A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors served as my introduction to the franchise. I was just a boy at the time, too young to have appreciated the original, but I contend I watched the series in the ideal order. Though positioned as a direct sequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) with Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) returning as a sort of dream veteran, the film clearly addresses a new, younger audience, reintroducing the myth in epic detail and dumbing the whole thing down as if to ensure my prepubescent mind could follow along.
I don’t mean this as a criticism. After all, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors works best as a mythical retelling of the original, taking the series’ fairy tale motif to its logical extreme. Consider the way returning scribe Wes Craven redefines his own creations to fit specific archetypes in the genre. No longer a vague embodiment of our subconscious dread, Freddy (Robert Englund) has turned into a full-blown storybook monster: “the bastard son of a hundred maniacs” feeding on the souls of innocent children. By the same token, Nancy has graduated from slasher heroine to old Jedi master, mentoring the next generation of valiant knights.
Her young charges, however, tap into a different fantasy: the adolescent conviction that grown-ups just don’t understand. Believed to be suffering from a group delusion, they’re gathered at Westin Hills Psychiatric Hospital and pumped full of sedatives, allowing Freddy to pick them off uninterrupted. At least the staff is well-intentioned, bringing in Nancy and her experimental new “therapy”. The same can’t be said of the kids’ parents, whom A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors depicts as either abusive or criminally negligent. That’s always bothered me, given these people committed murder to protect their children.
My real complaint, though, lies in the kids themselves. Each displays little personality beyond that one dream power and matching character flaw for Freddy to exploit: Kristen (Patricia Arquette) can bring others into her nightmares but lacks confidence on her own; Will (Ira Heiden) can turn into an all-powerful wizard but feels powerless in his wheelchair; Taryn (Jennifer Rubin) becomes a punk goddess but fears a drug relapse; Kincaid (Ken Sagoes) has super-strength but comes across as such a grating weenie I want to tear my ears off whenever he appears on screen… The list goes on and on, as A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors boasts one of the highest body counts in the series, treating the children as cannon fodder rather than human beings.
It’s all about the set pieces, you see. Drawing inspiration from the old Ray Harryhaussen fantasy adventures, director Chuck Russell fills the screen with stop motion oddities in surreal environments, like the giant Freddy snake slithering through a papier-mâché replica of the house on 1428 Elm or our villain’s calcified bones jousting with Nancy’s father (John Saxon) in a valley of blinking cars. On the one hand, these wondrous sights give A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors a richer feel, enhancing the overall myth to epic proportions. On the other, they’re not scary, which kind of defeats the purpose of a horror flick.
Consider Freddy’s slicker design here. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven gave his monster an awkward, deranged aesthetic, with pants a few sizes too big and skin that’s constantly peeling off. In A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), Jack Sholder went for a more sinister look, with blades protruding from the villain’s actual fingers and facial features still boiling from the inside. By comparison, the creature in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors feels downright cartoony, with his big round eyes and latex flesh. It doesn’t help that Russell keeps bathing him in light on account of all them fiery pits. God, there are a lot of fiery pits in this one!
You know, I remember liking this film a lot more as a kid. Mind you, I also recall fantasising about becoming a dream warrior myself, warding off nightmares with my awesome super-powers. From a grown-up perspective, I suspect that may have been the point. For all of its juvenile excesses, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors stays true to the series’ central theme of empowerment. So what if it skews younger? Freddy hadn’t yet devolved into self-parody, and the shift in tone just means a wider audience can appreciate the myth. Plus, I love Nancy. I wish she’d stuck around forever…
Note: A lot of people, including the creative minds behind the next entry, interpret the last shot of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors as a cliffhanger heralding Freddy’s return. However, I’ve always understood this epilogue as Kristen using her dream powers to fulfill her final promise to Nancy. After all, it can’t be a coincidence that the lit window in the papier-mâché house matches our heroine’s bedroom.