A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
Nothing about “Dream Warriors” particularly stands out at first glance: it’s name is very similar to the next two films in the series, and it has all the baggage that comes with being the followup to a disastrous sequel in a slasher film series. But from even a cursory glance at the credits (which are more impressive now than at the time) it’s clear that more effort was put into than “Freddy’s Revenge”. Wes Craven has a story credit, and Frank Darabont worked on the script. Heather Langenkamp reprises her role from the original, something nearly unheard of in horror sequels, and the supporting cast includes future stars Patricia Arquette and Laurence Fishburne. My favorite film composer, Angelo Badalamenti, is credited for the score, hot off his brilliant work on the previous year’s “Blue Velvet”. So this isn’t your average slasher sequel. Still it’s doubtful that anyone would expect that it’s as brilliant as it is, or that it’s worthy of being considered among the very sequels ever made. I certainly didn’t.
You’ll notice that I refer to “Dream Warriors” as a sequel, and that’s really what it is, despite the “Part 3″ in the title. It does retain the timeline of “Freddy’s Revenge” though, taking place six years after the events of the original (which was set in 1981, despite it’s 1984 release). It also is consistent with the fate of Nancy’s mother in that film: everyone claims she committed suicide in the living room, though it’s clear that Freddy killed her. I’m still not sure how this fits in with the ending of the original “Nightmare” (wouldn’t it be the bedroom?), but I’m willing to play along. Everything else from the second film is jettisoned: there’s no mention of Jesse or anyone living in the Krueger house after Nancy moved out (the house is now boarded up and appears dilapidated), Krueger can no longer possess people or affect them outside of their dreams, and his telekinetic powers are mercifully absent.
The premise of the film is brilliant, as it immediately discards comparisons to the original, and turns “Dream Warriors” into a completely different kind of film. The difference between this film and the original is as extreme as that between the first two Alien or Terminator films, yet it still feels connected to that film in a way that “Freddy’s Revenge” didn’t. The setting this time is not Elm Street, or even Springwood. The main center of action is Westin Hills, a psychiatric hospital that seems to be located a short distance from Springwood. There is another rash of teenagers having terrible nightmares again, this time more widespread than the last. Though it’s never made clear what exactly the kids have been diagnosed with, all of them seem a little off: perhaps driven mad by Krueger’s nightly visits, or simply affected by the medication, which of course, proves useless. All the doctors there try to convince the kids that their nightmares are simply side effects of their subconscious, and once they deal with their own issues, the nightmares will stop. However, the kids aren’t as convinced, particularly since they’ve realized how similar their dreams are. That is, until a brilliant but unorthodox young psychiatrist arrives at the hospital: Nancy from the first film, of course. She seemed on the verge of madness by the end of the first film, but here she has overcome her demons and become stronger, more resilient and mature. Heather Langenkamp’s performance in the first film was inconsistent, and at times shrill, but she is absolutely wonderful here, making Nancy recognizable as the same character from the original, while also showing how she’s changed in the years since. She explains that the teens are the last remaining children of the parents that killed Krueger, and that he’s come back to finish the task. After convincing the resident doctor, Dr. Neil Gordon that she’s telling the truth after the first child dies, they undergo a kind of hypnotherapy with the kids, allowing her to teach them to take control of their dreams. Each of the teens has certain dream abilities, the most notable of which is Kristen’s power to pull others into her dream, thus making it possible for them to team up against Krueger on his own turf.
