4.5 out of 5 stars

Wes Craven made his bed and laid in it with A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). A rough pun but not entirely inaccurate as the writer-director had reinvigorated the slasher franchise, and horror as a whole. You can’t even fall asleep now or Freddy Krueger will kill you. He was a new bogeyman haunting a generation unlike anything seen before. Not a silent masked maniac like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, or even the human monsters of Psycho (1960) and The Last House on the Left (1972), Krueger was a repugnant child killer who ascended after death to become a devil of dreamland. Then came a metamorphosis Craven never saw coming: Freddy became loved by those he originally scared.

New Line Cinema may have been crippled by the $1M budget for Craven’s strange new horror movie in ’84, but a $57M return christened the studio ‘The House That Freddy Built’. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) then shit the bed just a year later, being critically derided. There were evident creative challenges in furthering the concept without Craven. The existence of a psycho-sexual possession film, inadvertently paralleling Freddy with internalised homophobia, Freddy’s Revenge is now recognised as a unique entry in the slasher genre. And despite many fans ranking it amongst the worst of the Elm Street franchise, the first sequel still made New Line $30M from a $3M budget.

The obvious way to stay true to Craven’s vision was to get Freddy’s creator back himself, but a screenplay by him and Bruce Wagner was rejected by the studio. It not only delves further into the darkness of Freddy but was vastly more ambitious, and producers were concerned it read more like a $20M blockbuster. Rewritten by Frank Darabont and director Chuck Russell, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 retained one key idea: Final Girl Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) would unite a fresh batch of teenagers in their nightmares as the titular Dream Warriors.

Kristen (Patricia Arquette) dreams of an evil place amassing the souls of murdered children, and is hospitalised as the latest in an epidemic of teen suicides. But Kristen didn’t cut her own wrists, and new intern Nancy reveals this house seen was her home of 1428 Elm Street. Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) has herded a colourful cast of outcasts, and with only Dr Gordon (Craig Wasson) believing their true plight, the hospital is sedating them like lambs to the slaughter.

Dream Warriors is a brilliant expansion on the medical sequence in the original infused with that damning core conflict: adults will never understand what their kids are going through. Westin Hills Psychiatric Hospital offers a claustrophobic prison of the waking world dovetailing with the inevitable punishment of the nightmare realm. The shared background bolsters the teenager’s personalities and turns them into more memorable horror victims. The group hypnosis combined with Kristen’s latent ability to draw dreamers together imbues them with literal powers: Roland (Ken Sagoes) becomes a powerhouse, Will (Ira Heiden) is the ‘Wizard Master’, and Taryn (Jennifer Rubin) is “beautiful… and bad!” Some of these subplots are rich in empathy like handicapped Will walking in his dreams, but fully exploring the psyches of eight new youths, as well as juggling the fates of the adults, was nigh impossible for a 96-minute popcorn horror.

Every supporting part deserves some credit (a young ‘Larry’ Fishbourne is a wonderful compassionate orderly), and returning stars like Nancy and her father, Donald (John Saxon) emphasise a well-crafted story with every narrative element driving the heart of the film. Langenkamp is a proto Sidney from Scream 2 (1997), who’s has not only endured horror but now exudes strength in her resolve rather than be traumatised and wither. Ironically, that fate befalls her father, now an alcoholic embittered equally with his failings at protecting his neighbourhood as he is losing his “princess” to the adult world. Their relationship is refreshing in its maturity for a slasher, but truncated in a tertiary subplot with imperfect results. Nancy is resolute in protecting these teens but often her empathetic pleas are notably childish and betrays her establishment of seniority as someone studying the medical field. The B-plot with Gordon and Donald putting Freddy’s earthly remains to rest is all great fun but the gravitas of Saxon’s performance in finally confronting the evil that tortured him as a Sheriff, a father, and a husband is slightly botched once he’s fighting a stop-motion skeleton instead of Freddy proper.

