Saturday, October 31, 2015

Nightmare Week: 'Wes Craven's New Nightmare' (1994)

It sort of seems like Wes Craven's main goal with the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise was to get it to end. On the first movie, his original ending had Nancy waking up and realizing the entire thing was a dream, with her friends that Freddy had killed still alive and well. Luckily, the studio convinced him to go with the more sinister, ambiguous ending that really works better for the tone of the story (although what they most wanted was to keep the door open for sequels, presumably). Craven never wanted there to be any sequels, and when he returned as a writer and producer for the third movie, it was again with the aim of wrapping things up; he even killed off Nancy at the end of the movie. But of course that didn't stop New Line, either.

Even after the studio explicitly killed off Freddy in Freddy's Dead, they came back with another movie three years later, and Craven once again tried to put an end to the series. His idea for New Nightmare was actually his original pitch for the third movie, with Freddy escaping from films into the real world, but it works much better here after the series has kind of run itself into the ground, and after Freddy has been very specifically killed off as a movie character. New Nightmare functions as an epilogue of sorts, not concerned with any of the cluttered mythology that built up over the course of the various sequels, nor with Freddy as a character with a particular background and motivation. Here he's more of an avatar for the idea of evil, for malevolent forces in stories going back to early fairy tales. The details of Freddy's origin are irrelevant; what's important is his popularity as a villain in horror movies.

New Nightmare seemed pretty groundbreaking to me when I first saw it as a teenager, although it looks a little less sophisticated in retrospect. Part of the reason is that two years later Craven made a more clever, entertaining horror movie about the nature of horror with Scream, and part of the reason is that some of the effects and the acting just don't come off as well now. After struggling a bit in Dream Warriors, Heather Langenkamp returns here (playing herself) to give a really strong performance, and Craven is smart to build the entire movie around her. Robert Englund still gets top billing, but his role, both as Freddy and as himself, is more limited. The non-actors who play themselves, including Craven and producer Robert Shaye, perform decently, but the real problem is child actor Miko Hughes, who is incredibly annoying and unconvincing as Heather's son Dylan.

Hughes' awful performance is really the movie's main liability, and it undercuts the power of Heather's emotional journey, since the story really hinges on her dedication as a mother. Freddy's incursion into the real world targets Dylan, and that awakens Heather's protective instincts. Craven ties the story back into folklore, and a mother rescuing a child is one of the most primal fables of all. Langenkamp brings real emotion to her performance, but most of Dylan's moments that are meant to be creepy end up falling flat. The movie works in spite of him, not because of him.

And while Craven doesn't bring the same level of humor to this movie that he did to Scream, he does get in some solid jabs at the dumbing-down of Freddy and the franchise, and he weaves in some effective (and fairly subtle) callbacks to the first movie. It's a shame that he fumbles the finale, with the metatextual elements taking a back seat to yet another battle against Freddy in a generic dream world. The final scene, with Heather reading the movie's script to Dylan, is a perfect closer for the movie and the series, though, and overall New Nightmare does its job of rehabilitating Freddy as a real threat (no cartoony kill scenes or dumb one-liners) plus giving the series some closure. Unfortunately for Craven, once again his efforts to end the series failed; New Line released Freddy vs. Jason nine years later.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Nightmare Week: 'Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare' (1991)

After the third, fourth and fifth movies in the Nightmare on Elm Street series followed more or less directly from one another, the big finale jumps ahead 10 years and features none of the familiar characters from previous films (other than Freddy, of course). Instead of feeling like the culmination of the entire story, Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare comes off like a rushed, cheap wrap-up, with a story that's equally dissatisfying whether it actually is the conclusion of the Freddy Krueger saga or just a fake-out ending (as turned out to be the case, of course). Apparently at one point the movie was meant to star a grown-up version of Jacob, Alice's son from The Dream Child, as well as some of the characters from Dream Warriors (although I'm pretty sure almost all of them are dead at this point), but that was scrapped in favor of retconning a whole new family for Freddy, as well as tacking on some poorly thought-out elements to his mythology.

