Thursday, February 23, 2017

Welcome to Prime Time: A Look Back at Dream Warriors

by A.M Novak
Thirty years ago this week, audiences flocked to the theater to see the release of the third Nightmare on Elm Street film. Dream Warriors has since topped horror fans’ NOES rankings and stands as my personal favorite of the entire franchise. When it comes time to choose an Elm Street movie to watch, I keep returning to Weston Hills Psychiatric Hospital to witness a group of troubled teens turn their weaknesses into strengths, and go toe-to-toe with pure evil.

The box-office success of Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge called for another installment in the series, and so the powers that be got right to work. The producers decided to return to Wes Craven, who wanted to take Freddy’s story to the next level. He teamed up with Bruce Wagner to churn out the first draft that was ultimately spurned by the Bob Shaye and the co-producers. During the process of re-writes, Shaye and Co. stumbled across Frank Darabont and Chuck Russell, who pitched a movie that blew them away. Darabont and Russell combined their magical writing powers with those of Craven and Wagner, and the result was NOES 3: Dream Warriors.
The Dream Warriors themselves (the last of the Elm Street children) were well-made and more accessible to the audience than most of their horror contemporaries. While Friday the 13th and Halloween were mostly setting up corporeal dominoes to dispatch and forget, I cared a lot about the fates of strongman Kincaid, the mute Joey, the self-harming TV enthusiast Jennifer, drug addict Taryn, sleepwalking puppeteer Phillip, and wheelchair-bound William, as well as the main protagonist, young Kristen.

Patricia Arquette’s performance as Kristen was particularly striking, and it’s a shame that she never came back for a subsequent Freddy sequel. Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master would have been vastly improved with her along for the ride, even if only for a cameo. After talking Kristen down from a sleep-deprived rant, Nancy (played by the returning Heather Langenkamp) ends up aligning with and advocating for Freddy’s latest set of victims, as an intern at Weston Hills Psychiatric Hospital. From the moment that Nancy finishes the “1, 2, Freddy’s coming for you…” rhyme that Kristen begins to whimper in the Adolescent Care Unit, a bond is forged both between the two women and with the audience. It would’ve been easy to move on from Nancy’s time line after the end of the original film, especially after NOES 2 went in such a completely different direction. Instead, Craven brought Nancy back and gave her a proper sendoff doing what she did since the beginning: trying to get to the bottom of the problem and helping anyone she could. When the kids are all together, their chemistry is undeniable, and it makes them one of the more endearing casts, within and outside of the NOES franchise.

The Elm Street kids deal with some heavy subject matter this time around. Self-harm. Drug addiction. Involuntary incarceration. Isolation. These plot points serve as a microcosm of the franchise’s sentiments at large, which is that there comes a point in kids’ lives when they realize that the world isn’t such a wonderful place, that there are bad people that get away with bad things. Further, the adults may have the best of intentions, but they often only make things worse for the kids. This and the frequent use of youth suicide as a plot point, in this film and throughout the series, serves an underlying metaphor that urges parents to heed the warning signs given by their children, and to take their concerns seriously. A truly horrifying part of the films is that these kids are ignored or outright disbelieved by the people that are there to protect them. In that respect, if Freddy is an active antagonist through his actions, then the rest of the adults in the Nightmare films are passive antagonists simply because of their lack of action in the face of real danger.
Dream Warriors is a sequel, and as such, it’s expected that more backstory is revealed. NOES 3 added to the mythos by introducing us to Sister Mary-Helena, who is later revealed to be Amanda Krueger, Freddy’s mother. Sister Mary-Helena tells Dr. Simms that Freddy is “the bastard son of 100 maniacs,” the product of a rape occurring in Weston Hills. The revelation that Freddy was born of extreme violence is an imaginative addition to the series, one that builds upon his character being a guy who was evil to the core, both in life and death.

This is also the first Elm Street entry to really bring Freddy Krueger out of the shadows. While the third act of Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge had him jump out of a pool and act with the larger-than-life swagger that fans are used to by now, Dream Warriors took the persona up a few notches with the one-two punch of awesome makeup effects and a fantastic performance by Robert Englund. The writers successfully balanced the weighty, teen suicide/self-mutilation narrative with perfectly-timed insertions of black humor, through what are now Freddy’s trademark quips. Some fans argue that this is where the series began to lose its bite and go downhill, whereas others praise the morbid one-liners as what makes the character so iconic, and the franchise so successful.

