‘Nightmare’ devoid of imagination

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Like a cover band with more stagecraft than talent, “A Nightmare on Elm Street” looks good recycling “greatest hits” moments but fails to capture the excitement of the original. The much-revived Freddy Krueger’s ninth return to the screen is a subpar exercise, hardly the stuff dreams are made of.

Primitive production values, overwrought acting and dreadful hairstyles notwithstanding, Wes Craven’s 1984 “Nightmare” offered the first fresh horror concept in eons. Freddy was a bad dream come to life, a monster who wakes up when you go to sleep. A child molester burned to death by upstanding suburban vigilantes, he returned to torture their now-teenaged kids.

Skulking around his victims’ subconscious, he could take any form, and he taunted their helplessness with maniacal glee. Who can forget Freddy’s tongue licking a pretty teen’s face through the mouthpiece of her phone as he sneered, “I’m your boyfriend now”?

That line recurs in the new film, alongside images and entire sequences replicated beat for beat. What’s lacking is the imagination, inspiration and emotional impact that made the original a touchstone of the genre.

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Once again, high-school classmates who share a dream of a knife-fingered man have to figure out why they are dying in their sleep. One slits his own throat. Another levitates from her bed and crashes around the ceiling before being gutted by invisible knives. A third is menaced by a talon-fingered glove that surfaces in her bathtub between her defenselessly open legs. Parents stonewall their children’s efforts to unravel the mystery, and the surviving few youngsters consume every upper they can lay hands on to stay awake. Sound familiar? Except for topical references to Red Bull and the Internet, this is very much like your father’s “Nightmare on Elm Street.”

And yet the warmed-over tale lacks the disturbing snap it had once upon a time. Craven slyly hinted at the associations between sex and death in his teen heroes’ dreams, but there’s not a moment here as delicious as Craven’s vision of teen heartthrob Johnny Depp being eaten by a bed. The freakout imagery and filmmaking legerdemain of Craven’s classic is replaced by a river of blood – a literal one. Horror jolts are added, intelligence subtracted. This new “Nightmare” is a film made by and for thuddingly literal-minded people. It’s a far cry from this spring’s nervewracking revival of George Romero’s 1973 bio-terror shocker, “The Crazies,” a case study in how to make a remake.

“Nightmare” is handsomely shot and lit to moody perfection, but perfunctory. Director Samuel Bayer avoids originality as if it was contractually forbidden. He doesn’t understand tension. Bayer delivers Spookshow 101 scares – thundering shock chords, sucker-punch bursts of action from the corner of the frame. Actual dread is beyond his grasp. He tries for a spine-tingle by having Freddy drag his claws across metal pipes, but that old effect lost its charge about six “Nightmares” ago.

Bayer has no grasp of pacing, either. Death is meted out with such dull, metronome regularity that the mind drifts. Did no one notice that Katie Cassidy, Rooney Mara and “Twilight’s” Kellan Lutz, in their mid-20s, make preposterous high school students? Is it a deliberate joke that characters enter and depart through windows so often? Why hire a capable actor like Jackie Earle Haley only to defeat him with Freddy’s scarface makeup?

In the moments when he’s unencumbered by latex, he’s effectively creepy and moving. If Haley’s bound to a series of sequels, he’ll truly be trapped in a nightmare.

Rated: R for strong bloody horror violence, disturbing images, terror and language. Rating: 11/2 stars.

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