The ostensible main character of the first half turns out to be a red herring, and not a very interesting one, either. The nameless teenager dubbed John Doe (Shon Greenblatt) is possibly the last teenager left in Freddy's hometown of Springwood, Ohio, since by now Freddy has killed all the children and teenagers. It's never quite clear why John loses his memory, or why he's been allowed to survive when Freddy has killed everyone else, or what his actual background is (and Greenblatt is terrible at conveying his emotional distress). He ends up in a generic city with no memory and no identity, and is picked up by the police and placed in a shelter for troubled teens. There he meets social worker Maggie (Lisa Zane), the movie's actual main character, who decides that the best way to jog his memory is to take him back to Springwood, because his only possession is a newspaper article that mentions it. A trio of generic teen rebels from the shelter stow away on the trip, because Freddy needs more victims.

I was disappointed that the movie didn't spend more time exploring the idea of the quasi-post-apocalyptic Springwood, which is its only intriguing addition to the mythology. I like when horror series take their premises to the extreme logical end, and I think an entire movie could have been made about the large-scale effects of Freddy's killing spree, if the producers weren't going to bother following up on characters the audience actually cares about. But instead it's an excuse for a distracting cameo from Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold and a couple of surreal scenes, then back to Nancy's boarded-up house (again) and Freddy killing teenagers in moronic ways. The video game-themed death of one of the characters in this movie has to be the dumbest Freddy kill in the entire series.

In addition to giving Freddy an entirely new family tree (a wife he killed, a daughter taken away from him), this movie also modifies the mystical explanation for Freddy's existence, replacing the "dream gate" stuff from The Dream Master with "dream demons," which manage to be even cheesier. The three ancient demons that supposedly granted Freddy his powers look like flying sperm with skull faces, and it doesn't help that they're presented (along with the entire climax of the movie) in super-chintzy 3D. After markedly improved effects and set pieces in the fourth and fifth movies, Freddy's Dead looks like it was produced at bargain rates.

Director Rachel Talalay (who worked her way up from assistant production manager on the first movie, which is kind of heartwarming) and screenwriter Michael De Luca attempt to delve into Freddy's psychology with the revelation that Maggie is his long-lost daughter, and flashes of his messed-up childhood. But Freddy's connection to his supposed child is weaker than his connection to his previous opponents, and the flashbacks are full of cliches about the tortured upbringings of serial killers. Englund gets a chance to emote, playing Freddy without makeup, but it's hard to find emotional resonance in a movie that's more concerned with dumb jokes. When Maggie finally vanquishes Freddy, it ends the entire series in an anticlimax. "Freddy's dead," she says in the movie's final line, which is meant to sound triumphant but comes off more like surrender.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Nightmare Week: 'A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child' (1989)

For some reason, I assumed that A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child was a sort of Rosemary's Baby riff, with Freddy mystically impregnating returning protagonist Alice (Lisa Wilcox) and forcing her to give birth to his unholy spawn. The opening scene even implies this scenario, as we see shots of two people having sex without being able to make out who they are. Eventually Alice comes into view, gets out of bed and heads to the shower, where it becomes apparent that she's in a dream, one in which, as usual, she's trapped and in danger. Freddy doesn't show up, but Alice finds herself in the asylum where his mother, Amanda, was gang-raped and impregnated by inmates (as referenced in Dream Warriors), one of whom is played by Robert Englund. So it's not unreasonable to expect a Freddy Jr. to show up soon, but Alice's eventual pregnancy is the result of normal unprotected teenage sex with her jock boyfriend Dan (Danny Hassel, also returning from the previous movie).

