When Platinum Dunes the production house created by Michael Bay Andrew Form and Brad Fuller first came into being it took on the father of modern horror films The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's safe to say everyone expected it to be a total failure given who was involved; when it turned out that it actually wasn't too bad of a film fans were justifiably surprised. A few mid-level misfires later Platinum Dunes raised their aim at iconic horror franchises even higher bringing back TCM's director Marcus Nispel to tackle Jason Voorhees. Again people weren't expecting much so it was another pleasant surprise that 2009's Friday the 13th turned out to be a thoroughly entertaining respectful recombination of the cabin-in-the-woods slasher. From there the studio didn't even bother to go back to lesser franchises they notched their crosshairs as high as they could go; Freddy Krueger.
Fast forward twelve months. The main thing anyone will want to know about A Nightmare on Elm Street is whether it is at the very least a worthy remake of the original Wes Craven film about a slain pedophile who resurrects in the dream world to kill teenagers in their sleep. The short answer is a resounding yes. Samuel Bayer's film is the best remake in the Platinum Dunes stable; Jackie Earle Haley is an excellent successor to the original's Robert Englund; and Freddy Krueger isn't just scary again he's the most disturbing he's ever been. The long answer is of course a little more complicated and requires plenty of qualifiers.
Yes A Nightmare on Elm Street is the best remake Platinum Dunes has produced but the reason behind that is also the film's handicap. For the most part Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer's screenplay hems incredibly close to Craven's original. There comes a point in the film however where staying faithful to the source material becomes a bit too problematic. Mainstream audiences particularly those who didn't grow up with Krueger will be unaffected but horror fans may soon grow bored with the lack of individuality in the scripting department. And then just as the film threatens to overthrow its predecessor by changing (for the better) Krueger's origin story it backs off once again sacrificing innovation for tradition.
It would appear to be a contradiction but that adherence to tradition in turn becomes the remakes' greatest strength. Bayer and company dive even deeper into the Elm Street mythos giving the audience in the process two crucial looks at what Krueger was like before the parents of the molested preschoolers delivered their gas-can brand of mob justice. Haley's astounding amount of talent makes profound use of every second of these brief glimpses into a pre-burn Freddy. Then once the kind soft-spoken kid-loving mask of the pedophile-in-hiding has been literally burned off the true monster underneath emerges. This contrast between the Freddy the kids knew and the Freddy they now know as teens makes for some legitimately bothersome bedroom nightmares toward the film's end.
As for the teens they too are marked improvements this time around. Johnny Depp may have emerged from the '84 classic but he was about it. Rooney Mara Kyle Gallner Thomas Dekker and Katie Cassidy all do an admirable job with the at times thin characterizations they're given. It's a testament to the talent of each of them that they overcome the limitations of the script to warrant some investment in their fight against their dream killer. And as for that dream killer...Haley is the perfect replacement for Englund. His take on the voice may be indistinguishable from his work as Rorschach in Zack Snyder's Watchmen adaptation but considering it fits Haley's commanding presence as Krueger as snugly as the iconic bladed glove whose newly stylized dragging across the pipes in Freddy's dream boiler room sounds skincrawlingly likely a cross between nails on a chalk board and an arc welder that's not too much of a complaint.
A little more worthy of complaint are a few failed attempts to reinact iconic moments from the original most notably Freddy's emergence from the wallpaper above Nancy's bed. It's inexcusable that a special effect in the year 2010 should look worse than the effect from the 1984 film it's imitating but CGI the perpetual enemy of the horror fan once again rears its ugly head. That embarrassing failure aside this film could not look better. Bayer did a tremendous job of altering the reality of the dream world with subtle visual distortions (a lot of straight lines are skewed obtusely outward while the edges of the frame curve oh so slightly inward) when necessary. And the effects work on Krueger's face is appropriately gruesome in all the right spots. One can even forgive the terrible wallpaper CGI scene in exchange for inspired touches like a partial singed cheek that flaps slightly when he exhales or moves too quickly.
While this rebirth of Krueger no doubt boasts a number of glorious kills (the bold opener sets the gore precedent quite nicely) its biggest strength in the fear department is this new far more disturbing structuring of the character as a joyless disgusting psychopath. Craven's original used Krueger's actions mainly as the logistical justification for why he would be killing these teenagers whereas Bayer's handling of the material leverages the origin story beyond just physical torture and into mentally disturbing psychosexual territory. The original franchise gradually acclimated to the idea of Krueger as a sexual threat but this iteration makes no qualms about it. It's not just the burns to Krueger's face that have been updated for realism; his motivations have as well — and that makes this new Nightmare on Elm Street scary as hell.
