It would be impossible to approach Samuel Bayer’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street” without some cynicism.
Wes Craven’s 1984 original remains an imaginative cut above typical ’80s slasher fare, introducing audiences to a hideously deformed boogeyman who attacks his prey at their most defenseless time — in the realm of their dreams. It is at once audacious, terrifying and darkly comical, and it even introduced the world to a fast-rising newcomer: Johnny Depp.
Craven has endorsed remakes of his twisted visions before — he produced “The Hills Have Eyes” (2006) and last year’s “The Last House on the Left.” Yet, he has conspicuously distanced himself from “Nightmare,” the latest in a long, mostly undistinguished line of warmed-over fright fests. Buyer beware.
The good news: Freddy Krueger, the supernatural sadist once blessed (cursed?) with Robert Englund’s mocking bark, has found a capable new voice in Jackie Earle Haley (“Watchmen”), whose menacing growl seems less an imitation than a fierce primal noise. It’s enough to give the doomed Elm Street teenagers, and a few tender moviegoers, reason to shudder when the lights go out.
Haley is not your typical leading man. Short and slight, his beady eyes burning with indignation — gateways to some half-repressed rage — he is the quintessential outsider. Here, beneath a thick mask of Krueger’s scar tissue — he looks like one of the cat people from Stephen King’s “Sleepwalkers” — he’s a sick sideshow freak, aching to make the world pay for his pain.
He has ample opportunity. The new “Nightmare” sticks with Craven’s playbook for a time and evokes, briefly, the ominous atmosphere of its predecessor. But when Bayer and principal screenwriter Wesley Strick break with his story, problems arise.
Strick’s literal-mindedness is particularly irksome: Once a serial killer who used his ice-cream truck to attract young victims, Krueger is now — spoiler alert! — a kid-touching gardener whose steely cultivator inspires his trademark glove. Why demystify the boogeyman? That in itself is a mystery.
As a technical exercise, “Nightmare” looks good, and Haley captures the spirit of unrepentant evil quite nicely. (The sullen, interchangeable teens he stalks are, regrettably, less memorable.)
Yet, for all its calculated bumps in the night and shots of creepy-looking preschoolers moping around a boiler room, Bayer’s low-impact remake misses the little things that made Craven’s “Nightmare” hard to forget — scenes of the dead returning to life, only to be revealed as figments of a sleep-deprived mind, and of a beast who feeds simply for his own demented amusement. Craven was right to keep his distance from this one.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (two stars)
Starring Jackie Earle Haley, Kyle Gallner, Rooney Mara, Katie Cassidy
Written by Wesley Strick, Eric Heisserer
Directed by Samuel Bayer
Running time 1 hour 35 minutes