Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Nightmare On Elm Street 2010

Let's be obvious right out of the gate: no Freddy Krueger movie is ever going to be anything like the original movie that shot life into a bored horror market and created a mythos and boogeyman that became a part of pop culture. It doesn't happen often and it certainly doesn't happen AGAIN.

In doing a remake of "Nightmare" instead of making another sequel, the filmmakers for this movie have added an insurmountable weight to their movie. We can forgive another Freddy movie for its excesses, for its banality, for it's lack of originality, but when you say you're going to retell Craven's story, then you're telling people to compare it and you're saying that you are telling THAT story and, in some ways, you're telling people you're going to tell it better.

Which is never going to happen. And which doesn't happen.

This isn't a terrible "Nightmare on Elm Street" movie and I can admire the notion of wanting to strip away a lot of the baggage and continuity that had been added to the basic concept over the years. Yes, absolutely, get Freddy back down to the core concept: Freddy haunting the children of the parents who burned him to death when he was alive. That concept is so simple, so is the concept of kids dying in their nightmares.

Simplifying the concept is good but I can't say the remake is able to deliver the basic horrors of the movie it's trying to remake. It's partially impossible, of course, you can't surprise people twice. As all these sequels of all these movies have shown. What is surprising once is an expectation the second time and while you can creep people out over and over, you can't recreate that feeling of people going to a movie and not really knowing what to expect, finding themselves nailed to the wall by a truly terrifying movie. "Halloween" did that; "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" did that and "A Nightmare On Elm Street" did that.

So in remaking "Nightmare" the filmmakers found themselves with an impossible task and it feels like a movie where they felt recreating moments from the original, with a new twist, was the way to go. I can't say any of the recreated scenes added much this time around. You can NOT recreate the sheer terror of Tina's bloody and violent death in the revolving room from the original. The same scene here is quick and ultimately not frightening. It works only to churn the story forward and as a wink to fans there to see the same scene. The bath tub scene is there, the scene where Freddy comes through the wall is there, but it doesn't have any weight.

The original builds to the first death, creating that tension but being patient enough to pay it off. This movie, like all horror movies these days, has to have a kill in the prologue which evaporates that fear of when it's going to hit the fan that great horror movies that slowly burn are able to do.

I do like the sense in this movie that the kids work together to start putting things together. That IS an underdeveloped notion in the first movie -- they're all dreaming about the same boogeyman and that would be more than weird. It would be terrifying, especially when the first character dies.

Since this movie is more about Freddy Krueger (he does get top billing after all,) his origin is more thickly explored in this movie. In the cut footage from the first movie there's a line when Marge tells Nancy the story of Freddy where she says all the kids in the story had older brothers and sisters who died at Freddy's hands. I don't think it added much to the story. In this movie they take it a bit further ... they make Freddy a child molester, rather than a child killer, and make the kids in this movie those victims all grown up. I can't say much of it works. Yes, it's much creepier to make Freddy a child molester. It's much nastier. But if the parents worked as hard as they did to keep the memories of their children repressed, I can't see why it works that they all basically stayed in the same community and let the kids come back together later.

I do like that at first Nancy's mother is content to tell the story of the molestation as the reason for the joint nightmares -- and she leaves out the fact that the parents killed Freddy, but we know she's lying, which is cool. But the movie doesn't follow up with a strong enough reason to reveal the parents were the ones who killed Freddy. He just reveals it to Quentin, one of the boys, but it doesn't add much more than was already there. And besides, we already knew they killed him, it was in the trailer for Pete's sake, don't try to surprise people with stuff everyone already knows.

Speaking of that tweaked origin, I hate the idea that the parents weren't trying to kill Freddy, that they were just trying to smoke him out of his hiding place but the fire got out of control. To me, "Nightmare" is a story about one evil creating another creating another and to give the parents an out took away from a lot of the power of Freddy's origin. The parents created him and their children, the ones they were trying to protect, became the ones who paid for their crimes. That's a little bit lost here.

Jesus, this is running long ...

It's a nearly impossible task to make victims in horror movies into good characters. It's a lot of luck and the one thing that separates the good horror movies from the bad is the ability from the filmmakers to generate legitmate interest and sympathy in the protagonists. No one goes to a "Friday the 13th" movie caring who lives and who dies. It's a fine line -- if you spend time developing lame characters, the movie's going to be boring but if you don't develop them, there's no tension. The original works because it has four different, charismatic performers playing characters that are smart enough that we think they might survive. Sure, one of those performers has the advantage of being Johnny Depp. Part of that is Wes Craven's masterful move of setting up the Tina character played by Amanda Wyss as the protagonist, only to have her be the first killed (a trick he would play more obviously in the infamous first scene in "Scream.")

