A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors
Dir. Chuck Russell
Demonic child-killer Freddy Krueger returns to haunt the dreams of the teenagers of Springwood, this time turning his murderous attention to the residents of a psychiatric hospital. What he doesn’t count on though is the return of Nancy Thompson, the first teenager to ever defeat him, who teaches the youngsters how to hone their dream powers to try and defeat him.
“Sleep. Those little slices of death, how I loathe them.”*
While a big success at the box office, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 was panned by critics and fans of the original. Head of New Line Bob Shaye wanted to try and bring Freddy Krueger back for another outing. Once again he approached Wes Craven, writer and director of the original film, who declined to helm the project as he was working on Deadly Blessing. However, Craven saw this as an opportunity to have some creative input to an ongoing series which he believed had already veered into lacklustre quality, and he submitted a treatment to New Line which expanded some of the ideas he addressed in the first film. Craven’s concept centred on the ‘dream warriors’, a group of highly troubled but gifted teenagers who are able to master certain powers in their dreams and unite to fight Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund). This concept would eventually ground the subsequent movies and influence the direction they would take. Craven wrote the screenplay with Bruce Wagner and they set the story in a juvenile psychiatric hospital. The character of Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) from the original film returns; now all grown up, and working as a specialist in sleeping disorders. Also returning to reprise his role from the original film was John Saxon, who played Nancy’s father Sheriff Thompson, now a reclusive alcoholic. A few other familiar faces populate the story, including Patricia Arquette in her first film role, and Lawrence Fishburne.
New Line favoured a few of Craven’s ideas, but ultimately turned to Chuck Russell to re-write the script and direct. Russell recruited Frank Darabont (who would go on to direct The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile) to help with rewrites. This caused a few problems between the studio and Craven. Round about the time the screenplay for A Nightmare on Elm Street was circulating Hollywood, Russell had written a film called Dreamscape, which Craven believed had ripped off his then still unproduced film, and scuppered his chances of finding a studio to produce it. Craven had originally suggested the third instalment take the form of a prequel exploring the origins of Freddy Krueger, and the final screenplay actually delves into and expands the background of Krueger, fuelling the subsequent mythology of the series. He’s revealed to be the ‘bastard son of a hundred maniacs’, as his mother, Amanda, was a nun who worked in an asylum where she was raped by the inmates after being accidently locked in. He’s described as an ‘unquiet spirit, an abomination to man and to God’, whose earthly remains must be laid to rest in hallowed ground.
The various themes which course throughout the film, such as mental illness, familial dysfunction and teenage suicide, are no doubt the result of Craven’s involvement; the later films mainly dropped any semblance of subtext in favour of schlocky entertainment and narratives driven by ridiculously elaborate death sequences. This is also the film that cemented Freddy Krueger’s reputation as a wise-cracking, caricatural buffoon; a far cry from the insidious child killer he was depicted as in the original film. Dream Warriors’ plot is essentially structured around elaborate fantasy deaths; this approach, as well as its lighter, more playful tone, and its introduction of certain key characters that would reappear later on, formed the jumping off point for the later films.
The film begins with Kristen (Arquette) begrudgingly succumbing to sleep, and subsequently dreaming of a monstrous figure emerging from her bathroom mirror and slashing her arms. When she awakens her mother coldly accuses her of attempting to kill herself and she’s carted off to the local psychiatric clinic where she meets other disturbed teenagers who claim to have been attacked in their dreams by a charred man with blades for fingers. The hospital staff believe the teenagers are experiencing some sort of group psychosis or mass hysteria, and that their nightmares are just symptoms of their real life problems. They believe the recent deaths of teenagers in the area to be a spate of collective suicides. Some Craven-esque dialogue ensues in which dreams are described as a by-product of guilt, and the teens’ psychological scars stem from moral conflicts and burgeoning sexuality.
The notions of troubled teens and generational conflict that rippled through the prior films make a welcome return here. The teens’ pleas for help and attempts to stay awake are ignored by the doctors until a new member of staff arrives in the form of Nancy Thompson, now a specialist in sleep disorders and conductor of groundbreaking research into nightmares. Nancy and her colleague Neil (Graig Wasson) are the only sympathetic adult characters in the series; their affinity with their teen patients is highlighted by their own encounters with generational conflict - their older colleagues see them both as too radical and unconventional, especially when they admit to believing the teenagers’ tales of being stalked in their dreams by a horribly disfigured man with knives for fingers. There’s a nasty undercurrent throughout the series portraying adults as unreliable and unhelpful – underpinning the helplessness and isolation felt by the younger generation. The original film introduced the idea that Krueger gains strength from the fear of his victims. In Dream Warriors this is taken one step further by revealing he actually collects the souls of his victims to gain strength. When she first defeated him, all Nancy had was her intelligence and resourcefulness. The dream skills she and Glen discussed in the first film are explored further here, with the revelation that Kristen can actually pull other dreamers into her dreams. Nancy helps her to hone these skills and teaches her friends a form of lucid dreaming where they remain in control while dreaming; resulting in them developing various attributes such as super strength, magical powers and a kick-ass attitude when they enter the dream world.
As mentioned, Dream Warriors set the tone for further instalments of the series with its plethora of fantastical and absurd death scenes (which were to be the series’ calling card), enhanced by groundbreaking special effects. The genuinely unsettling deaths in the original film are replaced by more outlandish scenes of violence such as a young man having veins ripped out of his arms and legs and turned into a human marionette, a giant serpentine manifestation of Krueger who attempts to swallow a girl whole, a young woman having her head pulled through a TV set, and a battle with a Ray Harryhausen-esque Krueger-skeleton in a labyrinthine scrap yard. The various dreamscapes in which the action plays out in are masterfully constructed; all lividly lit and atmospheric spaces in which things are not as they initially seem. The playfully demented tone is enhanced by a creepy score courtesy of Angelo Badalamenti: all sinister lullabies and deranged synth compositions. The inclusion of a theme song by Eighties hair-rockers Dokken ensured the subsequent films also featured rock songs a-plenty on their soundtracks, cementing the fact that the core audience of the series were teenagers.
While nowhere near as creepy or affecting as Part 1, Dream Warriors still emerges as an effective and thrilling fantasy horror. While much of the emphasis is placed on fun, this entry isn’t without its genuinely troubling moments, emphasised by the unsettling discussions of suicide. It solidified the template for the subsequent Elm Street movies, and until Wes Craven’s New Nightmare in 1994, also marked the last time Craven would have any creative input in the series.
*The film opens with this quote, which is incorrectly attributed to Edgar Allan Poe. These words, or a variation of them, were actually spoken in Journey to the Centre of the Earth, 1959 ("I don’t sleep. I hate those little slices of death."). Why it’s accredited to Poe is a mystery. Perhaps the filmmakers thought it would lend a little more credibility to the series?