Thursday, October 30, 2014

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

Just imagine Freddy’s Revenge had never happened. It’s easy to do: even its sequel does it.

Sleepy Springwood in Ohio has been hit by a series of teenage suicides. A handful of survivors (among them Patricia Arquette, Jennifer Rubin and Ken Sagoes) are now in the care of the local mental health facility, where Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson) and his colleagues try to cure them from a curious shared delusion. You see, the kids think that someone is trying to murder them in/through their dreams. Given what movie series they’re in, they’re not delusional at all. Nobody on the mental health professional side, despite not really following the evil psychiatrist model at all, seems to be all that confused by delusions shared before the kids ever met, curiously enough.

Fortunately for the kids, new intern Nancy Thompson (again Heather Langenkamp) arrives and very quickly realizes that she didn’t banish the nightmare-haunting serial killer Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) as well as she thought she did in the first movie, and he’s still hunting down the Elm Street kids to make them pay for the sins of their parents. Nancy, after a bit of dithering on his side even with the help of Gordon, tries her best to protect the kids and get rid of Freddy, but in the end she and the kids will need to face Freddy inside of his own domain. Fortunately, they have dream superpowers.

To me, Chuck Russell’s Dream Warriors is an absolute model of how to do a horror franchise sequel: keeping as much as possible from the backstory and the construction of the supernatural world it occurs in from its predecessor (remember, part 2 didn’t happen), and using this as the basis to broaden these elements and take some of the original’s ideas further.

So unlike the second film Dream Warriors really keeps Freddy as a dream demon with only one moment late in the movie where he breaks through into reality on his own, and that one actually a sensible (by the logic of a world in which dream demons exist, of course) consequence of a plot development, namely Freddy nearing his implied goal of truly becoming part of the waking world which again is a consequence of a lot of dead kids. It’s a thoughtful approach to worldbuilding that is – I can say with conviction after the last few weeks – pretty much unheard of in the world of the slasher sequel where the last question anybody involved in making the films seems to ask is “what more do we have to say about the themes and characters of the first film, and what can we do with them that is new?”.

For this alone, Dream Warriors would deserve praise, but its major achievement for me is how interested it is in the telling detail and how important it is for any film to get it right. So, for example, the kids aren’t just killed off in brutal, surreally nightmarish ways by Freddy but killed off in ways actually connected to their personalities. And while these personalities aren’t drawn very deeply, there’s enough here to actually make most of the victims a little more than just a number on the kill tally. In fact – as far as I can remember – this might be last Nightmare movie whose sympathies lie squarely with Freddy’s victims. This doesn’t just make the film ethically more pleasant (because really, films that bank on an audience identifying with a serial and child killer because he’s good at wise-cracking – which he actually isn’t - are at least a bit icky) but also makes Freddy a more impressive monster, a creature that doesn’t just kill you but kill you with deeply intimate knowledge. Again, the film isn’t subtle about these things but it is putting much more thought in than it would have needed to, and is rewarded by becoming highly engaging.

Lest you think the film is a rather earnest piece of horror filmmaking, there’s also the undeniable fact that it is also a cheesy and silly (but not stupid) bit of 80s horror that delights in comic book ideas of horror. The dream deaths are fitting the characters perfectly, for example, but they are also decidedly on the silly side, with them being slightly creepy fun right out of a cartoonist’s conception of nightmares clearly higher on the film’s agenda than actually frightening anyone in the audience. Fortunately the murders are executed with technical finesse and just the right amount of distance, hitting the curious spot where the gruesome becomes silly and vice versa with sure aim. If that’s already too much silliness for you, you’ll probably die when confronted with the kids’ dream superpowers (I’ll just say “The WIzard Master”) but again, it’s the right kind of silly and also seem to be fitting representations of the problems of these specific teenagers.

In fact, the only aspect of Dream Warriors I don’t find either highly enjoyable or surprisingly clever is the way of Freddy’s eventual dispatch via the age old “burying his body on hallowed ground”. Sure, it’s a classic but there’s little in it that resonates with Freddy’s nature, nor does it work as well with his origin story as it should. On the plus side, this part of the story gives us an expositional ghost nun, and a scene of church robbery by a rogue health professional, so I wouldn’t say it’s a total wash.

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