Tuesday, June 29, 2010

never sleep again

Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy is an enjoyable, very detailed documentary profiling all of the films in the Nightmare on Elm Street series as well as the cult "Freddy's Nightmares"TV spin-off. Because features on many of the Nightmare DVD's are thin, this documentary is a treat for Freddy fans. It's also a reminder that most of the films in this series are relatively low budget independents that scored significant box office based on their own ingenuity. Financed by the brave New Line Cinemas, a production company that, under the helm of Robert Shaye (an interesting presence in this doc), was quite ahead of its time with bold projects of the 1970s and 1980s. This doc covers a lot of terrain in four hours but unlike many retrospectives, it isn't too glutted with clips. It's smart, fast and quirky. And it isn't edited in a way that sugarcoats the less successful entries in the series. The filmmakers involved are quite honest in their assessments.

Wes Craven, the director of the original, is perhaps the most critical of many of the subsequent films and to some extent, with good reason. The creepy, straightforward vibe of Part 1 differs greatly from the humorous, tongue-in-cheek, noisy visual dream-scape of Renny Harlin's Part 4. But the films themselves mimic a changing era in 1980s horror cinema. Once Freddy became a wisecracking late night guest and a marketable tool (to children as well as young adults), the films themselves, like their audiences, became much more self-aware. Part 1 remains the standard bearer for many subsequent horror films. Dark, moody and imaginative, unlike the standard slasher films before it, it blends fantasy with reality. Some of the images, presented so simply and evocatively (a body bag, a looming Freddy above our heroine Nancy's bed) are still haunting and memorable.

The hastily produced Part 2 ignored much of Part 1's storyline and isn't fondly remembered because of it. Craven remarks that it broke the rules by having Freddy come out of nightmares and into everyday reality in a pool party attack sequence. There indeed is a loss of tension when Freddy can appear at anytime, anyplace rather than within one's dreams. Also, the unusual and frank gay subtext of the sequel is finally addressed by the cast and filmmakers. Because those involved with the project were unable to recognize the mastery of the original and the sequel's homo-erotic overtones, what could have been an interesting premise was largely squandered.

The doc traces the enormous box office of Parts 3 and 4 which remain the most entertaining and best of the sequels and reveals the risks and chances New Line dared to take. 3 was created by the efforts of many future talents such as Peter Jackson and director Chuck Russell. Finnish Renny Harlin, then unknown, constructed Part 4, was underestimated by Shaye at the time. Harlin defied expectations with perhaps the most visually stunning and financially successful entry in the series. The doc includes footage of the wizardry of the films' special effects teams who delivered a lot in pre-CGI times on a modest budget. Both received the most positive reviews of the series and helped Freddy Krueger become a cultural phenomenon. Never Sleep Again provides wonderful, references of this booming 80s horror franchise with clips from Reagan, "Good Morning America," and a staunch Ebert who opposed the young audience marketing of the films.

The series began to lose luster with the less compelling and poorly scripted Part 5 (Freddy has a child!) and with 3-D gimmickry of Freddy's Dead. Yet for the benefit of series fans, Never Sleep Again devotes as much time to these films as the others. One can't help but be excited to hear the story of New Line producer Rachel Talalay, an enthusiastic supporter of the series, finally given the chance to direct an entry.

Craven systematically revived and buried the series with 1994's metafilm Wes Craven's New Nightmare to the delight of critics. Because there is so much self-awareness in films today (from Adaptation. to Tarantino epics--interestingly, Pulp Fiction was released the same day as New Nightmare), Craven's film still seems fresh as a departure from the slicker 80s films.

The much hyped showdown between Krueger and Jason resulted in the 2003 hit Freddy vs. Jason. Recalling the classic Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, I find Freddy vs. Jason simply a generic comic mainstream hit. Unlike any of the Nightmare predecessors, even the worst of them, it has no charm, atmosphere or suspense whatsoever. This is much in line with the bloated, dumbed-down horror movies of Hollywood today. Perhaps for interest of fans only, Never Sleep Again follows its origins and its subsequent box office success.

Never Sleep Again is winning for finding and interviewing so many cast members (who introduce themselves nicely by reading script descriptions of their characters), including the incomparable Robert Englund. Heather Langenkamp, who portrayed the wholesome but slyly inventive final girl of Part 1, narrates and is a fitting choice as she is the bridge between many of the sequels. Some careers have flourished, most notably those of Johnny Depp and Patricia Arquette, who lamentably do not appear here. Many are forgotten. Jsu Garcia reveals how he was marketed by agents as Italian under the name of Nick Corri, and also his struggles with addiction during the shoot of Part 1. Part 3 Cast members talk of the lack of chemistry with Tuesday Knight (who I thought was a good replacement) when Arquette didn't return for Part 4.

For those nostalgic for 80s horror and for film lovers in general, Never Sleep Again is a must-see. I commend the filmmakers for their wit and their thoroughness. The DVD can be ordered here. ***

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