Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Back to the Boiler Room in ‘Nightmare’

Remakes: The much-abhorred pariahs of the current cinematic landscape, a trend that won’t seem to die despite scathing critical and fan reception. But, if opening weekend box office receipts for the reboot of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET franchise are any indication, it’s a trend that’s here to stay – for awhile, at least.

I think I’ve been quite even-tempered about horror remakes, neither overly extolling their virtue nor proclaiming them to be the end of the world. That said, they’re starting to wear on my nerves a bit. The ones that work are the ones that take on lesser-known films or those that were so poorly made to begin with that the only way is up. Conversely, those that don’t work well are the ones that attempt to take on films that were pretty damn good to begin with. Some are a direct hit-or-miss for me. Rob Zombie’s reimagining of HALLOWEEN – hit; reboot of FRIDAY THE 13TH – miss. Three-dimensional slasher fun of MY BLOODY VALENTINE – hit; SyFy Channel remake of CHILDREN OF THE CORN – colossal, embarrassing miss. Inbred depravity of THE HILLS HAVE EYES – hit; teenage depravity of PROM NIGHT – miss. And until Hollywood takes heed and starts choosing films thatcould actually benefit from a second pass (See The Five Slasher Remakes You Meet in Heaven for my own inspired suggestions), I suspect there will be more misses than hits in the foreseeable future. Still, there are other remakes that fall somewhere in between for me – BLACK CHRISTMAS, SORORITY ROW, THE HITCHER, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, THE STEPFATHER, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. Neither hit nor miss, these remakes found a way to playfully toy with their source material just enough for me to find some redemptive value despite their other more obvious shortcomings.

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET will fall squarely into this latter category, leaning slightly more toward a bona fide misfire (due mainly to the original film’s iconic standing in horror film history) but possessing a few saving-grace elements of a hit. Based faithfully on Wes Craven’s groundbreaking film of the same name from 1984, this newfangled NIGHTMARE finds equally celebrated Freddy Krueger – spectral child killer extraordinaire – once again dream-stalking the children of a group of vigilante parents who killed him. Again, the parents (BLUE STEEL’S Clancy Brown, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS’ Connie Britton) remain secretive while the teenagers attempt to stay awake at all costs, with Freddy methodically hunting each of the Elm Street children in dreams that take them back to a pre-school where he molested them years before.

Although the boiler room, red- and green-striped sweater, and the legendary blade-tipped glove are all back and on full display, director Samuel Bray brings little, if anything, new or innovative to the proceedings. The film is competently shot and visually slick, but there’s just a dreamy feeling of going-through-the-motions throughout that makes this one a bit of a snoozefest. One of the more fascinating aspects of any remake for me is the filmmakers’ choices of what stays and what goes. Here, screenwriters Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer (who genre fans will undoubtedly soon hate for his work on the upcoming remake of John Carpenter’s THE THING remake) opt to keep the victim pool relatively small as in Craven’s original, with several of the more infamous set pieces (such as the Johnny Depp “blood geyser” scene) left out while others (the bathtub/glove between-the-legs shot, the levitation/flaying scene, and the jailhouse death) included.

So, those are the misses. How about the hits? Surprisingly, the one aspect of the film that I expected to be its strongest asset here – namely, the casting of comeback kid Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy Krueger – isn’t. Although props to Bray and company for refreshingly toning down Freddy’s campy sarcasm that we had to endure in the later original NIGHTMARE sequels and to the special effects team for Freddy’s decidedly more realistic burned face, Haley does yeoman’s work here, his voice sounding heavily filtered and monotone and about the farthest thing from sinister as one can get. Whereas Robert Englund found a way to bring his personality out through the role, Haley gets swallowed up in it, rendering him indistinguishable.

