BEVERLY HILLS, California — To some people, the mere existence of cinematic remakes, reboots and reimaginings is indisputable proof that we are bankrupt in new ideas. But if you're willing to take a closer look at films like this weekend's "A Nightmare on Elm Street," starring Jackie Earle Haley, there are some lessons to be learned.
In Platinum Dunes' loose retelling of Wes Craven's 1984 film that introduced Freddy Krueger to the world, one of cinema's most beloved serial killers has received an extreme makeover. Sure, the razor-blade glove, fedora and striped sweater are still there. But now, two aspects of Freddy's backstory that Craven largely sidestepped have been more fully and realistically addressed by filmmaker Samuel Bayer: his burned-victim appearance and his history of child molestation.
The '80s audience saw Freddy as a fun monster, one who terrorized the kids of Elm Street with a wink and a smile. So when we caught up with the new Freddy, we had to ask: How will this newer, darker vision change the way we relate to Krueger — and is there a chance they've gone too far?
"The notion was to ground him a bit more in reality than the other Freddy," said the Oscar-nominated actor, who has taken over the role after Robert Englund's eight films as the character. "But yet, still not lose sight of the bogeyman."
As any good "Elm Street" fan knows, Freddy shuffled off this mortal coil when a mob of angry parents took the law into their own hands, trapping and burning him alive. Although Englund's Freddy certainly didn't have enviable skin tone, he looked more monstrous than malformed; Haley's Krueger has been "tweaked" to look like a person you'd find in a burn ward at a hospital and, typically, feel very bad for.
"If you look at the makeup, you get the sense of a real burn victim," Haley admitted. "But the overtones of the monster are there."
If you go see the new "Nightmare" and find yourself feeling surprisingly sorry for Freddy and his nonexistent lips, perhaps the second character "tweak" will snap you back in the other direction. Although Craven and the filmmakers who followed him often tiptoed around it, the crime that got Freddy burned alive was one of the most reprehensible acts in modern society: child molestation. In the new movie, several scenes address Krueger's horrific acts in detail.
"I'm playing a fictional character, this mythological bogeyman, but still trying to put in some good undertones to show what makes this guy tick," Haley said, defending the decision that some may argue makes the film so real that it might remove the audience from the breezy joy of watching a slasher film. "I wanted to show what happened in the past — but all of these qualities were there [in the Englund films]. My experience with Freddy, seeing the first film and other films and pieces of it, I always thought those same qualities were there for Robert's Freddy."
Will audiences react the way that a horror filmmaker typically wants them to? Or have Bayer and Haley made Freddy too sympathetic or too real? Both are interesting questions that should have cinephiles comparing the two films — for better or worse — for years to come.
It also raises another intriguing question that one can't imagine being asked of any other actor. Haley is now in the unusual position of being Oscar-nominated for playing a child molester in the drama "Little Children" but now more visibly playing one in a horror film. So, in his mind, was there any difference as he gave the performances?
"To me, they couldn't be further apart," Haley explained. "Working in drama on 'Little Children' was like playing a real-life character. It really required that work of looking at the humanity of it and delving in a much different way as to who this guy is. Why is he broken? What is it that made him that way? And also, I was trying to reconcile within myself to find the parallels for me to understand him."
"This character [Freddy] is in a completely different genre. It's horror; to me, he's this mythological bogeyman that is this wacky killer that stalks you in your dreams," he said. "Obviously, he's always had this molesting quality as well. But they just couldn't be more different."
Check out everything we've got on "A Nightmare on Elm Street."
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