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A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 Dream Warriors (1987)

 Rating: *** out of 4

“Ain’t gonna dream no more, no more. Ain’t gonna dream no more. All night long I sing this song. Ain’t gonna dream no more.” – Roland Kincaid.

Cast: Heather Langenkamp, Patricia Arquette, Larry Fishburne, Priscilla Pointer, and Craig Wasson.

Story: Wes Craven & Bruce Wagner

Writer: Wes Craven & Bruce Wagner and Chuck Russell & Frank Darabont

Director: Chuck Russell

Sometime during or after the making of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven had a falling out with Robert Shaye and New Line Cinema. During their separation, Shaye and New Line moved forward with a supremely lackluster sequel that disappointed critics and audiences alike. Shaye reached out to Craven to do the third film and maybe reignite the franchise, but he was too busy with Deadly Friend and preproduction on his ill-fated vision of Beetlejuice. Craven did offer to write the screenplay, however, with writing partner Bruce Wagner. On the film’s making of featurette “Onward Christian Soldiers,” Craven dissected how he went into the third Nightmare:

“I said, ‘OK, if we’re gonna do a sequel, how do you make it worth while? How do you make it, you know, worth doing?’ What you have to do is you have to take, somehow, it to the next level. That is the only real justification for doing a sequel. You have to somehow take something and say; ‘Ok, that was the foundation, now what is the next story?’ So, since the first one was about a character who sort of fought everything alone, I said; ‘What is the truth of the way it works in the human community?’ I mean, if somebody has a great idea and fights alone, that is one thing, but there are also many people that have visions together—that are still kind of fighting alone in a small group, but they still have a cohesion and a power that is greater than their individual parts. So, I thought up the idea for Dream Warriors, you know, where kids would have the ability to join with other kids. I thought, also, that would be a very hopeful symbol for kids watching.”

Craven and Wagner’s script was well liked, but met with a sense of criticism on the part of the studio. It was huge in scale, and essentially unfilmable on the low budget that these films are made with. It was also, incredibly dark, humorless, and crass. New Line reached out to Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont to adapt the Craven/Wagner script. Russell, who would go on to direct the film, wanted to move away from the darkness of the original script and make a far more light, fantastical and even funny film. What emerged was a roundly entertaining Nightmare film with occasional bouts of unevenness and birthed Freddy as a quippy serial killer.

The movie is set several years after the first film and finds survivor Nancy coming on to work in a psych ward where a group of teens are having collective night terrors of a boogeyman who is trying to kill them in their sleep. Nancy discovers that they are “the last of the Elm Street children,” so she plans a final assault on Freddy by utilizing the kids dream powers to take him down once and for all. Meanwhile, a co-worker who has taken a liking to Nancy keeps having run ins with a nun who gives cryptic advice on how to put Krueger to rest in both the physical and spiritual worlds.

One of the neat things whenever Craven was brought onboard the production of a Nightmare film was that Freddy was not merely a mindless killer but played as an allegorical comparative to real life struggles (which is not present in the films he did not work on). You may remember that in the first film, Krueger was played as a metaphor for rape and the ghosts of our pasts that haunt us. That carries over to this film to an extent, but here he is played up as an allegory for severe depression. The kids that are haunted by him are all on suicide watch and their deaths are all declared suicides. And, if Freddy is depression than Nancy is proof that you can survive it and learn to live a normal life as well as help others who suffer from the same condition. I like what these two characters represent in the film and how they juxtapose each other. It is important to note that Nancy doesn’t have any nightmares in this film, but gets pulled into Kirsten’s nightmare and acts as a savior figure to the patients in the psych ward also furthering her as the mother figure of the piece that she came to represent in the first film.

The fact that this film furthers character development for the survivor heroine is a rarity for the horror genre. Take the survivor of the first Friday the 13th film whose sole purpose in the sequel was to be killed in the opening scene. That is how the genre typically treats survivor figures. That or they relegate them to a screaming, helpless victim as in Halloween II. Here, Nancy is always in control and has become somewhat of a grad school hot shot for her work on pattern nightmares. She also doesn’t fear Freddy so much as she is cautious of him, but in every scene they share, Nancy is quick to action and ready to take him on.

The other characters in the film are also fairly well developed and likable with certain stand outs. Kirsten is the film’s central figure (she wasn’t so in the original script) and has a desperate charm to her that draws you in. Kincaid is merely just the film’s tough guy, but so well performed that you really grow to care for his character. Likewise, Taryn is excellently performed by Jennifer Rubin who plays her with a fragile core but an outward strength that is formidable. Neil is strong as the male lead and his desperation to help the kids is palpable. And, let us not forget the return of Nancy’s father, who teams up with Neil to put Krueger’s ashes to rest. I like how he has become a shadow of his former self and copes by turning to alcohol much like his wife did.

The whole theme of Christianity plays insanely well with the film, which was something unique to the film and was not present in the Craven/Wagner script. It brilliantly adds to the mythos of the franchise while not betraying anything that came before. It also set up for a stunning way to destroy Freddy for good. (Ha Ha!)

While there are many praises to be sung here, the film does have a few glaring problems. First and foremost is the treatment of Krueger’s character by Russell and Darabont. Channeling Freddy’s darkness into a joking, trickster demon really hinders the film. He no longer becomes threatening. In the film’s opening scenes, he is harshly lit and quite scary. As the film moves along, he starts quipping one liners and the harsh lighting fades until he is flooded with light by the film’s end. With Freddy, less is more but it is clear that New Line wanted Freddy be the star and therefore gets many close-ups and plenty of dialogue. He isn’t so much as a taunting menace like he was in the first film, as he is a court jester from hell. It works to a point in this film, but this was the beginning of Freddy’s downfall in a lot of ways, even though it is typically thought of as the fan favorite of the franchise.

Also the film’s slim budget really hurts the large scale the film tries so desperately to attain. Don’t get me wrong, the effects are pretty good (especially that chest of souls) but the nightmares have a blandness for the most part. It is never more noticeable than when Freddy attacks the kids in their group session while they are showcasing their abilities. Joey’s nightmare with the nurse doesn’t play at all either. The film is also very episodic as happens to many horror films when they get sequelized and a formula emerges. Lastly, Nancy’s final confrontation with Freddy (while almost identical to how it was in Craven’s script) diminishes her strength by having her fall for Krueger’s trick. In the original script, she sensed he was manipulating her and took him down right before playing out as the final film does, but here she completely falls for his little trick and gets taken down which feels out of character for her. I confess myself disappointed that they didn’t simply leave it exactly like it was in the original script. Is it really too unbelievable that Nancy would have so much intuitive strength?

Even with these flaws, the film overwhelmingly works. The last thirty minutes are so strong that they damn near have you cheering by the time Freddy is finally laid to rest. Chuck Russell really offers up a strong first film and it is somewhat surprising that he has so few films on his resume. I also want to impart how impressed I was with the decision on the part of Russell and Darabont to not just make the film a Freddy bloodbath wherein he decimates everybody he crosses paths with as happens in the Craven/Wagner script. There are survivors here. Plural. That is another oddity for the horror genre. Often the genre sequels build a small group of fodder for the titular baddie to maul through before descending on and getting defeated by the final girl. Not here. Once Nancy builds up the kids’ strengths, they never diminish. Russell and Darabont want you to care about the characters and wonder what may happens to them beyond this film. Unfortunately Nightmare IV answers that question in traditional genre style, but left to this film alone there is tremendous weight to the climax.

 -March, 2016

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