We’ve spent the last week at Probert Towers watching Never Sleep Again, a quite remarkably exhaustive four-hour plus documentary on the Nightmare On Elm Street series of films and pretty much the last word on the subject. The team behind this have gathered together as many key personnel from each of these movies as they could, including Wes Craven and Robert Shaye, Robert Englund and Heather Langenkamp (who also narrates the entire thing) and many, many others. It’s a tremendous piece of work – illuminating, enjoyable and with the same sense of fun that most of the films had. All eight films are dealt with – ie, Parts I – V, Freddy’s Dead, New Nightmare and Freddy vs Jason. Yes, friends, you can relax as this disc is entirely Michael Bay remake free. For anyone who grew up watching this series it’s compulsive viewing, and the only reason it’s taken us so long to get through it is because we’ve stopped to watch a number of the films along the way, resulting in one of those pleasant nostalgia trips that I’ve felt the urge to share.
The Nightmare On Elm Street films are as much a part of my history as I suspect they are for anyone who grew up in the 1980s and loved horror movies. It’s also the only series where I saw every entry on its initial cinema release. I saw the original Nightmare On Elm Street while I was still at school, in a tiny scary cinema in the Forest of Dean, and loved it so much I couldn’t wait for the video release. In those days cassettes were only for rental but thanks to a competition in Martin Coxhead’s Video – The Magazine I won a copy of the original CBS/Fox tape and opening that package may well have been the highlight of my year. I also remember ordering Charles Bernstein’s soundtrack LP from Varese Sarabande and just grinning inanely to myself as I put it on the turntable and that D Minor chord stroked the speakers. I was also lucky enough to get hold of the British quad poster by the brilliant Graham Humphreys. “Sleep Kills” ran the tagline, so of course it had to go above my bed. For years I wondered why the equally beautiful US poster designs (by the equally brilliant Matthew Peak) weren’t used in the UK as they were certainly used elsewhere in Europe but if it meant new horror art from Graham I wasn’t complaining.
My anticipation for Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 was as absurdly excessive as many a fan reading this has probably felt before their hopes have been quashed by a thousand hopeless follow-ups (although I still haven’t really learned). Way before the film was due to be released I had the Graham Humphreys quad – and good thing, too because it was banned very shortly after because London Transport complained it was too scary. That is why provincial British cinemas had an awful poster with the title written in white on black and nothing else, instead of the delicious brightly coloured image of Freddy’s face on half the picture threatening a tiny bus with his knives. So if you saw one of those while you were in the queue, now you know why.
I loved the music to Part I so much I bought the Elm Street 2 soundtrack before the film came out as well. An entirely different score by Christopher Young using a very small orchestra (it was meant to be bigger but there was no money) and whale sounds produced a score that suggested this film was going to be absolutely terrifying, and the Matthew Peak poster illustration on the album cover only added to my expectations.
And what did we get? Nightmare On Elm Street Part 2 – The Most Unintentionally Gay Horror Film Ever. Apparently that’s official, at least according to Cracked.com. Elm Street 2 was awful, embarrassingly awful, and I felt that embarrassment even more acutely because now I was at university and had convinced my non-horror loving colleagues to come along with me to watch it because the first one was so good. Surely Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 would show them just how much they had misjudged the genre? All I can say is that the friends I didn’t lose on that day certainly gave up on me after I took them to watch Deadly Friend – a point in my cinema viewing history at which I thought all my horror idols weren’t just deserting me but were rubbing my face in the sheer mediocrity of bad horror cinema.
I went on my own to watch Nightmare On Elm Street Part 3 – The Dream Warriors. Being a low-budget outfit New Line presumably didn’t have to pay for their titles by the letter. I’d heard good things, bad things and mixed things about Part 3 and didn’t want to risk another Part 2 situation. For many Elm Street 3 is their favourite. I didn’t like it quite as much as that but it’s a pretty creditable attempt to be a sequel to Part I. Again I had bought the soundtrack album beforehand. This time the music was by Angelo Badalamenti, with more great Matthew Peak poster art that wasn’t used in the UK. In fact we didn’t even get a Graham Humphreys this time, just a photo of Freddy slashing his way through the mist that made it onto the cover of the UK TER album release as well. By the time I got to watch Part 3 the Badalamenti score was committed to memory, so I knew just how little of it was actually used. When twelve inch singles of the end title song by a band called Dokken were thrown into the crowd at the Shock Around the Clock horror film festival later that year we all threw them back.
Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3 convinced me that I wasn’t going to see anything that approached the first film in terms of quality and so my expectations relaxed considerably for the next one. I’m sure this helped to make the regional premiere of Nightmare On Elm Street Part 4: The Dream Master one of my favourite cinema-going experiences ever. The other was that it was on Halloween and as a special treat the Odeon Cinema in Nottingham’s Market Square (it’s gone now) showed all four films so far, culminating in the premiere for the new one at midnight. Of course I had to go for the marathon and it was an absolute pleasure to see the cinema get a little bit fuller with each film until Part 4, when the auditorium was packed with Friday night horror fans looking for something riotously entertaining. In retrospect it’s not at all surprising that Renny Harlin’s film ended up being the most profitable of the lot. As soon as the card ‘Robert Englund in’ appeared on screen the cinema audience erupted with a deafening cheer. Part 4 doesn’t make a lot of sense, was finished without a script because of a writer’s strike and somehow, in spite of all those obstacles, is still a pretty good film and a lot of fun.
I watched Nightmare On Elm Street Part 5: The Dream Child in a cold, empty multiplex. No more crowds, no more sense of popcorn-munching fun, no money made. Audiences stayed away and it’s understandable. The Dream Child was rushed, grim, and lacked the sense bouncy entertainment that both Parts 3 and 4 had possessed (as opposed to bouncy Mark Patton in Part 2 who apparently hated that silly dance he has to do). The result was a film as unloved as Freddy’s child and so it’s not surprising that New Line decided to ‘end it’ with the next one.
So there I was, back in the Nottingham Odeon at the first showing of Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. There was a reasonably-sized audience, all with their 3D glasses on, marvelling at the credit sequence until a bored-sounding usher told them “The 3D hasn’t started yet. You have to take them off until the end.” Needless to say by the time you were meant to use the glasses quite a few people had either lost them, didn’t know they were supposed to put them on, or had already left the cinema. Freddy’s Dead did well for New Line but it’s not a very good film and it was probably a good place to leave things.
I had been out of university of a few years when I heard word of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. I well remember going to see that one, as I had been working a punishing and ridiculous schedule and, much like many of the characters the series portrays, I was fighting sleep in the nearly empty cinema in which I watched it. I was glad I went, though. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is brilliant and the best way anyone could ever do a sequel to the first film. Sadly it was so brilliant that people stayed away in droves and it became the least successful of the series. I can understand why and this is also mentioned in the documentary. The Friday night cinema crowd don’t want to deal with a complex tale of inter-related realties and the nature of storytelling, they want to see Patricia Arquette in her nightgown swallowed by a giant talking Freddy willy…sorry…snake, or Brooke Theiss turn into a giant cockroach (you glorious nutter, Screaming Mad George), or Amanda Wyss get dragged around that terrific revolving room in Part 1.
It took years to get Freddy vs Jason made. I remember wandering around Eric Caidin’s Hollywood Book and Poster Company on Hollywood Boulevard in the 1990s and coming across a table loaded with rejected scripts written by David J Schow and many others. In the end, and after so many years and drafts, it’s amazing that the film is coherent at all. In fact it’s probably as much fun as a film with that title could hope to be but I was still surprised to learn that out of all eight films it was far and away the most successful.
So there we are. Eight films that I grew up with. Eight films that as a result probably helped shape me as a writer. And most importantly, eight films that I can revisit to this day and think that the best of them are right up there with the best horror films, and indeed the best films, ever made. Thank you Freddy – my life was never quite the same after I met you.
JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT
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