Friday 7 May 2010

Jump! Jump!

If you really like jump scares, A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) may be for you. If, however, you like little things like plot, character, suspense, good acting and decent cinematography, you’d be better off watching something else. (Hint: the original Nightmare on Elm Street may be a good place to start.)

(This review contains some spoilers for both the 1984 and the 2010 film, by the way.)

The Nightmare on Elm Street reboot (not remake – a few characters have the same names as those in Wes Craven’s 1984 original, but there are otherwise no similarities of plot) was produced by Platinum Dunes, the Michael Bay-owned company also responsible for the new versions of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), The Hitcher (2007), Friday the 13th (2009), and various others. I haven’t seen any of them, but they say that what ‘produced by Michael Bay’ doesn’t tell you, the reviews will. It works like this: Platinum Dunes pick a popular horror film from the 1970s or ‘80s and create a new, generally grim and gritty version populated by TV starlets. All films are filmed in more or less the same anonymous style by directors who are essentially silent workhorses ruled by the producers. (It’s like Hollywood in the fifties, only rubbish!) Since horror films are cheap and apparently irresistible to young audiences, these movies generally turn a tidy profit. And now, as the other horror franchises have been picked clean, A Nightmare on Elm Street has finally got the Platinum Dunes treatment.

The plot: a teenager called Dean (Kellan Lutz) has nightmares about a burnt man in a red-and-green jumper with knives for fingers. At a diner Dean cuts his own throat with a knife while asleep. Dean’s friends, including Nancy (Rooney Mara), who is shy and artsy and therefore clearly the Final Girl, Kris (Katie Cassidy, who’s attractive in the same tedious ultra-tanned, long-legged, thin, peroxide blonde way every young actress now has to be attractive, which is a complaint against Hollywood, not Miss Cassidy), Jesse (Thomas Dekker of Heroes and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles – come to think of it, he plays all his characters the exact same way) and Quentin (Kyle Gallner, who was messily eaten by Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body) have been experiencing similar nightmares in which the same figure is after them. As her friends start dying, Nancy figures out that the killer in their dreams is one Fred Krueger, who was the gardener at the pre-school they all attended. This person, it seems, was a dread paedophile whom the children’s parents burned to death. Nancy and her friends were all his victims, and now Krueger, for reasons unexplained (nothing wrong with that –they weren’t explained in Craven’s film either), has the power to kill them in their dreams. And if you die in your dream, you’re really dead.

But who cares about all that plot nonsense? Today’s youth want killings, apparently! And killings they get, although with a mere five on-screen deaths A Nightmare on Elm Street is surprisingly conservative. (It also sadly proves the exception to the old rule of thumb that the fewer deaths, the better the film.) A number of the scare scenes are directly drawn from the original, although they’re generally not done as effectively. Take, for instance, the death of Kris, who, in a rare good script decision, is seemingly our protagonist for the first third of the film. She’s the equivalent of Tina in the original, and she must therefore die by levitating above her bed and being thrown against the ceiling and walls by an unseen force before being slashed by Freddy’s knives. But the scene works much better in the original, where the effect used is incredibly obvious (we’re clearly dealing with the actress writhing around on the floor and the image being flipped so that she appears to be on the ceiling), but it’s nonetheless a genuinely harrowing scene. First-time director Samuel Bayer (who directed Nirvana’s ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ music video, a fact that every review seems to be obliged to mention – there, I’m done) apparently feels the need to outdo Craven, and so the scene contains far more flailing, more cuts, different angles (including one looking down from the ceiling) and that staple of twenty-first-century cinema, slow motion, robbing the scene of its unflinchingly brutal simplicity: less would have been more.

But you can’t blame Bayer, for the scenes directly copied from the original are the only ones that ever come close to working. The best of these is the infamous scene in which Freddy’s gloved hand rises between Nancy’s thighs in the bathtub: Bayer copies it 1:1 from Craven. Being unable to conjure up genuine fear, the makers instead rely on the hoary old jump scare. Not that it works: in one of the first scenes Freddy’s glove suddenly appears in the foreground, the oblivious teenager being in the background of the image. This seems inspired by a similar scene at the beginning of the 1984 film’s Final Girl sequence, but Bayer bungles it, and there’s simply nothing frightening about it at all. So we get the old scare chord trying to pick up the slack and turning it into a jump scare. That’s the film in a nutshell: the entire thing feels as if in post-production the makers realised there was not a single genuinely terrifying moment, and so the sound department went into overdrive, overstuffing virtually every scene with ominous background music and noises. It’s putting lipstick on a pig, and it just feels sad.

Should I mention the performances? They’re bad, of course, but you can’t blame the actors for most of it, for they’re saddled with pretty uninspired material. Rooney Mara is the best of a bad batch, but she can’t compete with Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy. As for Jackie Earle Haley, he’s an unexpected disappointment. Along with every other fan, I rejoiced when I heard the casting news not so long ago. But Haley fails to make the character his own. For starters, his makeup is distracting in its awfulness, the worst of the series. He’s given few good lines, but the fact has to be confronted, I think, that Haley does not have any sort of take on the character: he just does his job without quite knowing or expressing who Fred Krueger is. This is bad not least because this Freddy is remarkably talkative: the Final Girl sequence is highly unusual in not being the usual chase, but rather a discussion.

Ultimately, A Nightmare on Elm Street is just profoundly uninspiring. It’s bad, but not in such a way that watching the train wreck unfold would provide entertainment in itself. Clearly the makers, from the producer (another chance to blame Michael Bay!) to the director and the actors did not have any sort of original idea that might have justified a reboot. It’s just mercenary and was made for a single reason: money, dear boy. And as western civilisation continues its decline, it would seem that in that modest aim it has succeeded.

Random observations:

- Several reviewers have complained about A Nightmare on Elm Street’s use of the complex topic of paedophilia for cheap shocks. I like the slasher film’s amateurish and exploitative shamelessness: it’s tasteless and maybe immoral, but it’s almost charmingly honest. The filmmakers know you came for cheap thrills, and that’s what they’ll give you. But this, sirs, is a bridge too far: we’re talking about kids here. Paedophilia shouldn’t sell cinema tickets. I’m not as incensed as I might be, though. A Nightmare on Elm Street really isn’t good or interesting enough to get all that worked up about.

- Jackie Earle Haley is quite a short man (1.66m). Shouldn’t the filmmakers have known how to work around this? His lack of physical presence is a serious problem for the character.

- The Final Girl sequence pays homage to Halloween. And why not? Because it's not a good idea to remind your audience of a far better film they'd rather be seeing, that's why.

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