1980s, 3/4, Chuck Russell, Horror, Review

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors

#3 in my ranking of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise.

Wes Craven was convinced to come back to the franchise he accidentally birthed after the second film, which he was completely uninvolved in, made enough money to entice New Line into making a third. He returned to develop the story and write some early drafts of the script with Bruce Wagner which was then readapted by director Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont. That influence is felt in the return to the world of dreams after the possession story in the second film. The end resulting script is still a bit loose especially in its first half, but there’s actual drive here by the second that, combined with the surrealist visuals, brings this second sequel up to the level of the first film.

Kristen (Patricia Arquette) is a teenager living with her single mother and is plagued by dreams of a dilapidated house and a man in a brown hat, red and green sweat, and who has long knives on his right hand. One night, the dream ends with her sleepwalking to the bathroom and trying to slit her wrists with a razor, and her mother puts her in a psychiatric facility led by Dr. Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson). Kristen and several other patients are all experiencing the same dread of dreams, and in walks Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), our heroine from the first film. Oddly, they decided to make her a young professional though she still looks like she’s way too young for it and, in the timeline of the franchise, it’s only six years since she was in high school. So, maybe graduate student would have been a bit better?

Anyway, the first big bulk of the film is really about getting all of the characters on board with what we already know, that Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) is back and terrorizing all of them. The new wrinkle is that Kristen has the power to call other people into her dreams, something she had done as a child to her father but had let the ability diminish over time. I think I would have preferred it if the film had begun with Nancy (as a grad student studying under Dr. Gordon) was already working with Kristen to develop these powers when Freddy gets injected into them because, maybe, Kristen enters the dream of someone at a nearby psychiatric hospital who is being terrorized by Krueger. Then, the focus can turn to developing her ability, giving us opportunity for the more interesting development of her powers rather than the slow roll reveal to the characters of what the audience already knows.

Dr. Gordon gets led into an abandoned part of the hospital by a mysterious nun who seems to appear and disappear at will where she tells him the true background of Freddy Krueger: that he is the bastard to one hundred convicts and twisted evil. Meanwhile, Krueger is getting closer to the kids and beginning to knock them off one by one.

One of the things that I had an issue with in the first film was the lack of any real sense of increasing stakes, but that has been solved here. The first death is of Phillip (Bradley Gregg), a sleepwalker that Krueger, in Phillip’s dream, pulls his tendons out of his hands and feet and walks like a marionette up into the belltower where he jumps to his death. It’s imaginative, creepy, gross, and small scale enough to start the terror, but things escalate from there. Probably the most famous moment in the whole franchise is when TV obsessed Jennifer (Penelope Sudrow) falls asleep watching TV and Freddy comes out of it, smashing her head into the thick screen. Something is happening to these kids, and something must be done!

After some needless back and forth with hospital administration that tries to remove both Nancy and Dr. Gordon completely, they decide that they need to track down the body of Freddy Krueger to give it a proper burial and put his spirit to rest. The only person who would know where his body rests is her father, Donald (John Saxon), the police officer who led the illegal posse to find and kill Krueger so many years back. Nancy must run back to the hospital to try and save Kristen who has been put in the “quiet room” with no way to keep herself awake while Dr. Gordon and Donald go and find the body in a junkyard.

And then we get our big finale, an extended dream sequence that moves between our principle dreamers as they start out separated in the dream and must first overcome Freddy to some degree individually and then come together to overcome him together, essentially buying time until Dr. Gordon and Donald can finish the Catholic ritual to put Freddy to rest. It’s a quality sequence that uses special effects imaginatively and in unexpected ways, all cut nicely together with the efforts around the junkyard.

It’s interesting that, so far, the late-born franchise has really tried to set itself apart in every entry, to varying degrees of success, from each other as well as from other slashers of the time. It’s an ambitious little series that could, never quite matching the ideas with the great execution that the ideas probably deserve, but they give it a pretty solid try on average. Chuck Russell, in working from the ideas by Craven, well manages the production and gets pretty good performances from most of his cast (no hatred towards Langenkamp, but she was honestly too young for the role as written and comes off as fake), making a surprisingly exciting entry. There’s real effort here to use the ideas from the previous films and build on them, pushing out from the world and giving it a one versus many approach while expanding on the visuals at the same time.

This is pretty good stuff.

Rating: 3/4

5 thoughts on “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors”

  1. This is my second favorite movie in the franchise…and maybe in Craven’s entire filmography, we’ll see there.

    I want to add some special praise to the soundtrack and music. ‘Dream Warriors’ by Dokken is perfect for this time and film.

    This is also where we start to move from horror into fantasy-with-murder. That’s not really a criticism, just a note of genre drift. (Just check out that cool poster) We do not yet have the injection of comedy, which some people love but I don’t in the Nightmare series. The deaths of the kids are still impactful, and each of the victims/warriors have a personality that helps them stand out. You really root for these kids to make it and live and when they die, it really does feel bad.

    This is also where the idea of fighting back in your dreams gets expanded on. And I’m really glad they brought Heather back for this one. She isn’t as bad as ‘Christmas Jones’ but yeah, she’s not quite pulling off professional gravitas. But that’s fine, I’m happy to see her back and see her fighting Freddy again. I was sad to see her killed off but…narratively, if you don’t, then every sequel becomes ‘when will Nancy come back’.

    The ending lacks the gut punches Craven has pulled off in the past, just a little reminder that Freddy is still influencing things. After Deadly Friend and the first Nightmare (or even Invitation to Hell’s hellscape), it’s just meh. I mean, nice for the kids (the survivors at least) to win but…meh.

    Again, this does look like a professional movie and Craven is working with talented collaborators…but he’s not directing and that shows. And Frank Darabont deserves extra credit here.

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    1. It kind of surprised me that at no point in the franchise do they bring up a character who can lucid dream. Kristen (and later Alice) are the closest, and they never really gain the level of ability one might expect. It’s mostly just about bringing in other people to the dreams. Conceptually it just seems to follow on creating a character that can completely turn things around on Freddy by changing the rules of the dream on a whim.

      Still, within the confines that the film builds for itself, it does work. It’s pushing at the borders, modestly, and entering a new subgenre, as you say. I like the embrace of the fantasy elements because it gives something neat to look at, at the very least, and the preservation of Freddy as someone to be scared of instead of laughed along with, gives it a nice underlying terror.

      If New Line hadn’t been so desperate to just get more Nightmare movies out to make the cash to keep itself afloat, maybe they could have given more time to writing and production. I also like to imagine Darabont giving a final polish to the original film, helping to shape it up more.

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