The function of Alice's pregnancy is not to birth Freddy's demon offspring, but rather to give Freddy a new (and sort of narratively lazy) way to invade people's dreams. When Alice and her friends find themselves confronting Freddy while ostensibly awake, Alice deduces that Freddy is entering the dreams of her unborn child, then using that child (named Jacob) to bring others into the dreams, much like Alice herself is able to do. It's just a roundabout way of giving Freddy the chance to kill another bunch of disposable teenagers, who are inordinately skeptical about his existence, considering the guy has probably killed half of their peers. Freddy is a little less cartoonish this time around than he was in The Dream Master (which practically turned him into Bugs Bunny), but he's still pretty silly, prone to bad one-liners and elaborate, themed murder tableaux.

Director Stephen Hopkins and screenwriter Leslie Bohem hint at some serious issues, including (obviously) teen pregnancy, drunk driving and eating disorders, but all of that stuff is easily tossed aside in favor of more grotesquerie from Freddy. Some of that grotesquerie is sort of impressive, or at least more horrific than the cartoonishness of The Dream Master: The scene featuring Alice's possibly anorexic friend being stuffed to death full of food by Freddy has a sort of Monty Python vibe, and the abandoned asylum where Freddy's mother Amanda was killed has an air of ornate gothic mystery. Mostly, though, the movie is a series of ridiculous, over-the-top deaths, along with some superfluous additions to the increasingly tiresome Krueger mythology. The one interesting idea it presents is that Alice could easily stop Freddy just by aborting her baby (and thus ending its dreams), but she dismisses that idea so strongly that the movie could be read as forwarding some sort of perverse pro-life agenda.

Wilcox is stronger here than she was in the dismal The Dream Master, but she's still a weak opponent for Freddy compared to Heather Langenkamp or even Patricia Arquette. Englund once again gets above-the-title billing, but even he seems a little bored with Freddy's role as a jokester. The supporting characters are entirely disposable, although at least the filmmakers give a nod to some past character development, with Alice's father now a recovering alcoholic, and both expressing a moment of grief for her brother, who got killed by Freddy in the last movie. Those are tiny moments in what is overall a pretty sloppily told story, though, leaving Freddy only as hastily vanquished as he was the last time, and ready to rise again whenever the bottom line demands it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Nightmare Week: 'A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master' (1988)

With A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Freddy Krueger completed his transformation from shadowy, menacing villain to full-on cartoon character, a pop-culture icon who showed up in music videos and would soon be the Crypt Keeper-like host of his own horror anthology series, Freddy's Nightmares. Anything scary or disturbing about Freddy has completely disappeared by this movie, and it's clear that the character's fame has gone to the filmmakers' and his portrayer's heads (actor Robert Englund gets sole above-the-title billing in the credits). Whereas the Freddy of the first movie spoke only sparingly, the Freddy of The Dream Master is quite chatty, quick with his groan-worthy puns and one-liners (which don't even have the nasty, sarcastic edge that they did in the previous movies). On top of that, his kills are all ridiculously elaborate, more like funhouse rides than gruesome or scary deaths. Freddy has become a victim of his own success.

Taking place not long after Dream Warriors, The Dream Master sets about undoing whatever was satisfying about that movie's resolution, with the three living teen characters (Joey, played by Rodney Eastman; Kincaid, played by Ken Sagoes; and Kristen, now played by Tuesday Knight since Patricia Arquette probably got too famous for this shit) showing up only to fairly quickly get killed by a resurrected Freddy. Kristen sticks around the longest, but her main function is to pass along her power to bring others into her dream (a minor element of Dream Warriors that is heavily played up in this movie) to her friend Alice (Lisa Wilcox), who's the movie's real protagonist. There's no coherent reason for Freddy's return, even though director Renny Harlin and the screenwriters (including Brian Helgeland) specifically reference his previous burial in consecrated ground. The scene in which he comes back to life sets the tone for the unmotivated silliness to come, with Kincaid's dog (named Jason, ha ha) pissing fire to somehow open up Freddy's grave.

