The most imaginatively conceived of 1980s horror franchises, “A Nightmare on Elm Street” degenerated fast after Wes Craven’s ’84 original, as Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger became a standup ghoul dispensing limp wisecracks to teens in baroque death throes. Thus, it seemed possible a reboot might be more corrective than redundant — especially with the inspired choice of Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy 2.0. Alas, little about New Line’s return to the well delivers on that promise. Nevertheless, fan anticipation should mean big biz, even if this new “Nightmare” has as tough a time re-raising the tentpole as other recent slasher retrofits.
Haley’s startling comeback turn as a repulsive yet pathetic pederast in “Little Children” three years ago certainly qualified him to breathe new life into the striped sweater of this child-abusing villain. (The closest thing to a significant update in Wesley Strick and Eric Hessler’s script is the shift in cultural paranoias: Instead of a dead child murderer, Freddy is now a dead child molester who worked at a preschool, and whose victims recover repressed memories of trauma.)
Wearing more realistic extreme-burn-victim makeup and afforded longer pre-ghoul flashbacks in order to play the role straight (at least until some de rigueur lame puns later on), Haley still doesn’t get the chance to lend Freddy genuinely creepy dimension. Just one scene as quietly, insidiously suggestive as the actor’s car date with Jane Adams in “Children” would have been a game-changer.
But this “Nightmare” is too busy cramming in routine shock cuts to take such a risk. Likewise, no time is devoted to establishing premise (it’s assumed we’ve seen prior incarnations, so why bother?), atmosphere or character depth. And while the original pic wasn’t so hot in those departments either, it nevertheless felt more grounded in a credible world.
Sticking close to its story template (and reproducing several specific scares), pic opens with Dean (Kellan Lutz) already terrorized by sleeping visions of the knife-fingered Mr. Krueger. Trying to stay awake in a diner, he falls prey to what girlfriend Kris (Katie Cassidy) and other horrified onlookers assume is a suicidal urge.
Realizing that “when he kills you in your sleep, you stay dead,” Kris finds she’s sharing the same deadly dreams with fellow high schoolers Jesse (Thomas Dekker), Quentin (Kyle Gallner) and Nancy (Rooney Mara). They soon glean they’re linked by hideous events that took place when they were 5-year-olds — events their parents have tried to bury. Unfortunately, vengeful Freddy’s spirit digs them up.
Less fortunately still, none of this is very frightening. Vet musicvid director Samuel Bayer’s feature debut does nothing glaringly wrong, but there’s not much that’s inventively right, either. The slickly assembled widescreen pic has no distinctive style and scant imagination, not even in the realm of those fantasy f/x that kept the original series colorfully diverting.
While the 1984 film has aged, its now-familiar jolts still pack more punch than this pic’s recycled ones, which sometimes register so tepidly as to cause snickers. Craven also had a sure hand with his junior thesps (including young Johnny Depp); Bayer’s TV-drafted leads are less deftly handled, with Mara and Gallner making a charisma-free climactic duo.
By then, a screenplay that can hardly be accused of taking too many liberties with the source material has managed to flub its own premise: For no apparent reason, in the last reel or so, Freddy seems able to manifest whether the kids are asleep or not.
Packaging is glossy by genre standards.