In the fall of 1986, just after seeing the double feature of A Nightmare on Elm Street and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge on HBO, my father took me to see the Sylvester Stallone movie Over the Top. Before you suggest that my father is horrible and should have been jailed for such a thing, I’ll remind you that in 1986, Sly Stallone was huge, and I don’t mean the growth hormones but as in a movie star. The best thing I remember from that day, though, is not Stallone’s trucking or arm wrestling, but the huge cardboard display in the lobby of the now-departed Cinema 140 for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. I was eager to see it, though I didn’t really think my Mom would take me. While she had begun letting me see some horror movies on HBO and on video, it was a whole other wall of pancakes to let your nine-year-old see a horror movie in a movie theater, right?
Yet, there we were in February 1987, Mom and me, sitting in the theater before the screen that would bring me to Elm Street. I wore my favorite red Raynor baseball cap with the brim in a position to protect me from the giant-ass Freddy Krueger on the screen. The brim would eventually be moved aside so I could actually see what was going on since Freddy is seen a whole lot onscreen at the end of the movie.
I was half a year away from being ten and I was jazzed as I left the theater. I thought that Dream Warriors was way better than Freddy’s Revenge and I couldn’t wait for there to be more Nightmares. I was already in a pretty deep NOES fever by this point. Dream Warriors intensified the fever.
Wes Craven returns. Kind of. Craven and Robert Shaye patched some of their problems up and Craven, with his writing partner Bruce Wagner, pitched and wrote a screenplay for Dream Warriors. For years I wondered what Craven’s screenplay would have been like without being touched by director Chuck Russell and co-screenwriter Frank Darabont. Thanks to The Nightmare on Elm Street Companion (the fine fansite where I’ve been borrowing the pictures that have appeared in these little diatribes), I was able to download and read Craven and Wagner’s screenplay. I have actually written a review of the whole script but for the purpose of this essay, suffice it to say that the script was bad.
Director Chuck Russell and co-screenwriter Frank Darabont brings Freddy Krueger back to his roots. Where Freddy’s Revenge alludes to the first Nightmare through conversation between characters as well as Nancy’s discovered diary, Dream Warriors makes no mention of Freddy’s Revenge. It’s as though the second movie were a nightmare best forgotten. Freddy first appears in a nightmare that Kristen (Patricia Arquette) is having and he chases her through hallways and tunnels, before finally appearing in a bathroom mirror and slitting her wrist. The rest of the nightmares take hold of Craven’s idea that in the dreamworld, Freddy can do and be almost anything, and runs with it. Even though the fans knew the rules by now, even though they’d been down this street before, the movie has enough surprises in it to make it feel like more than the third movie in the series. They use some of what Craven and Wagner put into the original screenplay, yet tamed it down, and actually make it more like the first movie, while still being its own thing.
Heather Langenkamp returns as Nancy Thompson. Without evil, there can be no good. Because Wes Craven is a writer as well as a filmmaker, and a very intelligent man to boot, he understands symbolism.¹ If Freddy represents evil at its worse, Nancy represents good at its best. During the course of the first Nightmare, Nancy becomes Freddy’s greatest foe. With her reappearance in the second sequel, the audience has someone they instantly connect to and root for. Now that she’s a little older and wiser, she’s a much more formidable foe for Freddy.
The overall cast for Dream Warriors also deserves kudos. Not every performance is great, and there are definitely stereotypes, but this cast far outshines that of the second movie’s. Patricia Arquette gets one of her first major film roles as Kristen Parker, the main character of the story. She is a little squeaky at times but there is a quality to her that makes one understand how she had a pretty good post-Nightmare career. Craig Wasson as Dr. Neil Gordon is superb as the stressed psychiatrist who cares so much for these troubled kids that he’s willing to put his career (and eventually his life) on the line for them. John Saxon returns as Donald Thompson, former lieutenant, current security guard. The cast portraying the troubled teenagers are also pretty good in this movie. Oh, and I can’t forget Priscilla Pointer as Dr. Simms and Laurence Fishburne (credited as “Larry Fishburne”) as the orderly Max. His understated performance also hints at the career he will enjoy.
One of the good parts of this movie is the information about Freddy’s origins. The mysterious nun that only Neil Gordon can see is a welcome addition. To find out that Freddy was “the bastard son of a hundred maniacs” is a pretty nice touch, while not a subtle one. Of course, an argument can be made that this information is one step toward making Freddy more human and more sympathetic, and that it’s also pretty melodramatic. All true, but it also sets Krueger up as more of a symbol. Evil is what spawned him, evil is what drove him through life, evil is what drives him in the afterlife. It also doesn’t excuse his actions in any way.
Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger. Yes, I know. I’ve put this in all the essays thus far. Don’t worry, it won’t always be this way (remember, my least favorite Nightmare is still impending…). This is the last film of the franchise where Robert Englund gets last billing in the opening credits. Freddy is still the villain at this point. Yes, his role is larger in this movie than in the first one, and maybe even the second one, but he is still the villain. The audience only sees him when his intended victim becomes aware of him. One of the most frightening shots of Freddy in the entire series is in Kristen’s opening nightmare. She’s running through a long hallway and far behind her, Freddy comes running around a corner with his glove raised, headed straight for her. I believe the shot is slowed down just a bit, just enough for the audience to think, Oh, shit! There he is! It is clear that Englund relishes the role and basks in playing this despicable monster. When he rips his sweater open to reveal the faces of his victims, the smile on his face is priceless.
The ending. I dare say that the ending in Dream Warriors is better than Nightmare‘s ending. The dual climax of Donald Thompson and Neil Gordon fighting Freddy’s skeleton in the junkyard where the Elm Street parents placed him and the nightmare boiler room from hell and the mirror room are more interesting than the Looney Tunes hijinks Nancy sets up to defeat the pulled-from-the dream Krueger. Even Nancy’s demise feels fitting, especially with Kristen’s promise to dream her into a beautiful dream, which could have been used as a set up for further movies (and was eventually used in a comic book series written by Andy Mangles in the early 1990s).
There are less nightmares in this film than the previous sequel and the ones that follow, but let’s explore them, shall we?
Heather Langenkamp’s return as Nancy. Huh? Didn’t you just tell us that is was one of the dreams of this particular movie? Yes, I did. While it was great to see Ms. Langenkamp’s return to Elm Street as Nancy, I feel as though her performance was a little wooden in some scenes and that Russell didn’t really give her much to do. By making Kristen the lead character, Nancy gets a smaller role in the film. Yes, a lot of the movie follows her, but I also feel as though she’s along for the ride a little more than she should be. Here’s a character that has so much more potential. Honestly, I believe it was less Russell as the director than it was New Line’s bureaucracy that’s to blame. For them, the Nightmare movies (and Freddy Krueger) were huge moneymakers. They got a small fan rebellion with the poor quality of Freddy’s Revenge‘s story and probably felt that returning to teenagers having nightmares was the thing to do. The fact that there are so many adults in the mix of this movie doesn’t happen again until Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, which we will get to in due time. Nancy’s return could have been more, especially if we’re going with the aforementioned symbolism of Freddy = evil and Nancy = good.
The beginning of the wisecracks. Yes, giving Fred Krueger a personality was genius on Wes Craven’s part, but here’s where the personality begins its decent. Freddy is still scary in this movie, but the sense of humor, while dark and smile- (and maybe even chuckle-) worthy, is a little too much. When Jennifer (Penelope Sudrow) gets pulled into the tv, do we really need, “Welcome to prime time, bitch.”? Yes, it makes us chuckle, but this is Freddy fuckin’ Krueger! I don’t mind him fucking with his victims, it’s one of the things that makes him so scary, but this is a little much.
The stereotypes. The idea of having troubled teenagers that everyone thinks have tried to commit suicide is a pretty good one. It brings us away from the suburban Elm Street, though these kids are supposed to be children of those original parents (it also brings us away from Craven’s viewing that suburbia isn’t as nice as one might believe) but some of the stereotypes are a little much. There’s a recovering young addict who liked to shoot up, played by Jennifer Rubin, who has all the stereotypical issues and fantasies (though Rubin’s performance is pretty good and transcends the stereotype). Then there’s the nerd who loves his Dungeons & Dragons-eque role playing games. There’s the girl who wants to be an actress (with a face for radio, if not the voice), the shy kid who refuses to speak but fantasizes over the stereotypical hot nurse. The head of the clinic, Dr. Simms, is another version of Nurse Cratchett, who lacks any real bedside manner or compassion. The worst of the stereotypes, though, the one that irks me every time I see this movie, is Kincaid, the young, angry, foul-mouthed black kid whose fantasy is to have Herculean strength. By 1987, we should have moved beyond that, yet there he is.
Nancy’s house becoming Freddy’s house. Boy, did this take a lot of Expanded Universe ‘splainin’! In Wes Craven and Bruce Wagner’s original script, Nancy and Kristen come across the home Freddy Krueger was born and raised in. It’s the typical haunted house. They find the house and their nightmares also bring them there. It’s not in Springwood on Elm Street, but somewhere else. Nancy is brought there in the same supernatural manner (though she doesn’t realize it) that pretty much brings many characters in horror fantasy fiction from place-to-place. Somewhere along the way from Craven & Wagner’s script to the Russell & Darabont script, Nancy’s house becomes Freddy’s house. Well, let me correct that: In this movie it’s still Nancy’s house. The idea, I guess, is that the nightmare version makes it look like a haunted house. For some reason, though, Freddy seems to have inhabited it in the nightmare. Maybe the boiler room was too uncomfortable. Who knows? But it throws us off. It’s good that it connects Nancy to the story again, but it doesn’t make sense that Kristen and others would go there.
