VHS Revival dissects Chuck Russell’s franchise-saving spectacle.
In hindsight, the third instalment of the ‘Elm Street’ series did as much good as it did bad.
First of all, it took a movie of great craft and imagination to salvage a franchise left moribund by 1985‘s Freddy’s Revenge, a movie that was as brave in its intentions as it was stupid in its execution. You could write a volume on the deficiencies of that first sequel. For one thing, it was robbed of Charles Bernstein’s Krueger-defining score, a scathing lullaby which encapsulates the offbeat nature of nightmares in a way that was crucial to the series.
The movie’s second unforgivable oversight was its decision to steer events away from the realms of the subconscious. The original movie’s strength was its game-changing concept. Strip Freddy of his dreamworld omnipotence and you have a weedy little pissant ripe for the picking. Krueger thrived on the sadistic manipulations connected with the subconscious realm, while our fears lay in the unpredictable nature of nightmares and inability to control our own destiny. This was A ‘Nightmare’ on Elm Street after all. I mean, what on Earth were they thinking?
Chuck Russell understood this, and with Wes Craven back on board to beef up the characterisation, the franchise was raring for a much welcome shot of redemption. A once-in-a-lifetime creation, the iconic Krueger deserved a second chance, and The Dream Warriors was the perfect platform, a loyal and creative endeavour which would right many wrongs.
The movie’s first masterstroke was to bring back Heather Langenkamp. The original final girl, Nancy was a hero we could all get behind, and if you count the tacked-on false ending of the first movie, she and Krueger still had some unfinished business to attend to. Another of the movie’s credibility-restoring manoeuvres was to give our killer back his sense of purpose. The teenage cast of The Dream Warriors are billed as the ‘last of the Elm Street children’, the very same whose parents burned Freddy for his perverted misdeeds. It is never wise to tamper too heavily with a winning formula, and it is the reinstatement of these staple ingredients which allowed the series to regain its bearings and further explore the potential of Craven’s original formula.
Roland Kincaid – Ain’t gonna dream no more, no more. Ain’t gonna dream no more. All night long I sing this song. Ain’t gonna dream no more.
They say the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince people he didn’t exist, and that is definitely the case with Krueger, who is back to his sadistic best having been restored to his ethereal stomping ground. In an ingenious turn of simplicity, Craven gives us a cast of depressed and misunderstood teens who have been confined to a psychiatric institute due to their seemingly irrational fear of sleep, and Freddy has a field day alienating them from the adult community, with phantom suicide and quasi-comas just two of a plethora of unscrupulous tactics which echo the original instalment.
Krueger is in his element given the capacity to divide and conquer, and his illusive menace stalks the hallways of Westin Hills unabashed until Nancy joins the fray with the kind of radical answers that threaten to alienate both her and love interest Dr Gordon (Craig Wasson). Nancy’s earnest approach quickly speaks to Gordon, who puts his neck on the line by prescribing a controversial new drug and inducing collective hypnosis as a way to combat the monster haunting his patients’ dreams. It is only then that Nancy is able to help the kids understand and utilise their own dreamworld powers as they set about rescuing one of the gang.
Nancy Thompson: [pointing to Kristen’s model] I used to live in this house.
Kristen Parker: That’s just a house I dream about.
It is from this sub-narrative that The Dream Warriors is able to draw its true strength. While the original movie successfully examined the mind-bending slights of the subconscious, Chuck Russell’s visually audacious addition goes above and beyond, maintaining those universal properties that delineate dreams from reality, while exploring the vast and endless possibilities of a realm in which the rules no longer apply.
Each of the Elm Street kids develop powers which defy their worldly weakness. There is a wheelchair-bound Dungeons and Dragons geek who develops magical powers, a distrusting former drug addict who turns punk, a violent kid who uses his physical strength for more productive purposes, a mute kid with a supersonic scream, and finally the movie’s heroine, Kristen (Patricia Arquette), who as well as developing acrobatic prowess has the rather handy ability of pulling people in and out of her dreams.
Kristen Parker: The man in my dreams… he’s real, isn’t he?
Nancy Thompson: He’s real.
Not one to shy away from a challenge, Krueger turns to irony in his attempts to quash the Westin Hills rebellion, and the rest, as they say, is history. Craven saw The Dream Warriors as the perfect ending to the series. What he didn’t bank on was the extent to which Freddy’s new colourful persona would catch on with audiences, a fact that is preempted during Jennifer’s TV-related death, in which Old Pizza Face appears on the Dick Cavett Show with none other than overbearing media hound Zja Zja Gabor.
Don’t get me wrong, the movie gets the balance just right, while the irony of Freddy tying a sexually repressed mute to a bed using tongues is a hoot, and only one of a series of incredible special effects set pieces which include Krueger transforming into a television set, acting as an omnipotent puppeteer who uses human veins for strings, and even appearing as a giant worm intent on swallowing his victims whole. Then you have the quite ludicrous image of Freddy symbolically ejaculating while injecting Taryn with syringe-tipped gloves. It is absurd, and even a little perverted, but it works.
Freddy Krueger – What’s wrong, Joey? Feeling tongue-tied?
The problem with excess is its propensity to exceed, and while The Dream Warriors trod a delicate line, later instalments would shed its creative perspective like a Freddy-shaped shuttle hurtling toward Earth. A year later, The Dream Master would lay waste to the survivors of Westin Hills within the first ten minutes, replacing them with a cast of paper-thin characters who took a backseat to Freddy’s increasingly ludicrous, horror-defying antics, and by the time the series had entered into the nineties, one of the genre’s most reprehensible creations had become so user friendly he would record a corporate rap song, while Walmart sold Krueger gloves and pyjamas to the same kids his character had supposedly molested. When it comes to marketing, there really is no sense of decency it seems.
The Dreams Warriors is by no means perfect, and a hokey religious angle featuring a mysterious nun threatens to derail its credibility at times, but those minor distractions notwithstanding, the movie is a brave and effective exercise in imagination which expands on the original movie’s concept while staying true to the staple ingredients that made it so deliciously unique. While it pales next to Craven’s opus as an exercise in terror, it both redesigns and rediscovers, which is as much as you could ever hope for from a sequel, while its largely rotten legacy is only testament to the movie’s influence.