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Requiem for a Dream: The New ‘Nightmare’

It would be impossible to approach Samuel Bayer’s A Nightmare on Elm Street without some cynicism. Wes Craven’s 1984 original remains an imaginative cut above typical ’80s slasher fare, introducing audiences to a hideously deformed bogeyman who attacks his prey at their most defenseless, in the realm of their dreams. It is at once audacious, terrifying and darkly comical, and it even introduced the world to a fast-rising newcomer, Johnny Depp.

Craven has endorsed remakes of his twisted visions before – he produced The Hills Have Eyes (2006) and last year’s The Last House on the Left in hopes that both would hit with some of the same bruising impact as their predecessors. Yet Craven, one of the most creative minds in the horror business, has conspicuously distanced himself from Nightmare, the latest in a long, mostly undistinguished line of resuscitated fright fests. Buyer beware.

The good news: Freddy Krueger, the supernatural sadist once blessed (cursed?) with Robert Englund’s mocking, delightfully malicious bark, has found a capable new voice in Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen), whose low, menacing growl seems less an imitation than a fierce primal noise. It’s enough to give the doomed Elm Street teenagers, and even a few tender moviegoers, reason to shudder when the lights go out.

Haley is not your typical leading man. Short and slight, with beady eyes burning with indignation – gateways to some repressed rage, we sense – he is the quintessential outsider.

As Rorschach, the masked avenger in Watchmen, he appeared with those features mostly obscured. Here, beneath a thick layer of Krueger’s famous scar tissue – he looks like one of the cat people from Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers – he is once again a sick sideshow, and he wants to make the world pay for his pain.

He has ample opportunity. The latest Nightmare sticks with Craven’s playbook for a time – a new victim, played by Kellan Lutz (Twilight), gets the blood rising early – and the remake evokes, however briefly, the ominous atmosphere that distinguished its predecessor.

To their credit, Bayer and principal screenwriter Wesley Strick resisted making a shot-for-shot remake of Craven’s original, but when they break with his story, problems arise. Strick’s literal-mindedness is particularly irksome: Once a serial killer who used his ice-cream truck to attract young victims, Krueger is now – spoiler alert! – a kid-touching gardener whose steely cultivator inspires his trademark glove. What purpose is served by demystifying the bogeyman?

Elsewhere, characters seem needlessly compelled to spell out the rules of the game (“Die in your dreams, you die for real!”), while Strick shuffles some of the original’s most haunting sequences around, sapping them of their impact. And why do all the Elm Street kids come from single-parent homes? Beats me. Perhaps it’s just one of those pointless details intended to make this Nightmare seem fresh.

As a technical exercise, Nightmare is not a total waste. The movie looks good, and Haley’s performance captures the spirit of unrepentant evil quite nicely. (The sullen, interchangeable teens he stalks are, regrettably, less memorable.)

Yet for all his calculated bumps in the night and shots of creepy-looking preschoolers moping around a boiler room, Bayer misses the little things that made Craven’s Nightmare so hard to forget – scenes of the dead returning to life, only to be revealed as figments of a sleep-deprived mind, and of a beast who feeds for no reason other than his own demented amusement. Craven was right to keep his distance from this one.