For a moment, I thought about staying up for 72 consecutive hours after seeing A Nightmare on Elm Street, in an effort to see if sleep deprivation increased my admiration for its bleary-eyed performances, or otherwise gave the movie any shading and nuance not heretofore detected. Such an exercise in “method reviewing,” however, would be more comparative analysis than director Samuel Bayer’s reboot of Wes Craven’s 1984 horror film deserves.
Despite hewing closely to the original in some of its set piece deaths, one’s familiarity with that horror genre touchstone is hardly a necessity. As with most movies of its ilk, the storyline here centers around a group of kids stalked by a ghastly figure, in this case the burned, dream-world presence of Freddy Krueger (Jackie Earle Haley), an old elementary school groundskeeper about whom the small burgh’s other adults have been harboring an old secret. Once the babe and the only guy whose jerky-surly demeanor seems capable of infusing some personality into the proceedings (Katie Cassidy, above, and Thomas Dekker, respectively) are dispatched, that leaves audiences stuck with high school drabs Nancy (Rooney Mara, younger sister of Kate Mara) and Quentin (Kyle Gallner), as they try to unravel the mystery of why they’re suddenly being dream-stalked by the same menacing figure.
There’s a bit of an expanded backstory for Krueger here, but not much in Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer’s screenplay to make one feel anything very deeply. The introduced notion of “micro-naps” (a sort of auto-sleep function of the human brain that kicks in after two-plus days without sleep, and results in auditory and visual hallucinations) provides a ready-made template for some interesting narrative hiccups and head feints about how Krueger enters the consciousnesses of his victims, but the filmmakers massively drop the ball in this regard. Neither does the script have any sort of genuine, fevered investigative pop. Apart from a cursory dab of over-emoting spread thinly over two scenes, none of the characters seems particularly thrown for a loop that, you know, there is a character (at this point they don’t even know he is essentially the spirit of a real person) who can physically kill them only in their sleep; at one point Quentin just blurts out, “If you die in your dreams, you die in real life,” which seems like lazy self-diagnosis, even for a horror film that doesn’t particularly seem to aspire to anything beyond a healthy opening weekend gross. In making the thrust of the movie a search for who Krueger is rather than why he is suddenly tormenting them, A Nightmare on Elm Street comes across like nothing so much as a boring, gory junior detective procedural.
Bayer, the director of some of the most seminal music video clips of the past quarter century, including Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” has a firm grasp of the technology at his disposal, no doubt; he lights effectively for mood, and figures out a few evocative framing devices, though I could have done without the re-up of the iconic ob-gyn-style point-of-view bathtub shot, which manages to come across as both skeevy and inappropriately humorous at the same time. Chiefly, though, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a misfire of imagination. Its sound effects-driven “boo scares” evoke a small clutch of familiar responses, but Haley’s voice, as Krueger, is so heavily processed and amplified that it has a divorcing effect from the darkness of the plotline, which is the enveloping swirl of psychological trauma resulting from child abuse. That’s a real horror, and this Nightmare on Elm Street glosses over it entirely, using it only for cheap, gimmicky effect. (Warner Bros./New Line, R, 96 minutes)