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Column Fri Apr 30 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Hey everyone. Somehow, mostly through no fault of my own other than a continuingly excessive travel schedule, I have managed to miss a great deal of the smaller films opening this weekend, including a couple I'm hearing are quite good, including the Chess Records biopic Who Do You Love (opening at the Landmark Century Center Cinema) and the intense Australian film-noirish work The Square (which opens at the Music Box). I was also excited to see at Facets Cinemateque the new surreal sci-fi work The Scientist, which I've heard is quite cool. And let's not forget, also opening the Landmark, is the latest work from Michael Caine, Harry Brown, and The Cartel, a doc about school teachers struggling to find alternative methods to make sure kids learn, even if those ways directly contradict the way the school boards insist that they teach.

The one thing I did manage to get to that opens this week is this little gem. Hopefully I'll improve my track record and get to a few more screenings. In the meantime, enjoy...

A Nightmare On Elm Street

I had high hopes, I'll admit that. And I had these high hopes long before I took a visit to the set of this latest horror franchise relaunch from the Platinum Dunes production team (Texas Chainsaw Massacre; Friday the 13th). The cast of young and older actors seems solid, and, in some cases, inspired. To get Jackie Earl Haley to play one of the screen's legendary forces of evil was a master stroke, and any issue I had with the Platinum Dunes' take on A Nightmare on Elm Street has almost nothing to do with casting. Okay, that's not entirely true. This version of Freddy Krueger (played by the great Jackie Earl Haley, Watchmen's Rorschach) is short, thin, and moves like an angry jackal through his nightmare world. But I never found him truly menacing or terrifying. Still, Freddy almost can't help but be an interesting character, and the dissection of the Krueger myth by screenwriters Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer is solid stuff here.

But as for the other characters, they are simply there to be victims, albeit a different kind of victim than we're used to seeing in traditional horror films of late. With the exception of Twilight's Kellan Lutz and "Melrose Place's" Katie Cassidy, few of the victims are what you would classify as strikingly attractive. And even if they were when the film begins, they have lost their looks thanks to lack of sleep by about the film's halfway point. These kids are the outcasts in high school. They don't have a lot of friends, and apparently they all have the ability to suppress memories of a common time in their lives that they all shared a dozen or so years ago.

While I'll certainly give points to the writers for stringing together a story that combines well-known Freddy canon with a few nice touches to make Krueger that much more skeevy, I felt this Elm Street lacked any real suspense or even mystery. And in a film that is relying so heavily on solving the riddle of why Freddy has targeted these specific kids in his atmospheric world, director Samuel Bayer (a long-time music video director whose work I've admired for years) failed to deliver on any real level of tension. What I found more interesting is that the audience I saw the film with barely screamed at what were clearly supposed to be "the scary parts."

Perhaps the film's biggest issue lies with the lead character Nancy (Rooney Mara from Youth in Revolt), a gloomy, Gothy girl whose art work reveals a dark and disturbed condition. I tried very hard not to compare the new film with the original, but I really missed girl-next-door Nancy, who is driven to dark places during the course of her encounters with Freddy. Here, Nancy starts out that way, so the transformation is much less noticeable and her personality much less interesting. Faring slightly better (probably because he's a better actor) is Kyle Gallner's Quentin (it's not really fair or accurate to say that he's taking over the Johnny Depp role from the original). Quentin is the like-minded friend of Nancy's who clearly has a crush on her that he's attempted to move on over the years without success. I'd almost believe that his emo-boy persona was a result of trying to appeal to Nancy over the years by being more like her. Quentin is the best-drawn character in this film outside of Freddy, and Gallner makes it work by staying focused on the task at hand, while protecting Nancy in the process. There's a great scene with him at a pharmacy that was once of the few moments of tension in the film.

I guess I was hoping for something more creative out of director Bayer. Instead what we get is a repetition of false deaths via the dream world, music punctuating scary moments, and a squadron of parents acting like idiots who don't even notice or care that their kids are getting ripped to shreds by something they set in motion. Not that the adults have cornered the market on acting dumb. There's a moment in Elm Street where Nancy and Quentin find a photo of a group of nursery school kids. I don't want to give anything away, but simply showing this photo to an adult, especially after discovering what these kids have in common and their connection to a string of recent deaths, might have made this a very different and far more believable movie.

So let's talk about Jackie Earl Haley as Freddy 2.0. He's too good an actor not to add some much-needed depth to the proceedings. Although I tend to loathe when Platinum Dunes insists of giving these long-established horror icons backstories that weren't there in the originals (Does anyone really care why Leatherface is wearing a tie?), since at least a portion of Freddy's rebirth is part of the Elm Street canon, it's actually kind of cool to see Haley out of makeup and giving life to pre-burn Krueger, who was actually a sweet, middle-aged gardener at the pre-school. Don't see any problems there, nope! This film's Freddy Krueger is a bit more devious and evil, but I'm not sure that makes him any scarier than Robert Englund. And to be honest, I'm a sucker for actually, well-rounded characters. If you're going to remake a classic horror film (or any film), find ways to improve upon the original and not just copy of make random changes. One of the ways to do that is to improve the characters slightly, make us care whether these kids live or die. Doesn't happen here. Bottom line is that I like what has been added to the Freddy lore. They actually leave open the door that Freddy might have been the victim in this scenario. Walk in if you want, dummy.

I didn't miss the jokes of Englund's Freddy, and I appreciated the elevated, graphic nature of the violence. I also really liked Freddy's new face, smoothed-over melted skin, the result of intense burns--a meaty, chunk missing from his left cheek to reveal pulsating veins and tendons. If you can, take the time to really stare of this work. There's this great, perhaps better-than-ever version of Freddy at the heart of a very average story, among some decidedly subpar characters. Freddy was one of the only major horror villains in recent decades that we rooted for to get along to the killin'. There's some of that here, but I think the filmmakers wanted us to care more about his intended victims, and that just isn't happening. That said, this is Platinum Dunes best effort in the remake realm, and I actually think that if they continue making Elm Street films, the next will likely be better. I'm actually pushing for that to happen. But this Nightmare didn't disturb, shock, or excite me.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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