Movie review: ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’

No eye-opener: Michael Bay’s rehash of Freddy Krueger movie lacks sharpness of Wes Craven’s original

April 30, 2010, Austin American-Statesman  

Freddy Krueger, face of a torched Glade candle, has dreams of his own. He dreams of finding each and every one of the preschool children, now sullen high school teens, who ratted him out 12 years ago for his pedophilic misdeeds. He dreams of sucking them into steamy, shrieky nightmares while they innocently slumber. He dreams of taunting them, dreams of shredding them like confetti with his steak-knife talons that clink and screech as if little microphones were embedded in them.

Dreams do come true here on Elm Street, a quaint strip of suburban idyll where kids go splat.

Michael Bay (said with a heavy, huffy sigh) is on a tear, remaking horror classics in the role of producer: “The Amityville Horror,” “The Hitcher,” “Friday the 13th,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and now Wes Craven’s 1984 “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” All of these rejiggers are entirely unnecessary sewage, but they make Bay a very rich man. His dream. Our nightmare.

I don’t know how the whole Freddy Krueger thing works. At all. So: He was a real person, burned to death years ago by avenging parents. But he lives on, literally, in the nightmares of his victims, the aforementioned teens. When the kids fall asleep, Freddy materializes and tries to kill the sleeper within their dream. “If you die in your dream, you die for real,” we’re instructively told. (Update alert: The teens chug Red Bull and pop prescription stimulants to stave off dozing.)

How did Freddy physically get inside the human subconscious? Where does he hang out when people aren’t dreaming? Hobbies?

It doesn’t make a whit of sense, the concept has all sorts of holes and it drives you batty as you watch those holes grow wider and more tattered.

But nobody cares, because the idea still intrigues and Freddy, that sneering horror icon in the grubby striped sweater and inexplicable fedora, endures. Robert Englund created the role with slavering delight — he seemed to be enjoying himself to a perverse degree — and appeared in about 67 sequels. He quickly became a self-caricature, a smart-alecky quip machine oiled by crummy puns.

Played by the tiny Jackie Earle Haley — he’s scrawnier than all his victims — the rebooted Freddy isn’t Englund’s merry prankster, his lethal leprechaun. He’s a sourpuss. As he should be. The sweater alone could put you in a fashion funk.

This Freddy’s visage disturbingly resembles a real burn victim’s, lipless and without expression (except when he snarls, flashing skeevy teeth). His voice is mechanized to low, spookoid registers that sometimes recall the soporific purr of a late-night DJ. (“Now sit back and dig into these mellow grooves …”)

But if this is a more serious Freddy, he’s scarcely a more menacing one.

Unlike Craven’s masterful original, which impressed with sui generis frights and displayed a bracing command of space and movement, the new “Nightmare” is coated in Hollywood finish, erected inside a snow globe of market approval. There’s nothing scary about it, nothing risky about it. It’s made from a Lego kit, shiny plastic that’s snapped together.

The casting of Haley alone could have veered the movie into novel directions that the filmmakers, and surely the film’s demographics, have no interest in. Haley’s an actor of tremendous sensitivity and empathy, and there are glances of that aspect in the film’s flashbacks, before he’s scorched. He can tear your heart out playing a fragile monster, as he did (as yet another sex offender) in the 2006 drama “Little Children,” for which he earned an Oscar nomination.

A remake like this needs the low-budget guts and imagination of an independent mind. Someone with spark, flash, integrity.

We can dream.

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