I'll just throw this out there: in general, I don't like making-of documentaries. There tends to be way too much glad-handing, everyone's beaming with smiles and gushing about how amazing everyone and everything is, and I'll get tours of sets and CGI wizardry that are pretty much indistinguishable from every other making-of doc or featurette, ever. The names and faces change, sure, but I've dug into the behind-the-scenes stuff on a lot of DVDs, and I very quickly get stuck with the sense that I've seen 'em all. The point of all this is to say that Never Sleep Again is nothing like that whatsoever. It's an independent production, so there aren't any skittish marketing heads or legal jockeys on retainer trying to paint everything in the most glowing possible light. Seeing as how the first of these movies is more than twenty-five years in the rear view mirror now, there's a perspective and an honesty that couldn't have been captured in that still-on-the-set afterglow. If Never Sleep Again had been produced before now or by pretty much anyone else, it's a safe bet the end result wouldn't have been nearly this compelling.
I don't think you'll get much argument that four hours is a long time, especially for a film...something that's designed to be experienced in one fell swoop. It's not easy for a documentary with any subject, no matter how sprawling in scale it may be -- the history of the U.S. space program, the rise and fall of the Roman empire, those two guys trying to one-up each other in Donkey Kong -- to sustain itself for four hours. Never Sleep Again pulls it off brilliantly. Hand to God, if I didn't know in advance that the runtime was pushing 240 minutes, I would've guessed it was maybe two hours from the introductory stop-motion animation to the line readings over the end credits. It moves so impossibly swiftly. Hell, after I finished the documentary, I was so hungry for more that I tore straight into the extended interviews on disc two immediately afterwards. Never Sleep Again is so astonishingly well-made and so addictive that four hours aren't enough.
Up to this point, I've really just been trying to smooth out whatever snap judgments you might've made about a four hour doc on a slasher franchise. This is about the time when I start really digging into the specifics. If you want an exceptionally thorough dissection of the film, read Cameron McGaughy's review of the initial release. Think of his write-up as the unabridged book, while this one's the Reader's Digest version. Also, it's worth noting that the collector's edition I'm reviewing here has a couple extra bells and whistles. The initial DVD apparently didn't include a commentary, and I'm guessing there wasn't a poster folded inside either.
So, here goes: Four hours. Eight movies. Several continents. More than a hundred interviews. 2,800 pages of transcripts. Never Sleep Again attacks the first six Nightmare on Elm St. movies, Wes Craven's New Nightmare, Jason vs. Freddy, and, smack dab in the middle, the 44-episode run of the Freddy's Nightmares TV series, all in chronological order. The documentary is driven most intensely by retrospective interviews, but it does feature very sparingly used excerpts from the films, lots of behind the scenes photos, outtakes, deleted scenes, and special effects tests. A lot of the material unearthed here has never been widely seen before...definitely hadn't been seen by me, at least. Among the highlights are a look at the Freddy makeup designed for David Warner when he was still cast, a pissed-off Freddy stunt double ranting about six hours of underwater work, and...oh, there's Linnea Quigley with her boobs hanging out, getting ready to tear her way out of an oversized Freddy chest. ...and let's face it, more documentaries could stand to have newly-produced stop-motion animation of a puppetized serial killer.
...and then there are those interviews. The final count is somewhere around 105 or 106 participants, and that astonishingly long list includes everyone: every director, most of the writers, composers, cinematographers, producers, key make-up effects crew, and just about every last member of the cast. There are a few omissions, like Johnny Depp and Patricia Arquette, though it wasn't for a lack of trying, but most of the cast and crew whose names are rattled off in the opening credits of each movie are in here somewhere. That includes the more prominent names like John Saxon, Wes Craven, Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, Bob Shaye, Alice Cooper, Clu Gulager, Mick Garris, Renny Harlin, and fuckin' Dokken as well. When I say "everyone", though, I mean it. Doesn't matter if it's...oh, Leslie Hoffman, the hall monitor in the Freddy stripes from the original Elm St., or Fran Bennett, the skeptical doctor in New Nightmare. Anyone with an intriguing perspective or a story to tell gets screentime. In fact, even the stories you may have heard before sound fresher here since they're generally being delivered by someone other than the same few familiar faces.
