Freddy’s Undead: ‘Never Sleep Again – The Elm Street Legacy’

Christian Slater and Brad Pitt were almost cast in the role that propelled an unknown Johnny Depp to semi-stardom. The second movie is often called “the gayest” horror sequel ever made (and it may have been intentional on the part of the filmmakers). Part three saw future fright masters Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont deconstructing the entire franchise mythology, while director Renny Harlin was hired to direct Part Four mostly because the suits at New Line thought he could use a job…and a bath. From the baby oriented angle forced on the fifth installment to the decision to ‘end’ the series with a surreal 3D send-off, the dream demon child molesting pedophile created by horror maestro Wes Craven anchored one of the most successful and unprecedented macabre monopolies in all of horror.

So naturally someone would eventually come along hoping to celebrate all seven movies that make up the series proper (including a nice nod to mash-up Freddy vs. Jason), relying on the talking head anecdotes of those directly involved in the Nightmare on Elm Street dynasty to fill in the blanks that fans and fellow Fred Heads already know by rote. Thus we have Never Sleep Again, Daniel Farrands and Andrew Kasch’s well intentioned four hour walk through of everything Krueger. From humble true life origins to a mid ’80s merchandising blitz that had parents and pundits in an uproar, this point by point breakdown of each and every step in the claw hand’s canon is inherently interesting and purist obsessive. But it’s more than that. It’s also an oral history of New Line Cinema and the film franchise that turned the outsider midnight movie distributor into a moneymaking mini-major studio.

It all began with commercial pariah Craven, a decade of dealing with the blowback from Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes rendering him a shunned industry instigator. After reading an article about young Pan-Asian boys dying in their sleep (many complained of “deadly dreams”), he postulated on what could cause such fatal night terrors. Mixing in a little bit of The Bible (the parent’s actions being visited upon their offspring) and some of his patented schlock shock maneuvering, and the result was a script no studio would touch. Eventually, Bob Shaye at New Line saw something in Craven’s pseudo-slasher morality tale, something that could feed into a part of the horror fanbase fed up with nameless, faceless, slice and dicers. Thus Robert Englund was cast as child killer Freddy Krueger, an elaborate series of special F/X was crafted, and a young actress named Heather Langenkamp came on board to play audience surrogate and last girl champion.

Thanks to a dearth in imaginative fright film choices and a central character that was both menacing and mesmerizing, Craven’s original Nightmare movie rewrote the scary movie rulebook. Inventive and original while still touching on the universal elements that chill our spine, it stands today as a testament to the vision of all involved. It’s a vision that Never Sleep Again taps into and trades on time and time again. Certainly, it’s easy to play backseat producer and pat yourself on the back for the perceived hit you helped foster, but many on the New Line side of things argue for their creative battles with Craven, something that would sour their relationship and see the filmmaker leave the series for meaningless salt mines of the mainstream.

Perhaps the best part of Never Sleep Again is this Rashomon like perspective on each and every installment. Most of the players are present (apparently, Depp and Part 3’s Patricia Arquette are too important to be part of some “glorified DVD extra”) and they have well rehearsed and innately insightful things to say. It is here where we learn of the malfunction during the bed blood fountain sequence, the joy of spending your days between Langenkamp’s naked thighs, and the last minute ending alteration that irked almost everyone except the bean counters. As we move to Part 2, we hear about the web-based belief in the film’s homosexual agenda, the various confessions and contradictions to said interpretation, and the various real life components that made this sequel one of the most difficult to decipher.

As they walk us through the movies, Farrands and Kasch carefully balance their fanboy desire to geek out with the inherent need to keep the story moving. The particulars of Dream Warriors mandates that every actor get an overlong discussion of their character, but luckily, the documentary makes good use of such “where are they now” designs. By far the most interesting material surrounds one time Hollywood blockbuster protégé Harlin, who clearly thanks Nightmare for giving him a career. While those in the know would argue that his previous film, Prison, was a good enough calling card, his twisted take on Dream Master would forever link his fortunes to Freddy and his faded green and red sweater. A close second in the delight department is Stephen Hopkins, an amiable Brit who guides us through the incomplete script dementia of trying to steer the Krueger baby bedlam of Dream Child.

The very best thing about Never Sleep Again – aside from the extras-laden DVD which packs even more important information into the mix – is it’s completeness. It doesn’t want to leave a single issue out, from the less than beloved Freddy’s Nightmares TV show to the decision NOT to cast Kane Hodder as Camp Crystal Lake’s mutant spree killer in Freddy vs. Jason. In between, the brilliant New Wave workout of Craven’s New Nightmare is dissected and demystified, Siskel and Ebert are given a slight comeuppance, while various important players like Rachel Talalay, John Saxton, and numerous make-up and F/X artists explain the often overwhelming prospect of trying to top the previous installments. About the only thing lacking here is a thematic undercurrent, a subtext that transcends the standard behind the scenes subject to make the entire project seem like more than just an exhaustive overview.

Still, it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement and epiphanies that came about as part of A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s franchise rise. Even those cast members who played a minor part in the series seem genuinely happy with their time in the titles. Of course, any backwards glancing is usually 20/20, the pleasantry of perspective giving everyone a far more lucid look at their memories and misgivings. Never Sleep Again won’t be winning any awards as the kind of documentary that changes and rearranges the genre. Instead, it is a wildly informative summary of a seminal horror icon – and the people who populated his dark, disturbing dreamscapes.

RATING 8 / 10
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