Documentaries based on film or television are typically pretty boring, and studios know it. That's why instead of providing true insight as to what happened behind any given production, they often opt for taking a sensationalist angle that echoes the tabloidesque E! True Hollywood Story. I guess sprucing up the truth is supposed to keep me entertained, but all it does is vanquish the fondest memories of beloved franchises to the depths of sour mouth hell. Those that do opt for less dramatic flair are nothing more than lengthy commercials, as cast and crew alike spend every precious moment gushing over the painstaking efforts of their colleagues. I'm not naďve - I understand that dirt shilling ‘journalism' is a hot commodity, and that the charm and smiles of stars is a powerful marketing tool, but can at least one form of entertainment be preserved as a sanctuary for truth? Furthermore, how can we expect accurate historical records to be passed down for generations if everything's being spun by an agenda? With this at the forefront of my mind, I prepared myself for disappointment upon learning A Nightmare on Elm Street's history would be immortalized in - you guessed it - a documentary. Because I'm a fan of the franchise, I gave it the benefit of doubt… and have a new standard to hold all future documentaries to as a result.
That's not to say the effort from 1428 Films is revolutionary or anything, because all of the core aspects of documentary filmmaking are here. Never Sleep Again - The Elm Street Legacy is mostly comprised of talking-head interviews with cast and crew members from the franchise, and there's plenty of footage and photos sprinkled about to ensure our eyes are just as entertained as our ears. No, where this film manages to pull away from the pack and become top dog is in the details of its presentation.
To start, Freddy fans will be delighted to find series veteran Heather Langenkamp as their host and narrator. I've seen countless documentaries over the years that relied heavily on star power to gain viewers, while others cheapened their subject matter by hiring voices without names (read: to save money). Narrators have often been perceived as mere tools to relay information to the masses, but the only ones that have ever been able to make their material resonate are the ones who actually know what they're talking about. Could you imagine if Oprah Winfrey had been hired to weave us through a film series that revolved around the bastard son of a thousand maniacs? Of course not. When it comes to what's debatably the most iconic horror franchise of all time, putting Langenkamp front and center is not only what the fans deserve, but serves as the personal touch that will make die-hards and casual filmgoers alike feel right at home.
Of course, she's far from being the only familiar face you'll see. Thanks to an exhaustive campaign to find pretty much anyone who had anything to do with the franchise whatsoever - regardless if their contributions were on-screen or off - we're treated to a Prime Time Bitch buffet of people that will undoubtedly tickle your nostalgia. I'm not just talking the main cast members of each film either. No, chances are good that if the person had an on-screen death, or perhaps a role that only required a line or two, they're here. For the first A Nightmare On Elm Street alone, I was floored to see appearances by ‘where's your pass' Leslie Hoffman, Nancy's teacher Lin Shaye, and even classroom dream reader John Richard Petersen… who wasn't even credited for his role in the film. Now that's thorough.
That said, there are some notable, if not entirely expected omissions. Ronee Blakley, Johnny Depp and Laurence Fishburne are off the roster, along with a few others, but the only one that I really felt I missed was Patricia Arquette. Why her over the others? Well, her absence from Part 4 was a topic of discussion, but nobody was able to give a definitive statement on why she had parted from the Nightmare franchise. Some expected she wanted too much money to reprise her role, others attributed her absence to scheduling conflicts... but there was also talk of some tension on the set between her and the director. It was her first major role and she apparently had a rough time remembering/delivering her lines. I guess we'll never truly know why she decided to call it quits, but I applaud the filmmakers for refusing to tiptoe around the issue.
In fact, Never Sleep Again has an unflinching devotion to covering everything - The good, the bad, and everything in between. Before the alleged issues with Arquette even had a chance to come into play, series creator Wes Craven had butted heads with New Line Cinema head Robert Shaye over the original film's ending. Shaye wanted a twist, while Craven pushed for something more profound. As we progress, the overtly homosexual nature of Freddy's Revenge is explored, as are the various ideas that were pitched, but eventually abandoned for Dream Warriors. I'll refrain from providing an exhaustive rundown since it is a four hour documentary, but one of my favorite topics is the production of The Dream Master. Renny Harlin, a nobody at the time, practically begged for the opportunity to direct, and the studio eventually relented since he was willing to do the impossible - Shoot an effects heavy film with limited time, a tight schedule, and little-to-no script. The rest is history.
