It’s a dreadful night, rainy and dark. Seated in a diner booth, hollow-eyed Dean (Kellan Lutz) rubs his face and asks for more coffee. Ignored, he stands and heads to the kitchen, where a baleful waitress leads him past flaming pans and pigs’ heads in jars. Dean is suitably uneasy. The camera cuts to a low shot, behind him, and a hand appears large and mid-frame, knives-for-fingers slash-slashing.
Yes, it’s the first nightmare scene in the new Nightmare on Elm Street. And yes, it changes up the famous first first nightmare, in Wes Craven’s original: gone is the lithe girl in diaphanous nightie, startled by a bleating sheep. But no matter how tough Dean might act, he’s still the abject victim and Freddy Krueger (here played by Jackie Earle Haley) will kill him. As the scene reaches its bloody climax, the boundaries between Dean’s dream and the diner’s seeming real life collapse: Dean can’t wake up and his girlfriend Kris (Katie Cassidy), utterly horrified, can’t not watch.
This grisly moment sums up the perfect illogic of the Nightmare series. As much as victims protest that their dreams are “not real,” Freddy embodies a grim ideality. In his world, he can appear anywhere, without regard for space and time, forcing victims to see and experience what they fear most. As ever, the kids learn, “If you die in your dream, you die in real life.” As in the 1984 film, this fate is unfair, as the kids are paying for their parents’ crime, the fiery, skin-melting murder of Freddy way back when, the murder he means to avenge again and again. Also as before, the kids have to figure out Freddy’s story, in order to gain control of their own.
Or, more precisely, Nancy (Rooney Mara) has to figure it out. The contest between the single-minded monster and the smart girl is a plot fixture in slasher movies, one that Craven’s movie helped to put in place. Nancy this time is not just a high school student, but also a worker (she’s a waitress at that diner where Dean dies) and a loner who, as she puts it “doesn’t fit in.” With the help of an almost-boyfriend, Quentin (Kyle Gallner), Nancy discovers how Freddy came to be so illogical and how her mother Gwen (Connie Britton) contributed to that mess, by making her daughter’s memories “repressed.”
Of course Gwen’s efforts are doomed to fail (it’s an obvious question, but you have to wonder why she keeps photos of events she wants to hide from Nancy). But her very purposefulness is unnerving (and perhaps less forgivable than Ronee Blakley’s alcoholic haze), as is her refusal to believe or help Nancy once the girl discovers at least one version of the truth (the film offers several, all of them indicting Gwen and the other Elm Street parents). When Gwen sneaks off to phone another guilty parent with bad news (“Nancy’s starting to remember”), she just looks like a terrible mom, unsympathetic and deserving of a very bad fate of her own.
In the face of such poor parenting, Nancy and Quentin try to save themselves. They investigate online and with actual books, piled up on a table at the local bookshop. They find scary pictures (predictably, Goya’s “Sleep of Reason”) as well as some extra-bonus stay-awake aids (Quentin knows something about ADD meds and adrenalin shots, in addition to the more pedestrian Red Bull and coffee). Their intermittent use of cell phones isn’t exactly logical (though they seem the ideal dream-warriors’ tool, pocket-sized alarm clocks and signaling systems), but understandable (Freddy has to have jurisdiction in their dreams, at least until he doesn’t).
It’s not surprising that Samuel Bayer’s movie cherry-picks images and ideas from Craven’s. It offers up iconic moments—Freddy’s head pushing through the wallpaper over Nancy’s bed or his knifey fingers waving at her crotch in the bathtub—but reconfigures them slightly. So, though Nancy isn’t dragged underwater and called on to struggle mightily against drowning, Quentin is, in a completely other scene. Quentin’s scene doesn’t make much sense (why is he on the swim team and why is he even trying to swim when he hasn’t slept for three days?), but it delivers the film’s clumsy explication for Freddy’s eternal rage. Doesn’t everyone already know this? Why are we watching a pre-burn-make-up Freddy sprint away from a pack of parents and really, why are we pretending any of these parents has even a moment of self-reflection before fully committing to the deed?
The not-very new Nightmare flails like this repeatedly. It’s indebted to the illogic of dreams (as Freddy’s bailiwick), but determinedly dumb about using it. It reaches for references that might have been topical years ago (a classroom full of children telling horror-sex stories their parents might or might not believe), but unable to churn them into plotty intrigue. The end is probably inevitable but not convincing. It gives illogic a bad name.