Checking in with 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 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, it 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 limbo. 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. There was also the much discussed but flatly denied gay subtext involving ‘final boy’ Jesse, a hodgepodge possession concept and even a pair on not-so-rabid dogs with baby faces of the human variety, though that’s a conversation for another day. New Line Cinema even tried to replace actor Robert Englund with a cheaper option until quickly realising that without the actor there was no sequel.
The movie’s most unforgivable move was its decision to steer events away from the realms of the subconscious, a place where Freddy reigned supreme. For a character whose only dreams consist of torturing children, you’d think Krueger would be content to remain there. After all, the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. In the realms of slumber Freddy was intangible, a figment of overactive imaginations who made fools out of his terrified victims. He was invincible, all-powerful, able to fulfil his every sordid whim. The original movie’s strength was its game-changing concept. Strip Freddy of his dreamworld omnipotence and you have a weedy little piss ant ripe for the picking. Krueger thrived on the sadistic manipulations connected with the subconscious realm, our fears confined to the unpredictable nature of nightmares and our inability to control our destiny. This was A ‘Nightmare’ on Elm Street, after all. I mean, what on Earth were they thinking?
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 movie. Producer Robert Shaye felt that 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 more in an even more horrific place, and I was more interested in the imaginative elements of the piece.”
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 it 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.
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.
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. 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 discover Nancy’s diary and disocover the town’s darkest secret. It is never wise to tamper too heavily with a winning formula, and it is the reinstatement of these staple ingredients that allowed the series to regain its bearings and further explore the potential of Craven’s original formula.
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. 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 is transformed into a fearless 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.
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 domain in which the rules no longer apply. In the original, Craven smartly tapped into those universal ambiguities which 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 Russell gives us a blank canvas, transforming the realm into something truly fantastical.
Sure, a vastly increased budget helped, and who knows what Craven would have forged with the same kitty — presumably something much darker. And perhaps he would have if he wasn’t busy making studio flop Deadly Friend, a movie that failed due to its ability to escape Krueger’s shadow and meddling producers who longed to tap into the character’s personality, turning a serious sci-fi drama into a senseless yet admittedly charming Elm Street rip-off. At the same time, Russell was busy attempting to expand on that concept, and he did so for better and for worse. The Dream Warriors features a series of mind-blowing practical effects, the kind that would set the template for all future instalments. Many, myself included, will tell you that this all but destroyed the series going forward, but it was great while it lasted. Those later sequels would cheapen the series by only concentrating on those superficial elements, but The Dream Warriors was different. Scenes such as the one 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. For a brief period, The Dream Warriors breathed new life into the series.
Kristen Parker: The man in my dreams… he’s real, isn’t he?
Nancy Thompson: He’s real.
While the first movie announced Krueger as horror’s latest 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 financial slump. New Line’s decision turned out to be the right one. While Carrie clone Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood floundered at the box office, The Dream Master would go on to become the most successful instalment in the series, raking in a whopping $49,369,899 from and estimated $13,000,000 in the US alone — unheard of numbers for a slasher movie during the late 1980s.
But such monumental success can create its own problems, and the more comedy-driven Freddy that 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 commercial tie-ins with rock stars, performing absurd rap songs. New Line would even enter the realms of youth oriented marketing with a whole bunch of crappy merchandise aimed primarily at children. Don’t get me wrong, the movie gets the balance just right. 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.
Freddy Krueger – What’s wrong, Joey? Feeling tongue-tied?
However, 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 its creative perspective like a Freddy-shaped shuttle hurtling toward 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 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. 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 a sequel, while its largely rotten legacy is only testament to its influence.