This article contains spoilers for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.
There will never be another Wes Craven. A filmmaker with an eclectic palate, this horror maestro had a special touch for creating terrors that have stood the test of time. Ghostface in Scream, the horrible inbred freaks in The Hills Have Eyes, and just whatever Shocker was supposed to be (okay… not all of them were winners). Yet one beast stands tall above all the rest: He wears a dirty brown hat, has a burnt face, and knives for fingers. His name is Freddy Krueger and in life he was a child murderer. But in death, he became something much worse… a horror icon.
Indeed, A Nightmare on Elm Street remains one of the scariest and most original horror experiences over three decades later. A serial killer, who is also a demon, that gets you in your dreams? He’s impossible to escape and relentlessly cruel. This was the hook of the original 1984 classic, and its importance can’t be overstated. Yet is the original film the best one with Freddy? It’s likely Craven thought so, given the digs he made at the sequels in his own screenplay for New Nightmare (1994) and in the sarcastic remarks uttered during the opening sequence of Scream. But if we could humbly disagree with the late great filmmaker, there is every reason to believe that A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors is truly the film that made Freddy the monster he is today.
Before Dream Warriors, Freddy was a killer, a hideous creature who had no compunction about slaughtering teens in their dreams and doing so in the cruelest ways. But the third installment—which did have a screenplay draft by Craven himself—is the movie that turned him into a celebrity. Without this film, the image of Freddy as the huckster, and the slightly more gruesome court jester commenting on the absurdities of teen life in ‘80s America (while, ahem, ending it) would’ve never come to fruition, neither would Robert Englund’s grisly alter-ego have been the star of so many camp classic music videos.
This is the film that left such a haunting echo that it still lingers in the zeitgeist, and is about to get the superhero treatment in the X-Men-adjacent The New Mutants film (if it ever gets released). Without Dream Warriors, Freddy Krueger would have remained solely in the realm of horror, yet with this movie he became something scarier… a macabre piece of pop culture furniture.
Oh and the movie is damn entertaining too.
Freddy Gets the Last Laugh. Repeatedly.
A major advantage for Craven and Englund’s nasty dream demon was that he was the only ‘80s slasher, certainly by 1984, who spoke. Following the muted squeals of Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and the silent stalking of Michael Myers in Halloween (1978), every masked killer with pointed thoughts toward teen flesh was at a loss for words. They didn’t know how to cut loose and really enjoy their work.
Yet in the very first Nightmare on Elm Street, Englund taunted and played with his prey, like a cat who has cornered an injured bird in the garden. He took a sick pleasure in cutting on the Elm Street kids, but Craven and Englund obviously saw this as a point of pure horror. That changed in Dream Warriors. After three movies, audiences were starting to catch on to Freddy’s games. As the undead slayer with questionable taste in sweaters targeted a series of new kids in a mental hospital, director Chuck Russell and Robert Englund came up with an adlib that would become legendary.
The scene is theoretically grim: Poor Jennifer (Penelope Sudrow) is one of many teens who fights the urge to sleep for fear of Freddy. She also uses it as an excuse to stay up late in the mental ward where all the Springwood teenagers speaking of dreamy boogeymen have been locked up by their forgetful parents. In the rec room, Jennifer watches late night television. Perhaps when Craven crafted the sequence of Freddy slaughtering a young girl by assuming the shape of her god—a television set—it was supposed to have some chilling commentary. But the film’s embrace of self-aware irony had already killed any such allegory. After all, Jennifer’s demise is telegraphed when, as she doses off before an episode of The Dick Cavett Show, Freddy appears on the screen to quite literally cut short a dull interview between Cavett and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
The fact that both Cavett and Gabor would be game to cameo in a Nightmare film, much less die in it, already suggests comedy is taking a stronger role in the franchise. But then when Englund’s head pops of out the TV box to mock Jennifer by saying, “Welcome to primetime, bitch!” The entire franchise changed in a (stopped) heartbeat.
A line that Englund apparently inserted, it’s grotesque, crude, but also pretty freaking funny since he is shoving Jennifer’s head into the TV. And it would be one of several pun-y groaners that populated Dream Warriors. Other gems include Rodney Eastman’s Joey kissing the girl of his dreams, only to discover it’s Freddy in disguise; the killer then uses a tongue to tie Joey to his bed. “What’s a matter, Joey? Feeling tongue tied?” How do you taunt a handicapped kid like Will (Ira Heiden) about walking in his dreams? “When you wake up, it’s back. In the saddle. Again.”
