A Nightmare on Elm Street - the best slasher of the 1980s.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge - a typically stupid although narratively unusual '80s slasher.
Now here comes part 3, Dream Warriors, and it is very possibly the second-best slasher of the 1980s. If this goes on, I shall get whiplash.
So, here's something that I can't explain: after Freddy's Revenge brought in $30 million to the first Nightmare's $24 million, New Line Cinema didn't do as some people were doing (and I'm certainly not pointing any fingers at Paramount Studios, producer Frank Mancuso, and the F13 series), and rush out another cheapie sequel to squeeze a couple dozen million dollars on a $2.5 million investment. Instead, they listened to the complaints of the first film's fanbase that the second film was mostly crappy, and they elected to take those complaints seriously, and endeavor to make sure the inevitable third film would be as good as it possibly could be. Such humility! Such willingness to accept blame! Can it be that New Line was still too shaky and new to risk pissing off the followers of the only franchise it had going? Can it be that the New Line execs were actually good people who cared about good filmmaking?
We'll never have an answer for that one, so let's just cut to the chase: Robert Shaye, the series' producer (still one of the big dogs at New Line; his name appears as EP on such projects as The Lord of the Rings, The Golden Compass and Frequency. One of these things is not like the others) went straight to Wes Craven with an offer to write and direct the new chapter. Craven, being firmly entrenched in his "irrelevant crap" period (Deadly Friend was in pre-production, and Shocker was just a couple years away), couldn't make the time; but he did suggest a story idea to Shaye that the producer found so compelling that he commissioned Craven to write the screenplay right there. Craven and first-timer Bruce Wagner cranked out a couple of drafts before time got in the way, and the final work was done by Chuck Russell, a B-movie producer who'd been tapped to make Dream Warriors his directorial debut, and a buddy of his, some green neophyte named Frank Darabont.
You know what has been my favorite part of this summer? So many skeletons in closets!
The film that came from the screenplay that finally emerged from all this finagling is a bit of a peculiar beast. There's no denying that parts of it work extraordinarily well for a horror film of this vintage. And parts of it don't particularly work at all. That's to be expected - movies are uneven, movies with that many newbies on board particularly so. What's so strange about Dream Warriors is that the good moments and the bad moments mix in with each other a great deal, and sometimes it's literally a difference between two consecutive shots whether the film is working or not. There's one especially striking example...but I haven't even set the stage yet, have I?
In the beginning, there are credits, and they are written in what I can only think of, after Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, Vol. 1 as the "Tarantino font," and I absolutely blame this 1987 film for the fact that I kept thinking of "Misirlou." Also in the beginning, we get one of those extraordinarily good moments I was talking about. Teenaged Kristen Parker (debuting Patricia Arquette - skeletons, man, skeletons!) is forcing herself to stay awake by listening to rock music and building a model house out of popsicle sticks. Her mother arrives with a boozy man in tow, and shuts that down right quick, tucking Kristen into bed not without tenderness, and turning off the lights despite her daughter's obvious discomfort. It takes only a few seconds for Kristen to nod off, and finds herself in the dark yard of a dilapidated old home that we recognize instantly as 1428 Elm Street.
The nightmare sequence that ensues is not only the best part of the film, it's easily the scariest moment in any Nightmare film thus far, and indeed one of the creepiest scenes in any '80s film I can call to mind. Children are skipping rope in the front yard, chanting the "Freddy's coming" rhyme that has popped up in every film and legitimately gets a little freakier every time, and they are being watched by a little girl in a yellow party dress who wanders in the house once she notices Kristen watching her. Kristen chases her into the dark, empty hulk, all the way into the basement boiler room, where a fire is burning brightly. "This is where he takes us," the little girl says in a very simple delivery that gives me the screaming ya-yas just sitting at my computer remembering it (scary little girl horror gets me like nothing else, and this is why The Shining alone out of all movies in existence leaves me a quivering wreck every time I see it), and Kristen now notices the children's bones in the boiler, and she hears the distinct sound of a razor-tipped glove scraping along the metal in the basement, and this is all the provocation she needs to grab the little girl and tear ass upstairs. Except that it's not so easy as that, and just as Freddy (a dark shadow now, but when we finally see him, it will still be Robert Englund) is about to grab her, she wakes up. I swear to God I don't scare easily, but this scene got me. It got me good.
