Saturday, July 7, 2018

Underrated Horror Gems--"A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors"

     I realize the reaction of many horror fans to this post's title is probably disbelief or even scorn--the Nightmare on Elm Street series has had 8 films in it, and then one remake, so it was enormously successful.  And acclaimed too--the main villain, Freddy Krueger, is iconic, one of the most famous and popular alongside Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, Norman Bates, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Pinhead, etc.  But hear me out.  While Nightmare on Elm Street 3 (from here on abbreviated to NOES 3) was critically acclaimed, and made back nearly 10 times its budget, I still don't think it's received its just due.  Because it's a rare horror movie sequel that's on par with its original, probably on the list of the very best, like Dawn of the Dead/Day of the Dead (the originals, obviously), Hellraiser 2, Halloween 2, The Bride of Frankenstein, and Evil Dead 2.  Especially in a series that had more than its share of duds, the third one really stands out.  As usual, I'll start with a brief spoiler-free synopsis, then move on to a longer, spoiler-rich one, followed by a discussion of some of the movie's strengths, themes, and some cast and crew info.
     Kristen Parker has a major problem.  She's afraid to go to sleep, because a scary figure is haunting her dreams, which are getting dangerously, impossibly real.  After one such attack she's admitted to Westin Hospital, which has a psychiatric ward full of teens who inexplicably are suffering the same torments.  Psychiatrist Dr. Neil Gordon is at his wit's end, as no conventional techniques appear to be helping.  Then a young hotshot psychiatric grad student, who specializes in dream disorders, comes to work at the hospital.  It's actually Nancy Thompson, the heroine of the original "A Nightmare on Elm Street."  She tells the teens about Freddy Krueger, the deceased child killer who's somehow able to enter people's dreams, and even kill them for real.  Alas, Freddy starts to kill the teens one by one.  Aided by a mysterious nun, and Nancy's estranged policeman father Lt. Donald Thompson, Dr. Gordon comes up with a plan to thwart Freddy once and for all.  The teens and Nancy, for their part, do battle with Freddy using their own unique dream skills.  Will they be successful, or will Freddy just continue to up his body count?
     (SPOILERS AHEAD UNTIL MARKED AT BEGINNING OF PARAGRAPH)  After showing an anti-sleep quote from Edgar Allen Poe, the movie opens with Kristen Parker.  She's fighting to stay awake, late at night, and also building a paper mache and popsicle stick model of a scary house from her dreams.  When her mother returns from her date, we learn that Kristen's nightmares are bad enough to require psychiatric treatment.  Kristen falls asleep, and dreams of a mysterious figure with a burned face, armed with blades on one of his hands, who chases her through a large version of her dream house and a boiler room.  After a fake wake up, the sink faucet handles become Freddy's hands and grab and slash her wrists.  Kristen's mom witnesses Kristen cutting her own wrists in reality, prompting her to take Kristen to Westin Hospital, a psychiatric center for troubled teens.
     Kristen freaks out when the hospital staff tries to sedate her, but she's comforted when Nancy Thompson suddenly arrives and completes the creepy child's rhyme that Kristen was chanting.  Dr. Neil Gordon talks with Nancy, who's a psychiatric grad student already respected as a dream expert.  He explains that all of the teens at the ward suffer from the same delusion, that a "boogie man" is out to get them, and can do so in their dreams.  Next we meet a couple of these teens.  Phillip is a sleepwalker whose hobby is making puppets.  Kincaid is a discipline problem, who's often thrown into solitary for his violent outbursts.  Joey is shy and completely mute.
     Kristen then has another awful dream with the weird villain, once again set in the usual dilapidated house.  Just as the figure has changed into a giant snake and is about to eat her, she calls for Nancy.  Nancy, who's also fallen asleep at home, is somehow pulled into Kristen's dream.  She attacks and temporarily defeats the snake man, who appears to recognize her.  The next morning Nancy talks to Kristen, who reveals that she's had the power to bring other people into her dreams since she was a child.
