Looking back at A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

The third Nightmare On Elm Street received a creative injection thanks to a new director and writer. Adam looks back at Dream Warriors...

It’s easy to forget just what a genuine horror phenomenon the Nightmare On Elm Street series was in the 80s. It singlehandedly turned the fledgling, boutique-y US studio New Line Cinema (known chiefly for John Waters films and foreign exports) into a thriving hit factory, culminating in the production of Peter Jackson’s fabled Lord Of The Rings film trilogy.

Equally as monumental, it spawned one of the genre’s most revered icons, Freddy Krueger. Brought to vivid, theatrical life by 70s supporting actor Robert Englund, the character was a grotesque creation in both appearance and personality, managing to burst out of the horror stable and infiltrate mainstream culture. Plastic replicas of his self-crafted razor glove were the must-have Halloween accessory of that era, and he even managed to scare up the pop charts with a guest spot on a novelty rap record by rotund Brooklyn hip hop trio, The Fat Boys (imaginatively titled, Are You Ready For Freddy?).

Freddy’s main cash generator still stemmed from the films, however, and much like any multiple franchise, it was a case of diminishing returns for the most part, with two notable exceptions. 1994’s New Nightmares (officially the seventh film) reinvigorated the series with a thoughtful, meta spin on the Krueger legacy by original creator, Wes Craven (nicely setting up the filmmaker for his subsequent Scream series, which would use this device for broader popcorn thrills). 

Craven also contributed to the third film in the series, 1987’s A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Having seen his beloved character completely misinterpreted in the first sequel (Freddy’s Revenge) it was understandable that he’d want to play creative godfather this time around, taking on co-writer and executive producer duties. Sharing ‘story by’ and screenwriting credit with Bruce Wagner, the film’s neophyte director Chuck Russell also contributed to the script, alongside another filmmaker destined for big things  – Frank Darabont, future Oscar-nominated writer and architect of classy Stephen King adaptations.

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Expanding the story canvas, the action takes place outside of the titular address this time around, and instead focuses on a bunch of Springfield teens who occupy the local psychiatric institute. Into that environment comes self-enforced insomniac Kristen (Patricia Arquette), first seen washing down a heaped spoonful of coffee with a colossal gulp of coke whilst feverishly crafting a papier-mâché house from her subconscious. She is admitted into care following what appears to be a botched suicide attempt, but the real truth is apparent when the kids in her ward all seem to suffer from the same bad dreams involving a badly disfigured man in a fedora and a tatty red and green sweater.

Naturally, the hospital’s no-nonsense Nurse Ratched-like authoritarian figure believes this to be hogwash, but the group have an ally in dream therapist Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp, reprising her role from the first film) and a sympathetic doctor (Body Double’s Craig Wasson). It isn’t long before the first fatality occurs amongst the kids, and with Freddy on the rampage, Nancy and her colleague are forced to resort to tactics outside of the traditional means of treatment. With assistance from Kristen’s ESP-like ability to link up fellow dreamers, a team effort is needed where the dream warriors will have to call on all their cunning and special abilities to help eliminate their foe. 

It’s a fun premise which offers the writers some juicy creative opportunities to play around with the formula Craven devised in the first film. Russell and Darabont (who were close friends as well as collaborators) did a fairly substantial re-write, particularly in regards to the teenagers, changing ages, sex and ethnicity for many of them. They also fleshed out Krueger’s background, adding his “the bastard son of a hundred maniacs” conception. It’s an intriguing idea that this horrific figure could have been spawned by any number of madmen, and that blend of dark and light (his mother being a nun) further added to the mythos of the character.

In terms of pacing, Dream Warriors is incredibly lean and wastes no time in establishing the world of the disturbed teens before launching, full-throttle, into the imaginative dream set-pieces (the Freddy snake which attempts to gobble up Kirsten before Nancy intervenes was allegedly deemed too phallic, and had to have its pink hue dabbled in green, presumably to avoid looking like the series had momentarily segued into porn parody).

From the outset, it’s clear that both Russell and Darabont possess a shrewd understanding of the genre. The duo concoct a melting pot of pop cultural influences via the dream-state personalities of the characters and their ultimate fates. These scenarios feel like a check-list of influences derived from an adolescence spent glued to the TV, and being buried deep in the pages of Tales From The Crypt-like pulpy horror comic books. 

When Freddy’s rusty bones are briefly reanimated, it’s done via Ray Harryhausen-style stop-motion, directly referencing the skeletons from Jason And The Argonauts. Popular post- Johnny Carson era talk show host Dick Cavett even makes a guest appearance in a sequence which has a marvellous pay-off dealing with the fragility between slumber and reality. Perhaps the thought of being ripped to shreds by the traditionally passive Michael Parkinson was an added frisson for 80s fans of the series from the UK.

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There’s a nod to the popular Dungeon & Dragons role-playing world, evident in the character of Will, the nerdy, wheelchair-bound member of the group. He takes on the guise of a wizard in his unconscious state, and is able to walk and use magic as a defence. Even the film’s poster is incredibly evocative of a 70s-style heavy metal album.  As an aside to this, the theme tune is by preposterously-named, poodle-haired rockers, Dokken (a name which is crying out for an umlaut).

The feckless, horny teen trope characterised by the likes of stalk and slash favourites (and Elm Street franchise model forerunners) Halloween and Friday 13th is also referenced here. In a gloriously twisted Playboy-fantasy-gone-bad moment, mute Joey’s dalliances with what he thinks is the hospital’s ridiculously sexed-up nurse is in fact Krueger in disguise. One minute you’re indulging in the onset of a wet dream, the next you’re strapped to a bed hovering over the pits of hell, bound by animatronic tongues.

For everything the film does right, this third entry would mark the start of a dilution of sorts for the serial killer, with the wise-cracking side really coming to the fore. Lines like “welcome to primetime, bitch”, delivered before Krueger thrusts the head of aspiring actress Jennifer (Penelope Sudrow delivering, ironically, the film’s weakest performance) through the TV screen may have been lapped up by fans, but it also added a layer of accessibility and knowing wit to the character, weakening the horror. 

This element would grow successively worse with each film, reaching its nadir with 1991’s Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, which finally bent this once grisly and ghoulish creation out of all recognisable shape, turning him into a hyperactive, Tex Avery-type cartoon figure for the most part.

Dream Warriors was a huge success on release, debuting at number one in the US and eventually going on to make over $44m at the domestic box office. It’s the third highest grossing of the original Nightmare movies after the cynical, continuity-bereft (yet, surprisingly entertaining) Freddy Vs Jason and A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (a film which heralded the dubious talents of brief A-list director Renny Harlin).

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Russell and Darabont would take their B-movie sensibilities up another notch the following year with their remake of classic drive-in picture The Blob, but that film lacked the playful, anything-goes attitude on display here. Third instalments always risk additional scrutiny, but the film still stands above the other entries because the studio placed its faith in a couple of newcomers who, aside from displaying a reverence towards the material, were also invested (like Kirsten during the film’s opening credits) in bring their own billowing imaginations and ideas to the table.

But take away the homage-heavy decorative trimmings, and another salient factor to the film’s success is that Dream Warriors deftly illustrates how the power of imagination can sometimes be used to defeat our demons, be it figurative or literal.