A Nightmare On Elm Street

There’s a joke at the center of A Nightmare on Elm Street, a very simple one, that would be hilarious if it wasn’t so damning. The joke is that a film about kids desperately trying to stay awake is so incredibly good at putting me to sleep.

A hybrid re-imagining and remake of Wes Craven‘s 1984 original, this Nightmare feels like it has been glued together out of ill-fitting parts. A shot for shot sequence remake here, characters mixed and matched there, and a Freddy Krueger that is far more vile than the original, yet significantly less interesting to watch. You’d think those two aspects might correspond. A more realistic, disgusting Krueger should be less overtly entertaining than Robert Englund’s version, which worked one-liners for over a decade. That’s part of it, but the one-liners aren’t actually gone, while the grim approach isn’t more frightening.

In the hands of director Samuel Bayer, multiple screenwriters and Michael Bay‘s Platinum Dunes, this is a would-be serious horror film with nothing to say, and no imagination to fall back on.

So: In the town of Springwood, kids are plagued by dreams of an evil man. We first see Dean (Kellan Lutz), a mumble-mouthed meathead nodding off in a diner. He’s slaughtered by Freddy right there, as his friend/girlfriend Kris (Katie Cassidy) looks on. Also in the diner is Kris’s last boyfriend, Jesse (Thomas Dekker), his friend Quentin (Kyle Gallner) and the waitress Quentin is crushing on, Nancy (Rooney Mara).

Long story short, Freddy is stalking the dreamscapes of all these kids, and he dispatches a couple as the others try to figure out why this slab of meat in a striped sweater has such a hate-on for all of them. Not that we’re left to wonder about his motives for very long. Freddy actually tells one victim that their fear feeds him, in much the same way you probably explain caloric intake to a burger before chowing down.

I actually hoped for additional foolish explanations from Freddy, because otherwise he was as exciting as data entry. It’s not all Jackie Earle Haley‘s fault; he makes a go at being grim and abusive, and occasionally projects some real feeling through his fire-ravaged makeup. He’s not always like a burned Rorschach. Haley’s Krueger is always twitching his knives, like he’s impatient to attack but holding himself back. That’s a nice touch. But he tosses off one-liners with scant enthusiasm, and rather than making this Freddy’s persona seem more sick and twisted, the combination of jokes and dire intent only feels like no one knew what sort of killer they were attempting to conjure.

The original film set dreams in warehouses and boiler rooms in part because doing so was cheap. I was hoping to see some more imaginative dreams, or more effective ones. Much of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 is unintentionally hilarious garbage, but the opening school bus sequence is more eye-catching than anything Bayer conjures. Over the course of the original series, the best parts of each movie were nightmares that were consecutively more weird and outrageous, and going back to boiler rooms and creepy school hallways feels lazy and disinterested. The ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ video is great, but it doesn’t benefit from the addition of a scorched killer.

All of which is to say that, if you’re in this one to see effects artists at play, look elsewhere. There are two vaguely satisfying kills, but the funhouse spirit that informed the most entertaining parts of the early films is totally MIA. Want something to stack up against the marionette kill in Dream Warriors? Ain’t happening. Even when we do see some moments directly informed by Craven’s original, such as when Freddy comes to life in the wall above a bed, they look put-on and inferior.

The wavering tone and dull dreams left me detached enough that I had a wandering eye ready to be distracted by other small issues: Katie Cassidy and Lia Mortensen, who plays her mom, look like they’re about five years apart. (Too-old actors playing high school kids is almost a horror tradition, but some examples, like this, are extra-laughable.) For that matter, none of the parent-child pairings felt vaguely honest. Kyle Gallner and Rooney Mara are more convincing than most of the cast, but I kept thinking they were like an alternate reality date between Joaquin Phoenix and Emily Blunt. Mara’s Nancy never really flies, either; she doesn’t feel as driven as Heather Lagenkamp’s original Nancy.

And then there’s Krueger’s backstory, which has him sleeping like a troll in a killer’s cave under his workplace. In a less serious movie — one with a tone closer to the original series — that’s no big deal. Weird gardener lives like Gollum in the basement? Yeah, sure, no problem! But Samuel Bayer has his serious face on, and still expects us to believe that no one got a bad vibe off the scenario until things went haywire.

Then again, none of the vibes are right in Bayer’s Nightmare. I’ve never seen a movie about a nightmare killer that made sleep look so good.

/Film score: 3 out of 10

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Russ Fischer woke up recently and realized he lives in Austin. (twitter.com/russfischer) or (russ.slashfilm at gmail.com)

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