But almost everything in this doc is just as interesting - up to and including the section about the TV series - but the crowning achievement of the filmmakers, is that none of it comes off feeling like a disjointed collage of interviews. Keep in mind that there's 106 unique interviewees on display, and you're likely to appreciate the final product that much more. Langenkamp may be the narrator, but because the clips with various stars and crew are so well pieced together, her presence almost isn't required (but still awesome). As we move from one talking head to the next, we're told a coherent story not just about each individual film, but the overarching saga that is the rise and fall of New Line Cinema (that is, until it was absorbed by Warner Bros. in 2008). An inherent obstacle that comes with crafting any documentary, is that the filmmakers are at the whim of the content people provide for them. Needless to say, going through and making a digestible product is a daunting enough task... but to have it all unravel like a story as opposed to a history lesson? I don't think it's a stretch to say that the bar has been raised, and has yet to be topped (except for perhaps 1428's own Friday the 13th documentary, Crystal Lake Memories).
Last but not least, are the artistic choices that enhance an already spectacular experience. The film's intro - as well as the title card sequences that preface the discussion of any given film - feature a stop-motion animated Freddy in a familiar situation, creatively slashing a chapter's name across the screen. The interviews themselves have been shot to provide a nightmarish look, as special digital backdrops and professional lighting lend themselves to a theatrically dark atmosphere. As I said, no detail was deemed too small for the filmmakers to go after, and the final product speaks for itself. Simply put, you're not going to find a documentary that's as honest or informative - or entertaining for that matter - as this one. Some will undoubtedly second guess a purchase based on the four hour runtime, but the entire package is so engaging, you'll find yourself wondering how you made it to the end credits so quickly. Anyone who considers themselves a fan of the franchise owe it to themselves to add this to their collection. Even if you're not big on Freddy, Never Sleep Again is also great for film historians and enthusiasts, as it details a significant studio from its humble beginnings and everything that came after the fact. The only question left, is if this Blu-ray is a decent enough upgrade over the DVD… read on for the details.
Never Sleep Again - The Elm Street Legacy looked pretty good on DVD, but the four hour runtime had definitely contributed to some compression issues. Its Blu-ray iteration - featuring a 1080p AVC encoded transfer (1.78:1) - is much better in this respect, although many of the digital backdrops exhibit banding. That's the only downside as far as technical issues with the encode are concerned, but as far as artistic intent, there are some other issues worth noting.
The visually displayed atmosphere is fitting for a documentary detailing A Nightmare on Elm Street, and while plenty of interviews look great, others are drab in comparison. To keep the mood in check, the contrast has been dialed down in certain interviews. I get what they were going for, but all it does is make the image look unnaturally dim. Depending on the backdrop, other interviews heavily utilize blacks to, I assume, emulate shadows and darkness. That's all well and good, but this has a tendency to transform head-and-shoulder interviews into ‘floating head' shots. Their choices have left little to no delineation in black levels, so everything just gets sucked into the black void.
But if you're already familiar with this documentary, none of this is news to you. After all, these artistic choices were apparent on the DVD. These issues aside though, Never Sleep Again looks quite a bit better on Blu-ray. There's a nice bump in detail - although clarity and overall sharpness leaves something to be desired - and colors practically leap off the screen now (including warm skin tones and makeup, another issue that carries over from the original DVD).
Question is, will that be enough to warrant an upgrade? I'm not trying to cheap out on an answer here, but that's going to depend on you. If you're a big fan of the franchise or don't already have a copy of this documentary on hand, then it's a no-brainer. There's an appreciable difference and you simply must add this to your collection. I'm not going to lie though - Although this is the best this documentary is likely to look, Never Sleep Again isn't as pristine as its successor, Crystal Lake Memories. Those who demand a 'night and day' difference may want to see the Blu-ray for themselves before making a decision.
The stereo DTS-HD Master Audio track is also a better experience than the DVD, but not to a great degree. Much like the video however, the issues are more a result of the sound design itself than the transfer, though. Dialogue is crystal clear and never sounds unnatural, but the score and few sound effects there are have no lasting impact. There may have been a heavy emphasis on creating an atmosphere visually, but the sound just doesn't drive it home. The score isn't very dynamic, and the sound effects lack a professional polish. I know the reality is that when it comes to documentaries, such details are secondary to the overall experience, but when everything else is so ‘above and beyond' in design, a single aspect which lacks is extremely noticeable. This is definitely the best Never Sleep Again has ever sounded, or is likely to ever sound, but it would have been nice to hear the stage open up a bit, and with more dynamics at that.
