The Ten Day Nightmare: Day Three – A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors
After a misguided sequel threw out much of what he created, Wes Craven returned to the series he started with this third entry…but he didn’t come alone. Armed with talented collaborators, original cast members, a higher budget, and bigger ideas, Craven managed to make a sequel that stayed true to his unique vision while also pushing it in exciting new directions. Why is The Dream Warriors still so often fondly remembered as one of the greatest slasher sequels ever? Read on to find out. And remember…SPOILERS AHEAD.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS (1987)
Directed by: Chuck Russell
Story by: Wes Craven & Bruce Wagner
Screenplay by: Wes Craven, Bruce Wagner, Frank Darabont & Chuck Russell
The last of the original Springwood kids, tormented by horrific nightmares, have all ended up at Westin Hills, the town’s psychiatric institute. There they meet Nancy Thompson, now a psychiatrist specializing in dream therapy. It doesn’t take long for Nancy to recognize the source of their horror. After discovering that one of the kids – Kristin – has the ability to pull other people into her dreams, Nancy teaches the others to unleash their own unique dream powers. Armed with new knowledge of Freddy’s twisted origin, the group sets out to destroy him once and for all.
Although understandably maligned by fans and critics alike, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge was still financially successful enough to justify another entry in the series. To their credit, though, New Line was at least smart enough to learn from the reaction to the previous film, and put a little more time and effort into the third movie. So how could they possibly go about crafting a better product that would win back the trust of the fans? Oh, I don’t know…maybe by luring back none other than series creator Wes Craven.
Craven had been noticeably absent from Freddy’s Revenge, due to his belief that Nightmare didn’t need any sequels at all. So it’s somewhat surprising he came back for this one. It’s all speculation on my part, but I can only assume Craven was just as embarrassed with the second film as the fans had been, and decided that since New Line was going to go ahead with another one anyway, he might as well come back and at least try to restore some dignity to his creation. Thankfully, that’s just what he did, as Dream Warriors is without a doubt the most creatively satisfying sequel of the entire series. Actually, with Craven’s involvement, not to mention a story which links up to the first movie far more than Freddy’s Revenge ever bothered to, a lot of fans (including myself) prefer to more or less disregard the second film and instead consider Dream Warriors to be the true sequel to the original.
Craven doesn’t deserve all of the praise, however, since the final product isn’t exactly 100% his vision. Truth be told, it’s not even the film Craven originally wanted to make at all. After agreeing to come back for Part 3, Craven first pitched an idea involving Freddy crossing over into the real world to terrorize the cast and crew of the original Nightmare on Elm Street. New Line rejected the idea, finding it too out there for the audience of the time. It’s kind of a shame but, you know, stay tuned…that story might have a happy ending, after all. Anyway, with his initial take discarded, Craven instead crafted a somewhat more traditional sequel story, one he clearly hoped would both live up to the first movie and end the series once and for all.
The original screenplay by Craven and Bruce Wagner went through at least two re-writes, one by the film’s director, Chuck Russell, and another by a guy you might have heard of, by the name of Frank Darabont. Whenever multiple writers tackle one script, you never know if it’s going to come together in a cohesive whole or just be one big mess of unrelated ideas. Thankfully, the Dream Warriors script is an example of the former. In fact, if we’re not including the somewhat out-of-continuity New Nightmare, then I would unequivocally call Dream Warriors the best script of the entire series. It takes the ideas and concepts that Craven touched on in the first film and, instead of just ignoring them like Freddy’s Revenge did, it expands on them, opening up the massive possibilities of the Nightmare universe. It gives us some back-story on Freddy (perhaps unnecessary, but still pretty interesting), not to mention finally setting up some more hard-line rules regarding his powers and weaknesses (most of which would be discarded by later films, but you can’t blame Dream Warriors for that). And it does so all while focusing on an actual interesting group of characters, instead of the bland teen stereotypes that populated the last two films.
The acting, while not exactly tremendous, is still a noticeable step up from the last two films. Patricia Arquette is actually quite good as Kristen, especially considering it’s her very first film role. It would take a few years after this movie before her career would really start to flourish, but her performance here is a strong hint of the better things to come.
Laurence Fishburne, meanwhile, shows up and brings a touch of class to the film as the caring Westin Hills orderly, Max. He’s not given a lot to do, but he makes his limited screen-time count, and the movie is better for having him in it. The other performance I really like is Craig Wasson as Dr. Neil Gordon, Westin Hills’ head psychiatrist. This might actually have a little bit more to do with the writing than it does Wasson – in 99% of horror movies, this character would be the hard-ass adult authority figure who never believes the seemingly-crazy story the kids are spouting. It’s a nice twist that Gordon not only eventually comes around to the claims, but then begins actively trying to help them defeat Freddy. Wasson handles the transition well (side-note: is it just me, or does Wasson remind anyone else of Bill Maher?).
As for the titular Dream Warriors, well, there’s a reason none of them are stars today. They’re not exactly terrible in the film, but they’re not really all that impressive, either. Maybe it’s not entirely their fault – they’re essentially playing caricatures of kids with mental problems. When you look at it that way, they all actually dive into their somewhat clichéd roles with gusto. Rodney Eastman is just fine as the mute Joey, and Ira Heiden is appropriately nerdy as wheelchair-bound wizard wannabe, Will. Much more interesting is Jennifer Rubin as recovering drug addict Taryn, whose dream power sees her turn into a sexy, knife-wielding punk princess. It’s somewhat laughable…but also admittedly kind of hot.
