Written by: D.S.Ullery
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors is an oddity of sorts in the horror genre. In the heart of a decade which saw cinemas literally overstuffed with an endless number of inferior sequels (including this film’s immediate predecessor), New Line Cinema stunned horror fans in 1987 by releasing this movie, which not only returned iconic dream killer Fred Krueger to his sadistic glory, but actually expanded on the original premise in such an imaginative way that fans of the franchise soon heralded this sequel as the crowning glory of the series.
Having established in the first film that Fred Krueger has returned to haunt the dreams of the children whose parents burned him to death years ago, part 3 focuses on the last remaining collection of said children. All of them are in their teens and have been committed to a psychiatric hospital by the name of Westin Hills, each suffering from chronic nightmares during which they are tormented by their greatest fears as manifested by Freddy.
Enter original Nightmare survivor Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), now employed as a psychiatric specialist in pattern nightmares. That the writers chose to reintroduce Nancy in this way establishes a sound connective logic to the screenplay that successfully carries over the premise launched in Wes Craven’s original. It’s a trend which will continue throughout the film. Not really a surprise considering that the film was co-written by Craven, Frank Darabont, Bruce Wagner and the director Chuck Russell.
Nancy makes the acquaintance of another doctor (Craig Wasson) and almost immediately finds herself intervening to save the hospital’s newest patient Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette) from harming herself with a scalpel. Just before convincing the terrified young girl to hand over the blade, Nancy hears Kristen choke out the all-too familiar words “nine ten..never sleep again…” and begins to suspect that there may be more to whatever has been plaguing these kids than mere teenage angst.
Soon Nancy makes the acquaintance of the rest of the teens and discovers that Kristen has a unique psychic ability to literally pull other sleeping kids into her own dreams. Rapidly deducing that Fred Krueger has returned to finish his vengeful murder spree, Nancy and Kristen gather the other teens together and train the group to use the power of imagination to become dream warriors, intended victims who empower themselves with special abilities by manipulating the altered reality of Krueger’s nightmare world.
The performances in this film are really engaging, with Robert Englund giving what may be his best performance to date as Krueger. Englund has never been anything but exceptional as this character, but in Dream Warriors he pulls off the hat trick of all time by smoothly blending a genuine streak of malice with often extremely funny gallows humor. The next film would go way overboard with the comedy (to the detriment of the series), but here it’s a perfect cocktail of laughs and chills.
I enjoyed the low key quality Patricia Arquette brought to Kristen (which sadly wouldn’t be replicated by Tuesday Knight, who assumed the role in the next film) and Heather Langenkamp is always fun as Nancy. Craig Wasson provides a nice sympathetic turn as the doctor who is at first skeptical, but soon discovers that Krueger is a very real threat. In a treat for genre fans, John Saxon also reprises his role as Don Thompson, local cop and cynical father to Nancy. The gritty, grizzled manner in which Saxon plays a scene in a bar is one of the highlights of this film.
The visual effects are outstanding. From diabolical television sets and human marionettes to a gigantic Freddy snake, we are witness to an amazing array of animatronic, prosthetic and makeup work which – even today – holds up as a prime example of how excellent the results can be when real professionals have a crack at it. Many kudos to the people at Dream Quest images for their enduring contributions to this film.
The real strength of this film is in the screenplay, though. I can easily imagine a script conference where the writers sat down and said to themselves “Hey, look, we’ve got a dead lock for doing anything we want here. There’s an established precedent that these films occupy a universe where dreams are less an ethereal collection of subconscious thoughts assembled in random order and more an actual alternate reality where people exist in a psychic capacity. So let’s do what people do in dreams- let our imaginations run wild!!”
The incorporation of the fantasy elements along with the continuing thread of horror is what elevates this movie to a specific tier above the rest. As mentioned earlier in this review, the established logic of this series is kept intact while the story builds upon the existing characters and situations to expand the horizons and bring some depth to the saga. Indeed, this is the chapter where we are introduced to Amanda Krueger and her tragic past. You have to admire any movie which appreciates its central villain so much that it bothers to provide a textured back story for him.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors is a classic. It follows the example of the original by sidestepping the standard slasher movie clichés and then takes the next leap and actually surpasses its predecessors by deepening the characters, raising the stakes and opening the door to a world where not only is anything possible, but the endless capacity of the human imagination may in fact be your best defense against ultimate evil. This should be in the collection of every horror fan.
Basically, this film is the primary reason why I can still prepare to watch a horror sequel today with the faint hope it will outdo the original.