The 1980s was a hot time for the horror genre. By the beginning of the decade, Stephen King had blown up and by the time A Nightmare on Elm Street came out, he was a household name. There were a lot of horror novels coming out every year and horror films being made. Maybe it was a sort of punk-anti-establishment thing. We had Ronald Reagan telling us everything was good, everything was fine, yet there was the sense that his finger hovered over The Button and all it took was his psychic to tell him he should push it; maybe this was one reason for the popularity of horror at this time. I think that a result of these times and the Horror Boom is that A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors benefited. Frank Darabont was (and still is) a huge Stephen King fan. By the time he would have been brought onto Dream Warriors, he would have already written and directed the short film The Woman in the Room, an adaptation of a Stephen King story. Of course, Darabont would go on to adapt and direct other movies based on other King works. The Shawshank Redemption–based on King’s novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and The Mist were all very good movies that captured everything that makes King not only such an entertaining writer but also a great writer. When work on Dream Warriors was underway, King would have been having one of his most prolific and biggest years ever, with the publications of It, Misery, The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three, The Eyes of the Dragon, and The Tommyknockers, not to mention the film adaptations of Pet Sematary, Creepshow II, and others I’m probably forgetting. Many of the ideas in Dream Warriors seem like something King might have put into the movie had he worked on it. The role of the adults in this movie is similar to the role of the characters of It, having to face something from the past, the teenagers being individuals with personalities, whether stereotypical or not. The way Nancy and Freddy seem to be drawn together is also reminiscent to how the characters of It are drawn to It.
Freddy has another makeover. Gone are the brown contacts and the too-high cheekbones, though the hook nose remains. His scarring is also more reminiscent of the second movie’s, yet less healed in some ways. His hat and sweater are pretty consistent at this point. The green stripes remain on the arms. The glove is back and there are no noticeable changes to it. What has changed is Freddy’s lighting. By now, everyone knew what he looked like. He was in magazines and hosting double features on HBO and doing interviews and appearing on MTV (to help sell the soundtrack) and showing up on posters, etc. His surroundings are still dark, but Freddy is lit better. The mystery of his face is gone and with it, so is the fright.
Freddy’s first music video! Dokken’s “Dream Warriors.” Patricia Arquette must be proud.
One other piece of info that you might be interested in. I mentioned above the copy of Craven and Wagner’s original screenplay for Dream Warriors (located at The Nightmare on Elm Street Companion). If you are a fan of the series, it might be interesting to read it. I read it with the hopes of reading a script that kicked the movie’s ass, but rather found a script with a lot of issues. I wonder if Craven truly intended that as a legitimate Nightmare or if he knew it would be rewritten. There are some interesting concepts in it, but I feel as though the script is lacking. Majorly lacking. What is interesting, though, is how much was borrowed by later Nightmares.
The Morning After
Overall, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors works. Freddy Krueger has his last hurrah as a frightening character, it’s great to see his original enemy back to square off against him, and the new kids (and adults) are formidable opponents. Chuck Russell (who would go on to direct the movies The Mask and Eraser with the likes of Jim Carrey and Arnold Schwarzenegger under the name Charles Russell) and Frank Darabont use Wes Craven and Bruce Wagner’s original story and build on it to success. Had they been interested (or allowed, I don’t know the behind-the-scenes story on why they didn’t work on any other Nightmares, though I have suspicions) in going further in this franchise, I suspect there may have been some interesting movies (or at least one interesting movie). At nine, I thought this movie rocked. I went home and built a Freddy glove with pens and pencils. Realizing how silly it looked, I built another one with popsicle sticks, until I was able to buy the official glove one Halloween. At thirty-five, I still enjoy the movie. It doesn’t have the power of Wes Craven’s original, but it is a solid sequel and is better than any of the Friday the 13th movies. It shows imagination and an understanding of fear.
In history, the movie made big change for New Line Cinema and garnered enough press that it was inevitable that Freddy would be coming back. Perhaps that’s where things went wrong. Eager to capitalize on Freddy’s ascent from cult figure to pop culture icon, the movie was barely out of the theaters before New Line was prepping A Nightmare on Elm Street 4. So the summer I turned ten, Robert Englund was in Freddy makeup filming the fourth movie, and things began to turn ugly….
¹ In 2010, a pair of great documentaries about the Nightmare on Elm Street movies had yet to be released. I Am Nancy, produced by Heather Langenkamp does not only show the importance of the character Nancy to the films she appears in, but also to the fans. It also features great interviews with Robert Englund and Wes Craven, who goes into great detail about the importance of Nancy as a character as well as a symbol.