Welcome to My Nightmare

Slasher movie sequels don’t generally have high standards. As original ideas morph into long-lasting franchises, the tendency is to slip into autopilot and retell the same story; after all, if it was good (or at least profitable) enough the first time, why not again, and again, and again? This is why A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors (1987) is so refreshing. It’s not exactly groundbreaking or profound, but neither is it boring or lazy.

Directed by Chuck Russell (later of The Blob [1988] and The Mask [1994]), Dream Warriors is thoroughly competent,  but has occasional  flashes of great imagination—like when the balls on a Newton’s cradle float apart to signify a dream sequence, or when Freddy’s skeleton comes to life à la Jason and the Argonauts (1963). So yes, much of its awesomeness derives from its special effects and creatively unsettling violence, but the writing is also unusually sharp for a Part 3. (The involvement of The Walking Dead’s Frank Darabont may account for some of this.)

The film’s teenagers aren’t exactly well-rounded characters—each of them gets only a couple of attributes, like “was addicted to drugs” or “likes to make puppets”—but they’re nonetheless plausible and, more importantly, they care about each other. Stuck together in a mental hospital under the dominion of the Nurse Ratched-like Dr. Simms (Priscilla Pointer), the Dream Warriors are reliant on their own camaraderie and teamwork in order to overcome Freddy—as well as the mentorship of Dr. Gordon (Body Double’s Craig Wasson) and Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), who fought Freddy herself in the first Nightmare movie, and has now returned as an intern.

Dream Warriors further expands on series mythology by introducing Kristen (Patricia Arquette), who has the ability to drag others into her own Freddy-plagued dreams, enabling them to fight him together. Shared dreaming? Yeah, it’s Inception 23 years before the fact and with weirder dreams to boot. They’re dreams where Freddy takes the guise of a sexy nurse, and then uses his own tongues to bind one of the kids above a fiery pit; where he terrorizes the disabled Will with a giant, spike-covered wheelchair; and where he can appear in a dozen mirrors at once. The film’s dreams are unpredictable, irrational, and sometimes terrifying as Freddy potentially looms around every corner.

Meanwhile, Nancy and Dr. Gordon wrestle with a subplot that involves a mysterious nun (OK, she’s actually the ghost of Mrs. Krueger) and the need to bury Freddy’s remains in hallowed ground, all of which leads back to Nancy’s dad (John Saxon), who helped kill Freddy in the first place, and to a gory junkyard showdown. Throughout all of this, the film isn’t quite good enough to transcend its dated genre trappings, but it’s still a curious mix of the slasher formula with team-oriented adventure, surreal visualizations of teen angst, and a dose of comedy—both intentional and otherwise. And it’s definitely better than the first two Nightmare movies.

So if nothing else, Dream Warriors is good for the same reasons that it’s odd: it crosses genre lines while capitalizing on the narrative potential of the Nightmare series’ deadly dreams. The Dream Warriors don’t just fall asleep, one by one, and get hacked apart; they work together through their nocturnal trials, even experiencing moments of real wonder as they share their (sometimes goofy) dream powers. (“In my dreams, I’m the Wizard Master!” says the hopelessly nerdy Will.) And if all that’s not enough for you, Dream Warriors co-stars a young, hot Laurence Fishburne as a sympathetic orderly.

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