I don't want to turn this review into a laundry list of highlights. Part of the fun of the documentary is that sense of discovery, after all, and they're obviously better at telling their own stories than I am. I'm kind of obligated to rattle off a few, though. Robert Englund speaks about the physicality of the performance he created as Freddy, such as his right shoulder being slumped and modeling it all somewhat after James Cagney in his gangster flicks. Bob Shaye literally staked New Line as a company on A Nightmare on Elm St. but didn't directly benefit from its success all that much until the sequels rolled around. The gay subtext...well, text, period...in part 2 is finally addressed. It's revealed why Dick Cavett was so eager to slap around Zsa Zsa Gabor on his fake, Freddified late night talk show. Renny Harlin and company talk about shooting The Dream Master during the writers' strike without a finished script in hand. There was such a boom in Elm St. merchandising after the inhuman success of part four that one enterprising company in the Eastern bloc churned out Freddy Valium, for cryin' out loud. There are comparisons between part five's ambitious motorcycle morph before and after the MPAA started slashing around its scissors around. This is followed later by a pretty lengthy discussion about what Peter Jackson crammed into his proposed screenplay for Freddy's Dead. We get to hear about what 8-year-old Miko Hughes' dad told him on the set of New Nightmare to make him break down and cry for the camera. The concept for Freddy vs. Jason had been bobbing around for close to twenty years before it finally hacked and slashed its way into theaters, and several of the many, many concepts pitched over those couple of decades are highlighted here. I mean, Jason being put on trial for murder, Freddy pissing in the Holy Grail, Freddy being tossed into the sun, a climax set in the fiery pits of Hell...that segment alone is worth the price of entry. There's not a down moment or a long, boring story anywhere in here. Every conversation and every revelation is infectious, and Never Sleep Again never once relented its grip for four hours straight.
Never Sleep Again doesn't just follow a "we made this, and then we made this sequel, and then..." structure, though. It's a film that tells a story much greater than the sum of its parts, and a big part of that is the throughline about New Line and the way Bob Shaye ran his studio. This franchise couldn't have existed in any other sort of culture. The penny-pinching brought about a sort of inventiveness and imagination that brought out the best from its relatively green filmmakers. Bigger budgets don't mean better movies; hell, just look at the Elm St. remake from a few months back for proof of that. Most of the Freddy flicks didn't play it safe. Every studio in Hollywood turned down the original, so an undaunted Bob Shaye risked everything to produce and distribute it himself. After all, conventional wisdom would've said that if everyone else passed, he should too. When the first Nightmare turned out to be a colossal success, its first followup didn't just Xerox the same template the way a lot of other slasher sequels did. The meta-leanings of New Nightmare were certainly ahead of its time as well. There was a constant sense of risk-taking and an encouragement of younger talent: the directors in particular generally had light, if not completely blank, filmographies. A couple cameos aside, they rarely cast names. At the same time, it's made very clear that New Line is to blame for some of the later sequels turning out as badly as they did. In a lot of ways, Never Sleep Again is about the rise and fall of New Line -- a studio that was built on the back of a mass-murdering child molester with razor fingers and would impossibly go on to rake in billions with Lord of the Rings. The company made their share of mistakes to be sure, but especially after watching this, it's sad just the same to know that those days are gone.
There's a passion and excitement that still beams from these people so many years after the fact. A lot of them will freely admit to having starred in the weaker Elm St.s, but they're not ashamed and make no excuses. They're proud to have been a part of such an enduring franchise, and they're generally proud of the work they did. That's one of the benefits of time: they have the perspective to delve into what worked and acknowledge what didn't, without one ever overwhelming the other. I don't think there are all that many Freddy fans out there who'd rank all the movies as brilliant straight across the board. Everyone I've talked to has their favorites and at least a couple they can barely stomach. You might think those would be the hardest stretches of Never Sleep Again to make it through -- the movies that you don't like so much -- but it turns out that's really not the case at all. The discussion of flicks that usually get knocked the most by fans -- parts 2, 5, and 6 -- wind up being some of the most fun to watch. The honesty...the candidness about what went wrong and why...is such an essential part of the documentary's appeal. Never Sleep Again made me desperately want to revisit movies that I know I dislike, and that's saying a lot.
I spent more of my life than I'd probably want to admit devouring slasher flicks. I mean, you're reading a review by a guy who remembers being a little tyke sitting in front of the TV with his mom and an oversized pad of legal paper, ticking off every kill in the first two Halloween movies to see how their body counts stacked up. I watched everything, and the Elm St. series was always my favorite of the bunch. The Nightmare on Elm St. movies set themselves apart from the glut of other slashers in the '80s because they broke away from the template. There was a personality, vivid imagination, and craftsmanship that nothing else in the genre came close to touching...hell, the competition didn't know there were those kinds of heights to reach for in the first place. The same holds true for Never Sleep Again. Being such a lifelong fan of these movies, I knew going in that I'd at least like it. I don't just appreciate Never Sleep Again as someone who loves slashers, though; I look at it as an exceptional achievement as someone who loves film, period. I've definitely never enjoyed any sort of documentary as much as I have this one, and again, like the movies that inspired it, there's a sense of personality, craftsmanship, and disinterest in convention that makes it feel so much more distinctive than anything else out there. ...and damn, it's fun. If you ever chalked yourself up as a fan of the Nightmare on Elm St. series, you really owe it to yourself to pick up Never Sleep Again. Literally thousands of DVDs have passed through my hands over the past eleven years, and I'm not exaggerating when I say that this easily ranks among my favorites of any of 'em. DVD Talk Collector Series.