And then, of course, there’s Ken Sagoes as tough-talking Kincaid (dream power = he’s really strong). I’m not gonna lie, Kincaid might just be my favorite character in the entire Elm Street series. Why? Cause he’s awesome, that’s why. Ain’t nobody gonna put Kincaid to sleep!
Then, obviously, there’s the returning Heather Langenkamp, as Nancy, and John Saxon, as Nancy’s now alcoholic and former-sheriff dad, Donald. Saxon is slightly more important in this one than he was the first time around, and it’s nice to see him given more of a character to play. And while Langenkamp’s acting hasn’t necessarily improved since the first film, she’s still a welcome presence here – not just because she’s cute (though it helps!), but also because having her around obviously makes this feel like more of a real continuation from the first film – although I wish the movie made just a bit of a bigger deal out of the moment where Freddy first sees Nancy again. Oh well.
Besides the improvement in characters and acting, the movie is also helped by a much larger budget than before, which finally allows the nightmarish production design and FX to be as elaborate and memorable as the franchise’s high-concept demands. This, to me, feels like the moment where the Nightmare series finally starts living up to its potential. A movie that takes place in a dream world, where the characters can bend the rules of reality, should be full of crazy imagery, and Dream Warriors delivers. Whether it be the fantastic looking Freddy lair where the Warriors must save Joey, the corny but charming stop-motion FX (featured for both a living Freddy puppet and, eventually, a Harryhausen-esque battle between Gordon and Freddy’s skeleton), or the unforgettable giant Freddy-worm, this movie goes all out and thus clearly illustrates what separates the Nightmare films from the rest of its more reality-based slasher ilk.
Of course, that’s all thanks to the villain of the piece himself. Notably, this is also the movie where Freddy more or less takes center stage, and begins – for better or worse – morphing into the psychotic clown we know him as today. It’s a safe bet most of Freddy’s humor here was probably added during the Craven-less re-writes, but a lot of it probably came from Englund, as well. The actor has always seemed to relish playing up the dark comedy aspects of the character, and Dream Warriors begins tipping the Freddy-scale in that direction…though not, it should be pointed out, to the point of rendering him too silly or not scary. I think Dream Warriors strikes just the right balance between the comedy and terror of Freddy – he’s clearly having a laugh and enjoying himself, but he’s still an intimidating figure from time to time. Later films would unfortunately overexpose Freddy, which thankfully is almost impossible to do in this film since there are so many other characters to spend time on. So we get just the right amount of Krueger…and we even get some info on his origins, as well. While I’m not convinced the character needed any sort of back-story (he was certainly scary enough without it), I guess it makes sense to flesh him out a little bit in order to help strengthen the now growing Nightmare mythology.
Personally, I would have been just fine with the series leaving Krueger as nothing more than a sadistic child killer, but I’ll admit the whole “bastard son of a hundred maniacs” thing has a nice foreboding ring to it. Plus, the more mystical elements of the story does allow the filmmakers to create a set-in-stone way to finally destroy him for good. Sure, the following films would just ignore this, continually changing the rules and making things more and more confusing. But at least Dream Warriors tried, and out of all the Nightmare films it has the most discernible Freddy-dispatching goal (burying his remains in hallowed ground), which lends itself to an exciting third act where you can actually follow what the characters are trying to accomplish. It doesn’t just pull some bullshit way of killing Freddy out of its ass at the last minute, like most of the other sequels. That’s gotta count for something.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors is my favorite film in the entire series, and I believe it absolutely represents the franchise’s creative peak. Kudos to director Chuck Russell for doing Craven’s vision proud and delivering one hell of a sequel. It might not capture the same spooky tension of the first film, but it never succumbs to that film’s more glaring flaws, either. There are a few little pesky nitpicks here and there, most of them once again having to do with the indefinable boundary between Freddy’s powers in the dream world and real world (for instance, how does Freddy cause Phillip to walk through a locked door in the real world, and how the hell does he get his skeleton to actually battle Gordon and Donald in the junkyard?). But, to tell the truth, they’re fairly minor, and made somewhat negligible by this being the third film – you’re just sort of used to these things by now. And besides, everything else happening around them is so genuinely entertaining, it almost doesn’t seem worth it to complain. If looked at as nothing more than a two-film saga, this and the first movie make up one hell of a cool horror story. Of course, we all know New Line wasn’t going to let it stop here
BODY COUNT: 7
Dream Warriors, in going along with its increased budget and resultant emphasis on more impressive and surreal imagery, is the first Nightmare to start tailoring the characters’ deaths to their waking personalities and fears. And so we get a number of highly creative fatalities here, from a Freddy-Television yanking an aspiring young actress face first through the screen, to Freddy’s claws turning into heroin needles into order to give Taryn the ultimate “rush.”
Without a doubt, the best kill has to belong to the young puppet-maker Phillip, who Freddy turns into his own twisted version of a marionette – with Phillip’s veins as the strings. Freddy forces his Phillip-puppet to then jump to his death. As the first death in the film, the sequence is particularly effective in letting you know how much larger-than-life this movie is going to be compared to the previous two.
FREDDY’S BEST LINES:
“Sorry, kid. I don’t believe in fairy tales.”
“What’s wrong, Joey? Feeling tongue-tied?”
“This is it, Jennifer: your big break in TV. Welcome to prime time, bitch.”
FINAL SCORE: 4 out of 4 Razor Fingers
And now…BONUS KINCAID!!!:
Posted on December 3, 2014, in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Franchise Post-Mortems, Reviews and tagged Freddy Krueger, Horror Movies, Kincaid, Nightmare on Elm Street, Robert Englund, Slashers, Wes Craven. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.