Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

I recently re-watched the 1987 film Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. This movie was incredibly important to me as a teenager. That is not the same as saying it’s a good film. Nope. Not the same thing at all.

For those of you who haven’t seen this gem, the gist of the film is as follows. The last of the Elm Street children are all in a locked psych ward for various reasons having to do with sleep disorders. Nancy, the protagonist of the first film, is now a doctor specializing in sleep disorders. She comes to the clinic, realizes that the kids are being hunted by Freddy Krueger in their dreams, and tries to work with the kids to kill Freddy. (The necessary backstory from the first film is that, while alive, Fred Krueger was a child molester and murderer. He was killed by the parents of the town he lived in, burned alive. Now he is a malevolent spirit that kills the kids of those people in their sleep.)

The Elm Street films have a few threads of horror that I find interesting. First, the victims are being punished for something that they did not do. They are sacrificial repayment for a crime committed by the people entrusted with their safety — their parents. Second, the parental sins are compounded in each film by neglect and abuse. The parents of the Elm Street kids are self-absorbed, controlling, or absent. They are alcoholics or violent, they are deaf and blind to the pain their children are experiencing.

The third thing added in this third film is that Freddy’s victims are blamed for what is happening to them. In the first film the deaths are perceived as murders or bizarre accidents. In Dream Warriors, Freddy sets up each death to look like a suicide. The kids are not merely dying, they are despised for their weakness. They are fighting Freddy with all their might, but are viewed with contempt as weak-willed quitters.

When I was fourteen years old, I internalized some of this. The idea that psychiatric problems were despised, were character flaws. The idea that everyone entrusted to help you will fail. The idea that you can tell the truth, scream it, and no-one will believe you.

This was, perhaps, not the best worldview for a teenager to take as writ. But, ah, well, there you have it.

On re-watching this film, I found I hadn’t imagined these themes. Kristen (played by Patricia Arquette) is specifically blamed for her suicide attempt, despite her telling everyone that it wasn’t her it was the guy from her dreams. And the group discussion after Phillip’s death overtly blames him, saying he gave up. Nancy is deemed weak and irresponsible for taking the medication she does, and for recommending it to others. And the moment Dr. Gordon becomes sympathetic to the kids fears, he is suspended from the hospital.

One of the central themes of many kinds of horror is powerlessness. In the Elm Street franchise you are always at your most vulnerable when you are asleep. Freddy attacks you while you are engaged in a biological function you can’t avoid or resist. (The recent Nightmare remake with Rooney Mara has a great time with this.) Dream Warriors has a few excellent scenes of Kristen fighting sleep with everything she’s got. What makes these moments frightening is that we know she has to lose. We know she will fail; it’s just a question of how and when.

But this sleep-related powerlessness is always intertwined with a second sort — the fact that no-one believes the victims. The systems of relief and succor fail, shimmering into intangibility as soon as the kids reach for them. Police, hospitals, parents, physicians, all make decisions that are the worst possible for Freddy’s victims. His dream-based assaults have the effect of subverting the proper order of the world and human relationships. His victims are isolated by an abuser who forces them to share his secrets.

Funny thing, that, considering the character’s origin is a child-molesting murderer.

This bring me to what is probably the worst part of this film. They change Freddy’s origin story. Well, not change it entirely — a layer is added, about his mother being raped by mental hospital patients. The exact line is, “bastard son of a hundred maniacs.” This cheapens and weakens Freddy’s power, in my view. A huge part of what makes him so creepy is that he really was murdered by the parents of these kids. Burned alive by nice, normal townsfolk. He was evil when alive, but he was also wronged. Making him be supernaturally evil in some sort of genetic curse way justifies the families’ choice to murder him.

If you make the parents’ choice correct, you remove the best betrayal in these films — the moment when the kids find out that their parents are lying murderers. And the extra-special betrayal when the parent tells their child this evil was done on the kid’s behalf. In essence, “Freddy is after you because I killed him on your behalf, so this is really all your fault in a way.”

How sucky is that.

This film is … really a mixed bag. Patricia Arquette is great as Kristen, even when given some awful lines. And the moments where she gets to react to things are superb. I am very fond of Taryn, though I detest the dream-makeover she undergoes. I love the character of Nancy to pieces, but find Heather Langenkamp’s acting to be not up for the task. The special effects are much, much worse than those from the first film. The dialog is incredibly uneven. The scenes where Freddy is killing people are played for laughs, not terror.

But. For all of that, I still love this film. There is a stubborn-stupid refusal on the part of the kids to give in or give up. They have no reason to continue fighting, but they do. They each held out on their own, alone and isolated, until they found each other. Upon finding each other, they team up to defeat the villain.

Kind of like the Avengers, am I right?

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