Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

Director: Samuel Bayer
Starring: Jackie Earle Haley, Rooney Mara, Kyle Gallner, Katie Cassidy, Thomas Dekker, Kellan Lutz, Connie Britton, Clancy Brown
Running Time: 95 min.
Rating: R

★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

On the horror remake offensiveness scale, A Nightmare on Elm Street would probably fall somewhere in the middle, ranking below A Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween and Psycho but slightly above Friday the 13th in terms of how many fans a reboot will upset. While the 1984 original was an entertaining, well-made 80's slasher with an unusually original premise for its time, it wasn't scary and with each progressing sequel Freddy Krueger, much like Jason, became less an icon and more a parody. That seems to be reoccurring problem in the horror genre as these franchises continue long past their expiration date, losing all creative steam while the studios beat a dead horse trying to wring every last cent out of them. Saw is the latest victim, and though its seventh installment is being touted as the last, you can bet it'll eventually be back in some form or another. These movies always come back, and that's not necessarily such a bad thing since many love them with a passion so in that sense reviving a long-dormant franchise like Nightmare isn't the worst idea there is. Sure, it's a shameless cash grab, but at least there's a need for creative resuscitation here, unlike the recent remake of that same year's The Karate Kid, which raped a classic story solely for profit. Hardcore horror fans may feel the same way about this but they should at least be grateful the kids aren't pre-teens, it's rated "R," and there's a concerted effort to return the series to its darker, more serious roots. Unfortunately, for all the arguments you can come up with for this remake being somehow defensible, the filmmakers have gone out their way to make it FEEL as pointless and disposable as possible. The same problems that have plagued all the other Platinum Dunes-produced horror remakes like Chainsaw, Friday The 13th, The Amityville Horror and The Hitcher are again on display to a lesser extent, but this does have three big things going for it: A great concept and two very talented actors. The results are decidedly mixed, but better than expected. In the end though, it still doesn't work mainly because these horror remakes are all starting to feel and look the same, adding nothing to what was already there and ineffectively re-executing everything that was done well enough the first time around.

Much of the original story remains intact (save for a few changes) which is a good thing because this is one of the rare slashers powered by a concept so strong that even the 1984 film and its inferior sequels couldn't fully capitalize on it. In a small American suburb, high schoolers Nancy (Rooney Mara), Quentin (Kyle Gallner), Jess (Thomas Dekker), Kris (Katie Cassidy) and Dean (Kellan Lutz) are all having nightmarish visions featuring a severely burned man in a red and green striped sweater and a glove equipped with sharp knives. He attacks only in their dreams and if he kills them there, they die in real life. The key is to stay awake (whether that be with the aid of stimulants or just sheer force of will) so that doesn't happen but Freddy slices through the teens until only Nancy and Quentin are left to discover the truth of everyone's shared past with this man and attempt to defeat him for good. One of the more positive changes the updated script provides is the introduction of the idea of "micro-naps" in which the potential victims fall asleep for 10 or 15 minutes, making it even harder for them (and us as the viewer) to distinguish between what's real or not, which ups the suspense level considerably. There isn't anyone who hasn't dozed off for a few brief minutes or felt so tired that they haven't a clue where they are making so it's a clever twist on a familiar idea.

Giving us as much back story on school caretaker and accused child molester Fred Krueger as possible (even going so far as to come up with with an origin story for his sweater) isn't necessarily a bad idea in theory since he isn't one of those horror villains where the more you know or see of him, the less scary he becomes. He simply isn't scary at all to begin with so no harm done there. But you do have to question the logic of showing and spelling out information what was subtly, but effectively implied in the original films. This can't either but it makes little sense attempting to recreate key scenes, moments and plot points from the original, only with cutting edge computer generated effects. Re-tracing the original film's steps beat for beat but with higher production value is a silly idea that only helps make this feel like the latest inferior sequel in the franchise. This is a problem similar to the one marring the final act of Rob Zombie's 2007 Halloween remake, in which he attempted to faithfully reconstruct and jam John Carpenter's original film into the last third of his, but with more overt brutality. It's almost as if all these filmmakers want to have their cake and eat it too by teasing a new direction only to fall back on recreating scenes from the original (in some cases rather poorly) as some kind of misguided tribute or an attempt to throw a bone at hardcore fans. Last year, Zombie rebounded strongly with the gutsy, unrelenting Halloween II when he strayed as far as possible from the source material, finally breaking free from the genre conventions holding these remakes back. That's a template this could have followed in place of the typical sequel/reboot mish-mash route that was chosen instead. It's also interchangeable with a lot of other recent horror remakes with its slick music video style approach to the material, which diminishes the sense of dread and urgency in favor of making everything look dirty, but high budget dirty.  In other words, it's too polished. Maybe not coincidentally, this was directed by Samuel Bayer, who's first ever directing gig was Nirvana's classic 1991 "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video. Say what you want about Zombie's efforts but at least he captured the visual feel of trashy, low budget midnight drive-in movies.