The brilliance of the film lies in the way that it doesn’t even try to repeat it’s predecessors. The opening scene is very creepy, and resembles many of the dream sequences in the previous films, but after this the movie more or less gives up on horror completely. It doesn’t even really follow the slasher movie formula: the kids aren’t victims, but strong minded individuals who team up to fight Krueger. Though Kristen (Patricia Arquette) seems to be the final girl (she is the center of the action, has special powers, and is the most attractive) two other kids survive the movie, the adult characters are as central to the story as the teens, and the death scenes tend to aim for interesting visuals and dream imagery over traditional scares. It is not remotely puritanical or sexist either: the female characters tend to be stronger than the men, the victims aren’t predominantly female or in a racial minority, and there’s never any icky sense that any of the victims pay for moral mistakes that they’ve made. Best of all there are no virginal “good girl” characters, or slutty victims: for once in this sort of film the women are not defined by their sexual activity. There’s a sense of fun and adventure here that’s not present in the other films; the dreams are at once terrifying and exciting, as the kids discover they have abilities they couldn’t imagine in the real world. It’s more of a darkly comic fantasy than it is a slasher flick, though some of the same DNA remains.
For the first time, the series realizes all the possibilities of the dream world setting, and the deaths are much crazier and more surreal: Freddy controls a boy like a puppet with his tendons, and makes walk off a bridge, he kills a recovering drug addict with needles in place of his razors, he attacks Kristen in the form of a giant worm, and he can take on the appearance of any person, which provides a powerful moment at the film’s climax. The dream world is no longer limited to dark, industrial hallways: now one room can lead into a completely different one, an indoor hallway can lead outdoors, and anyone can come crashing through the mirrors. The film’s effects certainly aren’t realistic looking, but they’re a fine example of how imaginative special effects artists could be in the 80′s, and the film is a secret treasure trove of great effects, from a stop motion Freddy puppet to a live action/animation combination late in the film. However, a fight with a stop motion skeleton near the end is a giant misstep, as the effects are so dreadful that it’s impossible to enjoy what should have been a fun moment.
The characterization and acting throughout are a strong suit of the film, and are by far the best of the series. Though I can probably only name a handful of the kids in the movie, I can recall all of their faces and personalities (aside from Joey, a pretty personality-free character who survives the entire film for some reason). This might sound like faint praise, but there are seven central kids, plus the characters of Nancy and Dr. Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson), who get the best character development in the film, and the film is only 96 minutes long. It is certainly an ensemble film, a rarity in the horror genre: there’s no clear central character. There’s not a lot of time for character development, but the film does a very good job fleshing out the central adult characters and Kristen (Patricia Arquette), who fills the “final” girl role (even though two others survive the movie). The others are likeable, and fleshed out enough to care about, however, and this is the rare slasher film where you can’t be sure who is going to die and because of this, and the relatively strong characterization, there’s a weight to the deaths. Aside from one near the end of the film, none of them are likely to be tearjerkers, but the characters aren’t just personality-less ciphers lining up for Freddy to kill them, as in the next three films in the series.
However, any discussion of this movie should note that many of the changes in this film ended up derailing the series, the comic tone most of all. The comic one liners from Freddy in particular, eventually remove any element of menace that Englund could give the character, turning him into more of a wacky uncle that kills the occasional teenager than a deadly child murderer. Some of his one liners are painfully bad (“Tongue tied, Tommy?” he asks as Tommy is literally tied down with tongues), but often the jokes manage to still be threatening and seem pretty consistent with Freddy’s personality in the first two films. Even the infamous “Welcome to Primtime Bitch!” line is actually pretty effective and chilling in the context of the film, though I’m not sure it’s worth the trend it begins of Freddy ending every sentence spoken to a woman with the word “bitch”. Though this film eventually ruins the character, it is my favorite of Krueger’s appearances: he is menacing but also has a distinctive personality. As terrible as Krueger is he still enjoys a good joke, like the rest of us: this humanizes Krueger in a way that never makes him less scary.
Interestingly, the next three films in the series are not tepid retreads of the first film, but of this one, though they graft a much more generic slasher film structure onto surreal set pieces and tongue in cheek humor. I think this is telling: this film has a kind of magic about it, and is a near perfect mixture of humor, action, horror, good performances, and effective storytelling. This is the definitive “Elm Street” movie for me, and it’s one of the few sequels in history that not only lives up to the original, but outdoes it.