The presentation is a pretty essential part of what makes Never Sleep Again work as well as it does, really. It's certainly shot and lit professionally, the documentary has been edited together so brilliantly that this four hour film feels as if it clocks in at maybe half that, and the stop-motion animation and selection of background plates add enough visual flair that it's never boring to watch. I'm floored by the sheer quality of the content, obviously, but there's an artistry and craftsmanship that goes into presenting all of that as a film, and Never Sleep Again pulls this off perfectly.
Given all that, all I really want out of the DVD from there is to not spot any flaws glaring enough to distract. Four hours of video on one disc...yeah, that's more than a little bit, and there is definitely some light artifacting as a result. It never gets in the way, though, and I wouldn't have noticed if I hadn't been looking for it. The aliasing is more noticeable, but again, I really don't care. The anamorphic widescreen image is reasonably crisp and detailed too...softening some during the zooms added after the fact but nothing that's unexpected. Never Sleep Again is a really nice looking documentary, and I don't have any complaints about the way it looks on DVD at all.
There are also some nice touches in Never Sleep Again's soundtrack: a really effective score and some clever sound effects scattered around to heighten the mood. The documentary is never dull or stale to listen to, and these flourishes accentuate the doc rather than needlessly draw attention to themselves. I'm sure it goes without saying that with more than a hundred people interviewed, the emphasis is very much on their conversations. These interviews are rendered cleanly and clearly, and everyone remains consistently discernable throughout. No clipping, no hiss, no distortion...no complaints.
The documentary's audio is presented in Dolby Digital stereo (192kbps), and Never Sleep Again also sports a set of optional English subtitles.
I would've scored Never Sleep Again an absurdly high rating even if there hadn't been anything to this set other than the four-hour documentary itself. Turns out there are nearly eight hours of additional extras beyond that, though.
Oh, and disc two has an Easter Egg: a three minute montage of an unhinged Charles Fleischer tearing through a couple hundred different random voices.
Never Sleep Again comes packaged in a foil-embossed slipcover. Tucked inside the case are an insert listing the individual chapters -- been a while since I last saw one of those! -- as well as a fold-out poster...11.5"x18"-ish? I'm too lazy to measure, but it's something like that.
The Final Word
In the time it'd take to fully explore Never Sleep Again's two discs, you could just about watch all eight of the original Nightmare on Elm St. flicks. Seriously, between the documentary itself, its audio commentary, and all of the other extras, Never Sleep Again runs just shy of twelve hours. ...and I loved every last minute of it. Not a moment is wasted. Never Sleep Again is exhaustive but never exhausting. With contributions from more than a hundred members of the cast and crew, no stone is left unturned. There's a frankness to it all that's often lacking in the retrospectives on studio-issued DVD releases, and my interest never waned, not even when delving into the sequels I really didn't like that much. There's just a passion and enthusiasm -- from the filmmakers behind this documentary and its interviewees alike -- that sears its way into every last frame of Never Sleep Again, and it's infectious. When I finished watching the four hour doc, I craved more. Turns out nearly four more hours are waiting on disc two. After that, I was intensely curious how a project of this scale was put together. Turns out that's answered in the commentary. Never Sleep Again feels like such a satisfyingly complete experience. It's not just the most amazing Nightmare on Elm St. documentary I could ever have hoped to see. It's not just the most insightful, most engaging, and most unrelentingly entertaining retrospective of a film franchise that's ever been produced. You don't need to qualify it by mentioning a genre or even the fact that it's a film-about-films at all: Never Sleep Again is an amazing documentary, period. Watching Never Sleep Again made me want to run out and grab the Nightmare DVDs I'm missing. Hell, it compelled me to order their Friday the 13th retrospective too. This is a desert island disc. It doesn't even matter if you haven't seen any of the Elm St. flicks in ages: if you ever considered yourself a fan, Never Sleep Again is essential viewing. DVD Talk Collector Series.