If audiences are willing to pretend that they've never seen Freddy Krueger — and the crowd I was with was primed — at least give them the privilege of a tease. Unfortunately, this remake of Wes Craven's 1984 horror staple pops its cookies early, with barely a glimmer of suburban sunshine to contrast the shadow world.
The story is unchanged: Freddy Krueger, the guilty secret of the parents of Springwood, Ohio, menaces their teenaged children's sleep: "If you die in your dreams, you die for real," "One, two, Freddy's coming for you," and so on. This Nightmare's director, Samuel Bayer, was vouched for by the film's producer, Michael Bay (giggle). It's Bayer's feature debut, after a music-video career very tied in with '90s alt-rock — but don't take my word for it. Just look at Krueger's lair, an improbably cavernous crawlspace where you can pretty easily imagine Bush "rocking out."
Its first half-hour devoid of the most basic sense of timing, showmanship, and atmosphere, Nightmare gets a grip after a couple of bad dreams winnow the focus to two nice-looking gothy kids (Rooney Mara and Kyle Gallner). Established as "different" by funky tights and a Joy Division T-shirt, respectively, the teen outcasts speed around the 'burbs by night, trying to find out what exactly their parents are hiding while shooting adrenaline and self-mutilating to stay awake.
The job of making Freddy Krueger plausibly frightening again goes to Jackie Earle Haley — fantastic in his small part in Shutter Island. No small task, this, after we've seen Robert Englund's Gloved One battered by multiple heroines, Jason Voorhees, and Dokken over the course of eight films, until the scariest thing about this undead Bruce Vilanch was his dreadful one-liners. The makeover is good — the stringy melted-mozzarella complexion is replaced by a head that's a singed, featureless knot of meat, with charcoal nubs for ears and a nose boiled away to a socket. Haley's Krueger is scrawny and gerbil-faced, and that's even with his skin still on. (There's an enjoyable flashback to Freddy's vigilante lynching by suburban parents — including Clancy Brown! — which does little to hide how silly Nightmare's premise is.)
With a greater budget and ostensibly superior technology, Bayer and company prove mostly content to record cover versions of Craven's analog nightmares. All your favorites are here, including wallpaper Freddy, the dancing-on-the-ceiling number, the slithering body bag in the school halls with its crimson slug trail, the periscope-glove-in-the-tub — as well as slight variants on the melting staircase and gore geyser. Notable updates include CGI blood spurts, which look like showers of jellybeans; and characters using Internet search engines. Detectable in all of this is a lack of ambition. This franchise relaunch may have been inevitable, but that's no excuse for it to feel automatic.