31/31 – Day 17 – Horror documentaries, vol.1

Posted: October 17, 2011 by StayFrosty in Film, Reviews

Since the invention of the DVD, and subsequently the special features option, there have been more behind-the-scenes looks, featurettes and outtakes than you can shake a stick at.  Recently, however, there have been a few horror documentaries that have been marketed on their own, most of them covering a famous series, a genre, or even a country’s worth of films.  Everyone’s idea of what makes an interesting documentary differs, but for me it’s information.  Information about the film that only the people who were there could give me.  In depth looks at casting, creating the film, effects, the works.  If I’m going to watch a documentary, I want to learn something.

I also want a doc that won’t shy away from controversy – if the film had problems with studios, or with executives, anything that affected the creation of the film.  What I find in most behind the scenes looks is that most people shy away from that and prefer to gloss over problems with some light stories from the set, saying how great it was to work with everyone.

A prime example of what I consider excellent docs are the four from the Alien Quadrilogy.  Combining archival footage and recent interviews, those docs cover so much, even revealing some information that a super-fan like me didn’t know.  And they were very up front about problems, especially in the doc for Alien3, which was deeply fraught with issues of control between the studio and then first time director David Fincher.  Lots of info, no glossing over, informative but still fun.  Not Quite Hollywood is another prime example.

The two documentaries I’m covering today have the same director, Daniel Farrands (one he did alone, one with Andrew Kasch), but they are not equal in quality.

His Name Was Jason: 30 Years of Friday the 13th– I’ll freely admit that I wasn’t a Jason girl as a child.  In fact, I never saw the

DVD cover art for "His Name Was Jason"

Friday series until around college.  I’ve watched the series in its entirety several times since then, and while I enjoy the movies for what they are, I am not a huge fan.  But when HNwJ came out, I was still interested in how the character and franchise were built, thinking that maybe it would give me a greater appreciation of the series.  What’s clear from this doc is that everyone interviewed seemed to have very fond memories of making the movies, regardless of quality.  That gives some of the stories a very lively atmosphere.  However, while there are a few stories, what’s missing is information and honesty.

I don’t feel that I came away from that documentary knowing much more about the Friday series than I had when I started.  I learned that everyone said they had a good time, but not much about the creation of the series, the effects, the art direction, or the casting.  Also, everyone seems to ignore the fact that some of the movies are better than the others (and some are pretty weak).  Each movie is spoken of like it’s a classic, or at least of equal quality, and I think I would have been much more interested if they were honest about when they were having trouble, or when a film wasn’t as strong.  I mean, Jason’s in space for one of them, for god’s sake!  Actually, I like that one.  It’s hilarious.  Don’t judge me.

I don’t really have that much more to say about this doc, because there’s just not that much information to review.  I wish the people involved had felt confident enough to discuss some of the problems in the series – I know there was a bit of a ruckus each time they replaced Jason, which isn’t even touched here – or at least to go more into depth about, well, anything.  But maybe there’s just not enough depth in that series to warrant a feature-length movie.

Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy – Now this what I’m talking about.  This extremely detailed and entertaining doc covers every aspect of all the Nightmare films – no, seriously, everything.  It shows you tons of archival footage (original art, behind the scenes photos, dailies from the filming) alongside modern interviews with almost every single human being ever involved in the series.  Each movie gets the same lengthy treatment, regardless of quality (though this group isn’t afraid to admit when the quality of one of the films is in question).  Truly, it’s impressive.

I found it very interesting to watch the evolution of creating Freddy Krueger (showing a bunch of original makeup tests), both as a look and a character.  We get to hear Wes Craven talk about how he invented Freddy (Fred was the name of a guy who bullied him in school) and his real-life inspiration for a creature who can kill you in your dreams.  It’s all pretty cool.  This thing is four hours long, but it never seems slow or boring.  And no one is afraid to talk about the failings of any particular film, whether it’s a cheesy line (“In my dreams I’m beautiful…and BAD!”) or some poor or failed effects or even some possibly unknown subtext in Nightmare 2.  Not everyone agrees about aspects of each film, or whether they even liked the finished product or not, and they’re all allowed to have their say.  There’s also discussions of tensions on the set, problems with directors or disagreements over the direction of the series, but it never seems like trash-talking, just history.  Everyone’s ability to love and appreciate the films while still being able to laugh at some of the shortcomings makes the whole endeavor feel more honest and is definitely more engaging to the viewer.

Amazing, original cover art for "Never Sleep Again"

And I have to say, listening to Robert Englund talk about his thoughts and ideas on Freddy and the series in general is a highlight.  Englund comes across as intelligent and well-spoken, discussing not just his character’s motivations but connections between the series (the first film especially) to mythologies and ancient stories.  He (and a few others) even spend some time philosophizing on Freddy, sexuality and its role in the movies.  On paper that sounds pretentious, but it comes across as thoughtful, even if you don’t agree that the series has that much depth.

If you’re going to pick up one of these docs, go with Never Sleep Again, no contest.  I know four hours is a commitment, but I really think that horror fans (and especially Elm Street fans) will love watching the series unfold like never before.

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