The Dream Master is the most slasher-like of the Nightmare movies so far, with Freddy quickly dispatching a series of vapid teenagers. It has the highest body count of the series to date, and each kill is an excuse for Freddy to engage in increasingly absurd methods of murder. He turns victims into pizza toppings and one into a cockroach. He dresses in drag as a nurse and turns his glove into a shark fin, Jaws-style. None of it is scary, and the best it can manage is to gross the audience out. Most of it is just laughable, which probably entertained audiences at the time (The Dream Master was the highest-grossing movie in the original series), but betrays the dark vision that Wes Craven had for Freddy in the first place.

As is common for later entries in horror series, The Dream Master also tries to build up a bit of mythology around Freddy; although it doesn't follow up on Dream Warriors' revelations about Freddy's mother, it does come up with a sort of half-formed idea about "dream gates," good and evil portals in dreams, of which Freddy is apparently the guardian of the evil one. Alice, in her capacity as the dream master, is able to absorb the strengths and talents of her friends who get killed, and she becomes the avatar of the good dream gate when she vanquishes Freddy and releases the souls of the people he's killed. Or something like that -- it's not very clear, and like the forced mythologies that crop up in other horror sequels, it'll likely end up getting ignored or replaced. Everything important about Freddy was established in his first appearance, and the more the movies add to him, the more they dilute his power.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Nightmare Week: 'A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors' (1987)

The consensus on A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors is that it's the best of the original Nightmare sequels, and it's certainly a big improvement over the mostly dreadful Freddy's Revenge. It doesn't have the strong personal vision of Wes Craven's bookending films, but it does benefit from Craven's presence as producer and co-writer, and unlike Freddy's Revenge, it makes an effort to delve into the main concepts and characters, rather than disregarding or drastically altering them. In addition to Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger (getting his greatest amount of screen time thus far), Heather Langenkamp as Nancy Thompson and John Saxon as her father Donald return from the first movie, and the story is tied much more closely to Nancy's initial battle with Freddy.

Dream Warriors takes place six years after the events of the first movie, as Nancy is now a grad student and expert in dream disorders, hired as a staff member at a psychiatric hospital in Springwood (which seems to sprout any large, heretofore unknown institutions it might need for plot purposes). A group of teenagers are all suffering from nightmares that they attribute to Freddy's presence, and they've consequently developed various personal problems, including drug addiction and suicide attempts. Of course, while the doctors dismiss the Freddy nightmares as delusions, Nancy knows that Freddy really has returned and is stalking these kids in their dreams.

Nancy's transformation from scared victim to empowered leader in some ways mirrors Sara Connor's transformation between the first two Terminator movies, although Langenkamp can't pull off the change nearly as well as Linda Hamilton did. The filmmakers dress her in a series of "career woman of 1987" outfits, and she retains the gray streak in her hair that Nancy acquired in the first movie, but the 23-year-old Langenkamp (who was great as a scared but resilient teen) too often comes off like a kid playing at being a grown-up. Still, she has moments of strength as Nancy, and the uneven supporting cast (which includes early performances from future Oscar nominees and CSI franchise stars Patricia Arquette and Laurence Fishburne) occasionally rises to that same level.

Really, though, Englund is the breakout star here, and Dream Warriors establishes the familiar pop-culture version of Freddy, with his puns and one-liners, and his ability to transform into anything that will scare his targets. Director Chuck Russell and the screenwriters (including Craven as well as future auteur Frank Darabont) tap into a lot of familiar dream imagery (running but being unable to get anywhere, watching a TV show that bleeds into a dream, feeling like you've woken up even when you haven't), and they use that familiarity to make Freddy's intrusions even scarier, augmented by some creative special effects and a clearly expanded budget. Despite his penchant for cheesy jokes, Freddy is still pretty menacing here, although the kids discovering their own dream superpowers is a little too Saturday-morning-cartoon to be truly intense (probably the reason I liked this movie as a kid).

