‘Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors’ – 25 Years of Prime Time!

Posted on February 27, 2012 by Ben 6 Comments

A 25th Anniversary Retrospective by Ben Bussey

Reader Advisory: Moderate Spoilers ahead…

I’m not sure how well we all remember 1987 – blimey, some of our readership and possibly even some of our staff might not have been born back then – but it was quite a year for horror cinema, seeing the release of a fair few movies that are revered as cult favourites to this day. This being the case, in the coming months you can expect more 25th anniversary retrospectives along the lines of the one you’re about to read (and quite likely some 30th anniversary ones too, as 1982 was no slouch for good horror movies either). But for right now, let us collectively travel back across the fourth dimension to this very day a quarter of a century ago, February 27th 1987, which saw the release of the second sequel to quite possibly the very best American horror film of the decade: A Nightmare On Elm Street.


This third installment had something to prove. While the original had come from nowhere only to capture the imagination of the world, Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge left a bad taste in the mouth of many fans and critics, who felt it deviated too far from the original (not that this hurt its take at the box office). While I do think that Freddy’s Revenge is unfairly maligned overall – it’s deeply flawed for certain, but it looks great and takes the concept in some interesting new directions – I can still appreciate the desire for the series to go closer to the source material for the next one. Bringing back two of the key components of the original in Wes Craven and Heather Langenkamp, plus finding room for a nice cameo from John Saxon, Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors would become the most successful Nightmare sequel, both creatively and (up to that point) commercially. Alas, it would also prove to be a point of no return, setting the series off into an inevitable downward spiral of bad jokes and excessive special effects from which there would be no escape.

In a sense, it’s fairly appropriate that Dream Warriors celebrates its silver jubilee in the same month we at Brutal As Hell have chosen to salute the women in prison genre, as the action here is for the most part confined to the Springwood psychiatric hospital Westin Hills, which while not exactly a maximum security lockdown has a great deal in common with the prison environment. We’ve got a bunch of mismatched personalities declared a danger to the public and to themselves; they’re constantly clashing heads, yet united in their goal to be free. However, in this case the inmates don’t just desire freedom from the institution in which they find themselves incarcerated, but freedom from the evil entity that plagues them in their sleep. Much as Caged Heat is like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest with boobage, Dream Warriors is like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest with trash talk, Dungeons and Dragons, power dressing, cock rock, and special effects galore as we go deeper into Freddy Kruger’s nightmare zone than ever before, and his methods of dispatch become all the more creative.

And as creative kills go, they don’t get much more memorable and effective than the first kill of the movie, which perhaps surprisingly doesn’t occur until about thirty minutes in. Once we’ve opened on Patricia Arquette’s Kristen being sent to Westin Hills after what is assumed to be a suicide attempt, we meet the whole gang: loudmouth tough guy Kincaid (Ken Sagoes), mute Joey (Rodney Eastman, who recently resurfaced in 2010’s I Spit On Your Grave remake), recovering junkie Taryn (Jennifer Rubin, who I understand would later tread similar ground in Bad Dreams), wannabe actress Jennifer (Penelope Sudrow), wheelchair-bound D&D nerd Will (Ira Heiden), and sleepwalking puppeteer Philip (Bradley Gregg, who went on to kick much cyborg teacher ass in Class of 1999). Significantly, Philip is established straight away as the strongest of the bunch; where the others mouth off ineffectually, he is articulate and confident, displaying real leader potential. So who does Freddy go after first…? Yep, he takes out the alpha male, slashing open his arms and legs and using his tendons as marionette strings, walking him to the highest point in the building, then cutting the strings away, sending him plummeting to his death. Not only is it one of the most iconic sequences of the Nightmare series, but it’s also a powerful statement of intent for the movie, as a character who seemed to have surefire survivor status is splattered before any of the others. From then on, it’s open season on adolescent insomniacs, and not long thereafter comes another of Freddy’s most iconic kills, with Jennifer getting her big break in TV…

