'Dragon Tattoo' is stark, Swedish brooding

Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson, before his untimely death wrote, what is now referred to as the Millennium Trilogy, three award-winning works of fiction, two of which have been published in the U.S.: "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and "The Girl Who Played With Fire." The third novel, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," is slated to arrive this summer. The stories, each more than 600 pages, are a tour de force, a cultural phenomenon, combining the thriller-mystery genre with an intensely fascinating character study, each densely layered with multiple characters and labyrinthine plots that are all but impossible to put down.

The novels have been read worldwide and continue to spark interest and discussion, bolstered by the release of the film. What makes the books compelling — not to diminsh the intricate plotting — is Lisbeth Salander, a 24-year-old waif of a young woman, brilliant to the point of genius, possessing a photographic memory and a deep well of courage. On the surface she is painfully asocial and all goth — tattoos, piercings, with raven-wing hair, dark eyes and a strain of individuality that is, in every respect, iron.

For reasons that are slowly revealed, she has a guardian who, at the direction of the court, oversees her life and her finances. Salander's brilliance is channeled into computers. She's a superb hacker, instantly at home with all things electronic, and uses her state-of-the-art laptop as an essential tool in her work for a security company, where she works as a contract researcher. Her talents and intelligence are remarkable, though she is a bundle of contradictions and has clearly been damaged at various points in her life.

It's hard to think of a character in the last decade that is so captivating and interesting. Her backstory is a series of tragedies and failures by those who should have cared for her. The result is a young woman who is profoundly mistrustful of all authority, inaccessible, yet such a quick study as to take your breath away. There is likely not enough time or therapy to unravel Lisbeth, if she would, even for a moment, consider trying.

The question then is: can the first of what will be three films capture the essence of Salander while detailing a complex serial-murder mystery? All in 21/2; hours? The answer is yes.

Filmed in northern Sweden, the movie has a brooding, stark feel to it, much of it shot in winter, involving a 40-something journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyquist). He is hired by an aging industrialist to find the person who, he assumes, murdered his 16-year-old niece some 40 years before. In every way it is a cold case, a case that at first blush seems intricate and unsolvable. The police tried. Yet, when Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) is recruited, pieces to the jigsaw begin to come together revealing not just one murder but a series of women killed horribly and then mutilated, suggesting a terrible pathology at work.

The film is wonderfully shot by cinematographer Eric Kress, and well acted by the Swedish ensemble. Of course, the crucial challenge was who to cast as Salander. Rapace is perfect, a slip of a woman, who conveys with her silence and anger and intelligence, her vulnerability while remaining well-defended, with an emotional carapace ever intact.

Regarding the book and the film, there's an inherent conundrum: if you read the book first, then the film will be eminently interesting, though without surprise. The twists at the end will be anticipated. But to watch the film before reading the book will reveal the ending and take some of the punch out of the story. "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is a wonderful murder mystery, a classic whodunit, and the perpetrator is not disclosed until necessary, making for a ripper of a climax as well as a very nice surprise embedded in the denouement.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

"A Nightmare on Elm Street" is woven into the popular culture so tightly that Hollywood decided that a remake might just have some legs. It was in 1984 that Freddy Krueger first made his appearance in the original film, creating such a splash that there followed countless other incarnations.

What is interesting about "Nightmare" is not so much this latest remake, though it is very passable and should not disappoint fans; instead, what fascinates is why Krueger, more a lethal presence than a fully developed character, is so compelling.

If you enjoy the horror/killer/slasher genre, you likely know that Freddy appears in the dreams of teenagers, for reasons that involve a preschool, abuse and his eventual immolation (hence all the scar tissue). But, again, why Freddy? Is it because he slips into and out of our dreams with such force and lucidity that he can commit mayhem? Does his specter drive us to insomnia as our last refuge? Is sleep the twin of death? Or, to quote Shakespeare, "To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream." The dark is the standard horror film trope seeming to appeal to some atavistic part of our unconscious mind. Stepping into a dark room, or walking down fragile stairs to a dark basement, calls forth emotions that are seemingly primal. For our ancestors, to fear the dark was to survive, for there, just beyond the fire, beyond the mouth of the cave, resided all manner of terrifying danger.

Successful horror films make great use of such assumptions, recall "I Know What You Did Last Summer," "Halloween," "Scream," "Wrong Turn" and "Friday the 13th" to name but a few.

Freddy also is, in many ways, the mirror of so many urban legends that grip the imaginations of teens, stories that survive in many forms, all having, at their center, a nugget of terror, no matter the requirement to suspend one's disbelief: the Hook and the White Witch being two excellent examples.

The hope of the filmmakers is that since more than 25 years have passed since the release of "Nightmare," there will be a new audience, all desperate to be frightened again, the gore enhanced by CGI. The teenagers will scream as they did before, and the set pieces will ratchet up the creep factor, all to good effect.

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