Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)

And on into Day 3, with what is usually regarded to be the best of the Nightmare sequels... unfortunately, that means it's all downhill from here.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)

Rated R

None of the sequels to A Nightmare on Elm Street ever quite topped the original in terms of being a pure horror classic, but the third film, Dream Warriors, probably came closest. Dream Warriors is the quintessential Nightmare sequel -- it's got a beefed-up budget, more and crazier kills and dreamscapes, a solid cast filled with people who went on to bigger and better things, the beginning of Freddy's "evil prankster" persona, cameos from Dick Cavett and Zsa Zsa Gabor, and a wicked theme tune by Dokken. It's not nearly as scary, and it drags in the middle, but it's still a fun, brisk, bloody thrill ride that marks the best of what the series is most famous for -- graphic, creative kills committed by a man with a very wicked sense of humor.

Set six years after the original, Dream Warriors reintroduces us to Nancy Thompson, now a young psychiatrist with an epic case of '80s hair who's just started working at the psychiatric hospital in Springwood. Here, a group of teens have been having nightmares and injuring themselves in their sleep, and have been locked up for their own safety while the doctors try to figure out what's happening to them. Nancy, of course, knows exactly what's going on -- she's on an experimental drug that keeps her from dreaming, the only thing stopping Freddy Krueger from coming for her again, and she sees that Freddy's back to his old tricks in the hospital. Working together with a sympathetic doctor, Neil Gordon, and a young patient named Kristen who has psychic powers that allow her to bring others into her dreams, Nancy and the patients under her care become "dream warriors" trying to destroy Freddy once and for all. Meanwhile, more is learned about Freddy's past, which proves key to bringing him down.

I must say, the cast here is probably the best yet in the series. Heather Langenkamp, one of the better actors from the original, reprises her role as an older, slightly wiser Nancy who still hasn't lost her girl-next-door charm, and fortunately, she's paired with a much better supporting cast this time around. Patricia Arquette is great as Kristen right from the opening scene, which shows her already desperate as she tries to stay awake and keep Freddy from coming for her, and her Buffy-esque dreamworld persona was very fun to watch. Same for Craig Wasson as Dr. Gordon, the friendly authority figure who spends the film as the audience surrogate learning who Freddy is. The rest of the cast is largely a bunch of caricatures (the wheelchair-bound nerd Will, the tough chick Taryn, the pugnacious black guy Kincaid), but all of them had solid actors who gave them more life than what was in the script, especially when they first assembled as the "dream warriors" who realize that, in the dreamworld, they can turn the tables on Freddy and give themselves powers of their own. The only one who didn't really click with me was the actress who played Jennifer, a girl whose introduction is her matter-of-factly telling her group therapy session that she's gonna be famous when she grows up. She lacked the sort of "diva" personality that the writing suggested of her, and as a result, she felt pretty flat. Last but certainly not least, there's the great Robert Englund as Freddy. This is the film where Freddy starts dropping one-liners as he takes out his victims, and while it would undoubtedly hurt later films, here it only amplifies his menace. Englund's performance here combined the best of both worlds, the cold-blooded monster from the first two films and the joker of the sequels, creating a sadistic villain who not only kills people, but relishes in it. He's both funny and scary, often at the same time. (Oh, and be on the lookout for a young Laurence Fishburne as an orderly.)

And speaking of the kills, the deaths here are probably the most elaborate the series has seen yet. The film fully embraces the fact that, in the dreamworld, Freddy is God, and can bend the laws of reality to his whims. He uses a young man's tendons as puppet strings in a sequence that is still graphic even by modern standards, he keeps a kid tied up in the dreamworld and in a coma in real life so that he can torture him, and he turns TVs and wheelchairs into death machines. In other words, great fun for the whole family -- gorehounds won't be disappointed.

The only part where the film didn't really work was in the middle section, particularly in the scenes involving the creepy nun. Here, we're fed quite a bit of backstory on Freddy that doesn't really add anything to his character or the plot. Sure, it gave us the epic "bastard son of a hundred maniacs" line, and the reveal at the end was a nice twist, but the "science versus faith" angle of Dr. Gordon and Sister Mary Helena's interaction is never really built upon, and it falls victim to the same problem that a lot of classic horror villains eventually face after too many sequels -- they lose their mystique as the audience finds out more about them. We didn't need to know that Freddy was conceived after his mother was accidentally locked in an insane asylum after hours and raped by the inmates, as the backstory he already had, that he was a child murderer back for revenge against those who carried out the vigilante justice that ended his life, was already enough to set up the character and make him scary. The new backstory doesn't factor into how Freddy's defeated, which involves Dr. Gordon going to Nancy's father (John Saxon reprising his role) to find Freddy's bones and give them a proper burial, and it doesn't even explain why he became a murderous dream spirit after his death. As a result, a number of these scenes in the second act cause the film to drag during that section, especially as the kills slow down around the same time before picking up again later.

Score: 4 out of 5

A worthy successor to a horror classic, and the film that Freddy's Revenge should have been. If you have to watch any Nightmare sequel, this is the one to watch.

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