Like a cover band with more stagecraft than talent, “A Nightmare on Elm Street” looks good when its recycling the greatest hits moments from the franchise, but it fails to capture the excitement of the original.
Freddy Krueger’s return to the screen is a subpar exercise, hardly the stuff dreams are made of.
Primitive production values, overwrought acting and dreadful hairstyles notwithstanding, Wes Craven’s 1984 “Nightmare” offered the first fresh horror concept in eons. Freddy was a bad dream come to life, a monster who wakes up when you go to sleep. A child molester burned to death by upstanding suburban vigilantes, he returned to torture their now-teenaged kids.
Skulking around his victims’ subconscious, he could take any form, and he taunted their helplessness with maniacal glee. Who can forget Freddy’s tongue licking a pretty teen’s face through the mouthpiece of her phone as he sneered, “I’m your boyfriend now”?
That line recurs in the new film, alongside images and entire sequences replicated beat for beat. What’s lacking is the imagination, inspiration and emotional impact that made the original a touchstone of the genre.
Once again, high school classmates who share a dream of a knife-fingered man have to figure out why they are dying in their sleep. Parents stonewall their children’s efforts to unravel the mystery, and the surviving few youngsters consume every upper they can lay hands on to stay awake. Sound familiar? Except for topical references to Red Bull and the Internet, this is very much like your father’s “Nightmare on Elm Street.”
And yet the warmed-over tale lacks the disturbing snap it had once upon a time. Craven slyly hinted at the associations between sex and death in his teen heroes’ dreams, but there’s not a moment here as delicious as Craven’s vision of teen heartthrob Johnny Depp being eaten by a bed.
The freakout imagery and filmmaking legerdemain of Craven’s classic is replaced by a river of blood. Horror jolts are added, intelligence subtracted. This new “Nightmare” is a film made by and for thuddingly literal-minded people.
“Nightmare” is handsomely shot and lit to moody perfection, but perfunctory. Director Samuel Bayer avoids originality as if it was contractually forbidden. He doesn’t understand tension. Bayer delivers Spookshow 101 scares — thundering shock chords, sucker-punch bursts of action from the corner of the frame. Actual dread is beyond his grasp.
As for Freddy Krueger, in the moments when actor Jackie Earle Haley is unencumbered by latex, he’s effectively creepy and moving. But if Haley’s bound to a series of sequels, he’ll truly be trapped in a nightmare.