A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
The basic plot: Nightmare-stricken Kristen (Patricia Arquette) is committed after a suicide attempt to a psychiatric hospital with a group of more suicidal teens, and they are all having nightmares involving the burn-scared serial killer Freddy Kruger (Robert Englund) tormenting their sleep. The original film’s survivor Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) has now become a psychiatric intern and she joins the semi-skeptical hospital psychiatrist Dr. Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson) in helping the teens discover “dream powers” that they can use to defeat Kruger.
Det. Abilene’s rating: 4 (out of 5)
Analysis: The Wes Craven-directed A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) was a landmark film in the horror genre, grossing more than $25 million on a $1.8 million budget, establishing New Line Cinema as a major force in independent entertainment, and made Robert Englund’s burn-scarred child molester/serial killer Freddy Krueger into a household name and iconic film anti-hero that remains instantly recognizable even decades later. That film was certainly flawed with some bad acting, woeful dialogue, and pedestrian direction, but it featured a premise that was extremely inventive (and has since been imitated ad nausea) and is one of the few of the eighties’ many slasher films that managed to create some genuine terror. The immediate impact of the first film led New Line CEO Robert Shaye rush a sequel into production and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge was an even bigger hit at the box office, even though the film was poorly received by fans of the original as being plodding and inconsistent with the events of the first film. The financial success of Nightmare 2 demanded yet another installment, but this time it appears that New Line took extra effort to ensure that Part 3 would better satisfy fans who were disappointed with the hastily-made previous film.
Although Nightmare 2 was in interesting-if-flawed film in its right, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors completely ignores the previous film and forges ahead as though it were a direct sequel to the first film. New Line made a wise decision to bring back original Nightmare creator Wes Craven to write the original screenplay for Part 3 (along with Bruce Wagner) and Craven’s original concept was to bring Freddy into the “real” world with him haunting the cast and crew of a Nightmare film that was depicted as being in production. Craven’s meta-fiction angel was considered too cerebral for the slasher movie crowd (although the concept would finally be revitalized as 1994’s New Nightmare), the Craven/Wagner screenplay for Nightmare 3 would be reworked by Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont (who would later script and direct 1994’s classic The Shawshank Redemption) – with Russell being hired on to direct the picture. Russell and Darabont felt that all of the potential terror of Nightmare concept had been properly mined by the first film and they subsequently decided to craft Part 3 as less of a traditional horror film and more of an fantasy thriller with some black comedy – and the result is my candidate for the best film in the Nightmare franchise and one of best “teens take on the monster” pictures of the eighties.
Although they give us the excepted grisly visuals and death sequences, Russell and Darabont do not cater much to many of the typical slasher movie conventions (which were passé by 1987 anyway) and steer the film towards becoming more of a supernatural tale of survival – sort of The Most Dangerous Game set in the dream world, if you will. The film also amps up the dark humor and gives Kruger more chances to crack-wise, which understandably gives many series fans mixed feelings. Like it or not, this is the film that laid the groundwork for “Freddy the Media Star” which would eventually compromise the effectiveness of some of the series’ later films, but I feel it largely works here because the humor seems to be dictated by Freddy’s actions and not vice versa. For example, it makes sense here when Freddy infamously quips, “Welcome to prime time, bitch!” before ramming a victim’s head through a television set, which is unlike some of the future films in the series in which it seems as though the death sequences were only conceived to justify the one-liners had already been written first.
Instead of just rehashing the dreamland stalk-n’-slash format of the first film, Russell and Darabont (and Craven and Wagner, as well) also achieve what every good sequel should strive for by expanding and enhancing the premise of the first film. It makes perfect sense for the last of the “Elm Street children” to have been driven literally insane by their night terrors, and it was a great idea to allow them to discover means of being able to fight back in their dreams against Kruger. I also respect the film for managing to bring the Kruger mythos full circle with John Saxon returning as Nancy’s now-alcoholic father to provide Nancy and Dr. Gordon with the location of Kruger’s bodily remains. Russell and Darabont also go beyond Craven’s original treatment to give Freddy an intriguing backstory as the “bastard son of a hundred maniacs” which gives him a classic gothic origin that further establishes his position among the great monsters of cinema.
Russell, the other three screenwriters, and the whole slew of special effects and FX make-up specialists give us some extremely creative effect sequences that are as stunning as they are grisly. Here we have a creepy ghost-like nun, a giant-sized, humanoid (or “Freddy-iod,” suppose) snake, killer wheelchairs, a former druggie’s track marks literally crying out, living mirrors and plenty of other striking visuals lurking behind seemingly every door. The standout sequence, however, is when Freddy rips out the tendons of the arms and legs of Bradley Greggs’ character Phillip and manipulates him like a bloody marionette puppet – an image that is as inventive and skillful as it is gut-churning and it still makes me wince a bit no matter how many times I’ve seen it. The effects crew may have bit off more than they could chew with some poorly-done stop-motion animation at the film’s climax (which will make you marvel at the genius of Ray Harryhausen even more) and the bizarre dream sequence in which Freddy apparently possesses Dick Cavett and proceeds to murder Zsa Zsa Gabor (while undeniably amusing) is just a bit too loopy.
The film gives us the best assortment of characters in any Nightmare film, with Jennifer Rubin’s former junkie punkette, Ken Sagoes angry tough guy, Rodney Eastman’s horny mute, Penelope Sudrow’s self-mutilating actress wannabe, Ira Heiden’s wheelchair-bound fantasy geek, and Patricia Arquette’s fragile flower all being particularly memorable. The returning Heather Langenkamp is laughably unconvincing as a psychiatric intern, but John Saxon is harrowing in his brief return as Nancy’s father and Craig Wasson is affecting as perhaps the most sympathetic adult character in any of the eighties’ slasher flicks. This also maybe Robert Englund’s best performance as Freddie with the character receiving more – but not too much – screentime, and Nan Martin almost rivals Englund in the creepy-as-hell department as the mysterious nun. The surprisingly strong supporting cast also includes solid work from Priscilla Pointer, Brooke Bundy, and a devilishly handsome Laurence Fishburne (credited here as “Larry”) in an early but eye-catching appearance.
Bottom Line: A clear favorite for many of the series’ fans, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warrior successfully builds upon the original film and features a clever premise, good characters, solid performances, and some of the most striking visual images of late-eighties horror films. In my personal opinion, the best of the Nightmare franchise.