Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010): Silly dream

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) • View trailer for A Nightmare on Elm Street
Two stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, gore, profanity and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.6.10
Buy DVD: A Nightmare on Elm Street • Buy Blu-Ray: A Nightmare on Elm Street [Blu-ray]

Director F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent classic, Nosferatu, frightened the wits out of post-WWI viewers and made a star of icky vampire Max Schreck, in a film that ripped off Bram Stoker's Dracula by changing the relevant names, in an effort to avoid paying the author.

Half a generation later, director Tod Browning made Bela Lugosi a star in 1931's legitimate adaptation of Dracula, a hit that spawned a series of undead sequels.
Running on adrenaline and an ill-advised cocktail of caffeine and uppers in
order to stay awake, Nancy (Rooney Mara) and Quentin (Kyle Gallner) stumble
upon the dread Freddy Krueger's secret lair, where they learn the worst about
the entity terrorizing their nightmares.

Roughly a generation after they subsided, Britain's Hammer Films and star Christopher Lee injected fresh blood  and plenty of sensuality  into the mix, and trigged a new series with 1958's Horror of Dracula. A generation after that, Frank Langella became a swooningly erotic blood-sucker in 1979's Dracula.

And so on, and so on, up to more recent genre hits such as TV's Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and the big-screen Twilight series.

Point being, every new generation wants its own version of iconic monsters, starring brand-name talent of the moment. Bearing that in mind, perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised by the arrival of a re-booted Nightmare on Elm Street, with a well-cast Jackie Earle Haley filling the razor-bladed glove that Robert Englund wielded so well, in so many earlier films.

Except ... Englund's huge shadow is part of this remake's problem.

OK, yes, director Wes Craven's original Nightmare is a quarter-century old at this point, having been released in 1984. (That film had juice, by the way, and still does. It also had Johnny Depp.) But it was followed by umpety sequels  the most recent being 2003's Freddy vs. Jason  and two TV series (1984 and 2005). Englund's Freddy Krueger never really left us, which makes director Samuel Bayer's current retread ... totally irrelevant.

And pointless.

And oddly bloodless, given the franchise's history.

The latter element clearly disappointed last week's Sacramento preview audience, particularly the gore-hounds apparently hoping for something more along the lines of the torture-porn Saw franchise.

In fairness, though, Freddy Krueger never focused on evisceration for its own sake; his most memorable killings, in the stronger films in Englund's series, took full imaginative advantage of the eerie illogic of a given victim's dream world.

And that, perhaps, is this new film's biggest failing: It lacks imagination and quickly devolves into a ho-hum slasher flick.

Bayer, a director of music videos and TV commercials making an ill-advised big-screen debut, hasn't the faintest idea how to generate tension. He also can't coax anything approaching a credible performance from most of his no-name cast members, all of whom look quite long in the tooth to be playing high school students.

The one credible exception is Rooney Mara, who brings some reasonable acting chops to her handling of Nancy, very quickly identified as our "heroine of choice" in Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer's laughably sloppy script. Mara ensures that Nancy deserves our respect, and the capable actress is responsible for the limited dramatic heft that this picture generates.

The basic set-up, for first-timers: Teens Nancy, Quentin (Kyle Gallner, well remembered from TV's Veronica Mars), Kris (Katie Cassidy), Jesse (Thomas Dekker) and Dean (Kellan Lutz) all live on Elm Street. Of late, they've all been having the same very frightening dream, involving a dark, basement-type building and a shadowy, fedora-clad figure with a disfigured face and razor-bladed fingers.

The first kid checks out before we're aware of what's happening; the second follows quickly thereafter. The remaining three realize that something is pursuing them in their dreams, and that if it kills them while they're asleep, they'll die in real life.

Quite, quite horribly.

Logical problems erupt almost too quickly to tabulate.

To an outside observer, a victim experiences real-world carnage: a body being thrown about a room, blood erupting from multiple slash wounds that appear from nowhere. In one case, this ghastly violence is caught on video camera, under circumstances that are being viewed  and would have been re-viewed  by many, many other people.

People In Authority.

And yet nobody ever seems to think anything's the slightest bit unusual about the gory ways these kids keep dying.

Horror films have a habit of beating the "Why won't you believe me?" protest to death, but in this case it's just plain stupid.

On a more specific level, we eventually learn that the parents of the five teens in question took vigilante justice into their own hands years earlier, after learning that the gardener (Krueger) at a local daycare center, which all their young children attended, was abusing them. The various moms and dads  the only ones granted identities are played by the disposable Clancy Brown and Connie Britton  chased Krueger into a warehouse, set it on fire and burned him to death.

And then moved to different parts of town, swearing to never mention anything about Krueger again, particularly not to their kids.

Doesn't it strike you as rather odd, then, as these same five kids  now teens  start dying under mysterious and horrible circumstances, that their respective parents never even consider the long-ago connection to Krueger? And never think to confess all and warn the remaining and clearly terrified kids, if only to help protect them?

These folks aren't likely to win Parent of the Year awards any time soon.

And, finally, why now? Why this week? Why not when Nancy and the others were 8, 10, 12 or 15?

More than anything else, though, this particular franchise always has suffered from the rather uneasy implications of its premise. Strick and Heisserer's script attempts to have it both ways: Maybe Krueger was unjustly accused ... whoops, no, he definitely was guilty as charged. Which creates a problem.

Englund's Krueger turned into something of a pop-culture hero: definitely the go-to guy in his own film series (which perhaps explained why his teen victims became less and less consequential, over time, on the thespic talent meter). The 1984 film's many sequels kinda-sorta tried to overlook the fact that this guy molested little children.

This new film, as well, has an unpalatable "Chester the Molester" atmosphere about it, most notably during an ill-advised bathtub scene, played for laughs, when Nancy briefly falls asleep and Krueger's razor-gloved hand pops up in the water between her legs, which are splayed out in the position one would expect during a gynecological exam.

The scene is ... creepy. And not in an unsettling, horror-movie vibe.

("Chester the Molester," for the uninitiated  and I hope that's most of you  was an ongoing cartoon strip published in Hustler magazine, which depicted the "saucy" adventures of a guy who wanted to molest pre-pubescent girls. The strip's creator, Dwaine B. Tinsley, was convicted of raping his 13-year-old daughter; he served 23 months of a six-year sentence ... and continued to produce his comic strip while in prison.

(Tinsley died in 2000, and his conviction later was overturned, his now-adult, cocaine-addicted daughter eventually proven to have been less than a reliable witness. We leave the question of justice delivered or denied to other, wiser heads.)

Children  and adults  back in the day found their monsters in supernatural creatures of myth and legend: vampires, the Golem, the Wolf Man, Greek snake-tressed gorgons. I find it interesting that the horror-franchise creations that resonate today are, instead, lifted from newspaper headlines: serial killers (Jason, of Halloween fame) and child molesters (Freddy Krueger).

Vampires, alternatively, have become metaphors for disenfranchised minorities (the Twilight and True Blood books).

What, I wonder, does that say about us culturally, at this point in the road?

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