We all know Adolf Hitler did not die as a result of an organized assassination plot against him but this fact does not hinder the enjoyment of watching how that attempt by members of his own Nazi command plays out. Reminiscent of great ‘60s WWII conspiracy thrillers such as 36 Hours and Night of the Generals this film centers on the actions of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) a loyal German officer who nevertheless is horrified by what he sees Hitler doing to his country and is determined to find a way to stop him. In 1942 he tries to persuade senior commanders to overthrow Hitler and later in 1943 while recovering from combat injuries he joins the German Resistance a secretive anti-Hitler group comprised of several men in the highest ranks on the inside. Using Hitler’s own contingency plan labeled Operation Valkyrie to prop up the government should he die this group puts their assassination and take over plan in motion. As the eye patch-wearing SS colonel Tom Cruise is excellent. He comfortably manages to get to the heart of Stauffenberg and portray a man who clearly loves his country and feels it’s a patriotic duty to stop the madness. Wisely Cruise (who produced through his United Artists studio) surrounds himself with actors of the first stripe. Among those supporting the mission are: Kenneth Branagh in a relatively brief turn as an German officer; Bill Nighy as one of von Stauffenberg’s closest allies in the venture; and Eddie Izzard as a communications specialist charged with cutting Hitler’s contact to the rest of Germany. There’s also superb work from Terence Stamp as another high-ranking conspirator and the always great Tom Wilkinson as career officer Fredrick Fromm who seems to be playing all sides despite appearing to be a stern supporter of the Fuhrer. And as Stauffenberg’s loyal wife Carice van Houten (Black Book) looks lovely and hits just the right notes as her husband’s sounding board. Although he has guided big popcorn pictures such as Superman Returns and X-Mens director Bryan Singer has also given us intense thrillers like the Oscar winning Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil. So the command he shows in turning out this nifty thriller should come as no surprise. Clearly Singer knows how to grab hold of an audience and keep them on the edge of their seats -- no easy trick here since the outcome is never in doubt. He keeps this going like a speeding train ratcheting up the suspense at every turn and focusing his camera directly into the eyes and sweat of these courageous conspirators. Valkyrie is a pulse-pounding heart-racing excitement from start to finish.
Pilot Frank "Shut 'Em Down" Towns (Dennis Quaid) arrives in Mongolia to close down an unprosperous oil rig and fly the disgruntled crew home. Along for the ride are his partner A.J. (Tyrese) the oil company's fetching but feisty female foreman (Miranda Otto) the company man (Hugh Laurie) assorted grease monkeys and one very odd hitchhiker (Giovanni Ribisi). Townes foolishly decides to fly into a sandstorm instead of turning back resulting in a forced landing that has them stranded in the middle of the Gobi desert with little hope of rescue. Moviegoers will likely be comparing the film not to the original but to TV's similar plane crash story Lost. Like Lost there's a reluctant leader a spunky babe a wise Arabic guy and lots of life-or-death tension. (Sorry no polar bears). Once they realize no rescue is coming they concoct a risky plan to get home although not everyone's sold on the idea.
Dennis Quaid is his usual roguish self as Towns a crusty arrogant but still charming guy who might be Harrison Ford's brother from Six Days Seven Nights. Heavy lifting isn't required by the actors in a film like this but indie fave Giovanni Ribisi turns in a nicely twitchy performance as Elliott the fellow who turns out to be strangely important to their survival. Miranda Otto (Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings films) is once again believably self-sufficient and is spared any romantic overtures from her fellow survivors. Hugh Laurie's character is at first merely "the suit " but gradually pitches in with the blue-collar workers. Tony Curran and Tyrese buddy up as they pull together to salvage what they can from the wrecked plane. As the chef Jacob Vargas supplies much of the comedy while desert know-how comes from Kevork Malikyan.
John Moore who also directed the rah-rah actioner Behind Enemy Lines clearly likes stories about men in desperate circumstances leavened by unlikely bonding and humor. The Gobi desert never looked more beautiful or more ominous with its mysteriously shifting sand. The plane crash might not be able to rival The Day After Tomorrow's tornados or jaw-dropping tidal wave but is still horrifyingly riveting. If you can't predict every beat of the finale however you clearly haven't seen enough movies.