Film Retrospect: A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors
by Barry Wurst
May 9, 2007
In somewhat honor of Spider-Man 3 being a third film in a massive franchise, today's film retrospect looks back at another third film in a rather successful series. The release of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors 20 years ago was something of a milestone for the horror genre. Not only did it introduce one of the longest titles to ever grace a marquee (before Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters and Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan), it brought a radical new direction to the enormously successful series that other genre films followed as well.
The series was not showing any signs of winding down at New Line Cinema, still referred to by many as "The House That Freddy Built", since the Freddy Krueger series essentially made the studio a power player. Without the success of the inexpensive but ingeniously conceived and inventive Nightmare films, it is unlikely that the studio would have flourished or would still be around. New Line Cinema, led by the innovative and risk taking Robert Shaye, mostly released varying B-movies (many of which that weren't any good) and it wasn't until the success of the Elm Street series that their studio made and distributed films started to improve in quality, budget and awareness. Without the Freddy films, who's to say the studio would've been around long enough to release their wildly successful Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films, The Mask and the prestigious (Pleasantville) and celebrated (Lord of the Rings) works that followed. Truly, this series was a cash cow and, most importantly, they were good films.
Wes Craven's still disturbing original movie more than deserves its "classic" reputation, while the uneven Freddy's Revenge that followed is still a scary, clever horror film. The direction the third entry took really changed the image of the series, it's mascot (Robert Englund's Krueger) and the way horror franchises sought an image/box office reboot.
After taking an entry off, Wes Craven was invited back to work on the third installment; he wrote a script treatment that many felt was too ambitious (aka, costly) and surreal (aka, incoherent). He receives story credit and some of his concepts made it into the film, but the culprit behind the film's tone is the director, Chuck Russell. Rather than make a straight forward exercise in horror, Russell, who co-wrote it with Bruce Wagner and a pre-Shawshank Frank Darabont, added a good deal of tongue-in-cheek humor and made it more of a visceral thrill ride. The first two were suburban-set horror films, flush with psychological dread, Freudian dark secrets, everyday places made menacing, and surrealistic violence.
Part three, which is set in an asylum, deals with a troubled young teen (Patricia Arquette) who, with the guidance of a doctor who has dealt with Krueger before (series semi-regular Heather Langenkamp), takes on Krueger with the help of teens who also suffer from frightening nightmares. The cast also includes Laurence Fishburne and Craig Wasson and, like the rest of the films, has wonderful (if somewhat dated) special effects and real ingenuity on the part of the filmmakers. The aforementioned Darabont (then a grade "A" B-movie writer who also wrote The Fly II and the remake to The Blob) and Russell's decision to make the unsettling Krueger more of a supernatural quipster made the character (and films) more accessible to audiences, who ate it up immediately. The film was a blockbuster (cost $5 million to make, grossed over $40 million) and lead to Freddy being a Halloween mask favorite, as well as a teen and kiddie cult favorite. It wasn't until the fourth entry that the series' popularity exploded (with anything-goes marketing and a spin-off television show), but Dream Warriors set all that into place.
Many other studios noticed the wild popularity of Elm Street and, to varying (and mostly failed) degrees of success, injected their own horror franchises with heavy doses of humor. Thus, the Friday the 13th, Child's Play, and even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies had sequels that relied on dark, cheeky humor more than their predecessors ever did (Halloween didn't become overtly jokey until the previous entry, Halloween: Resurrection). Yet, the junction of laughs and scares was done best by the Elm Street franchise, mostly because Englund's performance was both truly creepy and wryly funny.
While not the best entry in the series (the 7th entry, Wes Craven's New Nightmare, is the masterpiece), it is a wonderfully creative, surprising and even exciting film. The one-note characters and uneven performances hurt the film, but the dark sense of humor (see Freddy posses Dick Cavett and slash Zsa Zsa Gabor!) is an asset. Like even the weaker installments, the production design and special effects are top notch and chillingly realized. Unlike a lot of other genre films made during the 80's-90's, the Elm Street series were always examples of well made, creative and madly inventive horror films. Fortunately for fans of the genre, it was one of the many great horror films that came out in 1987.
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