a lot of little oddities about how the film portrays these characters, starting with the fact that Nancy’s last name has for some reason been changed from “Thompson” to “Holbrook.” This has led to conflicting claims of whether Rooney Mara’s character is meant to be the same person as the one played by Heather Langenkamp, but those issues are ultimately secondary to the film immediately getting off on the wrong foot, according to Englund.

“Are there problems with that movie?” muses the actor. “Yeah, but it’s a great cast. Rooney Mara, Connie Britton and Kyle Gallner are all great—I’ve worked with him several times and he’s an excellent performer. But they reshot the opening of that movie at great expense, and I think it throws the whole film off a bit. Because of the way it opens, when you meet the kids they’re all sort of under that dark cloud already. You never really get to meet them properly, to see who they were before. There’s no ‘before’; it’s only ‘after’ in that movie.”

Englund also takes a bit of umbrage with the film’s novel use of the idea of “micro sleeps”—falling asleep for moments at a time, even when standing up and walking around—to allow Freddy more constant access to the teens. It is something of a crutch, although one of the film’s more creative choices, in that it gives license to the writers to have Freddy appear and attack the kids at any time, regardless of whether it makes much sense. Englund, however, seems to bristle at using micro sleeps as a tool to skirt the series’ most basic premise—that Freddy only truly exists in dreams.

“They decided to take Freddy out of the nightmare, when Freddy is only ever meant to be imagined in the subconscious, in the dream landscape of his victims,” Englund said. “We can’t forget that Freddy is dead. He’s been burned alive! There’s precedent there that you have to respect. When you take Freddy out of the dream—we made that mistake ourselves in a sequence of Part 2—it just doesn’t work for the character. When you make Freddy earthbound in some way, you lose part of his power of symbolism.”

Today, Englund is 72 years old, although still working constantly, whether that’s headlining low-budget horror flicks or hosting TV series like Travel Channel’s new True Terror with Robert Englund. He remains a legend of the genre, and one frequently sought out for commentary or cameo appearances, a task he seems to relish. But despite that, he’s donned the makeup of Freddy Krueger only once since 2003, in a 2018 episode of ABC’s The Goldbergs. And as time goes by, a true revival by the originator of Freddy Krueger becomes less and less likely.

With the Craven estate soliciting pitches for another reboot of the series, then, we can only hope that whoever ends up inevitably making a new A Nightmare on Elm Street learns both from the failings of ANOES 2010 and Englund’s unique perspective on the character. Successfully mining the wealth of knowledge he possesses will no doubt prove critical to whether a new Nightmare can recapture the fantastically macabre blend of humor and horror that previously defined the series.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

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