Directed by: Chuck Russell
Written by: Chuck Russell, Frank Darabont, Bruce Wagner, and Wes Craven
Reviewed by: Brett G.
To begin, I should note that I am a child of the eighties. Twisted as this may sound, I grew up with the Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Friday the 13th films, so consider that fact a disclaimer for my affection towards the entries in all three series. Among these three, however, I feel that the Elm Street series has always been a cut above overall. While none of the Nightmare films can match the technical perfection of the original Halloween, I feel that the series as a whole outclasses the Halloween series.
In this third entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, six years have elapsed since the original film. The last of the Elm Street children have been rounded up and confined to the Westin Hills sanitarium in Springwood. Each of the children exhibit similar symptoms, including massive sleeping disorders and suicidal tendencies. However, unbeknownst to the medical staff, this is the work of Freddy Krueger, a child murderer who was torched years ago by these kids’ parents. Krueger has now returned in their dreams to take revenge, but anyone reading this should already know that.
What follows this setup is nothing short of perfection. I personally consider Dream Warriors to be not only the best Elm St. film (yes, I prefer it to the original), but also one of the best horror movies of all time. The themes and tone of the film is very much in line with the original, particularly in its expansion of the antagonistic relationship between Freddy's teenage victims and the adult figures of the film. This conflict exists in the first Nightmare film, which generally leaves Nancy Thompson to fend for herself against Freddy with no help from her parents. In Dream Warriors, Nancy returns as the lynchpin of the film, as she acts as a liaison between the disaffected teens and the various adult figures in the film (parents, medical staff, etc.). Nancy's main purpose besides this representative figure is to unite these teens and aid them in discovering a power each has in his or her dreams. Thus, the teens find a unity and understanding that Nancy never finds on her own in the original Nightmare.
The film’s ability to not only echo the themes of isolation from the first film, but also expand upon them, separates the film from the others in the franchise. Whereas Nancy is simply confined to her house in the first film, Dream Warriors does not even offer the familiarity or comfort of home as the teens are confined to Westin Hills, a psychiatric ward. Within the first ten minutes, we are introduced to a world where a teenager’s apparent suicide is almost a normal occurrence, while other teenagers are going to great lengths to stay awake (including cutting off their own eyelids). Small touchstones like this are strewn throughout the first part of the film to heighten the sense of desperation. The world of Nightmare 3 is very bleak, indeed.
Another key development in Dream Warriors is the introduction of Freddy’s back story. While such origins and explanations have hurt other characters, Freddy's origin becomes a key in establishing the conflict of science vs. religion for Dr. Gordon, the other main character of the film, as he is forced to consider the fact that some things (like pure evil) just can’t be explained. The scene featuring Dr. Gordon and Sister Mary Helena in the abandoned asylum stands as one of my favorite scenes in the entire franchise, as it brings a truly gothic tone to the proceedings.
The greatest strength of the film is undoubtedly its cast of characters. Characterization is admittedly paper-thin in most horror movies, but this is not the case with Dream Warriors. Whereas other horror franchises simply line up the supporting cast as meat to be dispatched by the almost anti-heroic slasher (Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees), this film allows the characters to actually develop. Chief among these characters happens to be one of my favorite horror characters of all time: Kincaid (as he was simply known until Nightmare 4 dropped that "Roland" bomb on us). While the mouthy, egotistical character is usually the first to go in a horror flick, Kincaid manages to survive calling Freddy a “pussy,” among other things. Ken Sagoes brings the perfect amount of energy and sympathy to the role so that Kincaid feels like a real character rather than a cardboard cutout. In addition to Kincaid, I feel that the rest of the cast is realized rather nicely as well. Patricia Arquette brings a very natural quality to the character of Kristen, who serves as the film’s main character. Jennifer Rubin, Rodney Eastman, Bradley Gregg, and Ira Heiden round out a group of teens that never feels artificial or forced. On a side note, a young Lawrence Fishburne (here billed as Larry) stars as Max, a hospital orderly who seems to genuinely care for the well-being of the teens.
