After spending the last two years rewatching entire series of films in order to prepare for new installments, remakes, or re-imaginings, I think I've finally figured out what seems to be the difference between cinephiles and fan boys: the ability to distinguish one's love for an idea or property from how good or bad it is. For example, I'm a huge fan of Friday the 13th, but recognize that almost none of the films are well-made; or conversely, I never cared about A Nightmare on Elm Street but don't deny that the first film is pretty amazing.
While the majority of fandom struggles to figure out how much love to give its sacred cows, Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy balances brilliantly on this thin line between undeniable candor and blind affection. Directors Daniel Farrands and Andrew Kasch, who previously made the Friday the 13th documentary His Name Was Jason, pay tribute to one of the premiere horror franchises of the past three decades while remaining honest about its shortcomings, crafting a definitive, honest portrait of the Nightmare series that both lovingly celebrates and meticulously chronicles its illustrious history.
The one thing which will test the constitution of even the series' most ardent fans is the doc's running time – a whopping 240 minutes. However, each film in the franchise is explored in its own separate 30-minute segment, so there isn't too much repetition from previous documentaries or DVD releases (such as the stellar making-of that's available on the original Nightmare on Elm Street Blu-ray), and each film is thoroughly but thankfully not exhaustively examined. For example, although the first film has been discussed near to death, there are a number of interesting discussions that arise from the interview footage (which includes virtually all of the key contributors) that have never been addressed or explored, at least not for posterity.
The most interesting of these (on the original Nightmare, anyway) is the question of what the ending of the film means. Wes Craven and Bob Shaye previously admitted that it was a commercial rather than artistic addition to the film that Nancy and her friends drive off in a convertible painted with the red and green stripes as her mother is attacked by Freddy; but rather than simply celebrating the accomplishment of getting the film finished under such duress, Heather Langenkamp and other members of the crew observe that a lot of the stuff that happens at the end of the film doesn't seem to have a point, and some of it even contradicts other stuff. It's these sorts of revelations that give the entire documentary some vigor and uniqueness, not because they highlight shortcomings but because they contextualize the artistic and commercial accomplishments of the series in a world where people can and do still ask questions about different aspects of the films.
All of which of course brings fans to Freddy's Revenge, which may be the most homoerotic horror film of all time. As a number of interviewees acknowledge, Nightmare 2 isn't a film where the main character's sexuality is subtext, it's right out there in the open, even if director Jack Sholder indicates he never thought anything of it during shooting. Meanwhile, this is also the first film on which the interviewees – including former New Line honchos Bob Shaye, Rachel Talalay and Sara Risher – admit to the corners cut both monetarily and creatively to get these films out into theaters. Talalay, for example, confesses that the scene in Freddy's Revenge makes no sense where Freddy attacks a group of kids hanging out by a pool.
But while he doesn't justify that scene in particular, actor Robert Englund frequently becomes the documentary's go-to guy for a ham-fisted or desperate attempt to provide some tenuous connection between all of these half-assed, underbudgeted ideas and cohesive character development, not to mention a broader expansion of the Freddy mythology. That's not to say that Farrands and Kasch specifically enlisted him for that purpose, and of course his insights are valuable as the guy who played Freddy throughout the entire series. But his reliably self-indulgent observations about the mythological underpinnings of even the most mediocre entries in the series offer a pretentious counterpoint to the producers and directors' of the sweat and desperation that typically led them to the majority of the ideas in the sequels.
As much as the day-late-and-dollar-short ethos tends to be the modus operandi of so many classic movies, much less sequels and series as a whole, the one thing that runs recurrent in almost every recollection of the making of the Nightmare movies is the way that New Line churned these movies out – not without any ideas, but certainly without carefully thinking them through, and perhaps more importantly, without the appropriate money or time to create something, well, if not special, then at least well-done. Notwithstanding the gamble New Line took in producing and releasing the original film without outside help, the rest of the films were churned out to have studio product in circulation and keep the Nightmare brand alive, quality be damned – which I'd argue even the most passionate fans of the franchise would have to agree with.
Considering the fact that the first film could scarcely figure out its own mythology, it comes as little surprise that subsequent entries basically got lost chasing the tail of the previous film, if they bothered to preserve canon continuity at all. That doesn't make the movies bad necessarily or diminish the impact and importance of the franchise as a whole, but it's incredibly interesting to see a documentary present this image of a film series that isn't just a celebration of everything that went right without mention of what went wrong. At the same time, enlisting so many different cast and crew members to speak about the films really reinforces their often-surprising longevity – the idea that years after they were released, and even when they remain dismissed critically, the films linger lovingly in the memories of the folks who made them, and because of that in the memories of their fans as well.
The bottom line is that these films were seminal to the 1980s and '90s as a reflection of the changes horror underwent as it graduated from slasher films to other, arguably more sophisticated or at least conceptually complicated ideas. Personally speaking, I actually don't like most of the films, and was never particularly interested in Freddy or his mythology, but this documentary highlights their significance and influence, and demonstrates how the Nightmare series either by accident or design ended up reflecting the pop-cultural preoccupations of the times in which it flourished.
In fact, the only real question that still lingered in my mind after the documentary was done was why Wes Craven never wrote a scene in New Nightmare where Robert Englund came face to face with Freddy. (Seriously, that still makes no sense.) That said, this is probably the only glaring no-brainer question that goes unanswered in the entirety of Never Sleep Again, and that's a considerable victory for the Farrands and Kasch's film both as entertainment and as a work of information.
Ultimately, this documentary was not only made for fans of the series, but also by them, which is why it may serve to define whether you're just a lover of horror films in general or truly a Freddy fan boy. But no matter how you feel about Nightmare on Elm Street, the great thing about Never Sleep Again is that it is absolutely satisfying, whether you're interested in celebrating the history of these iconic films, or just checking out the obstacles that almost kept them from happening.