Checking in with Chuck Russell’s franchise-altering spectacle
In hindsight, the third instalment of the A Nightmare on Elm Street series did as much bad as it did good. It took a movie of great craft and imagination to salvage a franchise left creatively moribund by 1985‘s Freddy’s Revenge, a movie that was as brave in its intentions as it was misguided in its execution. Granted, the film did great numbers at the box office, thanks in large part to the success of the original, but it left the series in a kind of creative and commercial limbo from which some felt it would never recover. As Dream Warriors director Chuck Russel would explain in a 2017 interview with Bloody Disgusting, “The studio rightfully felt that Nightmare 2 was a bit of a misfire… At that point, they were uncertain [the series] would continue. I thought in Nightmare 2 Freddy became almost less personable… more of a typical slasher than a dream demon.”
Freddy’s Revenge, which has garnered a huge cult following in the years since its release, certainly has its charms. There’s the fantastic lead performance of actor Mark Patton, ‘final boy’ Jesse Walsh proving one of the strongest antagonists in the slasher pantheon. Krueger himself has arguably never looked more terrifying than he does in Freddy’s Revenge, his borderline-feral make-up a truly gruesome sight, and Englund really begins to find his feet as the “bastard son of 100 maniacs”, further refining the nuances that made the character so fresh and unique. The film also features one of the most eye-watering instances of practical effects wizardry in the series courtesy of Kevin Yagher and his team, Krueger shedding Jesse’s skin like a silk gown before downing Robert Rusler’s immensely watchable Grady. There is also the subject of the movie’s controversial gay subtext, something that was flat-out denied for many years by director Jack Sholder and writer David Chaskin, presumably due to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and the stigma it created in Hollywood circles. All-in-all, a rather interesting movie, whatever you may think of it critically.
Freddy’s Revenge also managed to rob its predecessor of its groundbreaking concept, ditching the refreshing dreamworld angle for the kind of straight-up possession story we had seen a dozen times before. For me, its biggest single crime, a byproduct of the film’s conceptual digression, was to rob Krueger of Charles Bernstein’s iconic theme, a scathing lullaby of chimerical highs and gut-wrenching lows that chills you to your very bones. Future Hellraiser composer Christopher Young did a fine job in his own right, but very few themes represent the essence of a character quite like Bernstein’s. For many fans separating the two was borderline-sacrilegious. There was also an exploding pet bird, a rather bizarre incident with a sadomasochistic gym teacher that put the film very firmly in the ‘gay panic’ category, and a pair of not-so-rabid dogs with baby faces of the human variety, though that’s a conversation for another day. So disrespectful were New Line Cinema to the original’s legacy that they even tried to replace actor Robert Englund with a cheaper option until quickly realising that without the actor there was no sequel.
In my opinion, steering events away from the realms of the subconscious detracted from the Krueger character, and not just in terms of the SFX avenues New Line could have explored. In the cradle of his dreamworld omnipotence, Freddy reigned supreme, and for a character whose one desire consists of torturing children, you’d think he would be content to remain there. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist, and part of Krueger’s allure was his elusiveness, his ability to convince those on the outside that his targets were delusional. In the realms of slumber, Freddy was intangible, a figment of overactive imaginations who made fools out of terrified victims. He was invincible, all-powerful, able to fulfil every sordid whim. But strip Freddy of his dreamworld hegemony and you have a weedy little pissant ripe for the picking. Krueger thrived on the sadistic manipulations connected with the subconscious realm, our fears determined by the unpredictable nature of nightmares and our inability to control our own destiny. This was A ‘Nightmare’ on Elm Street, after all. I mean, what on Earth were they thinking?
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.
Director Chuck Russell understood this, he and future Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont reworking a screenplay originally written by Wes Craven and writing partner Bruce Wagner, whose version of The Dream Warriors was actually a lot darker; something more reminiscent of Craven’s original. Producer Robert Shaye suggested the screenplay needed more after the outcome of the second instalment, and Russell felt that a further exploration of the previously ditched dreamworld concept was the way forward.
