Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Elm St. Binge: A Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors (1987)

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) is the second-most important title in the entire Freddy franchise.  

Wes Craven’s 1984 original introduces audiences to Freddy Krueger and the “die in your dream, die in reality’ paradigm, of course.

But Dream Warriors cements the rules of the dream world that Freddy must abide by, and furthermore, reveals how teenagers can take back their dreams from Freddy's control.

By comparison, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) is a kind of quasi-intriguing one-off with many laudable qualities including the “homosexual panic” subplot I enumerated in my review yesterday. Yet it is clear that the movie suffers some because the rules of Freddy’s universe have not been established. 

Commendably, Dream Warrior provides the movie franchise the juice that it needs to continue through many movie entries, changing imperiled teenagers into full-fledged combatants rather than just victims.  

That’s a huge and valuable distinction: a transformation that affects the franchise dramatically.  At the same time that the film morphs victims into combatants, Dream Warriors also changes the field or terrain of battle. No longer are the dream sequences but (inventive) blood-baths, like in the Craven original, but full-fledged fantasy landscapes. 

I remember that the late critic Roger Ebert once asked why teenagers would like slasher movies in the eighties, since they depict a world in which teens die on a regular basis.  He even called these movies “dead teenager” films.

Yet Dream Warriors provides the answer for those who seek it.  Freddy, and the adults of Elm Street are corrupt individuals. They have created a world of danger and death for the next generation.  The teenagers fighting Freddy, however, learn to self-actualize; how to channel their psychologies, strengths and personalities towards -- if not constructive -- at least defensive ends.  

Contra Ebert, the Elm Street movies posit hope, not despair. Fight hard against Freddy -- become a dream warrior, or dream master -- and you literally remake the world according to your dreams.  Of course, you have to go through Krueger Therapy to succeed.  He pinpoints your vulnerabilities, like addiction, physical handicap, or a history of domestic abuse, and comes at you based on that knowledge. If you're weak, and can't beat your "demons," you lose.  If you're strong enough, like Nancy, Kristen, or Alice, you can succeed.

As quoted in Schoell and Spenser's The Nightmare Never Ends: The Official History of Freddy Kreuger and the Nightmare on Elm Street Films (Citadel Press, 1991, page 187) Robert Englund described the Freddy vs. Teens dynamic trenchantly. He observed the following: 

“This is the first time in the 20th century that kids will probably not live as well as their parents. You can imagine what it is like to be 17...and enter a world with a drug culture and hardly any jobs on the horizon and AIDS and racial unrest...Freddy represents all of these things that are out of kilter in the world, all the sins of the parents that are being passed on.”

I believe Englund is on to something important here, as was critic Judith Williamson, who wrote in the New Statesman that the Elm Street films speaks about “both sex and class – about what has been buried by a suburban American community.”

In other words, Freddy toughens these teenagers up, in a sense, and arms them for a world in which he is hardly the only demon they must vanquish. These teenagers often lose, but many of them develop their dream skills and give Mr. Krueger a run for his money.

There are problems with this new approach to the franchise, of course.  

In Dream Warriors, a set of rules are still being established, as is a whole new continuity, and there are some baffling oversights and unexplained events.  

Similarly, the tendency to make Freddy funny rather than terrifying effectively clips the boogeyman’s finger knives a bit.  No longer hiding in the shadows, he’s the ultimate showman, always ready with a joke, or a savage turnaround when presumed defeated. 

In Dream Warriors, Freddy is more a Loki-like specter of mischief and mayhem than a sick, dirty, monstrous creature.  This makes him a more mainstream monster, but also one finds it more and more difficult to legitimately terrify his audience.

I screened Dream Warriors again for this review and found, surprisingly, that a lot of the special effects have aged quite badly, perhaps more than in any other franchise entry. 

Some of the optical processing work -- Joey dangling over the pit of Hell, for example -- doesn’t look so good. Similarly, the film's stop-motion sequence with a Freddy skeleton looks awful (and compares unfavorably with Ray Harryhausen's work going back to the 1950s.) 

That’s a shame, because Dream Warriors success is largely predicated on two factors: the transformation of the children from victims to combatants, and a showcase of their battles against Freddy (representing corrupt adulthood).  When the battles look bad or inept, the film no longer operates as successfully. The fantasy aspect of the film, which once upon a time seemed so dazzling, looks far more pedestrian today.

