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

Dream Warriors is easily the best of the sequels in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, and some lovers of the franchise consider it even better than the original in many ways. It certainly is a more expansive and conceptually realized effort, with a higher budget, better acting, impressive production design, interesting characters, and more eye-popping in surreal visual effects from what we saw in the first two entries.  Infused with ample imagination, Dream Warriors substantially builds upon the events of the first film without regurgitating the events, opening up the mythos, as well as the character history, to great effect beyond just an excuse to watch teens die.

Patricia Arquette, in her debut film role, guides us through most of the film as troubled teenager Kristen Parker, who begins having visions of Freddy Krueger in her nightmares that ultimately leads her mother to believe she is suicidal. She is sent off to a psychiatric ward at a nearby hospital, where she becomes part of a recovery group for equally troubled teens who just so happen to be experiencing the same nightmares of this scarred, burned man with shape-shifting abilities out to kill them, though none of them know why.  However, they find strength in numbers when it is revealed that Kristen has psychic abilities that allows them all to enter the same dream, and each of the rest have special powers within that dream.  Together, they just might have the strength to take on their powerful nemesis in the nightmare real, Krueger himself.

Dream Warriors succeeds in many ways because it introduces us to sympathetic characters that we come to care about, and situations they are placed in through which we achieve a palpable sense of fear and potential loss.  Each of them has a sad back story, though they remain likable, as we find them individually, and collectively, challenge the homicidal Freddy Krueger, who is looking to snuff them out in order to make himself even stronger.  Some of the body horror is memorably gruesome, so much so that those who may have only seen the film once in the 1980s and never again, like me, will remember these horror set pieces decades later.  If it has been a while since you’ve seen the film, I’d wager you still remember the boy being used as a puppet by his own veins, the mute boy “tongue tied” to his own bed, Dick Cavett and Zsa Zsa Gabor becoming part of the nightmare landscape of television, or the puckering needle marks hungry for drugs in the arms of the addict.

Unlike its predecessor, Freddy’s Revenge, this film continues with characters introduced in the first entry through the re-emergence of its main heroine, Nancy Thompson, and her arc with her father, played by a returning John Saxon in a smaller role here.   It’s a nice surprise for fans of the series in seeing Nancy return, though Heather Langenkamp doesn’t quite nail the performance which is built on making her seem more mature, with a grey streak in her hair and a PhD in psychology with an emphasis in dreams and hypnosis, though the actress was only twenty-two years old at the time of filming.  It is great to see Nancy back in the series, but Langenkamp, while still a nice presence, isn’t one to command the screen to make for a formidable foil for Freddy.

Three films into the series finds a different director attached to each of them, with first-time helmer Chuck Russell, who co-wrote a similar premise involving shared dreams in 1984’s Dreamscape, bolstering the tightness of the story with a good sense of horror, humor, and chutzpah.  Interestingly, Dreamscape‘s director, Joseph Ruben, had been sought out initially to direct, but had already signed on for another horror film, The Stepfather, and was unavailable, recommending that they look at Russell instead.  As a writer, Russell knows well the need to set things up properly before delivering the nastier set pieces, which also raises the level of tragedy involved in knowing that not all of the young cast will make it out of the film alive, though we root for their survival.

In addition to Russell, the screenplay boasts some popular names.  Wes Craven was impressed by an unrelated, unpublished screenplay he had read from novelist/screenwriter Bruce Wagner, asking him to co-script with him for Dream Warriors.  Craven had originally been opposed to having any sequels to his original A Nightmare on Elm Street, but after the second entry, Freddy’s Revenge, had been an even bigger hit at the box office than his own, he realized that there was a large fan base for his original ideas, so he climbed back aboard with a script to expand upon his first film, and to also put a fitting end to the series (which, obviously, did not happen).

Craven’s original thought was to make Freddy burst out into the real world, rather than the nightmare realm, for a meta film in which he attacks the actors making an Elm Street sequel (the idea was nixed, but only for now, as he would use it as the premise of his own re-imagining of sorts, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, in 1994).  Craven and Wagner went with a different direction for their intended script, one which you can find, more or less intact in the novelization from Jeffrey Cooper.  Despite Craven’s pedigree, the script would undergo substantial revisions by director Chuck Russell, along with a new talent, Frank Darabont, who would come to fame for his work as a writer and director for some big movies in the 1990s, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, as well as develop “The Walking Dead” for television.

Back story is given to the Freddy Krueger story, including the origin tale of how he came to be, within a religious convent, involving the raping of a woman by countless men there, making Freddy the bastard son of a hundred maniacs (which recalls a taunt by Eli Wallach’s character in The Good the Bad and the Ugly, “You’re the son of a thousand fathers, all bastards like you.”)  With that corruption of divine origin comes a new way of defeating Freddy Krueger, with information delivered by a mysterious nun that frequents one of the mental hospital’s psychologists, in one of the few angles in which the series encroaches into traditional exorcism horror territory.

There are some great set pieces here, with Freddy coming in a variety of disturbing forms, with kill moments that are particularly nasty, introducing into the film the one-liners that Freddy would come to use in subsequent sequels to cap off each nightmare.  The best part about the film is the notion that there are those who can have special powers in the dream realm, if they learn how to harness it, though it is a bit of a disappointment that this angle was mostly dropped by subsequent entries in the series.  Interestingly, Laurence Fishburne, who has a supporting role in Dream Warriors, would be in a film series that essentially was about this topic, even if it substitutes a worldwide state of virtual reality for shared dreams: The Matrix.

One of the liabilities to the Nightmare on Elm Street series as a whole is that there seems to be no real rules when it comes to what Freddy Krueger can do in a nightmare, and what someone else does against him will have any affect.  Freddy seems omnipotent in many regards, and then some teen in their dream will cause him great harm, and yet nothing permanent ever seems to come from it, except that which is dictated by the run time.  At the end, Freddy will always be vanquished, but not really, as the door is always left open for him to return for a sequel.

Dream Warriors would prove to be yet another big hit for New Line Cinema, with each successive release grossing more than the last.  It debuted at #1 at the box office at the time of its release in February of 1987, taking in $45 million in its initial theatrical run on a budget of less than $5 million.  Though many critics were mixed at the time, audiences loved it, assuring that, despite Craven’s originally intention to lay Freddy’s body to rest once and for all, the man of your nightmares would come back for another go around with a fourth part.

Qwipster’s rating: B+

MPAA Rated: R for gore, strong violence, nudity, sensuality, drug use, and language     
Running Time: 99 min.

Cast: Patricia Arquette, Heather Langenkamp, Craig Wasson, Robert Englund, Laurence Fishburne, Ken Sagoes, Jennifer Rubin, Rodney Eastman, Bradley Gregg, Ira Heiden, Penelope Sudrow, Priscilla Pointer, John Saxon
Director:  Chuck Russell
Screenplay: Wes Craven, Bruce Wagner, Frank Darabont, Chuck Russell