Speaking on the wonderful franchise documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, Russell would explain, “The original script for ‘Elm Street 3’ was darker and actually profane. I think Wes was trying to take it in an even more horrific place, and I was more interested in the imaginative elements of the piece.” Fortunately, Russell was able to convince the money men that his way was the way forward. “I convinced New Line we could do bigger, wilder dream sequences and make Freddy more of a devilish ring master… make it both more frightening and more fun. I was interested in going deeper into the imagination of the characters and I saw the potential to get Freddy talking and literally morphing in fantastic ways in the different dream scenarios. I felt I could keep it scary but infuse a dark humour that Freddy had the potential for… and I knew Robert England could handle it. That element of bringing Freddy into a full characterisation had New Line concerned, but they let me run with it. They took a chance on my vision.”
For those of you who have read my coverage of the Elm Street series, you’ll know that I prefer Krueger’s darker incarnation, and as much as I would have loved to see Craven’s version personally, the dream concept was a once in a lifetime creation that deserved to be explored in a much more magical way. Personally, I think the version we got could have been just a little darker, giving us more scenes in the vein (no pun intended) of Phillip’s gruesome puppet death, but for the most part ‘ol pizza face is back to his sadistic best having been restored to his ethereal stomping ground. In an ingenious turn of simplicity, the screenplay for The Dream Warriors 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, phantom suicides and quasi-comas just two of a plethora of unscrupulous tactics which echo the original instalment’s sadistic nature.
The movie’s second masterstroke was to bring back Heather Langenkamp. The original final girl of the series, 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. Nancy wasn’t your typical, run-of-the-mill slasher heroine. She was steely, resourceful, cerebral; perhaps second only to Jamie Lee Curtis as the sub-genre’s most iconic conqueror, and in many ways more formidable since the odds were stacked so heavily against her. Nancy had defeated Krueger once, understood him and the torment of those he pursued better than any other living person. If anyone could put him down for good, surely it was her.
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, something that was absent in Freddy’s Revenge as Jesse was the new kid in town who would find Nancy’s diary and discover the town’s darkest secret, (You may not have realised this, because the movie puts such a small emphasis on it, but Freddy’s Revenge is actually set in 1989, five years after the original Elm Street massacre. An odd and seemingly unnecessary leap forward, but a leap forward nonetheless). In The Dream Warriors, we go back in time, and once again Krueger has a very believable reason to pursue his victims so sadistically, instead of merely picking off random teens like any bog-standard slasher. It is the reinstatement of these staple ingredients that allowed the series to regain its bearings and rediscover its focus, further exploring the potential of Craven’s original formula.
Krueger is in his element given the capacity to divide and conquer, and his illusory 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.
Each of the Westin Hills kids develop powers which defy their worldly weakness. There’s a wheelchair-bound Dungeons and Dragons geek who develops magical powers, a distrusting former drug addict who is transformed into a fearless punk rocker, a violent kid who uses his physical strength for more productive purposes, a mute boy 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 others in and out of her dreams, thereby levelling the playing field.
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 outing goes above and beyond, maintaining those universal properties that delineate dreams from reality while exploring the vast and endless possibilities of a domain in which the laws of traditional physics no longer apply. In the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven smartly tapped into those universal ambiguities that we’ve all experienced while inhabiting the realms of the subconscious mind: our inability to escape a pursuing menace or find our way out of a seemingly familiar place, sudden changes in identity and our incapacity to delineate the dream world from reality to name but a few, but thanks to some gorgeous set design and various advancements in the field of SFX, Russell gives us a blank canvas where absolutely anything goes, forging a visual realm that is truly fantastical.