So it went with Freddy becoming a pun demon. And that pivot toward low comedy is what makes Dream Warriors so appealing. While the sequels would take that element and run it into the ground until the Nightmare movies reached the level of farce, Dream Warriors still attempted to maintain some of Craven’s original menace while giving the slasher plenty of killer one-liners.
It Dreams Bigger
The other crucial aspect to Freddy’s M.O. that Dream Warriors introduces is that his dreams can leave the main streets of Springwood and the boiler room.
Both of those elements were important in establishing the nasty gruesomeness of Wes Craven’s original film. For what is more unsettling than a dream that mimics reality? In the original film, a girl is in her own neighborhood when Freddy teasingly follows her with expansive arms. He is a human man… but something else too. And there is no escape. Yet after three films, it was time to lean into the fantasy element of dreaming, which also crystallized Freddy’s need to turn kids’ passions and fears into their dooms.
This led to some memorably trippy images, such as Freddy-the-Snake trying to devour Patricia Arquette’s Kristen whole (an effect Tim Burton would improve upon when he borrowed it for Beetlejuice one year later). Another personal favorite includes Freddy creating a hall of mirrors in which he can appear in every surface to yank entire teams of kids to the other side of life. Even the boiler room could be more than just a hellish basement; it could turn into Hell itself.
Granted not all of the choices made by Russell and the final screenwriters, who included future cinema legend Frank Darabont, were for the best. There is something sickeningly perverse about the end of Taryn (Jennifer Rubin) in this film. During her problematic death scene, Taryn, who has rebuilt herself as a strong, independent punk after ending up in an asylum due to an addiction to heroin, is turned into a helpless victim for Freddy to slaughter in the vilest way. When he can’t beat her in a knife fight, his finger-blades turn into finger-syringes, and the tracks of scars on Taryn’s arms turn into tiny mouths begging for a fix. Literally injecting himself into a screaming woman’s flesh, and even taking physical pleasure in the attack, it’s an ugly scene that ultimately hurts the movie with its cruelty and rape fantasy overtones.
Some Kind of Dream Warriors
Still, other than some poorly aged sequences like the aforementioned, this movie is ultimately a surprisingly positive journey into the slasher subgenre, primarily because unlike almost every other ’80s splatterfest (including all the rest of the Nightmare sequels), the victims are more than just cattle.
When John Carpenter pioneered the modern slasher in Halloween, the “victims” were the protagonists, young women meant for the audience to identify with as they were pursued by a stalker. Craven’s original Nightmare also wanted audiences to identify with Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and her friends. But as Freddy became more the comedian, his victims became more the butt of the joke. Yet the film that made that transition, Dream Warriors, avoided that pratfall by giving each of the central teenagers some form of a superpower that they used to battle Freddy in their dreams. To quote the gloriously cheesy Dokken song released to coincide with the film, “They’re the DREEEAAAAAM WARRRRRIORRRRSSSS!”
The concept of using a horror movie to semi-launch a superhero team is still fairly novel 30 years later, which is again the hook of Josh Boone’s New Mutants film. Like Dream Warriors, that movie will be about teenagers in a mental hospital plagued by monsters they must use superpowers to vanquish. Alas the sequels that followed Dream Warriors dropped that angle (and its surviving heroes), but this film does it just fine within the confines of an ‘80s B-movie.
Central teen heroine Kristen (a very young Patricia Arquette) is a super-gymnast in her dreams, which allows her to evade Freddy with ease; the mute Joey screams with the voice of a banshee, banishing Freddy Krueger from his vicinity by simply opening his mouth; the super-nerd Will has the ability to cast magical spells like his favorite Dungeons & Dragons games (which is effective to a point); and as the audience favorite, Kincaid (Ken Sagoes) has the super-strength of the Hulk to go with the super-mouth of a shit-talker ready to call out Freddy’s candy ass.
The team dynamic of “victims” becoming heroes, and then doing battle with Freddy, is perhaps the pinnacle of the slasher concept. If the first few films depicted teens being terrorized by Freddy, Dream Warriors had them fight back to fantastic effect.