Still, Dream Warriors is undeniably a turning point for the franchise.  The next two movies -- Dream Master and The Dream Child -- practically write themselves because of the changes and ideas enacted for this second sequel, from director Chuck Russell.

"How much longer are you going to go on blaming your dreams for your own weaknesses?"

Elm Street teenager Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette) is remanded to Forest Hills Sanitarium after attempting to commit suicide. 

In reality, however, she is being haunted by Springwood’s resident boogeyman, Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund).  Capturing the souls of his victims, he is more powerful than ever.

Parker is tended to at the clinic by kindly but ineffective Dr. Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson), at least until a pioneer in dream research, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) arrives on the scene to help.  

For years, this former Elm Street denizen has been avoiding Freddy’s presence in her dreams by taking an experimental drug called Hypnocil. Now, Nancy wants to prescribe that drug not only to Kristen, but to all the teens on the ward whom Freddy is terrorizing.

This group includes a boy who has stopped talking, named Joey (Rodney Eastman), an artistic type, Phillip (Bradley Craig) who carves puppet, and Jennifer (Penelope Sudrow), a girl who dreams of making it big in Hollywood.  

Other residents include former drug addict Taryn (Jennifer Rubin), Will (Ira Heiden), a boy confined to a wheel-chair, and last-but-not-least - the strong but surly Kincaid (Ken Sagoes).

While Nancy attempts to teach these troubled teens how to harness their dream powers and fight Freddy on his own turf, she also works with Dr. Gordon, and her alcoholic father, Detective Thompson (John Saxon), to put Freddy’s corporeal body -- his bones -- to rest in hallowed ground.

"Why should we fight?  We're old friends, you and I."

I have to confess, some factors just really harsh my mellow about Dream Warriors. The film is brilliantly inventive in the way it demonstrates teens self-actualizing;  confronting their psychological traumas and hardships and “owning” them for a life-and-death struggle against Freddy Krueger. I love that quality of the film. I love how this film tells kids that they can survive even the worst (living) nightmares.

So it is frustrating as hell at the number of oversights and discontinuities that make it into the film. 

For example, take Phillip’s death. He’s the kid who makes puppets. Freddy kills him by yanking out his veins (in a dream), and transforming him into a human puppet.  But dreams equal reality in this world, so in real life, we see Phillip "sleepwalking" out of his room, towards the hospital’s high bell tower, where Freddy will cut the strings and send him plummeting to his death.  All this is great. The scene is visually brawny in its depiction of this grotesque death, with long licorice-like veins getting ripped and tugged out of Phillip’s body, for example.

But then, Phillip de-materializes as he goes through hospital doors. Twice.

How exactly does that work?  How does Freddy transform Phil from tangible matter to intangible matter?  This moment sticks out like a sore thumb and is a clear violation of Freddy’s rules. He shouldn’t be able to affect the waking world, or a victim in this fashion. It's fine that he uses Philip's character quirk (puppets) against him, but not fine that he beams Philip in and out of our world.

There are all kinds of creative alternatives, too. Phillip could have jumped out his own window. We could have seen him sneak to the bell tower before bed. Or we could have seen him pushing through the open doors, the puppet strings invisible (as they should be) in our reality. It's just lazy and dumb for the filmmakers to have him disappear through a door, like either the door isn't real, or he isn't real.  
Similarly, it’s clear that part of the Elm Street equation is the idea that adults can’t help the imperiled teens. Nancy's Mom and Dad are alcoholics.  Alice's dad is an alcholic too. The films feature generation warfare, in a sense, then. The parents are too busy drinking or shacking up to note the truth of things that Nancy digs for.  Yet this idea of distracted, unperceptive adults can be handled with a degree of nuance and subtlety as it is in the 1984 film.  

Not so here.

Consider Jennifer’s (admittedly) amusing death. Freddy crams her head into a TV set hanging high off a wall, after his own head sprouts from the boob-tube and grows antenna ears.  

Of course, I love the humor in this death scene.  I enjoy that it commences with Dick Cavett skewering Zsa Zsa Gabor. But the punctuation is ridiculous.  Why? Jennifer's death is ruled a suicide.  
No person in his or her right mind could enter the common room, see Jennifer hanging several feet in the air (her head lodged inside a TV set), and assume that she committed suicide.  To kill herself in this fashion, she would have had to run, jump, and launch herself into the TV set at quite a velocity. 

