Jackie Earle Haley, the fans' choice to take on the Freddy Krueger role in the remake of the 1984 boogeyman blockbuster A Nightmare on Elm Street, proves stunningly, rousingly - adequate for the job.
A fine actor who barely registers through the more realistic burn mask and hoarse, processed voice, Haley handles the few passable jokes and imitative finger-knives shtick in the manner we'd hope and expect.
But as to putting his mark on the character Wes Craven created and Robert Englund made his own? Not so much.
It's in the tale's flashbacks, when we see a pre-burned Freddy Krueger and discover what caused him to torment the dreams of select teens in Springwood, Ohio, that Haley - whose comeback began with Little Children and reached some sort of peak with his turn as the avenging Rorschach in Watchmen - earns his pay and deserves the fan support that pushed New Line into giving him this role.
Director Samuel Bayer, a veteran of music videos (gloomy Nirvana fare of the early '90s was his calling card) and the Hitler film Max, nicely suggests the surreal dreamscapes where teens doze off and allow Freddy to have his bloody way with them. But this script lacks the moral ambiguity of the original film as we see generic pretty teens dispatched, one by one, by the guy in the fashion-statement sweater and fedora. It's a movie that starts slowly and begins moving us to the edge of our seats only in the third act - adequate for a horror picture, but no more.
Six minutes in, a kid cuts his own throat in a diner. Another dies horribly in bed, a third in jail, all seemingly killed by a slasher no one saw. Only we, the audience, know the truth. Each victim picks up a piece of the puzzle before dying, and a couple (Rooney Mara and Kyle Gallner) start to piece the disparate parts into some sort of supernatural somnambulant theory of why this is happening.
The dialogue is a tiresome recycling of the "You're not REAL." "Am too." "Are not" arguments of the original series of films. The effects are, in most cases, better than those of the 1984 film, though in a couple of cases - Freddy coming through the wallpaper, for instance - the old, organic effect looked real and was more frightening.
What we're paying for with our admission price is a handful of good jolts (the best involving a Blair-Witchy video-camera break), a couple of decent one-liners (writers Wesley Strick and Eric Heiserer barely manage this), and warm O-negative memories of the original, if we remember it.
Fans will almost certainly find this at least moderately satisfying, but the rest of us are actually doing Haley a favor with only lukewarm endorsements.
A Nightmare on Elm Street ** (out of four stars)
Directed by Samuel Bayer. With Jackie Earle Haley, Rooney Mara, Kyle Gallner, Kellan Lutz, Thomas Dekker, Katie Cassidy, and Clancy Brown. Distributed by New Line Cinema (Warner Bros. Pictures).
Running time: 1 hour, 34 mins.
Parent's guide: R (strong bloody horror violence, disturbing images, terror, and profanity)
Playing at: area theaters.