Monday, October 27, 2008

Random Movie Report #54: A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

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I’m trying to get more into the Halloween spirit, since politics have been distracting me. And I decided to dip into a franchise that I’ve only been casually acquainted with thusfar, the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series. I’d seen the first film, and parts of others, but the sequels are arguably their own thing. After A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE, which wasn’t so much a horror film as a campy allegory for a teenage boy’s struggle with his latent homosexuality (seriously), original creator Wes Craven returned to the franchise to co-write this installment and get back to the mythology he was working with. With direction by music video vet Chuck Russell and writing contributions by Russell, Bruce Wagner, and Frank Darabont, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS is an imaginative and vibrant horror film that manages to throw a few surprises at the viewer.

Patricia Arquette stars as Kristen, one of a number of Springwood teenagers suffering from vivid nightmares and incarcerated at a local mental institution. They’ve all been terrorized in their dreams by undead serial killer Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), and Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), survivor of his rampage in the first movie, comes to work at the hospital and sees that she may have to confront him again. She discovers that Kristen has the ability to pull other people into her dreams, and suggests that by getting the teens together they may be able to fight him. Their actual psychiatrist, Dr. Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson), is extremely skeptical, and further deaths at the hospital don’t help make her case, but he is haunted by visions of a white-habited nun (Nan Martin), who knows Freddy’s history and suggests that he cannot be destroyed until his remains are properly interred. Unfortunately, Freddy Krueger was burned alive and his bones hidden by the parents of Elm Street, and they’re keeping mum.

What really makes this a shift for the series is the way that dreams are used. In A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, the dream sequences weren’t much different from the rest of the picture, a stylistic choice that allowed Wes Craven to play with audiences by leaving them unsure of whether they or the characters were safe in the waking world or at Freddy’s mercy. Here, the series starts to explore dreams as subconscious mirrors; one girl, who aspires to be on TV, is killed by a television set coming to life, while another patient’s crush on a cute nurse is used to lure him into Freddy’s clutches. There’s something innately terrifying about the idea of using peoples’ hopes, fears, and passions to undo them; it was always something that scared me about Freddy when I was younger.

In practice Freddy’s Freudian murders aren’t quite as terrifying as they could be; the television death features cameos by Zsa Zsa Gabor and Dick Cavett (both of whom managed opening credits billing), and it, like all other attacks, provides Freddy an opportunity to make really bad puns. He cracked wise a little in the first film and what I saw of the second, but this perhaps marks the point where it became his major shtick. Robert Englund does a decent job selling this and it’s not too pronounced a problem just yet, but you can tell that the series was going to get worse about this.

Some of the characters suffer from a lack of definition; most of the troubled teens have one or two major quirks that define them, which is enough to tell them apart but makes the psychological material rather shallow. The acting is solid enough, though (Lawrence Fishburne has a small role as an intern) and generally the troubled teens are likable enough that their deaths matter. The film’s also good about dealing with the consequences of the deaths; nobody’s just there to be cannon fodder. The story takes some interesting turns; it doesn’t adhere to standard slasher structures, probably a good idea as that genre was dying out by 1987.

Though DREAM WARRIORS never becomes truly terrifying, it’s a creative and engaging story. Russell’s music video training serves him well here, and the film’s visuals are especially impressive given that the budget was only five million dollars. Truth be told, I don’t demand a horror movie scare me so long as it holds my attention, and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS did just that.

Story by Wes Craven and Bruce Wagner
Screenplay by Wes Craven, Bruce Wagner, Frank Darabont, and Chuck Russell
Directed by Chuck Russell

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