    At a group session, directed by Neil, Dr. Elizabeth Simms, and Nancy, more teens are introduced.  Will is a wheelchair-bound fan of a Dungeons and Dragons-type fantasy game.  Jennifer's goal is to be a television actress.  Taryn is an ex-drug addict.  Later that night, Neil and Nancy go out to dinner.  Nancy asks if the kids can be put on Hypnocil, an experimental dream suppressant drug, which Neil refuses.  Meanwhile, Phillip falls asleep, and we see his dream.  The monster man leads him to an open window by using Phillip's tendons and ligaments as macabre puppet strings.  Phillip is thrown to his death in view of the other patients, while in reality it looks like a suicide.  Simms reacts to this event by proscribing sedatives for all the patients, and locking their bedroom doors at night, which causes an uproar.  Neil manages to convince Simms to allow the teens to take Hypnocil.  However, the next night Jennifer falls asleep, and in her dream the villain takes over TV host Dick Cavett, and then comes out of the television to lift Jennifer into it, killing her for real.  While at the funeral the next day Neil sees a mysterious nun appear, and she introduces herself as Sister Mary Helena.
     During another dinner date Nancy tells Neil about Freddy Krueger, a deceased child killer who's the person terrorizing the teens.  She tells the surviving teens about Freddy at an unofficial group meeting the next day.  Neil and Nancy decide to hypnotize the entire group at once.  Kristen pulls everyone into the same dream, only they don't realize it at first.  A pretty nurse entices Joey to leave the room, and she begins to seduce him.  However, it's Freddy in disguise, and he binds Joey to a bedframe over a hellish pit with disgusting pieces of tongue.  At the same time the kids demonstrate their dream powers to Nancy and Neil.  Kristen is a skilled gymnast, Kincaid has super strength, Taryn is an exotic knife fighter, and Will is a magical wizard.  This dream is interrupted by Simms, who fires Neil and Nancy when she finds out what's been going on, and now that Joey is in a coma in real life.
     As Neil is leaving Westin, he sees the strange nun again, in a closed off wing of the hospital.  When he follows her, she reveals the details about Freddy's origin.  A young woman was working in this wing many years ago, which then housed the worst of the criminally insane.  She was grabbed and hid by these patients, and accidentally locked in with them over a long holiday weekend.  When found she was barely alive, having been raped constantly.  The nun refers to Freddy as the "bastard son of a hundred maniacs," and that the only way to stop him is by burying his remains on hallowed ground.
     Neil and Nancy visit Nancy's dad, Lt. Donald Thompson, at a seedy bar, as Nancy thinks he's the only one who knows where Freddy's remains are.  The Thompson reunion is short and tense.  Nancy leaves after she gets an emergency call from the teens--Kristen has been sedated and put into solitary.  Nancy visits the teens, and together they all manage to be pulled into Kristen's dream.  Meanwhile Neil convinces Donald Thompson to take him to Freddy's remains, which are in an old abandoned auto wrecking yard.  In the dreams Freddy is able to separate Taryn, and then Will from the others.  Each fight back with their powers, but are eventually murdered by Freddy.  Nancy, Kristen and Kincaid go through a weird door, and find Freddy about to kill the still-suspended Joey.  Their fight with him goes badly, but then Freddy abruptly disappears when Donald and Neil retrieve his bones.  Somehow Freddy is able to make his bones come alive, and he manages to kill Donald and knock out Neil.  Back in dreamland Freddy grabs Kristen and the others, only to be thwarted when Joey is finally able to scream out, saving his friends.  They think their ordeal is over.  Donald appears to them, explaining he was killed, and embraces Nancy.  Only it's Freddy once more in disguise--he mortally wounds Nancy.  She manages to stab him using his own knives before he's able to kill Kristen, though.  Then, back in the wrecking yard, in reality, Neil comes to and throws holy water on Freddy's remains, causing Freddy to disappear entirely.  At the funeral for Nancy Neil notices Sister Mary Helena one final time.  She disappears by a gravestone, which reads that it is for Sister Mary Helena/Amanda Krueger--she was Freddy's mother.  Finally, a light comes on in the model house while Neil sleeps.  Is Freddy going to return?