The subplot about Nancy's colleague finding Freddy's remains and burying them in hallowed ground is likewise a little cheesy (especially with its tired science-vs.-faith angle), although it does allow Saxon the chance to play the elder Thompson as a washed-up drunk. The solidarity among Nancy and the misfit teenagers is the movie's biggest strength, and their forays into the dream world, which is much more clearly defined than it was in the first movie, make Dream Warriors feel like fantasy as much as horror (it reminded me a bit of some of Clive Barker's genre-hybrid work). Freddy's journey toward being a kid-friendly cartoon character may have started here, but on its own Dream Warriors is a solid movie that honors the legacy of its main predecessor.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Nightmare Week: 'A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge' (1985)

Despite my love for both of Wes Craven's Nightmare movies, before starting this series I had never seen several of the other Freddy Krueger movies, including the first A Nightmare on Elm Street sequel, Freddy's Revenge. Weirdly enough, the one thing I had gleaned about the movie recently was that it was full of homoerotic subtext, so other than expecting it to be terrible, that was really the only preconception I had going in. Both of those preconceptions turned out to be accurate, and even focusing on the movie entirely as an allegory for homosexual self-loathing doesn't make it any more interesting to watch.

Well, okay, maybe it makes it a little more interesting to watch, but overall, this is still a pretty terrible movie. First of all, none of the characters from the first movie (except Freddy, of course) are present, and even worse, the basic premise of the first movie, the thing that makes it scary, is almost completely thrown out. Instead of killing people in their dreams, Freddy is attempting to possess the body of teenager Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton), whose family has moved into Nancy's old house (although it doesn't much resemble the house from the first movie), five years after the events of the original Nightmare. Freddy appears to Jesse in Jesse's dreams, but the killings all take place in the real world, where Freddy is somehow able to manifest using Jesse's body as his vessel. So staying awake is no protection against Freddy, and Freddy has supernatural powers even outside of dreams.

Jesse's efforts to resist Freddy "coming out" are one of the main sources of the homoerotic subtext, which screenwriter David Chaskin and star Patton (who is gay) have said was included intentionally, at least on their parts. Jesse also ends up at a leather bar with his macho gym teacher (Marshall Bell), and then later in an S&M-style torture scene as Freddy slowly emerges to kill the teacher. Jesse seems far more interested in his hunky best friend Grady (Robert Rusler) than in his whiny girlfriend Lisa (Kim Myers), whom he can't kiss without Freddy emerging to freak him out. And Patton's performance might charitably be called flamboyant, although it's really just bad, and mostly not in a fun, campy way.

The subtext is partially a result of the haphazard plotting, since certain moments that occur side by side don't necessarily connect unless they're viewed allegorically. It's hard to argue that as a strength, especially when everything above the subtext, from the performances to the set pieces to the storytelling, is so ineffective. Freddy is less of a presence than he was the last time around, and his kills aren't particularly creative or intense. There are one or two creepy images (a pair of dogs with human faces were pretty unsettling), but overall the movie isn't scary, and it ends with a cliffhanger that, instead of playing up the ambiguity as in the first movie, just emphasizes how inconsequential everything that preceded it really was.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Nightmare Week: 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' (1984)

Over past Halloweens (and one St. Patrick's Day), I've run through the Hellraiser, Halloween, Child's Play and Leprechaun franchises, and I've covered most of the Friday the 13th movies in my Triskaidekaphilia feature. That leaves A Nightmare on Elm Street as the one major horror series that I'm interested in and still haven't covered, so for this Halloween I'm taking a look at all seven original Freddy Krueger movies (not including Freddy vs. Jason or the 2010 Nightmare remake). Wes Craven's original A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of my favorite movies of all time, and although I've seen it numerous times, I still find it entertaining and evocative every time I watch it.

There's a simplicity to the storytelling that inevitably gets lost over the course of any big horror series (when mythologies get more convoluted and crowded with extraneous characters), but Nightmare isn't just a bare-bones kill-fest like the original Friday the 13th. Craven brings artistry and vision to the film, and he's not just interested in parading out a bunch of gruesome deaths. Nightmare is considered one of the cornerstones of the slasher genre, but unlike Friday the 13th or the original Halloween (which I also love), it has an element of surrealism and fantasy that goes beyond a mere killing spree.