A vastly increased budget no doubt helped, and who knows what Craven would have forged with the same kitty? At the time, the innovative director was busy making studio flop Deadly Friend, a movie that failed due to its ability to escape Krueger’s shadow and meddling executives who longed to tap into the character’s popularity, turning a serious sci-fi drama into a senseless yet admittedly charming Elm Street rip-off. Some of the practical effects featured in The Dream Warriors were absolutely jaw-dropping, the kind that would set the template for all future instalments. Many, myself included, will tell you that this jeopardised the integrity of the Krueger character going forward, our once-wicked villain transformed into the wisecracking circus master of a purely commercial entity, but the balance was great while it lasted.
Later sequels would cheapen the formula by only concentrating on those superficial elements, but The Dream Warriors was different. The irony of Freddy tying a sexually repressed mute to a bed using tongues is a hoot, as is the quite ludicrous image of our killer symbolically ejaculating while injecting recovering drug addict Taryn with syringe-tipped gloves. It is completely absurd, and even a little perverted, but it works a treat. A scene in which Patricia Arquette’s Kristen is half-swallowed by a Freddy-faced worm was breathtaking back in 1987, as was the scene in which Krueger emerged from the TV and glibly announced his ‘prime time’ arrival. This, along with the involvement of American metal band Dokken, transformed the character into horror’s first bona fide rock star, but the film retained something of a sadistic edge, and sadism is Krueger’s lifeblood, the very attribute that sets him apart from his seek-and-destroy brethren. Sure, it errs a little too much towards comedic fantasy at times, and meta moments like Freddy’s appearance on the Dick Cavett Show was an indication of the crippling celebrity highs the character would soon reach, but for a brief period The Dream Warriors breathed new life into the series both creatively and commercially.
Freddy Krueger – What’s wrong, Joey? Feeling tongue-tied?
While the original A Nightmare on Elm Street announced Krueger as horror’s latest conceptual player, The Dream Warriors transformed him into a global megastar, and by the time 1988’s MTV-styled, pop culture juggernaut A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master came to fruition, he was far and away the genre’s hottest property, the now flourishing New Line Cinema even turning down the chance to take part in a potentially money-spinning Freddy vs Jason crossover with former kings of the slasher sub-genre Paramount Pictures, whose own horror attraction Jason Voorhees was experiencing something of a downturn in popularity. The two were unable to come to an agreement, something New Line would soon be thankful for. While the Carrie-inspired Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood floundered at the box office, The Dream Master became the most successful instalment to date, raking in a whopping $49,369,899 from an estimated $13,000,000 in the US alone — unheard of numbers for a slasher movie during the late 1980s. New Line had taken Russell’s vision and run with it, and it was bearing fruit.
But such monumental success can create its own problems, and the more comedy-driven Freddy The Dream Warriors helped to spawn would catch on like wildfire, especially with the kids — and yes I see the irony. Soon Krueger was making guest appearances on TV shows, embracing more commercial tie-ins, performing absurd rap songs that reeked of youth-oriented marketing. New Line would lend the Krueger name to a whole bunch of crappy merchandise aimed primarily at children, something that would lead to protests from religious groups, who would describe one particular doll as, “the product of a sick mind,” further opining, “The fact that a major toy manufacturer would promote this doll is tragic,” and without The Dream Warriors none of this may ever have happened.
You couldn’t blame New Line, who were still very much an indie company looking to branch out, for indulging in their newly discovered mascot, but for me it would jeopardise the integrity of the franchise. The problem with excess is its propensity to exceed, and while The Dream Warriors trod a delicate line between horror and fantasy, later instalments would shed creative perspective like a Freddy-shaped shuttle hurtling towards commercialisation. A year later, The Dream Master would lay waste to the survivors of Westin Hills within the first ten minutes of the movie, 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 the barren 90s, one of the genre’s most reprehensible creations had become little more than a commercial sideshow, flogging his increasingly tired act like a circus bear being poked and prodded by the very kids his character had supposedly molested. When it comes to commercialism, 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, fleshing out a backstory that only serves to detract from Krueger’s mystique, 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 him such a deliciously unique character. Though it pales next to Craven’s opus as an exercise in terror, it both redesigns and rediscovers, which is as much as you can hope for from any sequel, and its largely rotten legacy is only testament to its influence.