Of all the horror standards getting the remake treatment these days, A Nightmare on Elm Street had the most potential. There's plenty to work with: Wes Craven's 1984 monster show is a potent blend of campfire scares, social commentary, and lurid psychosexual creepiness. It took familiar genre trappings—imperiled teenagers, useless adults, a seemingly unstoppable boogeyman—and recast them in the light of a grim modern fairy tale. With a writer who understood what he was working with and a reasonably competent director, it's sort of hard to screw up.
Michael Bay is an overachiever, though. He's proven that, with faith, luck, and a whole lot of old-fashioned stick-to-it-iveness, he can ruin practically anything. He and his co-conspirators at Platinum Dunes had a golden opportunity to dust off Craven's beloved franchise and take it into new territory, but they opted instead for a rote, by-the-numbers retread of Freddy Krueger's old stomping ground. This latest Nightmare is passably entertaining, and it works reasonably well as late-night B-movie fare, but there's little of the ingenuity and creativity that has kept us returning to the original for more than a quarter of a century. There are glimmers of it here and there—writers Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer throw some intriguing ideas into the mix—but director Samuel Bayer seems too busy staging the nifty-looking dream sequences to bother fleshing those ideas out. What could have been an unsettling re-imagining in the vein of John Carpenter's The Thing or David Cronenberg's The Fly is ultimately just an exercise in uninspired redundancy.
Things get off to a promising start with an eerie opening set piece that establishes both the playing field and the rules of the game. Dean Russell (Twilight's Kellan Lutz) is barely functioning after several days without sleep. His self-imposed insomnia has led him to a late-night layover at the Springwood Diner, where he's fighting to stay awake. As he nods off, the lines between dream and reality blur; the real-world diner gives way to its dream-land counterpart, where pig heads burn on the grill and something awful waits for Dean in the recesses of the kitchen. Before you know it, the death toll ticks over to "1" and Dean's friends are left with the horrible realization that the same knife-fingered crispy critter has been stalking them in their dreams. Nancy (Youth in Revolt's Rooney Mara) and Quentin (Kyle Gallner of Jennifer's Body) are soon the only ones left to unravel the mystery of their tormentor's identity and figure out how to stop him.
I can't imagine any circumstances that would preclude at least a passing familiarity with the fiend who's picking them off. Freddy Krueger is rendered in the same broad strokes as he was in the original: A victimizer of children who was burned alive by an angry mob, Krueger returns as a sadistic slasher who stalks his prey in their dreams. This time around, though, a disturbing new facet has been added to the iconic character. If you're one of the 12 people who hasn't seen the 1984 version, suffice it to say that an idea that was only vaguely hinted at 26 years ago takes centerstage in the remake. It's one of the few improvements, and an indicator of the direction this revamp could have taken, if only it weren't so concerned with simply restaging Craven's more memorable set pieces. (Oddly enough, the one scene that gorehounds were most looking forward to is missing.)
The role that made Robert Englund a fixture on the horror scene is passed on to the incredibly gifted Jackie Earle Haley, who imbues Freddy with just the right blend of sinister menace and skin-crawling perviness. His performance is terrific, but Haley, like the audience, is shortchanged; we want to see more of him, but he's mostly assigned with popping out of nowhere for the requisite jump-scares. He does at least get to deliver a few of Freddy's trademark one-liners, and he does it with a wicked lasciviousness that makes him all the more horrifying.
There are occasional hints of the themes that lurked beneath the surface of Craven's modern classic—sins of the fathers (and mothers) visited upon the children, the moral implications of vigilante justice, the idea that even the most picturesque American suburb is a repository of ugly, uncomfortable secrets—but ultimately these ideas are only pressed into service to get us to the next CG effect. If you're just in the market for a serviceable late-night shocker, the new A Nightmare on Elm Street fits the bill. It's slick-looking and fairly well-acted, and boasts a couple of memorable sequences. But if you're hoping for anything more, dream on.