Monday, May 3, 2010

Movie Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street

A Nightmare on Elm Street **
Directed by:
Samuel Bayer
Written By: Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer based on the characters created by Wes Craven.
Starring: Jackie Earle Haley (Freddy Krueger), Kyle Gallner (Quentin O'Grady), Rooney Mara (Nancy Holbrook), Katie Cassidy (Kris Fowles), Thomas Dekker (Jesse Braun), Kellan Lutz (Dean Russell), Clancy Brown (Alan Smith), Connie Britton (Dr. Gwen Holbrook).

The idea behind A Nightmare on Elm Street is so simple, yet so terrifying, that there is a reason why the original still haunts and scares so many people. Unlike most of the slasher movies of the 1980s, A Nightmare on Elm Street was not about so hulking, faceless monster you just kept coming. Rather it was about a killer who got to you in the one place you can never escape – your sleep. You couldn’t outrun him, move away or chop off his head, because he existed only in your dreams, where there are no rules. Everyone sleeps, and no matter where or when you fell asleep, Freddy was right there. The original worked because Wes Craven took this idea, and crafted an incredibly scary movie out of it – creating characters that we liked that were more than just fodder for the killer to hack up in creative ways, but real people. In Freddy Krueger, he created one of the all time great horror movie villains, a sadistically funny madman with burns covering his face, a weird sweater and a fedora. Robert Englund ripped into the role with a glee that made him memorable, and the movie a success. Over the last 26 years, and countless sequels, Krueger has devolved from a murderer with a sadistic sense of humor, into a cackling clown who kills people – and there is a difference. So when they decided to reboot the franchise, they wisely decided to recast Krueger, rather than give the role back to Englund, who through no fault of his own had become stale in the role. Jackie Earle Haley does an admirable job as Freddy in this remake – it’s everything around him that doesn’t work.

The new movie pretty much follows the formula of the original. A group of high school kids start dreaming of a strange, burned man named Freddy. As the teens start dying one by one in their sleep, the remaining kids (in this case Nancy played by Rooney Mara and Quentin played by Kyle Gallner) try and find out the truth about what happened in their past, as their parents are being evasive about it, and they are starting to remember dark secrets. They hope if they can unravel the mystery, they can save themselves from Freddy.

The main problem with this new version of the movie is the writing. The teens being terrorized by Freddy are cookie cutter characters without any depth or emotion to them. I remember been drawn in by the performances of Heather Langenkamp and Johnny Depp in the original – they were not just lambs being lined up for the slaughter, but real people you were rooting for. If you root for these new versions at all, it’s simply because of human nature – you never really want to see someone get hacked up.

For his part, Jackie Earle Haley does as good of a job playing Freddy Krueger as I think is possible under these circumstances. The filmmakers wisely keep him in the shadows in the opening acts of the movie, making him an evil presence – all sadistic laugh, and fingers made out of knives, which he uses to great effect either by rubbing them together, or running them along the metal walls of his nightmare world. When the filmmakers do concentrate on him more in the final act, he becomes a little less menacing, and there are moments when he seems to be on the edge of going overboard into comedy, like in many of the later Nightmare movies, but he never quite does. No, this is not the iconic performance that Englund gave, but it’s a damn fine one.

The film is directed by Samuel Bayer, making his feature debut after spending years directing music videos. He doesn’t have the style, wit or imagination behind the camera that Craven has, but he knows how to craft a horror movie. Given that the screenplay is full of those “boo!” moments where people come out from behind something to scare the characters and the audience, he handles them well – as he does with the killings themselves, which are bloody, but never cross the line into torture porn like so many recent horror movies do. His film is also, it must be said, a marvel of production design, creating intricate, scary places for everything to occur – whether that’s Freddy lair, or the sterile, bright environment of a hospital. If you gave Bayer a better script, he’d probably make a better movie.

So where does this new A Nightmare on Elm Street fall in terms of the rash of remakes of classic horror films from the 1970s and 1980s fall in? Somewhere in the middle I would say. It is certainly more effective than the new Friday the 13th, but not as good as The Hills Have Eyes, Dawn of the Dead, Last House on the Left, or either of Rob Zombie’s Halloween films. It is roughly equivalent of the new The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. For fans of Freddy, I’m sure they will rejoice that their favorite killer is back, terrorizing an entirely new generation of kids. I just wish the filmmakers had had a little more imagination when making the film.

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