     As I mentioned earlier, there have been 8 Nightmare on Elm Street movies, and 1 remake, to date.  Therefore, along with Friday the 13th's Jason Voorhees (11 films, plus 1 remake), and Halloween's Michael Myers (8 movies, with 1 more due out later this year, plus 2 remakes), Freddy is among the more successful, longer "lived" slasher movie villains.  But there are two major differences between Freddy and Jason/Michael:  For one, their murders take place in the real, physical world, while Freddy's (well, most of them--sometimes the edges are blurred) take place within the dreams of people.  (Freddy Vs. Jason, which has both these titular villains, also probably has some exceptions to this, but you get the idea.)  The second major difference is that Freddy actually has a personality; Michael and Jason don't speak, and typically kill their prey as quickly as possible.  Freddy, meanwhile, speaks frequently, and seems to enjoy the hunt much more.  He often plays a cat and mouse game with his victims, and even seems to let them go sometimes.  Why not, when they have to sleep, and therefore be vulnerable again, sometime very soon?  He also uses the dream setting to concoct more elaborate, weird, and often ironic deaths for his victims.  These features are one of the main reasons why the Nightmare on Elm Street films are my favorite of this bunch.  I really enjoy Halloween and its first sequel a lot (and some of the sequels, to varying degrees), and the first Friday the 13th is good, but overall the Elm Street movies are more interesting and entertaining, to me.  There is a catch though--Freddy has to successfully walk the line of being entertaining and amusing, yet still remain dangerous and frightening.  And I think NOES 3 is the apex of this.  He has his witty quips after some of the kills ("Welcome to Prime Time, Bitch!" and "What a rush!" and "Sorry kid, I don't believe in fairy tales!") but he's still scary, still horrific.  Alas, the subsequent sequels made him a little overly quippy, and not nearly as disturbing and eerie.  #6 (Freddy's Dead, the Final Nightmare) was particularly egregious in this regard, as Roseanne and Tom Arnold appear, and there's a lame video game themed kill.  (Note: #7 in the series, Wes Craven's New Nightmare, bucked this trend, and was more grim and scary, and I don't know about Freddy Vs. Jason as I haven't seen it.)
   Another issue I sometimes have with horror sequels is when they explain too much, to the movie's detriment.  This is particularly common in remakes and prequels, I find.  For example, I find Halloween much more chilling when a normal suburban kid just starts killing his sister and other teens for no apparent reason, as opposed to learning that he had a crappy childhood, with neglect and abuse from parental figures, and was also the frequent target of bullies.  In NOES 3, we do get a tidbit about Freddy's back story, but it's brief, and disturbing--hearing how he was the "bastard son of 100 maniacs" (while biologically impossible) is a nasty, yet chilling sort of explanation for why Freddy is like he is.  The strange character of Sister Mary Helena/Amanda Krueger was an effective addition to the movie--she provides a compelling explanation for the villain, plus a way to triumph over her unholy son (at least temporarily--no horror movie villain stays dead if more box office money can be made!).
     I also liked the subversion of expectations in NOES 3.  Obviously I'm kind of mocking the most recent Star Wars sequel a bit here, but in NOES 3 it worked.  The typical horror movie trope, especially with slashers, is the Final Girl, who is the only survivor, who beats the villain, if usually temporarily.  But in NOES 3 we get a surprise--along with Final Girl Kristen two of the other teens, males even, survive.  You can even kind of include Dr. Gordon, since he also battled Freddy.
     Having Heather Langenkamp back as Nancy Thompson was another good attribute of the movie.  Especially after the previous film in the series, the dismal A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge.  (Which is interesting on another level, though--the screenwriter (eventually) admitted that the subtext in the movie was all about how the main character was struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality.  Which, I'm embarrassed to admit, I didn't pick up on when I saw it for the first time in the mid 1980's.  When I rewatched it as an adult, I laughed at how obvious this was--sort of a horror version of Top Gun's screamingly obvious homoeroticism.)  Nancy is a great heroine in the original NOES--smart, brave, and industrious.  She asks the right questions, researches how to construct booby traps, etc.  (Discounting the admittedly kind of stupid ending, after she apparently defeats Freddy.)  She had a welcome return.  And I was glad to see that she became a successful dream researcher even as a young grad student.
     Because much of the activity takes place within dreams, that means the set pieces and scenery are therefore much more imaginative, and to my mind, more interesting and entertaining than a typical slasher horror movie.  NOES 3 has several of these, and correspondingly effective special effects to enhance them.  Some examples are the grotesque Giant Snake Freddy that threatens to consume Kristen, the bizarre "hanging door into nowhere" entrance to the boiler room/Hellscape, Freddy's exposed torso made out of children's screaming faces and souls, and his transformed "heroin needle fingers" when he kills Taryn.