The writers put in the work to ensure that the deaths are definitely more personal in Dream Warriors. Here, they really start to hammer home the concept that Freddy takes up residence in his victims’ subconscious, and is cognizant of the fears, hopes, and dreams of the remaining Elm Street children. He kills them in a manner that correlates with those fears and needs. Taryn is a druggie and gets the infamous injection death (”What a rush!”); aspiring actress Jennifer has her head slammed into a TV (”Welcome to prime time, bitch!”); Phillip “The Walker” gets one of the best deaths in the franchise: his tendons are excised and lifted from his body so that Freddy can manipulate him, as a puppeteer would, into throwing himself from atop a building.
The creative leaps taken in regards to the death scenes raised the bar for Freddy’s Dead and every entry afterward. The bulk of the film’s estimated $4.5 million budget went toward visual effects, and the film’s status as a fan favorite is a testament to the soundness of that decision. With Mark Shostrom working on special effects (including the infamously phallic Freddy worm monster) and CJ Strawn creating fantastical set pieces as production designer, the end product is visually appealing and holds up well over time. No longer was the FX team limited to “he slashed her with the glove” when dispatching teenagers; Craven and Co. saw to it that Freddy’s glove would not be Jason’s machete.

To my surprise, I’ve found myself getting into it with horror fans over this film. The detractors’ biggest beef is that Freddy was no longer allowed to “just” be Freddy, he was a worm, a giant specter over a building, a television (sort of), and even a stop-motion puppet. But that’s the beauty of it: we got to see Freddy as the Elm Street kids saw him, in all of his horrifying nightmarish manifestations. He shows up in whatever way he desires, with one motivation: to make you suffer and live in abject terror in your final moments.

Regardless of the complaints about the direction the franchise took, the box office numbers settled the argument. IMDb tallies the film’s gross at $44,793,200 in the U.S.A. alone, making it one of the top ten highest-grossing films of the entire year. Adding to the hype was Roger Ebert’s passionate condemnation of the film and it’s targeted pitch to teenage audiences; he wanted nothing less than an X rating for Dream Warriors, and we all know what happens when an adult tries to act as a moral gatekeeper on behalf of teens. People came out for NOES 3 en masse, and it was clear that New Line Cinema had knocked one out of the park with this sequel.

The marketing campaign for Dream Warriors was an aggressive one that recognized and utilized Freddy’s fast-rising status as a slasher icon. He was even put into a music video.

A music video.

I’ve yet to hear one person complain about the metal masterpiece that was marketed along with the film, “Dream Warriors.” Released as a single and later part of their fourth album Back For The Attack, Dokken’s groundbreaking music video got constant replay on MTV upon release. It was also the first music video to ever be included on a feature film VHS tape. The video sampled clips of the film along with a running storyline featuring the band destroying Freddy with the sheer power of rock music, which he later awakens from in a cold sweat. “Dream Warriors” holds up as one of the horror genre’s greatest theme songs of the decade, alongside Alice Cooper’s “He’s Back (The Man Behind The Mask)” and J. Geils Band’s “Fright Night.” This targeted marketing campaign went a long way toward establishing Freddy Krueger as a horror icon.


Overall, I find Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors to be one of the best horror sequels ever made. At the risk of getting even more hate tweets than I already receive for defending Halloween 6, I’ll go ahead and say that NOES 3 is my favorite entry of the whole series. It built upon an established mythology while maintaining continuity. It brought in new, tangible characters while maintaining an emotional connection with the surviving original players, and set the creative standard for subsequent sequels within the Elm Street universe. While the budgets grew and the story quality waned in the subsequent entries, Dream Warriors remains as one of the greatest Elm Street tales ever told.

10 comments:

  1. Clap clap clap! Well said, sir.

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  2. I can appreciate the merits of Dream Warriors but I've always thought it was slightly overrated (Freddy's Revenge is the best. FIGHT ME!). I think the most common way I describe it to friends that haven't seen it is "pleasantly safe."

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    1. Freddy's Revenge is a bold choice. A BOLD CHOICE.

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    2. I only have one setting, Patrick, and that setting is BOLD.

      (Or BOLD AF for the youths.)

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    3. Oh, phew, I panicked seeing that Patrick was replying to someone saying Freddy's Revenge was their favorite (since it's mine as well,) but then was deeply relieved to see that that person was Nichole. :)

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  3. No hate tweets here. NOES3 is the best entry in the series.

    I had a couple issues of a six-part comics series Innovation put out which built off Dream Warriors in an interesting ways but I'm pretty sure it has never been reprinted.

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  4. Ive migrated from imdb boards, hey guys.
    I still love Dream Warriors, just before Freddy turned into a gagmeister clown. Good special effects and inventive kills. Its still a blast.
    The first is obviously the best, a horror classic and still scary today in my eyes. Im rarely scared by horror ive seen so many but the first is still very effective.
    And on the last viewing of New Nightmare I was very underwhelmed, I remembered it as being so clever and cynical, going back to a darker rooted Freddy, yet on this watch I found it cheesy and not quite as good as I remember.

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