The biggest hurdle cleared is the casting of Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy Krueger, who steps into the role made famous by Robert Englund after online fans pushed to have him cast. They were right on target, and as much as this will upset loyalists, he's no worse at it than his predecessor. Not necessarily better mind you, but different in a way that's appropriate for the liberties taken with the source material. Whether that more realistic approach (facially looking very much like an actual burn victim) is the right one considering this is supposed to be a horror/fantasy character may be up for debate, but Haley's the right guy for the job considering Freddy is supposed to be more frightening than entertaining. His small stature is a minor issue (he's nowhere near the physical presence Englund was) and there aren't as many clever one-liners for him to deliver, but that's not what's really called for here anyway. Unfortunately the character he's given isn't all that interesting and the flashback backstory, despite playing to all of his strengths as an actor, isn't really developed enough since doing that would mean the writers would have to stray from the predictable horror rules suffocating the picture.

My (and seemingly everyone else's) new favorite actress of the moment, Rooney Mara, gives us a Nancy that's a far cry from Heather Langenkamp's appropriately superficial incarnation over 25 years ago. Sullen, morose, and shy, she's the most withdrawn female protagonist we've seen in a horror movie in some time and pensively looks and acts like she's suffered some great tragedy, maybe one outside of what's actually happening in this story. And whatever that tragedy is I can practically guarantee you it would have made for a better movie than we got here. As an actress, Mara has this interesting look and expression to her face that's inscrutably intelligent, making you think she knows something you don't and if you stare long enough you might be able to figure out what. It was evident in just her few sensational, Oscar-worthy scenes in The Social Network and it's only a little bit of a surprise that the quiet intensity that made her performance there so memorable carry over into this. It's unlikely any studio decision makers completely knew at the time of her casting just how much they got or what would happen with her career so it's unfortunate that she's contractually locked (as is Haley) into appearing in a sequel should it occur. And judging from the final scene, it's a safe bet it will. That this doesn't seem like the worst news in the world for her (at least no worse than Robert Downey Jr. spending the rest of his career in Iron Man purgatory) is a credit to how much she brings to a project that doesn't deserve her talents. Until she takes over the film, Katie Cassidy does a surprisingly credible job early on with a one-note scream queen character and Kyle Gallner seems right at home as the weirdo, emo co-lead opposite Mara. Friday Night Lights' Connie Britton and gifted character actor Clancy Brown are wasted in the obligatory adult roles, as is too often the case in these types of films.

Sadly, the acting all-around is actually better than the original and it doesn't seem to help one bit since no one could decide whether they wanted to make a slasher with cheesy acting faithful to the original or an updated version that takes itself seriously. The result ends up being a fake cheesy slasher taking itself too seriously and I'm wondering if removing some of the goofier horror elements and playing it as a straight psychological drama would have been wiser. With a premise this strong and the acting clearly there to support it, a gripping story could have been constructed centering on dreams and reality as these teens come to grips with a buried childhood tragedy. NOES 2010 feels like it should have ambition beyond just covering the original and if a more realistic approach was the game plan they should have had the guts to go all the way with it since there was real potential to do something interesting here. This near-miss exposes the biggest problem with remakes in that there's always a cause to worry that studios will continue to casually resurrect a beloved title or franchise without seriously considering how.

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