Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors Movie Review

This was always the Nightmare film I was most familiar with. It was probably on TV more often than the others when I was old enough to be watching TV on my own at night. So this one scare me the most.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

For the third A Nightmare on Elm Street film, New Line wisely brought Wes Craven back on as a producer. The result is that rare horror sequel that is better than the preceding film. Even if it doesn’t quite surpass the directorial skill of the original, it remains a creepy and occasionally fear-inducing effort. It is more disturbing than scary because Freddy Krueger, at a certain point, ceases to be a scary icon. He’s endowed with, dare I say, too much personality. His grotesque visage is all he has to summon visceral fear.

Robert Englund reprises his role as Freddy, who continues to take sadistic pleasure in the torture and torment he inflicts upon his victims. While the first film has a creepy and uncomfortable vibe with regard to Freddy’s taunts, in the third part his witticisms begin to lead more toward the side of being a jokester. After this film Freddy started to become the protagonist in his own films, with audiences actively rooting for him over his teenaged victims. But then hasn’t that always been the conflict when we watch slasher films? We want to see the bad guy vanquished, but we also watch these films to see people killed and to experience terror and fear. The Freddy character as written by Craven, Bruce Wagner, Frank Darabont (one his earliest screenplays) and Chuck Russell (who also directed) in Dream Warriors is just what the audience desires in a killer, but taken to the extreme.

Watching the movie 25 years later, there’s a certain quaintness and an “Oh my God, I can’t believe they used to do that” quality to the premise of having several teenagers locked up in a psychiatric hospital. It’s amazing how our approaches to treatments of mental illness change so rapidly. At the time this film was made, we looked back on the days of shock therapy as the dark era of psychiatry. Now we can look at a hospital such as the one depicted herein and have a similar reaction. A bunch of kids have trouble sleeping and believe that a psychopath is chasing them in their dreams so they get thrown together in an imposing brick building to be treated by doctors who believe they have the best interests of their patients in mind but are likely causing much more harm than good.

Kristin (Patricia Arquette in her film debut) becomes the newest resident, after a presumed suicide attempt, in a psych ward that is home to the last of the “Elm Street children.” That’s what Nancy (Heather Langenkamp, reprising her role from the first film) tells them when she comes on board as an intern and specialist in dreams. Having already been through their troubles, she is sympathetic to their will to stay awake. The other kids are Joey, a cute and silent boy obsessed (like most teenage boys) with buxom women who seduce him in elaborately constructed fantasies; Kincaid, the tough-talking black kid who speaks more like someone who grew up in the city than the predominantly white suburb of Elm Street (did the producers believe that all black people talk the same regardless of upbringing?); an amateur puppeteer named Philip; a wheelchair-bound Dungeons & Dragons geek; an ex-heroin addict (Jennifer Rubin); and a TV junkie. Most of them will meet their makers in a manner befitting their prominent character traits.

The title is derived from the teens’ ability to bring special powers with them into their dreams. One is super strong while the kid in the wheelchair, naturally, can walk in his dreams. Kristin has the special ability to pull other people into her dreams. Our dreams are a place where we can act out our deepest subconscious desires. So it makes perfect sense that when these kids are being threatened by a force they can’t control, they become empowered with strong defense mechanisms.

Nancy sees the immediate need to protect the kids and possibly to suppress their dreams. She quickly acquires an ally in Dr. Gordon (Craig Wasson) and enlists him to guide them through group dream sessions and later to seek out Nancy’s deadbeat dad (John Saxon) to rustle up Fred Krueger’s remains and bury them properly. Another friendly face on the ward is an orderly played by Lawrence Fishburne, who displays a natural acting talent in front of the camera that makes his one of the better performances in the film. Gordon is occasionally visited by an elderly nun who knows a few things about Freddy and provides a little more background as to his character, without which the film would be nothing more than an exercise in slaughtering teenagers. By providing more story, Craven and his team give us something more to hold our interest through 90 minutes.

Dream Warriors was the next minor high point in the series before it proceeded to get worse with each successive sequel. It regained a lot of the genuinely creepy atmosphere created in the first film, but did so on an obviously larger scale and bigger budget. If this had been the first film the series or a stand-alone film, it would hold up as a fairly successful horror film. That it happened to follow the classic A Nightmare on Elm Street means it will always be, however unfairly, compared to it.

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