Anyway, it turns out she's not so much awake as that, and when she goes into the bathroom to wash her face, the faucet handle turns into a hand, and the other handle sprouts knives, and Kristen is woken up be her mother screaming at the bloody razor that the girl just used to cut her own wrists.
Okay, so here's the first good example of what I was talking about: that opening scene, it freaked my shit, dude. Hardcore. But then the false-awakening scene in the bathroom, with its tarted-up effects, just seemed kind of silly and overdetermined. Actually, practical effects that obviously took a lot of effort and money that end up looking silly and overdetermined make up a considerable part of my problem with this film, so I'll get this out of the way now: the first two had a distinct cheapness of production that served them well, and forced the filmmakers to be creative with how they wanted to get their scare scenes in. This film, with a $5 million budget that nearly doubled Freddy's Revenge, has no such brake, and there end up being some very gauche effects coming down the pike, if you'll permit me to say so.
Kristen ends up at a never-named psychiatric hospital, with several other local teens with dream disorders under the care of Dr. Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson) and Dr. Vicious Bitch (Priscilla Pointer. She has a character name, but no character, and if that's the way the film wants to play, that's how we'll play). The primary orderly for their wing is sarcastic gent named Max (Laurence Fishburne, back when he was still "Larry." SKELETONS). Most importantly, there is a new intern, fresh from college it seems, one Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), and when she notices that every single one of Dr. Gordon's patients described the same horribly burned man in a red and green sweater with a dirty old fedora and sharp slashing fingers as a regular occurrence in their dreams, she's not so quick to dismiss their "mass hysteria" as the doc.
I cannot think of one more obvious way that Dream Warriors splits with the whole bulk of 1980s slasher films than the return of Nancy and Heather. It just Was Not Done for a character to return in a primary role and be played by the same actor as before (I can only point to one other example: 1981's Halloween II). Sure, we had the unending Tommy Jarvises in the F13 films, and many examples of one film's Final Girl coming back for a quick execution in the opening credits of the sequel; but for Langenkamp to play the hero in two separate entries, that was most definitely unheard of, and given that she was one of the best actresses to ever find her way into a slasher, it's surely no small part of why this film works as well as it, does that so much of it rests on her eminently capable shoulders.
As the story proceeds, we find that Kristen is a strange sort of telepath, who can "pull" other people into her dreams, and this gives Nancy an idea: the "Elm Street Kids," as she calls the dream-haunted teens (who turn out to all be descended from the parents who lynched Krueger lo these many years ago) can band together in Kristen's dream to fight Krueger, and put an end to his evil once and for all. Meanwhile, she has convinced Dr. Gordon that the threat is real and not a mass hallucination, and he has this confirmed by a mysterious nun (Nan Martin) who drifts around the hospital doing charity work. She tells him the secret origin of Freddy: many years earlier, a young woman named Amanda Krueger worked in that hospital when it was devoted to the study of the criminally insane, and over the holidays (when for no reason that makes a damn dot of sense, everybody was gone, leaving the criminal psychiatric hospital completely unstaffed), she was accidentally locked in the wing with the most evil and dangerous men there. Days later she was found, clinging to life, pregnant with "the bastard son of a hundred maniacs," one of the finest overbaked lines ever written in a film, horror or otherwise. She continues to tell Gordon that Freddy can only be stopped if his bones are interred in sacred ground, and to this end, the doctor tracks down one of the few men who knows where those bones now reside - none other than Nancy's father, disgraced ex-cop Donald Thompson (John Saxon, also returning, although in a much reduced role).
