Horror movie franchises — as it’s been said about Marines — don’t die, apparently. They just go to hell and regroup.
Now comes the return of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” thanks in part to producer Michael Bay, who, when he’s not frightening movie snobs as a director, has made something of a profitable side job resurrecting scare brands — “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “The Amityville Horror,” “Friday the 13th” — from the pop-culture graveyard. This time around he’s coaxed back the estimably creepy Freddy Krueger from our bloody memories, but it’s hardly what you’d call a dream reunion.
The first “Nightmare” was the brainchild of horrormeister Wes Craven, who looked to embolden the slasher era with a child killer let loose during sleepy time: Reality-bending imagery added to the usual rip-and-bleed gore craft. Although the fedora-sporting, finger-knived Freddy (iconically rendered by Robert Englund) would, over the course of seemingly hundreds of sequels, devolve into a quippy circus act, in the agreeably cheesy 1984 original he was, well, original: a disreputable genre’s very own incubus.
Faced with everyone knowing the drill with Freddy then, the rebooters here — writers Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer and director Samuel Bayer — seek a little sympathy for their devil. To that end, actor’s actor Jackie Earle Haley has been cast as Freddy, whose dreamtime terrorizing of a handful of attractive teens — led by Rooney Mara and Kyle Gallner, cast out of the Kristen Stewart- Robert Pattinson school of pasty, glum adolescence — comes with a fleshed-out backstory of how a friendly preschool gardener met a possibly unjust, fiery end at the hands of a parental lynch mob. But Freddy’s genesis just isn’t that helpful to the cause of unnerving moviegoers. Psychoanalyzing a murdering creep didn’t work with Rob Zombie’s " Halloween” (poor, abused Michael Myers), and it’s a mostly ludicrous diversion here, despite Haley’s game turn in the burn mask.
What we want are freaky visuals, and as an exercise in “re-imagining,” to use Hollywood’s favorite rehash euphemism, this “Nightmare” is mostly stale goods. You’d think Bayer’s music video background would jibe well with the playful surreality of Craven’s premise. But when not paying homage — the claw in the bathtub, the morphing wall — Bayer surprisingly traffics in factory-level horror atmospherics and loud, saw-it-coming shocks. In the end, your last fever dream about failing to study for an exam was probably scarier.
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