Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Nightmare Week: 'A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors' (1987)

The consensus on A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors is that it's the best of the original Nightmare sequels, and it's certainly a big improvement over the mostly dreadful Freddy's Revenge. It doesn't have the strong personal vision of Wes Craven's bookending films, but it does benefit from Craven's presence as producer and co-writer, and unlike Freddy's Revenge, it makes an effort to delve into the main concepts and characters, rather than disregarding or drastically altering them. In addition to Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger (getting his greatest amount of screen time thus far), Heather Langenkamp as Nancy Thompson and John Saxon as her father Donald return from the first movie, and the story is tied much more closely to Nancy's initial battle with Freddy.

Dream Warriors takes place six years after the events of the first movie, as Nancy is now a grad student and expert in dream disorders, hired as a staff member at a psychiatric hospital in Springwood (which seems to sprout any large, heretofore unknown institutions it might need for plot purposes). A group of teenagers are all suffering from nightmares that they attribute to Freddy's presence, and they've consequently developed various personal problems, including drug addiction and suicide attempts. Of course, while the doctors dismiss the Freddy nightmares as delusions, Nancy knows that Freddy really has returned and is stalking these kids in their dreams.

Nancy's transformation from scared victim to empowered leader in some ways mirrors Sara Connor's transformation between the first two Terminator movies, although Langenkamp can't pull off the change nearly as well as Linda Hamilton did. The filmmakers dress her in a series of "career woman of 1987" outfits, and she retains the gray streak in her hair that Nancy acquired in the first movie, but the 23-year-old Langenkamp (who was great as a scared but resilient teen) too often comes off like a kid playing at being a grown-up. Still, she has moments of strength as Nancy, and the uneven supporting cast (which includes early performances from future Oscar nominees and CSI franchise stars Patricia Arquette and Laurence Fishburne) occasionally rises to that same level.

Really, though, Englund is the breakout star here, and Dream Warriors establishes the familiar pop-culture version of Freddy, with his puns and one-liners, and his ability to transform into anything that will scare his targets. Director Chuck Russell and the screenwriters (including Craven as well as future auteur Frank Darabont) tap into a lot of familiar dream imagery (running but being unable to get anywhere, watching a TV show that bleeds into a dream, feeling like you've woken up even when you haven't), and they use that familiarity to make Freddy's intrusions even scarier, augmented by some creative special effects and a clearly expanded budget. Despite his penchant for cheesy jokes, Freddy is still pretty menacing here, although the kids discovering their own dream superpowers is a little too Saturday-morning-cartoon to be truly intense (probably the reason I liked this movie as a kid).

The subplot about Nancy's colleague finding Freddy's remains and burying them in hallowed ground is likewise a little cheesy (especially with its tired science-vs.-faith angle), although it does allow Saxon the chance to play the elder Thompson as a washed-up drunk. The solidarity among Nancy and the misfit teenagers is the movie's biggest strength, and their forays into the dream world, which is much more clearly defined than it was in the first movie, make Dream Warriors feel like fantasy as much as horror (it reminded me a bit of some of Clive Barker's genre-hybrid work). Freddy's journey toward being a kid-friendly cartoon character may have started here, but on its own Dream Warriors is a solid movie that honors the legacy of its main predecessor.

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