The film’s high points rest with a few members of the overall respectable cast. Although Rooney Mara never quite measures up to Heather Langenkamp as the new Nancy, Kyle Gallner (JENNIFER’S BODY, THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUTT) has enough of a unique screen presence to fill some of the void. (And, no, it has nothing to do with his on-screen appearance in a Speedo…OK, maybe a little!) Kellan Lutz (of TWILIGHT fame and PROM NIGHT remake infamy) shows up briefly (sadly, a missed opportunity to showcase his newly-acquired Calvin Klein underwear modeling skills).

But the real treat of the new NIGHTMARE is Katie Cassidy, who stands out as Kris (here in the Tina role from the original). Cassidy – who has been the shining light of the CW’s MELROSE PLACE reboot as Ella, a second-generation Heather Locklear – has positioned herself (whether intentionally or not) as a genuine scream queen, with roles in the remakes of both WHEN A STRANGER CALLS and BLACK CHRISTMAS, as well as a gig on last year’s ensemble slasher TV series HARPER’S ISLAND. In NIGHTMARE, Cassidy brings an authentic sense of fear to her role, from her blood-curdling scream in the film’s diner-set opening to her inevitable bedroom demise. It’s not often that you’ll hear me say something positive about the seemingly endless string of interchangeable star-harlots passing themselves off as young Hollywood, but Cassidy is the real deal and an actress to watch. It’s very clear from the expansion of the original character’s role here that the filmmakers knew they had something special in Cassidy – and wisely capitalized on it.

The new A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET plays it safe – safe enough not to inspire the wrath of loyalists like Rob Zombie did with Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN, but too safe to leave its mark as anything other than a pointless clone. If the intention of this NIGHTMARE update is to entice the new Red Bull generation onto Freddy’s playground, then, unfortunately, I suspect the film’s lack of distinguishing character and originality – that the original had in spades – will leave the monkey bars empty. Less enthralling than somewhat enjoyable, this new Freddy outing is more a mildly bad dream than full-blown nightmare.


Pax Romano said...

Vince as if you were not already my hero, my brother in slasher fandom, you have now moved up to a whole new place in my hierarchy by writing the following:

"...the seemingly endless string of interchangeable star-harlots passing themselves off as young Hollywood..."

I bow to you , oh Bitch-God of movie criticism. I am starting The Church of Liaguno today!

Unknown said...

Awesome review! I agree with everything you said. I too found Haley funnier than scary.

Towards your comment on the "blood geyser" scene being missing, I assumed that the scene where Nancy falls out of a blood geyser from the ceiling was a reversal of that inspirational scene.

Horror Baby said...

Thank you SO much for mentioning Katie Cassidy. She really is very good here. I really didn't have much of a problem with the film per se, but the more I think about, the more useless and mediocre is appears to me. I had a good time with my friends while watching it, but now I start to really think of all its shortcomings.

It's far from a piece of garbage like The Fog, Prom Night, or Friday the 13th, but it's no The Fly or The Thing.

Amanda By Night said...

I was actually excited about this movie (and I'm in the "I hate remakes" camp) because of the awesome trailer, but ended up skipping it because I had mostly heard from my trusted peeps that it's just boring.

I LOVE Katie Cassidy on Melrose Place, and speaking of remakes, it's one I do enjoy! She's going places that one!

I think this is rental for me...

Great review. Now go write a book. I'm waiting! :)

Vince Liaguno said...

Pax, you so crazy! How did you know that I love being worshipped?

Ryne, thanks! Now that you mention it, I completely see the reversal of the 'blood geyser' scene. Good catch!

Chris, OMG! Can't believe that I forgot to mention my utter, complete, unrestrained disdain for The Fog remake! The original film is my FAVORITE horror film of all time. I must have mentally blocked the remake...

Amanda, LOL! You're so sweet! Have been working on books two and three simultaneously (must be adult-onset Attention Deficit Disorder!) in between editing duties and that dreaded day job of mine. Soon, my dear...soon!

Horror Baby said...

Don't worry, Vince! You're not the only one trying to block The Fog from your mind. That is THE single worst film I've ever seen. Not even kidding. Not one redeemable thing about it. I'm almost shaking just thinking about it.