The main character in "Nightmare" is Nancy, the girl strong enough to learn Freddy's game and then beat him at it. In the original she traps Freddy, tricks HIM into making himself vulnerable and then drives him off. This movie doesn't quite have that same dynamic. Nancy's there in name and nothing against the actress but she's given a character who starts off mousey, who is made into a molestation victim instead of being made into a powerful heroine. In the original, Nancy VOWS to take Freddy out when he ruins her life and she goes after him. In this, she wants to take Freddy out and tries to get him but at that moment of climax, really wants her boyfriend to be there to finish Freddy off. It's not quite as empowering.

Katie Cassidy, an actress I like from the generally forgettable "Black Christmas" remake, plays the Tina role. In the original we see Tina as a pretty girl with a bad boy girlfriend and a fairly trashy mom. In this, Kris (as she's now dubbed) has a REALLY nice life (apparently her mother is the wealthiest flight attendant in the world given how well they seem to be living) but isn't given much to do, other than die. They keep the basic idea that she dies in a room alone with her boyfriend who is then blamed for the crime. In the original, Amanda Wyss seemed like a pretty normal girl who has friends over because she's afraid of her dreams. But Kris KNOWS something else is going on but doesn't seem to do much or talk about it much. In fact, when Nancy says she does know what's going on, it's not followed up on at all by Kris. Her boyfriend, after Kris's death is the one who confronts Nancy about it. Kris in this movie is TERRIFIED of her dreams and knows she might die in them ... but then just sort of goes to sleep alone when her mother goes away without even inviting a friend over.

This flick also tries to give the parents a little more time. This is also stuff Craven filmed but ultimately cut from his original movie. As I mentioned, I liked the notion that the parents would explain to the kids that Freddy was a molester as an explanation for the group nightmares, for them knowing who he is and for his name being something they don't want discussed. But even using very credible performers in Connie Britton and Clancy Brown, the material doesn't give them the strength they need to be convincing as two people who saw a monster and fought it, although in a far more real. But, again, cutting the parents discussing what happened gave Craven the time to put the emphasis on his heroine, rather than on the backstory that was handled in that one simple monologue in the basement of the Thompson house.

And that leaves us Freddy Krueger. An icon when played by Robert Englund, he is replaced by most people's choice to play the role: Jackie Earl Haley. The filmmakers stripped away the cartoonisness that had overwhelmed the character and gotten him back down to his creepy roots. Haley's fine in the role, really he's only hampered by the filmmakers' insistence on shooting cliched horror scares, lots of jumps and loud clangs of musical score, instead of letting it feel like Freddy is setting traps and playing with his food once he knows it's caught. Haley is certainly creepy but he still only deals in quick bursts of dialogue and the make-up seems very stiff, to the point that he can't show any expression on his burned face. Freddy as played by Englund was a vibrant character, as played by Haley he's almost too subdued and stiff. A noble intent to make Freddy more frightening but a middle ground feels lost.

Horror movies today are in a bit of a lull but everything's shot about the same way. Most great horror movies were made by young, hungry directors trying to make a movie under generally adverse conditions. While the director of "A Nightmare on Elm Street" is fairly unknown, there's no sense of creative adventure in this movie. There's obviously enough money, the effects are obviously slick and everything seems prceisely thought out and planned. But that gut primal horror is lost. The original is at times a sloppy movie, not everything works perfectly, there are moments of inconsistency in the performances as well as the mythos -- it's anything but slick. But the high points are so terrifying and Craven has such a strong idea and such a strong eye for talent that it works. This ends up feeling very corporate and very dry. It doesn't have much build because instead of not knowing what's going to happen next, we're pretty sure what's going to happen next and the additions to the story don't make it better or make it more unpredictable, it's just a different bit of exposition.

I'm all for continuing "Nightmare on Elm Street" stories. This remake of the original will never hold a candle to the classic it's trying to retell. This same movie as another Freddy movie -- with a new group of kids simply trying to get to the bottom of the mystery of Freddy Krueger, would have played well. But in trying to say they were retelling that iconic, original story, the filmmakers put themselves in a hole they could never escape.

They made a decent Freddy movie, but are trying to say it's the classic story.

There's only one "A Nightmare On Elm Street."

There are, however, a lot of sequels. And this movie is a decent one of those.