-Audio Commentary with Directors Andrew Kasch / Daniel Farrands, Writer Thommy Hutson, and Cinematographer Buz Danger Wallick - For many, listening to a commentary is no easy feat, so the prospect of listening to one that's almost four hours in length probably seems daunting. I mean, how can you make a commentary about a documentary seem interesting? Well, the people featured behind the mic seem to pull it off. They offer loads of information about the project from conception to completion, up to and including the painstaking efforts that were taken to hunt down some of their interviewees. Since they got to sit down with 106 people that would make for Horror convention gold, they also share plenty of details on what it was like to work with the people we recognize from the franchise. They're always laughing and having a good time throughout, so there's no dead air and the content never comes off as being too dry. I recommend this commentary, although you'll probably want to listen in chunks.
-Extended Interviews - There's 100 minutes worth of material here… which makes watching this almost like watching another documentary, although there is a little overlap. If you're buying this release to know anything and everything about the franchise, watching this is almost as important as watching the documentary itself.
-First Look - Heather Langenkamp's ‘I Am Nancy' - A nearly 7 minute look at Heather's next project, which details her character's importance in not just the franchise, but the horror genre in general.
-For the Love of the Glove - This is pretty much an 18 minute tribute to one of the most iconic symbols in horror history, but acts as a mini-doc as opposed to some cheap promo piece.
-Fred Heads - The Ultimate Freddy Fans - This feature, nearly 13 minutes overall, details the fascination with Freddy memorabilia.
-Horror's Hallowed Grounds - Return to Elm Street - Are you one of the people who wish they could plan a vacation around visiting the famous locations from some of your favorite films? Well, host Sean Clark brings the locations of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street to you in this 23 minute mini-doc. Oh, and cast members from the first and second film are along for the ride. Highly recommended.
-Freddy vs. The Angry Video Game Nerd - As an avid gamer myself, I've always enjoyed the AVGN web series, so seeing James Rolfe interviewed for his take on the franchise - while reviewing the terrible NES game, of course (burn in hell, LJN) - was a real treat.
-Expanding the Elm Street Universe - Freddy in Comic Books and Novels - 16 minutes of interviews with the minds behind the tie-in material that appeared in print. I actually had some of these comics and books growing up, so seeing them incorporated into this set was a pleasant surprise.
-The Music of the Nightmare - Conversations with Composers and Songwriters - Almost iconic as Freddy's fedora, finger knives and red and green striped sweater? The music, of course. This nearly 14 minute featurette details how the music was crafted for the franchise overall, which is great since the largest focus in the documentary itself was Dokken's contributions to Dream Warriors.
-Elm Street's Poster Boy - The Art of Matthrew Joseph Peak - Some of the most amazing artwork I've ever seen has appeared on old-school heavy metal album covers, but when it comes to creative art in film, Nightmare on Elm Street has some of the best. For over 7 minutes, the creator of the franchise's poster art (for the first five films) looks back and discusses his role in producing the imagery that's been etched in fans minds for decades.
-A Nightmare on Elm Street in 10 Minutes - The cast were all asked to reenact some of their most notable one-liners for the documentary's end credits. It was a great addition to the documentary, and this extended version is even better.
-Never Sleep Again - The Elm Street Legacy Teaser
Never Sleep Again - The Elm Street Legacy is one of the best documentaries I've ever seen, let alone the definitive history of ‘the house that Freddy built'. Is there anything else that really needs to be said? Just in case - That's four hours witih 106 unique interviewees, hosted by none other than Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) herself. Oh, and it certainly doesn't hurt that there's another four hours of material on a second disc loaded with supplements, and that's not including the feature length commentary. As far as the technical presentation, it's definitely better than the DVD, although it's not quite as pristine as 1428's Crystal Lake Memories doc. If you have yet to add this to your collection, it's a no brainer - Highly Recommended. Those who already own the DVD may want to see this disc for themselves before deciding to upgrade, though.