When Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street hit theaters in 1984, the low-budget picture became a surprise hit, taking the exhausted slasher genre, which had been bled dry by countless Halloween and Friday the 13th knockoffs, and melding it with a phantasmagorical, surreal landscape of dreams. The figure of Freddy Krueger, a deformed child molester fond of striped sweaters who wielded a set of steak knives for fingers and killed his victims in their sleep, was a new and frightening addition to the ranks of memorable horror-movie monsters.
But over the course of seven sequels, the creep gradually became the anti-hero of his films instead of the villain, dispatching his prey with Henny Youngman one-liners while the audience laughed instead of screaming. In 2003's surprisingly effective Freddy Vs. Jason, in which Krueger squared off against Jason Voorhees in a winner-take-all battle worthy of pro wrestling, the character completed the cross-over into comedic territory. After that film, Freddy Krueger seemed to be done for good.
One of the problems with the new A Nightmare on Elm Street, the latest horror remake from Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes production company, is that Freddy simply isn't as scary as he used to be, even though Jackie Earle Haley, taking over from Robert Englund in the role, plays Krueger essentially straight, keeping the one-liners to a minimum. But the actor isn't given enough to do to leave his mark on the character: It could be anybody under that gruesome makeup.
Director Samuel Bayer, a music video veteran making his feature film debut, pays dutiful homage to a couple of the most memorable images from the original (such as Freddy emerging from behind a wall to leer at a sleeping girl, or the bathtub scene in which the razor-tipped hand emerges from the bubbles) but comes up with a few new twists of his own. The screenplay, by Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer, generally follows the original, including (spoiler alert!) the Psycho-inspired twist of the sudden death of a character you assume is going to be the film's heroine. But if the film ever explained how, exactly, Krueger gained the ability to invade people's dreams and murder them in their sleep, I missed it.
Bayer also refrains from going overboard with the camera stylings: The film is well-shot and makes effective use of the widescreen format. A Nightmare on Elm Street isn't offensively bad, the way The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake was, but it is redundant and uninvolving, because the movie doesn't add any new wrinkles to the Krueger mythos: This is pretty much the same movie as the original, only with better production values. Worst of all, there isn't a single good fright in the entire picture, an unforgivable sin for a supposedly scary movie.
The horror film genre is filled with classics that have endured the test of time and become milestones of cinematic history: Frankenstein, The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, Dawn of the Dead, The Birds, Halloween, Jaws. Today, though, the genre is on life support, consisting primarily of remakes and sequels designed to lure teenagers on opening weekend, make a quick buck and then fade into oblivion. Craven, who jumpstarted the moribund horror genre with 1996's Scream, recently signed on to direct Scream 4, which he promises will be as revolutionary and surprising as the first film. Here's hoping he delivers: Too many more remakes as dull and bland as A Nightmare on Elm Street could kill off horror movies for good.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (** out of ****) opens on Friday April 30.