I have, over the years, sat through more than my share of overly hyped, all-slash-and-no-fun reboots of famous horror-film franchises. There was the new Jason, the new Michael Myers, and the new Leatherface — all lackluster knockoffs of the originals (and, yes, I’m including Rob Zombie’s Halloween in that litany of disappointments). The new relaunch of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, though, gave me good reason to be pumped. It’s not every day that one of our rogues’ gallery of iconic psycho killers gets to be played by a creepy and fascinating actor — in this case, Jackie Earle Haley taking on the role of Freddy Krueger, that burnt-to-a-crisp scarecrow of a madman.
The new Freddy, his singed skin more icky-realistic and less latexy than before, has been molded to Haley’s already scary features: the sunken cheeks and pitted face, the mouth that leers like an open wound. He wears the same red-and-green-striped sweater and glove with knived fingers, but in other ways this Freddy is…well, a little less of a cutup. In the sequels, Robert Englund’s Freddy evolved into more and more of a cackling vaudeville showman, dispensing one-liners before every rip of his razor hand. But even in the first, relatively restrained Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), there was an antic homicidal glee about him. In the new version, he’s more of a rotting, glowering, basically dead-serious ghoul. Haley knows how to make his own toxic sullenness show through the makeup, and he gives Freddy a touch of gravitas. That works fine, though I would have preferred to see Freddy turned into even more of an over-the-top funny wild-ass freak.
Freddy’s backstory has been updated, so that instead of just being a child killer, he’s now an accused pedophile (which was always the subtext anyway). The kids are the usual pretty, and pretty vacant, crew. As always, to keep Freddy from murdering them in their dreams, they have to stop themselves from going to sleep — a gambit lifted from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and one that now, if anything, seems even more sociologically timely in the Red Bull-and-Ritalin era. The movie replays a number of infamous bits from the original Nightmare, like Freddy’s glove popping out of the sudsy bathwater and his face stretching through the bedroom wall. Those moments still work. And there are a few bloody cool touches of psychedelic dreamscape imagery, though not nearly as many as I would have expected from director Samuel Bayer, who made the visionary video for Nirvana’s ”Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I did jump a few times, and I liked Haley’s dour malevolence, but overall, the new Nightmare on Elm Street is a by-the-numbers bad dream that plays a little too much like a corporately ordered rerun. One, two, Freddy’s coming for you. Three, four, we’ve been there before. B?