Englund describes Dream Warriors as the natural conclusion to Freddy’s power; no longer the skulking ghoul of the first two, here he stands proud amidst his tableau of death and destruction. He first teased blasphemy with “this… is God” but his instrument of destruction has evolved him into a true demon in his domain. In both horror and humour, he’s so much more defined as an icon here. A cameo from Dick Cavett and Zsa Zsa Gabor showcases two celebrities less referenced than a fun-loving child-murderer in this day and age. For all the oft-quoted quips like “welcome to prime time, bitch!” or “let’s get high!” the script and Englund never abandon the unrelenting malevolence inside of Freddy. Many of his victims in the first two movies found unexplainable fates in reality but one person was declared a guilt-induced suicide, this precise tragedy becomes Freddy’s modus operandi. Preying on the innermost fears of drug addiction or disability to mask his handiwork as “psychological scars stemming from moral conflicts and overt sexuality”. Freddy’s behaviour grows so monstrously ambitious, his origin story reveals deviancy in his DNA as he was born “the bastard son of a hundred maniacs”, the product of mass rape on a nun during Christmas!

The enhanced creativity of Freddy’s murders are brought to exhilarating reality by the SFX team spear-headed by Peter Chesney, Mark Shostrom, and Kevin Yagher. Almost all the $3M budget went into the nightmare sequences and their scale makes the blood geyser from the ’84 original seem like a light splattering. Spectacles like the gargantuan ‘Freddy Worm’ or Jennifer’s (Penelope Sudrow) “big break” on TV are truly fantastical, while more grotesque body-horror—like the veins of Phillip (Bradley Gregg) being torn out and puppeteered, or Taryn’s needle marks pulsating like hungry maws—will leave the more squeamish audiences watching between their fingers.

All of this was achieved by an enthused cast and crew who’ve had nothing but good things to say of their experiences. This excitement was much-needed passion as production was delayed throughout by Chuck Russell’s dedication to perfection. Kristen was Patricia Arquette’s first major role and she was left on-set for an entire day before going on camera at four in the morning… leaving her struggling to remember her lines after 52 takes! Russell was also under the now familiar stress of many directors involved in big-budget franchises, particularly as New Line were adamant this entry would cement the perfect formula for Freddy going forward. “Sleep. Those little slices of Death. How I loathe them” opens the film, promising the vivid despair and yet taunting a culture clash of high and low art. Craven was a college teacher and infused his Elm Street with real history and Russian philosophy, but he also making horror movies to make audiences jump out of their seats. You don’t follow up Edgar Allen Poe with glam metal Dokken without a little self-awareness.

Obviously, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 was the success they desired with six more entries following in the franchise. Dream Warriors made just shy of $45M and paved the way for Part 4: The Dream Master (1988), Freddy vs Jason (2003), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) to beat that figure at the box office. However, the far more prestigious company this film keeps is with the only other two Nightmare films to receive largely positive critical receptions. Only this film, the first A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) hold Fresh statuses on Rotten Tomatoes. As the last title suggests, all three of these are the dream children of Wes Craven. Freddy would go from alluded child molester to loveable superstar, his burnt grinning visage plastered on T-Shirts, lunchboxes, and 1-900 hotlines. The Deadpool of horror would slowly but surely wear out his fame, despite Englund bringing evergreen passion to the role, it was always Wes who knew how to reign in his monster. Without him, who knows if we’ll ever get a sequel as perfect as Dream Warriors? We can only dream.

USA | 1987 | 96 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: Chuck Russell.
writers: Wes Craven, Bruce Wagner, Frank Darabont & Chuck Russell (story by Wes Craven & Bruce Wagner; based on characters created by Wes Craven).
starring: Heather Langenkamp, Patricia Arquette, Laurence Fishburne, Priscilla Pointer, Craig Wasson, John Saxon, Dick Cavett, Zsa Zsa Gabor & Robert Englund.