A Dreamy Match
But perhaps the biggest advantage Dream Warriors has over the other Nightmare films and most slashers is how well defined a campfire tale it is. Most horror movies, especially in annual cash-in sequels, can quickly fall into clichéd and formulaic mediocrity. The Friday the 13th franchise is a textbook case of titillation + exploitation + gore = profit.
However, Craven returned after the questionable Nightmare 2 to write the screenplay for Dream Warriors. While Russell’s eventual direction lacked the feverish precision that Craven could achieve in his best films, including the first Nightmare, the workmanlike approach benefitted from Craven’s story and added structure by the likes of Darabont. Essentially what might be viewed as the logical ending to the concept introduced in the first movie (assuming, of course, like New Line CEO Bob Shaye you ignored Craven’s original “it was just a dream” coda), Dream Warriors picks up the pieces of the original to both give a fully fleshed out origin story to Krueger, and give closure to one of horror’s most memorable survivor girls, Langencamp’s Nancy.
A sequel that acts like a battle of wills between Nancy and Freddy, the return of the first film’s protagonist is innovative in that she was no longer a victim. Whereas Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode joined Halloween II to scream for her life again, and Friday the 13th’s Alice was brought back simply to die, Nancy became the hero in her own story, even if it ends in martyrdom. As opposed to being dragged back into the nightmare, she chases after it by gaining the dubious reputation of being a young hotshot psychologist straight out of college. Which is impressive given the movie was only made three years after the first film where her character was 17. I suppose it is that white Bride of Frankenstein streak she kept that fooled the faculty?
Be that as it may—and ignoring the fact that there is no way any young woman who talked earnestly about dream demons would clear a Psychology 101 course—the setup is fitting, with Nancy coming to save the next generation of teenagers being terrorized by Freddy, and then teaching them how to fight back. Turning this into a personal grudge match, the film has a unique conflict in the horror genre wherein it isn’t about a monster and his victims, but a monster and a revenant come back to haunt him.
Eventually, Freddy gets the upper-hand and kills Nancy during the climax of Dream Warriors, but even that death isn’t treated as a defeat. There is something nasty and vindictive about the way Freddy just screams, “DIE!!!” as he twists the knives into Nancy’s stomach—he’s too angry to cut a joke—but even with her dying breath, she uses the same knives to then stab Freddy in the heart in return. Coupled with the fact that her father (the always welcome John Saxon) and Dr. Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson) are burying Freddy’s remains at Nancy’s behest, this stops being a story about saving teenagers; it’s Nancy’s revenge from her very death bed.
The stronger three-act structure also benefits from some genuinely good supporting work like the underused Laurence Fishburne, and Nan Martin as “the Nun.”
In what cements Freddy Krueger as a modern monster classic, Dream Warriors gives the cretin a deliciously Gothic origin story. As it turns out, the mental hospital this all takes place in is also the site of his conception. His mother Amanda Krueger was a good Catholic Sister married to Christ when she was brutally attacked by inmates during a riot on this very spot. Now a ghost who still haunts its corridors, she’s there to warn doubting psychiatrists that Freddy Krueger is “The Bastard Son of a Thousand Maniacs,” and that only through Catholic rites can he be laid to rest.
Turning the dream demon into something of a Transylvanian Count, Freddy is defeated by holy water and a proper Christian burial, including by one of the parents who murdered him in a lynch mob 10 years ago. The Gothic affectation marries slasher trash with horror class from a previous generation. It is an unusual union, but it gives Freddy the gravitas to punch above his weight class.
Ultimately, whether it’s the best film or not in the series, Dream Warriors is the rare slasher where plot actually matters.
Overall, it is hard to say whether a sequel greenlit to fill New Line Cinema’s coffers is really superior to the film that originated the genius of the idea. Whatever Dream Warriors perfected, it still needed the remarkable foundation crafted by Craven. There are also lucid images in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street that can never be duplicated in terms of visceral impact, like Freddy’s face leaving an imprint on a wall. It’s a chilling effect that over 30 years later still gets a rise out of Generation Z in fare like Stranger Things. Nor is there a moment truly creepy for the right reasons like when Freddy’s clawed hand rises out of bathwater between Nancy’s sleeping legs.
Nonetheless, Dream Warriors is responsible for how we think of dear ol’ Fred nowadays, as well as its own cultural iconography. So we’ll leave to you to debate which is better (we’re also partial to New Nightmare). But in the meantime, let Dokken’s sweet “Dream Warriors” lullaby rock your body to sleep… if you dare!