Friday, 14 January 2011

Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy (Daniel Farrands, Andrew Kasch, 2010) R1 DVD Review

Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger.

In the early 1980s New Line Cinema was a struggling distribution company desperately searching for a hit. They'd been good at picking up cult movies such as Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1972) and The Street Fighter (Shigehero Ozawa, 1974), but these movies wouldn't find a real audience for years to come. They were struggling and needed to bounce back from two flops, Polyester (John Waters, 1981) and Alone In The Dark (Jack Sholder, 1982). Producer Bob Shaye knew he had to take a risk on something special, and that something was Wes Craven's screenplay for A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984), which had been turned down by almost every other studio. At the time Craven was best known for the controversial rape/revenge thriller Last House On The Left (1972), and was not the most bankable of filmmakers. Shaye and Craven both knew that this film would make or break them, and it became the first film to be both produced and distributed by New Line Cinema, who until now had only handled the selling of movies. Creative disputes, money troubles and on-set accidents all went into the creation of one of the best and most iconic horror movies of all time, which spawned an unforgettable legacy and one of the longest movie franchises. Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy is the story of how it all came together...

An in-depth four-hour documentary of insights and anecdotes, there's not much more to say than if you're a Nightmare On Elm Street fan this will be one of the most exciting and entertaining film experiences of the year. Behind-the-scenes footage, unedited and honest opinions of the films and a detailed history of New Line Cinema, creative disputes and how Box Office affected the trajectory of the franchise are all on offer. Simply put, it's heaven for the horror fan. Around 30 minutes is dedicated to each film, including the disappointing Freddy vs. Jason (Ronny Yu, 2003), which actually comes out quite clean, with Englund endorsing it as a Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman (Roy William Neill, 1943) throwback affair. With that taken into account, along with its long and troubled pre-production history, Freddy vs. Jason might be due something of a re-evaluation as a schlocky showdown piece, rather than something with ingenuity and wit, which is what the franchise was built upon. A lot of executives seem unhappy with the final edit of the film and some deleted footage (which found opposition with the MPAA) looks much more exciting and bloodthirsty. That said, Englund and director Yu still seem enthused about the final result, which is more than can be said for some of the films.

Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (Rachel Talalay, 1991) doesn't quite get the bashing it deserves, but on-set accounts and discussions of the ideas behind it make it sound like a much more noble failure than watching the film suggests. The sequence where Breckin Meyer enters a videogame world with Freddy has been the scene of fan outrage and cringe-inducing anger for years, and it's acknowledged as a misstep, but series producer Talalay was seriously trying to expand the mythology and try something new. And that's what this documentary really reconfirms - no matter how many awful moments there are in the Nightmare On Elm Street legacy, no matter how many stinkers find their way into the crowd, each one was something new and brought creative spirit to the table. Four films down the line most franchises start to get a little stale but Renny Harlin's effort (The Dream Master, 1988) is still a stunningly imaginative and underrated gem, with a visionary ending sequence. Harlin reveals here that he wanted to shoot the film with the pace of a Hong Kong Kung Fu movie, and there are stylistic flourishes in the final frames that suggest he succeeded. The killing of Freddy, which sees a disorienting camera propel us through his body with screaming souls bursting out of the walls, eventually ending with them tearing through his chest and ripping him apart, is one of the most inventive and gruesome moments in the legacy, with thrilling use of practical effects. It's almost like watching Cronenberg go to hell.

It's also great to see The Dream Warriors (Chuck Russell, 1987) get the recognition it deserves as not only a fan favorite, but a genuine horror classic. It's a furiously paced, intelligent and terrifying movie - but it's sad to learn that it could have been more so. The opening sequence sees Patricia Arquette running down dark, echoing hallways, and coming across a child. The special effects and makeup team put together a disturbing model of a skeletal child, which almost looked like it had been abused and starved, eventually ending up at the wrath of Freddy. Russell and Shay decided that it was too scary and weeks of work were just thrown away. I wish they hadn't, as it would have made the film even better. The special effects are the most celebrated element of the documentary, and it's frankly about time, because the franchise does display innovative use of in-camera and practical effects, which will always look better than CGI. Even when they had no money, no support, and impending deadlines, the effects and makeup teams always managed to make something spectacular. Thank god they're finally getting the attention they deserve, as practical effects engineers and makeup artists are often tragically ignored.

Most entertaining is watching the cast and crew of Freddy's Revenge (Jack Sholder, 1985) discuss the vast homosexual subtext of the film. Screenwriter David Chaskin expresses disappointment at nearly every junction, director Sholder talks of almost casting Brad Pitt (who would later appear in the TV series) or Christian Slater, and the producers laugh over their naivety in not seeing the gay subtext - especially the shower whipping scene and that awful bedroom dancing sequence. The highlight of the whole documentary comes here too; a fantastically deadpan Clu Gulager's expression when talking of the killer bird, which almost blinded him. Priceless.

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