As a result of this characterization, Freddy doesn't quite achieve that anti-hero, cult figure position in Dream Warriors, though the following sequels would accomplish that feat. Here, Freddy straddles the line between sinister and humorous, as he does begin to spout his signature one-liners. However, Freddy does not quite become a cliché here—he’s still scary, relatively speaking. While some point to Dream Warriors as the beginning of the end in terms of Freddy’s character, I feel he’s at his best here. He’s obviously a twisted individual who takes pleasure in making these kids’ worst nightmares come true. Furthermore, this film features one of the more sadistic deaths in the entire franchise, as Freddy turns Phillip into a human puppet (by using his own tendons, no less), and leads him to fall from the sanitarium tower to his own death while his friends helplessly watch on. If that’s not mean spirited, I don’t know what is.
Also, the film also begins to stray into a more fantastic realm as the dreamscapes begin to become more elaborate in this film. While the first two Nightmare films portrayed somewhat realistic nightmares, this one introduces us to the notion that Freddy can engulf his victims in a dream world rather than simply invading their own dreams. Overall, the haunting dream imagery may be what separates this film from the rest of the series, as it doesn't seem cartoonish, but rather bleak. The budget and the writers’ imaginations are both ramped up in this installment, as we’re greeted to a gamut of weird images, such as a barking pig, a bunch of teens hanging from Freddy’s gallows, and, of course, the Freddy snake. Like the other Nightmare on Elm Street films, this entry relies more on establishing a foreboding mood through such frightening images than shocking you with excessive gore. From a directing standpoint, Chuck Russell brings a workman-like quality to the film, as the film isn’t overly stylish. However, I do find the cinematography to be a bit more lush than what we found in the original film, which is probably due to the fact that this entry feels larger and more imaginative. Musically speaking, composer Angelo Badalamenti’s score is very understated from the beginning. There’s an occasional flourish when Charles Bernstein’s original Nightmare theme kicks in from time to time. On the whole, however, the score remains in the background to complement unsettling imagery found throughout the film.
Ultimately, while this movie is considered a slasher film, I would argue that such expansions and actual themes make the film more complex and layered than the standard slasher fare. While this film isn't exactly intellectually challenging, it does raise questions, such as the aforementioned conflict between science and religion. It also continues to explore the suburban nightmare of broken relationships between parents and their children and the notion that children often pay for the sins of their parents. This, along with the unusual amount of character development, truly sets Dream Warriors apart. Don't blindly adhere to the notion that sequels cannot possibly live up to their predecessors; this movie not only disproves that notion, but also proves that sequels can actually exceed the original film.
I couldn’t tell you when I first saw Dream Warriors, but it’s been among my favorite flicks of all time since I was a kid. My dad of all people introduced me to the Nightmare series when I was about four or five years old. That sounds insane, but you have to remember that Freddy was at his peak at this point—he was the horror box office king and even had his own TV series, which my dad let me stay up and watch every weekend. As for Dream Warriors, I must have rented it a hundred times from my various local mom and pop video stores; in fact, if they were still standing today (and they’re not, thanks to Blockbuster), I could immediately show you where this (and all the other Nightmare flicks used to sit on the shelf. On a side note, this is the last Nightmare film to feature the old New Line Cinema logo, which will make anyone a little nostalgic.
As for New Line’s treatment of the film on DVD, I’d have to say they’ve done right by Freddy overall. Even though the box set was released nearly nine years ago (which is just staggering in my mind), the audio and video quality hold up well enough today. New Line has graciously included the original mono sound mix along with the 5.1 surround remix. Also, it should be noted that the DVD release restores Dokken’s “Into the Fire” at the beginning of the film (it was replaced by some generic music track for the film’s VHS release). I wouldn’t be opposed to a new special edition or HD release for Dream Warriors, especially since the special features are confined to that irritating labyrinth, which was cool the first couple of times, but now is just tiresome. Also, there is no doubt that the image quality could be improved given the advancements in the technologies involved in transferring and compressing films on DVD. However, given the immense quality of the film, it doesn’t matter if you own it on a 35mm print or a VHS bootleg that you got from Robert Englund’s trunk because this one is absolutely Essential!
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