And even if she did that, it’s more than likely she’d just bruise her head, not break the TV screen with her skull.  It’s patently absurd that this weird demise could ever be considered suicide by people who possess even a little gray matter.  So yes, the adults are supposed to be disconnected from the struggles of the children. But they ain't supposed to be dumb as stumps.

Similarly, Freddy carves the words “Come in and get him bitch” in Joey’s chest, but nobody bothers to show the words to the doubting Dr. Simms (Priscilla Pointer).  I would have loved to hear her explanation about how a comatose patient managed to carve these letters on his own chest! 

Again, a horror movie -- even an amusing one, even one rooted in some fantasy elements -- must play fair.  There's no way someone could write off Joey's scars as being psychological in nature.  And similarly, there's no reason why Nancy and Dr. Gordon wouldn't use Joey's scars to prove to Simms their case.  

Instead, the scars are just for good creepy effect, but with no real follow-up or follow-through.

Dream Warriors is filled with little touches like the ones mentioned above; touches that don’t quite work.  

And that’s a shame, because the message that the movie has for teens is empowering, and indeed, inspiring. In life, there will also be vultures (like Freddy), and doubters (like Simms, or Det. Thompson), but it doesn’t matter...because the power to defeat them, or to prove them wrong, rests in you

Cultivate your inner power -- your strength -- and you can beat back the monsters. This message is transmitted even more plainly in Dream Master (1988), but it’s here in this film, and valuable. The things that take away from it, things like sloppy plotting (Jennifer committing "suicide" by TV, or Phillip becoming intangible), do the film a tremendous disservice.

The Dream Warriors not only harness their own powers, they learn to work as a team, and that too is an important element of the film’s thematic approach.  It’s not just “me” that counts, it’s the combined power of me and you.  And in the “Greed is Good” eighties, very few movies were putting forward ideas like that; that the bad guy can be defeated through self-actualization and team dynamics.

It can be debated, I suppose, how good Freddy’s origin story, as depicted here, really is. We learn that he is the “bastard son of a hundred maniacs,” and therefore a product of genetic evil.  He was born with bad genes. 

Personally, I think this idea is a little goofy.  For one thing, only one sperm can fertilize an egg, so Freddy is really just the bastard son of a single maniac, hyperbole by damned.  

For another, this genetic sourcing of Freddy’s evil takes away something significant from the character.  Now he is not the accumulation of his choices and decisions, but wired to be evil from the very beginning.  

I much prefer the idea that he is a cowardly, monstrous child-killer by predilection, but one given God-like powers only after death.  It’s never made sense to me to make him “evil” from conception, but there’s no doubt that’s how the series -- from this point forward – sees him.  There’s something very two-dimensional and cartoonish about this idea that Freddy is like a devil or demon on Earth before becoming a ghostly revenger.  If he's so overtly evil and anti-social, how does he ever get a job as a school custodian? Or any job for that matter?

The Freddy origin story also gives the series problems going forward, continuity-wise.  Sister Amanda Krueger appears here for the first time, but recurs in The Dream Child in 1989, and there we see her give birth to Freddy in the asylum, which we are told has been shut down for years…despite the fact that it houses a medical facility and patients in 1987’s Dream Warriors.

Working much better, at least for me, is the rematch between Freddy and Nancy Thompson. I get chills every time I watch Dream Warriors, and these former combatants lay eyes upon one another for the first time in years. 

You!” Freddy gurgles, as Nancy screams with recognition at the sight of her nemesis. She believed she had escaped him by pharmaceutical means -- Hypnocil -- and he believed that she was lost to him too.  It’s great to see these classic opponents meet up again, though I can’t stand that Freddy gets the better of Nancy in the finale. (Note. If I have to be honest about this, I will admit that I am a bit in love with Nancy Thompson, played by Langenkamp. Have been since 1984!)

Overall, Dream Warriors is an inventive Freddy film, and many insist it is the second best in the series.  

Personally, I would land New Nightmare (1994) in that slot.  

But I can’t deny the importance of the third Freddy film in the overall franchise. It goes a long way towards setting the parameters of the franchise going forward.  Even though there are some hiccups, it sets the terrain and the rules for the next several Elm Street sequels to come.

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