“A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: Dream Master” (1988)
I really have very little to say about this one. It is without a doubt the least interesting and memorable of the Elm Street films. The offensively bad first half hour is the only thing that really defines it: the rest settles for mediocrity. You can tell it’s going to be rough from the get go: the actress playing Kristen has changed from the distinctive Patricia Arquette, to the blandly pretty Tuesday Knight (apparently Arquette was pregnant and couldn’t reprise the role: she dodged a bullet with this one), and the opening scene looks more like a Bonnie Tyler video than anything remotely threatening or scary. There’s a whole lot of flowing curtains, lightning flashes, and dramatic slow motion in this film, courtesy of hack director Renny Harlin, who wouldn’t know dramatic tension if it punched him in the face. The film looks crisper and more expensive than the others, but also much blander, like a high budget CW show. The score (by Craig Safan, no Angelo Badalamenti), always unsubtle in this series, is now a pulsing, pounding mess: you know what parts are supposed to be scary because the music starts blasting at top volume for no reason.
This film absolutely has no plot whatsoever: it doesn’t even attempt narrative coherence. Apparently the writers couldn’t think of any way to get around Krueger’s unusually definitive death in the previous film, because they don’t even try. Kincaid (Ken Sagoes, reprising his role from the last film) has a dream in which his dog, Jason (get it?… sigh) digs up the ground where Freddy’s remains were buried and pisses fire on it. This actually happens. Then there’s a big earthquake, Freddy comes out of it, and Kincaid’s dead. I thought it was pretty ahead of it’s time for the last film to let the only person of color survive, but here he’s the first to go here. Then Joey and Kristen get eliminated, in list like fashion. The film starts out seeming unusually connected to the previous one as far as continuity goes, but it’s soon clear that the filmmakers are just killing off loose ends. Somehow the film strips these characters of their personalities entirely, rendering them one dimensional cardboard cutouts. The death scenes are an absolute mess: they attempt to be wacky, surreal, and off the wall, but the general impression is just of confusion. Insane things that I won’t even attempt to describe happen in this film, but they’re so poorly executed it’s easy to get bored during them.
Of course, by the time Kristen dies, the film has introduced four more utterly dull characters to get killed off (though that may not be fair, two of them survive). There’s Alice (Lisa Wilcox, in the film’s worst performance, which is no small feat) an incredibly obvious final girl, her brother Dan (Andras Jones), who was Kristen’s boyfriend, and whose sole personality trait is his bizarre hairstyle and lame martial arts moves. Then there’s Sheila (Toy Newkirk) and Dan (Danny Hassel): Dan is only there to be a hunky love interest, and Sheila is a generic pretty face with no real personality (though she strangely lifts weights). The rest of the film just involves them being killed off in lame ways, after which Alice absorbs their spirits for some reason. She then ultimately uses these skills (well, kind of) to fight Krueger, before killing him once again by holding a piece of stained glass in front of him. I usually try to refrain from spoilers a bit but there’s not much to ruin here. The film does feature a cool bit of explanation though: Krueger can only enter the dreams of the children of those who killed him. He can only get to Alice because she absorbs Kristen’s spirit, but he kills off the other victims when Alice pulls them into her dream. It’s a cool idea, but terribly executed, as each victim’s dream is clearly their own dream, not Alice’s. It should be mentioned that this directly contradicts “Freddy’s Revenge”, but the series seems to have decided that the events of that film never occurred, which is fine with me.
So that’s it for this film: it’s not scary, it’s not funny, Freddy isn’t menacing at all (here he’s kind of dull and difficult to understand more than anything), it has one of the worst final girls of any slasher film, and doesn’t even really have any gore or memorable setpieces. Yet it is still not the worst film in this series, not by a long shot. Tune in next week to find out what film earns that dubious honor.
A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors: ☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4: Dream Master: ☆