As should be immediately evident, Freddy’s changed his game plan somewhat since last we saw him, and all things considered it’s probably his most logical approach yet. There are no inexplicable deaths like that of Johnny Depp’s Glen in the original, nor the possession tactics and illogical real world appearances that soured Freddy’s Revenge for so many. This time around, it would seem Freddy has considered that it might be best not to arouse the suspicions of the adults by doing anything that contravenes all laws of science and reason. So it is that he focuses on a core bunch of kids and makes them appear suicidal: slashing Kristen’s wrists, dropping Philip off a balcony, smashing Jennifer’s head into the television. (Well, okay, I must confess I’ve never heard of anyone killing themselves that way, and I’m not sure how it’s physically possible, but what the hell.) Henceforth, the grown-ups all think the kids are crazy, and the kids themselves may be forced to contemplate whether they are indeed crazy; their willpower is low, their anxiety is high, and for Freddy there’s nothing more appetising than a terrified, demoralised adolescent. However, we soon find that this time Freddy may have bitten off more than he can chew. It turns out Kristen has the ability to bring other people into her own dreams, and within this literal collective unconscious the teens each find their own unique dream powers which they can use to combat Kruger on his own turf. This they set about doing with the expert guidance of their newest therapist: Nancy (Langenkamp), the only one to confront Freddy and survive, who is now a grad school twentysomething with hair and shoulder pads that are sizeable enough to make you think she just stepped off the set of Dynasty.

It seems that this emphasis on the kids fighting back, and of course the return of Nancy, were the key elements Wes Craven brought to the film. In this article at the official Nightmare on Elm Street Films site, Craven professes to have resented being more-or-less forced to end the original Nightmare not with Nancy defeating Freddy as he had intended, but with Freddy clearly emerging unscathed and victorious, New Line having smelt the franchise possibilities from the get-go. Such an ending, Craven complains, suggests that “villains will win out and the most brutally powerful survive. In my work I’m continually fighting that.” As such it’s unsurprising that, when asked to write Part 3, he came up with a concept which, while still scary, is inherently far more optimistic than that which came before, showing a group of young misfits put aside their differences and work together to defeat their common enemy. However, whilst Craven’s name may be splashed all over the credits, listing him as a writer and executive producer, his involvement was apparently not as extensive as we might think: within that same article, producer Sara Risher states that the original script by Craven and Bruce Wagner was “seventy per cent” rewritten by director Chuck Russell and (in his first feature as a screenwriter) Frank Darabont, and Craven insists that beyond that first draft he was not creatively involved in the film at all.

This being the case, the temptation is clearly there to attribute some of the cheesier elements of Dream Warriors to Russell and Darabont (and/or pressures from on high to produce something more commercial than the first two films). For all its strengths, Dream Warriors certainly is high on cheese content. Take the introduction of the dream powers: what with Will declaring himself “the Wizard Master” and Kristen becoming an expert acrobat, they’re only a few fantasy archetypes away from mirroring the cast of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon show. And that’s before the truly wince-inducing reveal of the “beautiful and BAD!” Taryn, with leathers, switchblades and two-foot mohawk; or Kincaid saying, “let’s go kick that motherfucker’s ass all over dreamland,” to which Will goes, “Alright!” Please, all this cringing is making my face ache…

Even so, this corniness is part of what makes Dream Warriors plainly and simply the most entertaining entry in the Nightmare franchise. It’s got all those key elements that are so pivotal to 80s horror, and made the movies of that era so much fun. There’s that same neon-lit colour scheme that dominated the era, with Freddy’s boiler room glowing red like a nightclub in Miami Vice; there’s Angelo Badalamenti’s synth-driven score, punctuated with the air-punching anthems of Dokken. Then there’s the ridiculous special effects, most of which are of course practical – take the giant snake version of Freddy which tries to swallow Kristen early on, and the faces of the screaming children on Freddy’s chest – but with room found for a bit of good ol’fashioned Harryhausen-esque stop-motion (happily still in fairly common use in mid-budget genre fare back then) as John Saxon and Craig Wasson do battle with Freddy’s skeleton. Of course, Dream Warriors also boasts one of the series’ few instances of crowd-pleasing gratuitous nudity, with Stacey Alden acting out many a young (and old) man’s fantasy as the foxy nurse eager to tend to her patient’s every need. But even in this instance, there’s some of that trademark Nightmare on Elm Street headfuckery going on, as the nurse reveals herself to in fact be Freddy in one of his more devious disguises. Imagine the alarm of so many millions of fanboys, having un-paused the videotape and wiped themselves off on the nearest convienient tissue and/or their jeans, only to discover they had effectively just tugged one out to Robert Englund. Therapy, here we come.

