Studio: Image Entertainment
Director: Daniel Farrands, Andrew Kasch
Writer: Thommy Hutson
Producer: Daniel Farrands, Thommy Hutson
Stars: Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, Wes Craven, Sara Risher, Robert Shaye, Lin Shaye, Amanda Wyss, Rachel Talalay
Cast and crew recount the behind-the-scenes history of Freddy Krueger and the “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise.
Obviously, a four-hour retrospective on the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series is going to be a love letter to Freddy’s faithful followers and a must-see trip through the time tunnel for devoted fans of the film franchise. But in addition to being the definitive documentary on all things Elm Street, “Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy” transcends niche appeal with a structure and a sincerity that cast it as the new standard to which all behind-the-scenes features must measure up.
“Never Sleep Again” is exceptionally produced, exceptionally thought out, and exceptionally entertaining. The formula on the screen and the passion behind it possess an uncanny ability to instill a newfound appreciation of the series, even for casual and no-longer-interested fans.
It helps that before “Never Sleep Again,” there was a surprising dearth of comprehensive coverage for a series with such longevity and enduring popularity. There is a lot to reveal regarding Elm Street and the plentiful trivia is both absorbing and previously unknown.
For instance, “Halloween” faithful are well aware that Christopher Lee, not Donald Pleasence, topped John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s wish list for who should play Michael Myers’ Ahab, Dr. Loomis. Far fewer in number are those in the know that David Warner was originally cast as Freddy Krueger, and even wore the makeup for an effects test, before Robert Englund filled the role.
The first ingredient in the documentary’s successful approach is an intelligent balance of content. Humorous anecdotes such as those involving rampant naivety over the homosexual themes of “Freddy’s Revenge” provide levity. Questioning the marketing of children’s pajamas themed around a fictional pedophile addresses the controversies. And whenever the discussion turns to special effects, it is always presented in a way that is appealing to laypeople and not just “how it’s done” nerds.
Glancing at the several hours worth of supplemental content on a second disc proves that directors Daniel Farrands and Andrew Kasch, writer Thommy Hutson, and co-editor Michael Benni Pierce carefully weighed what to include. The additional asides range in worth from throwaway to limited interest, but it shows that the filmmakers had King Solomon-like wisdom when considering what was essential for the main feature.
Four hours turns out to be a perfectly appropriate length. Watching it all in one sitting is not a chore, but chapters are segmented chronologically by film, making it easier to home in solely on sections that hold the most interest for a viewer.
It would be a mistake to watch the movie the first time in any manner other than all the way through. What “Never Sleep Again” excels at most as a documentary is how it effortlessly flows through each era while painting a cohesive picture of the series’ development as a whole.
Franchise direction choices that seemed like missteps to outsiders at the time are given new context with fresh perspectives. When producer Sara Risher recounts her own pregnancy coupled with the notion that the teenaged audience of the first “Nightmare on Elm Street” had become parents themselves, it suddenly makes sense that New Line decided to give Freddy a child for the fifth movie.
Whether it is the reasons given for why the first sequel was such a departure in tone or the explanation for Freddy’s transformation into insult comic, there is a real understanding of how and why the series evolved from one iteration to the next. A genuine reverence is expressed from everyone behind the scenes. Ideas that did not work are shown to be ideas that did not work, and not a case of someone committing less than 100% or throwing arms up in surrender.
The honesty from everyone interviewed lends the film serious integrity. Executives cop to poor hiring choices. Actors admit on-set drug use. Directors recall instances of butting heads. Everyone expresses a refreshing frankness over mistakes made with an air of buried hatchets instead of tabloid tawdriness.
The nostalgia is not as wistful as in similar docs where actors reminisce with unfettered reverie. It would be easy for minutes to disappear on topics of what the movie means to whomever while philosophizing over hidden meanings and other pointless blah-blah. Here, there is substantial informative value and the insights are focused. When “Never Sleep Again” does break into a tangent, it is to dig deeper into the mindsets behind the screenplays and the characters, which is wholly appropriate for films centered on traumatic psychological terror.
Clips bridging and accenting the talking heads are a showcase of rarities, outtakes, and unused concepts. FX artists affectionately rib Robert Englund for his Chatty Cathy reputation. An oversized Freddy marionette topples over, bringing crewmembers with it to the ground. A stunt double uses colorful language to express frustration over long shooting hours. Half of the fun comes from the surprise that such footage even exists. The other half comes from the shock that the filmmakers are unafraid to show their warts.
The biggest surprise is the emotional conclusion. It is entirely fitting that the documentary closes with coverage of New Line, the “House That Freddy Built,” folding into Time Warner. As much as it is about Freddy and Elm Street, “Never Sleep Again” chronicles the role of the once maverick company behind it all. As a pioneer in independent cinema, New Line had a vibrant spirit of creative freedom and close-knit connectedness. Feeling like an insider with the peek behind their curtain makes one long to have been part of such an exciting time and an amazing collection of talent.
The subtlety of Clu Gulager’s sarcasm. Michael Granberry’s stop-motion animated bookends. Trying not to make eye contact with actress Lezlie Deane’s submissive companion as she stares silently during Deane’s interviews. “Never Sleep Again” has so much rich material to enjoy, yet there is still time to wish that every horror franchise had a documentary of similar scope and quality.
More than an exhaustive index of how a popular horror series earned its seminal status, “Never Sleep Again” is a near perfect documentary that is endlessly fascinating on multiple levels. This is not for diehards only. This is for everyone who loves movies.
Review Score: 95