A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
Directed by: Chuck Russell
Starring: Heather Langenkamp, Craig Wasson, Patricia Arquette, Robert Englund, Ken Sagoes, Rodney Eastman, Jennifer Rubin, Bradley Gregg, Ira Heiden, Laurence Fishburne, Penelope Sudrow, John Saxon, Priscilla Pointer, Brooke Bundy, Nan Martin,Stacey Alden
(out of 4)
I’m going to go out on a limb here and tell you that, after seeing it again recently (for the umpteenth time), A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors is a bit underwhelming as an Elm Street film. Its flaws stand out more (and strangely enough, I find the flaws in Freddy’s Revenge less bothersome – how do you like that, Freddy fans?!) Now before you go fetch your razor-glove out of your sock drawer and try to hunt me down for this sacrilege, let me just say that I still like the third film overall, I just happen to see more clearly the reasons why Dream Warriors has become a marker for increasing box office returns but decreasing quality output. So it is with countless sequels in many franchises that must constantly try to strike a balance between staying true to roots but appealing to a wider mainstream audience. In the film’s favor, it tries its best to maintain this delicate balancing act most of the time. The reason it works at all is due to a clever premise, courtesy of returning Freddy creator Wes Craven (sharing writing duties) and director Chuck Russell (who previously helped write the screenplay for Dreamscape, another movie about being able to enter people’s dreams). OK, so the plot of Dream Warriors isn’t original, but at least Russell has the experience.
While the starting credits roll, Kristen (newcomer Patricia Arquette) is building a model house just like the one the Thompsons and the Walshes lived in. Her attempts to stay awake (including eating spoonfuls of Maxwell House with a soda chaser) fail, and soon enough she’s in the dreamworld being chased by our favorite slasher with a skin condition. An inventive bathroom sequence results in a suicide attempt (thanks to Freddy’s influence), and Kristen finds herself in the local pschiatric institution where she joins other emotionally trouble teens like Kincaid (Ken Sagoes), who has an anger control problem, Taryn (Jennifer Rubin), an ex-junkie, wheelchair-bound Will (Ira Heiden) who likes to play the D&D inspired “Wizard Master” (and may have been the inspiration for Harry Potter), the sleepwalking Phillip (Bradley Gregg), mute Joey (Rodney Eastman), and TV-star wannabe Jennifer (Penelope Sudrow). Watching over them are Dr. Gordon (Craig Wasson), trustworthy orderly Max (a young-looking Laurence Fishburne) and grad school intern Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), who is all-too familiar with the man in the dirty red-and-green sweater. In case you are wondering why Nancy is still alive, 6 years later, it’s because of new wonder-drug Hypnocil, which suppresses dreams. (Hypnocil as a plot point would re-appear in Freddy vs Jason). Dr. Gordon is in no mood to hear about dream-stalking killers; he thinks the kids are sharing a common group delusion which masks unknown emotional traumas. However, he soon starts coming around to Nancy’s point of view when Freddy turns poor Phillip into a walking puppet (using his veins as strings – a rather disturbing effect) and tossing him off a roof (in another apparent suicide), followed by Jennifer having a fatal encounter with a TV screen – Freddy screams “Welcome to prime time, bitch!” but we could say the same to him, as this third film cemented the gloved-one’s stats as box office king.
Nancy discovers that Kristen has the power to pull others into her dreams, demonstrated in a sequence where Freddy becomes a giant worm-thing and attempts to have her for lunch. This is when our group therapy session steps it up a notch – and soon our heros are being hypnotized to sleep so they can battle Freddy together instead of apart – each using their special dream “powers.” For example, Kincaid has the power of strength, Kristen does acrobatics, and Will is some kind of wizard who doesn’t need his wheelchair anymore. As the movie unfolds, it’s obvious that everyone is in over their heads, as Freddy is stronger than before, courtesy of all the “souls of the children.” The secret to defeating Freddy may lie in the advice given to Dr. Gordon by mysterious Sister Mary Helena (Nan Martin), who explains that Freddy’s mother was raped by criminally insane mental patients, making him “the bastard son of 100 maniacs!” We are informed that Fred’s remains must be found and given a proper burial; perhaps Nancy’s boozing dad (John Saxon, also returning from the first movie) can help.
Noticeable here is the series’ first jump into the realm of the fantastic, as the characters now enter into increasingly grandiose dream worlds, and the killer demonstrates his ability to morph into anything he wants (worms, hot blonde nurses, dead relatives). The use of bigger budget special effects, while utilitzed in some imaginative sequences (the Freddy puppet effect, the Freddy TV effect, the descent into Freddy’s hell-world), also removes any sense of dread that accompanied Fred’s “humble”, atmospheric kills in the first film (and some of the second). Coupled with Krueger’s increasing use of one-liners and the movie’s decision to bring him completely out of the darkness, it’s just not possible to be scared by him anymore. At times, Dream Warriors almost functions as an action/fantasy film, incorporating elements from Jason and the Argonauts (stop-motion skeleton), Labyrinth, D&D, and the aforementioned Dreamscape (trivia: the killer in Dreamscape has knives for fingers at one point; there’s some controversy over who invented the “killer dreams” concept first – Wes Craven or David Loughery). The performances are good – it’s a nostalgic kick to see Langenkamp and Saxon again, and I almost forgot that Fishburne had a decent career in Hollywood before he entered The Matrix.
Theres also the resemblence to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with the group therapy subplot (there’s even an oppresive doctor – Priscilla Pointer – in the Nurse Ratched role). The idea of being harmed by your fears is inherent in Freddy’s M.O., which is to kill his victims by using their own hangups against them. Also obvious is the Peter Pan references and some of that feel-good, “everybody is special” sermonizing. I found it interesting that Dream Warriors coincides with the rise of the therapy culture (hey, in 1987, when Star Trek: TNG arrived, they postulated that every spaceship in the future would have a counselor right on the bridge!) There’s also the back-and-forth between science and faith, mostly displayed through Dr. Gordon’s relationship with the nun-in-white (her true identity isn’t too hard to figure out). The movie could be telling us that both are required to expel our demons (an experimental drug keeps Freddy at bay while a funeral buries him for good, or at least until the sequel). All of these things make for nice subtext, but the main intent of Dream Warriors is to be a funhouse picture. Freddy’s origins as a child murderer are only barely given lip service; he has now been transformed into slasher cinema’s clown prankster. The sequels would take the whimsical, fantastic elements of Dream Warriors and make them even more ridiculous, while Englund is made to increasingly ham it up with every passing installment. For me, this is the last gasp of the Nightmare series. Enjoy it while you can.
- Bill Gordon
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