On the level of raw narrative, there's some fine sequelling going on here, and that's why I related the plot at such length. Here we have a film that manages the two rarest of all sequel tricks: it doesn't piss all over the memory of the original or its ending, and it manages to add real depth and character to the mythology of the original. No, we still don't have a damned clue why Freddy Krueger turns into a dream-haunting ghost, but his backstory is one of the very few ever that makes the character seem more, not less menacing (compare e.g. "Freddy was a sullen teen who didn't get as much responsibility as he wanted, so he joined forces with a villainous politician/sorcerer. Also, ghosts are caused by microscopic organisms in your blood"). It's also kind of beautiful to see a horror sequel in particular involve a recurring character using her knowledge from the first film against the villain, instead of suffering from plot-convenient amnesia about what works and what doesn't. It also manages the rare fear of raising the stakes in a proper way, by incorporating the "dream warriors" subplot in a way that seems fair and even clever - each of the teens has some particular skill in the dream world that he or she explicitly lacks in reality, and so the film is a crypto-superhero movie, as much as anything - and making it a more "epic" film than just one girl against a poltergeist.
So no, on the script level I have pretty much no problem with Dream Warriors; and how often do you get to say that about a slasher? But there's plenty about the film that just doesn't work, and it's really odd and inconsistent what those things are.
I already mentioned the effects; I'll return to them. They're erratic. One of the big show-stoppers is when a giant worm with Freddy's face tries to eat Kristen, only for Nancy to suddenly appear in the dream and stop it. This is the example I was talking about before, where one cut makes all the difference: the worm is excessively stupid-looking (and apparently, it looked like a big flaccid penis before they repainted it from pink to green), and Patricia Arquette has a hard time keeping a straight face as she's pretending to be eaten by an effect to be composited in later. The moment is too attention-grabby to work on any remotely scary level; yet the instant where Nancy appears by crashing through a mirror is suddenly exhilarating, and coupled with the absence of any close-up shots on the worm, the scene plays out as intense and exciting. Another key moment, in which a puppet comes to life by the glories of stop-motion animation, and begins controlling one hapless teen like a marionette, using his tendons ripped out of his flesh as the strings. This is a back-and-forth sort of thing: the stop-motion Freddy looks squirrelly, but the tendon-ripping is honestly terrifying; then the giant Freddy in the sky brings us right back to "squirrelly." And later on, there's a stop-motion skeleton (an homage to Jason and the Argonauts, or a rip-off? Who can tell?) that actually works pretty beautifully. So it's not a matter of technical competence. It's just that Chuck Russell can't always find his tone in every scene: like the little girl with the little curl, when he is good he is very good. And when he is bad, he is...not terrible, mostly just boring and perfunctory. The first two films tried for very sober horror, and this film does too; but it also tries, a bit too often, for flashiness and even the odd touch of zany wackiness, which is just plain evil.
Unfortunately, that zany wackiness is most plainly felt in Freddy himself. In the first film, he was a shadowy monster, of course; in the second we saw less of him, but what we saw was still pretty much unleavened menace. In this film, he starts his transition to a quipster. Not that he's not menacing: dear God, that first scene. But he develops a weird tendency to crack puns when he kills people, in a most alarming way to those who would agree with me that only James Bond can do that sort of thing without seeming like a tool. I happen to know that this gets worse, so I wont' harp on it here, just...it doesn't fit, y'know? It doesn't fit at all. That first scene implies some really freaky-ass things about Krueger, and I don't really want to fit that sort of bone-chilling evil in with a character who make puns on "tongue-tied."
Body Count: A pretty unambiguous 5. It speaks to how badly the Friday the 13th series messed me up that this seems like an awfully small number of deaths for an ostensible horror movie.
Reviews in this series
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven, 1984)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (Sholder, 1985)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Russell, 1987)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (Harlin, 1988)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (Hopkins, 1989)
Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (Talalay, 1991)
Wes Craven's New Nightmare (Craven, 1994)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Bayer, 2010)