There is the killing spree, of course, although it's confined to just a few teenagers in the seemingly placid suburb of Springwood, Ohio. Craven establishes the iconic elements of Freddy Krueger (finger blades, hat, red-and-green sweater, burned face) within the first few minutes, and it's impressive just how much of Freddy's essence is present from his very first appearance. He's not as jokey as he would become in the later movies, but he's still nastily sarcastic, clearly taking glee in stalking and killing his victims (as opposed to the mute, emotionless Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers). Robert Englund is firmly in a supporting role in this movie, but he makes Freddy into a fully realized (and entirely scary) villain.

The real star is Heather Langenkamp as Nancy Thompson, a slasher heroine at least as compelling and layered as Laurie Strode. Langenkamp may not have gone on to have a career like Jamie Lee Curtis', but she's fantastic as Nancy, with a mix of vulnerability, determination and entirely believable teen petulance (her delivery of the line "Oh God, I look 20 years old" is one of the movie's best moments). Nancy is a typical Final Girl in many ways (virginal, daughter of the town's top cop, often wearing white, has a personal connection to the killer), but she's not a boring goody-two-shoes. She fights dirty against Freddy, she blatantly ignores her clueless (and neglectful) parents, and she's just as into her boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp in his first role) as he is into her.

Nightmare features some of the most iconic images in horror, including Freddy's glove rising up between Nancy's legs as she takes a bath (talk about symbolism), Freddy's face and hands distorting the wall above Nancy's head, the geyser of blood after poor Glen is killed, and even Freddy's tongue sticking out of Nancy's phone. I love how the last half hour almost completely loses the distinction between dreams and reality, and how Craven ends the movie without asserting that line again (his original planned ending, with the whole story being a dream, seems to me like a gross miscalculation). Whether or not Nancy has really defeated Freddy almost seems beside the point by the end. She's committed fully to the insane logic of the dream world, and she's triumphed, alive or dead. In dreams, there's barely even a difference.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Room 13' (1964)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13. 

Improbably, Room 13 is actually the second German movie dubbed into English (after 13 Days to Die) that I've watched for this project, and it's certainly the superior one, not that that's saying much. Like 13 Lead Soldiers, which introduced me to the world of Bulldog Drummond, Room 13 is another movie that's part of a thriving franchise I was previously unaware of. In this case, it's the peculiarly specific world of German adaptations of crime novels by British writer Edgar Wallace; German company Rialto Film produced 32 features based on Wallace novels between 1959 and 1972, and they were apparently a big influence on the development of the Italian giallo genre. You can see a bit of that influence in Room 13, which, like giallos, has far more accomplished style than substance.

Although Wallace wrote his novels mainly in the '20s and '30s, Room 13 has a contemporary 1960s setting (complete with a jazzy '60s-era musical score), and Wikipedia notes that many of the Rialto movies took only the barest plot details from Wallace's novels, updating everything else. Not having read Room 13, I can't say what's been changed for the movie, but the plot combines two fairly basic storylines, one a whodunit about a mysterious murderer killing women with a straight razor, and the other about a master criminal plotting a train heist. They come together thanks to Sir Robert Marney (Walter Rilla), an English aristocrat and member of parliament, whose daughter Denise (Karin Dor) is a potential target of both the unknown murderer and the crime boss, Joe Legge (Richard Haussler), who's blackmailing Marney over an unnamed incident in their past.

None of these people is the actual main character, though
-- that's private detective Johnny Gray (Joachim Fuchsberger, who starred in many of Rialto's Edgar Wallace movies), whom Marney hires to protect his daughter. Gray is a typical dashing, brilliant and fairly inconsiderate movie P.I., who bulldozes over the other characters (including the actual cops) to solve the case, regardless of how it endangers anyone else. This is a German movie set in London and filmed with German actors, and the version I saw on Amazon Instant was distractingly dubbed into English. That doesn't do any favors to the cheesy, stilted dialogue, which is delivered with maximum disinterest by the anonymous voiceover actors. Dor's performance as the clearly haunted daughter of wealth is actually quite evocative at times, but the dubbing removes most of its potential power.