Feeling for the most part more like a fantasy adventure movie than a horror, there can be no doubt that Dream Warriors changed the course of the Nightmare On Elm Street movies for good, providing a template which most of the subsequent sequels would follow. Alas, this would also prove to be the downfall of the series. The emphasis was now squarely on Freddy cracking wise, and coming up with ever more outlandish ways to off the brats. Giving us characters we could actually give a shit about was no longer of any concern; from here on in the teens were truly nothing more than victims in waiting, and the sadistic murdering paedophile Freddy had somehow wound up the hero. Englund still manages to keep Freddy fairly sinister here, but he’s clearly an actor who enjoys hamming it up, and in the films that followed neither he nor his directors would go to much trouble reining in that madcap energy. And why would they? It’s easy to forget now, and it may surprise those who weren’t around at the time, but by the late 80s Freddy was an internationally recognised brand; not a cult figure as today, but well and truly mainstream. He was on TV shows, he was rapping with the Fat Boys, and his visage showed up on truckloads of diverse memorabilia, including those notorious talking dolls. It was Dream Warriors that started Freddy off down that path from a truly terrifying villain to a playful Puck figure no more threatening than Wile E. Coyote. What began here with his claws turning into syringes would inevitably lead to his gauntlet turning into a fucking Nintendo Powerglove in Freddy’s Dead. (Facepalm.)

But even if we keep our attention squarely on the films themselves, it’s not a prettier picture. I’d class 1988’s Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master in the bottom three of the series (only Freddy’s Dead and the remake are worse, to my money), and I think a key reason why I’ve always hated it is how callously it does away with the surviving Dream Warriors in the early scenes (replacing Patricia Arquette with the colourfully named but rather dull Tuesday Knight doesn’t help), only to introduce in their stead an utterly detestable teen ensemble who you can’t wait to see die horrible deaths. Here’s the thing: no matter what anyone says, the characters in horror films – yes, even those of the lowly slasher genre – should never be there simply to be slaughtered. No, we don’t have to like them necessarily, but we must be able to relate to them, sympathise with their dilemnas, recognise elements of ourselves within them. If they are nothing more than two-dimensional nitwits – which is most definitely the case with most of the kids in Dream Master, Dream Child, Freddy’s Dead, Freddy Vs Jason and that festering turd of a remake – then how can we possibly get invested in the story? If we don’t care who lives or dies then how can we care about the film? That’s why Dream Warriors stands head and shoulders above all those sequels, and why it is easily the second-best film in the series; because the Dream Warriors are on the whole a relatable, sympathetic bunch who we don’t want to see die. When we follow them on their journey, we’re on their side, not Freddy’s; we’re eager to see them give as good as they get, and that’s the way it should be.

As dear as the original Nightmare on Elm Street is to me, I find myself watching Dream Warriors a great deal more in recent years. It’s one of the great feel-good, popcorn horror movies that’s custom made for repeat viewing, and such things are to be prized these days when the bulk of new movies (horror and otherwise) are designed to last no longer than a profitable opening weekend. Less than two years on, I have no desire whatsoever to revisit the lamentable reboot, but twenty-five years on the love for Dream Warriors is as great as it ever was. If you share that sentiment, then I invite you all to stand, open your books to page 666, and join me in singing that wonderful hymn we all know and love by our sainted brothers Dokken…

 

6 comments

  • Bianca says:

    Haven’t seen this video in forever! Thank you for reminding me of it.

  • Brett G. says:

    AWESOME retrospective. Dream Warriors is my all time FAVORITE horror movie of all time, and I’m not ashamed to say it. Doesn’t mean I think it’s the greatest, but there are maybe 4 movies I’ve ever watched more times in my life. The original Nightmare might work as the best pure horror movie, but Dream Warriors is the best FREDDY movie, and it pits him against the best cast.

    Gotta disagree about Nightmare 4 though–I think that’s the last one to get everything right as far as NOES movies go.

    • UK Editor says:

      Cheers guys. And I completely agree, Brett – ‘greatest’ films and personal favourites are rarely ever the same thing. The ones we love are the ones that hold up despite their flaws; even because of them, in a way.

      On which note, we can comfortably agree to disagree on Dream Master. =)

  • Steph says:

    Definitely the best of the Nightmare On Elm St movies!

  • Geoff Johnston says:

    Decent film, but it really lacks the chills of the first one. Freddy is more terminator than supernatural pedophile in this one.

  • paul white says:

    cool

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