     I did notice one other theme in this film--its anti-science/psychiatry bent.  Dr. Simms represents rational science and psychiatry, and although her intentions are presented as good, she's actually actively harming the kids, and leaving them vulnerable to Freddy.  Only when Dr. Gordon embraces the supernatural, and religious, is he able to help save some of the teens.  In one of his talks with Sister Mary Helena, she asks what his faith is, and when he replies that it's science she comments that this is a poor choice.  I don't mean to make too much of this--it is a plot point in a movie that features a supernatural entity that can enter people's dreams, so it makes sense in the context of the story.  But I did take note all the same.  And I emphatically disagree with this opinion in reality, while admitting it's correct within NOES 3's worldview.  This is probably why it's Tom Cruise and Kirstie Alley's favorite slasher horror movie.  (Please, no angry comments, just a little joke about their faith.) 
     (END SPOILERS--SAFE FOR EVERYONE TO READ) NOES 3 was directed and co-written by Chuck Russell.  He's best known for co-writing/executive producing "Dreamscape" (1984), co-writing/directing an odd good remake, 1988's "The Blob," as well as directing "The Mask" (1994), "Eraser" (1996), "The Scorpion King" (2002) and "I Am Wrath" (2016).  Aside from Russell and series creator/horror movie legend Wes Craven, another of the co-writers later became quite famous.  Frank Darabont is probably best known for directing movies based on Stephen King books, like "The Shawshank Redemption" (1994), "The Green Mile" (1999), and "The Mist" (2007), as well as developing/co-writing/directing the first season of "The Walking Dead."
     Of the cast, one of the most famous, Lawrence Fishburne, played the small role of orderly Max Daniels.  Fishburne is notable for TV's "Pee-Wee's Playhouse, as well as acting in "Apocalypse Now" (1979), "The Color Purple" (1985), "Boyz in the Hood" (1991), "Event Horizon" (1997), "The Matrix" series ((1999-2003), "Predators" (2010), "Batman V Superman" (2016), and "John Wick 2" (2017), among others.  Also famous is Patricia Arquette, who played lead Kristen Parker.  Arquette was also in such films as  "Ed Wood" (1994), "True Romance" (1995), "Human Nature" (2001), "Boyhood" (2014, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress), and on television programs like "Boardwalk Empire" and "Medium."  Two of the other most famous actors in the film were television host Dick Cavett and actress/celebrity Zsa Zsa Gabor, in tiny cameos as themselves.  Otherwise, Robert Englund, who played Freddy Krueger, is noted for being in "Eaten Alive" (1976), "Dead & Buried" (1981--also the focus of a blog post, see February 24, 2016 post),  "Urban Legend" (1998), television's "V", as well as all the "Nightmare on Elm Street" series films save the remake.  Heather Langenkamp (Nancy Thompson in Nightmares 1, 3, and as herself in 7), acted in such films as "Cabin in the Woods" (2012) and the upcoming "Hellraiser: Judgement" (2018).  She also co-owns a special effects company, and in that capacity has worked on such movies as the "Dawn of the Dead" remake (2004), "Cindarella Man" (2005), and "Dead Silence" (2007).  Craig Wasson played Dr. Neil Gordon in NOES 3, and is otherwise most notable for "Ghost Story" (1981), "Body Double" (1984), "Malcolm X" (1992) and "Akeelah and the Bee" (2006).  Jennifer Rubin played Taryn--see my recent post on "Screamers" (April 7, 2018) for more about her.  Finally, Lt. Donald Thompson portrayer John Saxon is arguably best known for "Joe Kidd" (1972), "Enter the Dragon" (1973), "Cannibal Apocalypse" (1980), "Tenebrae" (1982), "From Dusk Till Dawn" (1996) and, like Heather Langenkamp, the first and seventh "Nightmare" movies.  The rest of the cast had shorter, or more obscure careers.
    In closing then, fans of classic slasher movies, or new ones, I guess, will probably appreciate "A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors."  It's not the usual lame retread of the original, it actually stands out as a more than credible continuation of Freddy's story.  Check it out.
     Incidentally, the opening quote of the movie is actually a lie, or at least a mistake.  There's no evidence that Edgar Allen Poe said anything like, "Sleep.  Those little slices of death.  How I loathe them."  Some posit that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said this, although proof is lacking.  The most credible mentioning of something like this, "I don't sleep.  I hate those little slices of death." is in the 1959 movie "Journey to the Center of the Earth," written by Walter Reisch and Charles Bartlett.  Oh well! 

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