The comic relief is much less successful; I was completely baffled by a bumbling police-scientist character who is apparently in love with a mannequin. At one point an undercover female police officer (posing as a dancer at Legge's shady nightclub, site of the titular room) is murdered, and the police identify her as one of their own because she's wearing "the official underwear of Scotland Yard." It's hard to know how to take moments like that. At the same time, I was impressed by director Harald Reinl's elegant tracking shots and long pans, which take in multiple layers of action in single, smooth takes. He also makes the straight-razor murders creepy with use of splashes of blood and quick motions, which are the movie's most obvious connection to giallos. In the end, the heist is a bit of a bust, but the resolution of the murder mystery hinges on some over-the-top histrionics and psycho-babble that would fit perfectly in a Dario Argento movie. I guess this is an early look at where some of that came from.

Monday, October 12, 2015

'Fargo' Season 2

The first season of FX's Fargo was a pleasant surprise, a seemingly ill-advised project that turned out to effectively capture the tone of the movie it was based on while confidently standing on its own. Thanks to solid work from an eclectic cast (including a breakout performance from Allison Tolman), sharp writing and a strong cinematic look, Fargo ended up being one of the best shows of 2014. As fans of True Detective have learned, following up such a strong self-contained story is not easy, and the first four episodes of Fargo's second season are not nearly as effective as the beginning of its first, although they do feature some strong performances and a confident style.

Creator Noah Hawley moves further away from the central themes and narrative elements of the Coen brothers' movie, which allows him more freedom but also makes the show a bit less focused. Set in 1979, the new season is a prequel of sorts to the first season, with Patrick Wilson playing Lou Solverson, who was a retired cop (played by Keith Carradine) in the first season. Here he's in the prime of his career, with a wife (Cristin Milioti) who's been diagnosed with cancer and a young daughter who'll grow up to be a cop just like her dad (and be played by Allison Tolman). The season's various storylines kick off with a bizarre triple murder in a roadside diner, and they end up encompassing Lou, his sheriff father-in-law (Ted Danson), a Fargo-based organized crime family (led by a matriarch played by Jean Smart), some carpet-bagging mobsters from Kansas City, and a seemingly mild-mannered couple played by Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons.

The storyline featuring Dunst and Plemons comes closest to the Jerry Lundegaard/Lester Nygaard "average Joe in over his head" plots from the movie and the first season, respectively, but the danger for these characters comes more from dull ineptitude than the banal evil that made Jerry and Lester fascinating. There's much richer material in the mob storyline, with a practically Shakespearean drama of succession as the patriarch (Michael Hogan) of the Gerhardt crime family suffers a stroke, and his relatives vie for control, with dangerous and deadly results. Bokeem Woodbine comes closest to fulfilling Billy Bob Thornton's role from the first season as an agent of pure chaos, but his character (one of the Kansas City mob's enforcers) is more human in his motivations. Overall, the season is less tense and engrossing than the first season, but it also has a wider scope and ambition.

Hawley and the episode's directors bring a rich cinematic style to the show, using split screens and other period-appropriate techniques to evoke the era, and the actors dive into the often mannered dialogue, giving it a vibrant liveliness. Burn Notice's Jeffrey Donovan (as a particularly short-tempered Gerhardt), Woodbine and Brad Garrett probably stand out the most, but all of the actors do good work. Some of Hawley's stranger touches (UFO references that recall the Coens' The Man Who Wasn't There; scenes from made-up Ronald Reagan movies) are a bit difficult to fathom in these early episodes, but they may make more sense as the season goes on. I'll be watching to see, although not with the same level of excitement that I had in the previous season.

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on FX.