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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Nightmare on Elm Street, (2010)

I went and saw the Michael Bay remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street the other day. I wasn’t expecting it to be that good. After all, Michael Bay is known for big explosion movies that are light on plot and common sense, heavy on, well, explosions. What I found, in the deserted matinee theater, was a better movie than I’d expected.

I’ve written about the girls who lived, and I’ve written about the crazy-or-possessed sub-genre of horror, but I don’t think I’ve explicitly talked about what I love so dearly about the first Wes Craven Nightmare film. It’s the fact that the true horror in the movie comes not from demon Freddie Krueger, but from the willful malice of the teenager’s parents. The parents in the original movie are the source of the evil, and their insistence on refusing to acknowledge it leads to the murder of their children.

If ever there was a reason to avoid vendettas and revenge killings, that’s a good one right there. Who wants to curse their own children?

The remake downplays the parental evil. Not by changing the actual story at all, but by giving Nancy a sympathetic and supportive mother played by Connie Britton. Britton is probably best known for playing the smart, wise, tough, supportive mother Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights. Which is probably why she was cast in the first place! But her genuine sympathy and love is far less threatening that the original mother’s drunken and willful indifference. Her role as evil is further undercut when, in the flashback scene revealing Freddy’s fate, her character is the only one seen protesting that what the parents are about to do may be wrong.

So, that evil is muted in the remake. On the other hand, Freddy is solidly rendered by Jackie Earle Hayley and special effects. I was afraid that all the gore would be cranked up, because of the aforementioned Michael Bay, but it was nicely restrained. For the genre, you understand. For the genre.

The only fx decision I dispute is the fact that the remake telegraphs every transition from waking to sleeping. I was always, with one exception, confident of when the characters were safe and when they weren’t. To counter this, though, the script introduces the concept of dreaming while awake, “micronaps.” Speaking as someone who is regularly short on sleep, I know exactly what that means.

I have to say, the acting in this remake was a damn sight better than the original. Rooney Mara as Nancy and Kyle Gallner as Quentin are both great. They invest their characters with depth and personality, even within the confines of the extremely short film.

This isn’t the best film ever. But it’s far from the worst.

Tuesday is all over the place.

1. It’s the return of the autumnal mice. Every other year or so, as the weather gets cooler, our kitchen gets mice. This is because we a) line in a house built in 1916 or thereabouts, with the “new addition” put on in the ’40s, and is therefore porous, b) we have landscaped our yard to attract wildlife, so our yard is a thriving ecosystem friendly to rodents, and 3) it’s cold out there at night and we have food. So after finding and trapping one mouse, J and I spent yesterday stuffing steel wool into all the crevices in the kitchen cupboards we could find. I then spent the afternoon scrubbing utensils and tupperware in painfully hot, soapy water, as well as scrubbing the drawers and cupboards in which we found the mouse poop. Now, the paranoid in me wants to bleach the whole damn kitchen. I’ve read too much about hantavirus.

2. N is 98% moved in with us. He closes on the duplex tomorrow, and our house is crammed full of boxes, lamps, plants, bins, and random pieces of computers at the moment. In a week or two I expect things will be calmer.

3. Michael Bay is remaking A Nightmare on Elm Street. This is one of the most important works of fiction in my childhood. Yes, yes, I know people typically cite more comforting things, but not me. The most influential works of fiction from my early years are likely Narnia, Oz, the X-Men, Stephen King, A Nightmare of Elm Street, the works of John Hughes, The Dark is Rising series, the works of Mercedes Lackey, the Belgariad, Bloom County, Spielberg and Lucas’s works, and Norse mythology. Not all at the same time. But I love Nightmare. Love it.

I’ve written a couple essays about NoES. The first is The Girls Who Lived. The second was a more personal piece, about the lessons of fiction, and I’ll reproduce it here.

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What I Learned from A Nightmare on Elm Street

Never trust adults. You are on your own. By the time I encountered the horror movie genre I already knew these facts to be true. Watching Nightmare on Elm Street and one of its successors, Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, only confirmed for me a view I already held. But confirm it they did. I learned from horror movies that no one would be able to help me, ever.

As I child I loved fiction. I knew it was fiction; I knew it was not true in a literal sense. But what I did not understand for many years was this: People frequently write fiction to describe, not the world as it is, but the world they either hope for or fear. Children’s fiction in particular is full of fears and the tools to overcome fear. It is a key, a foundation of the fairy tale that the parents be evil or dead. In children’s and “young adult” novels the adults are frequently gone, useless, or malicious. The books I loved as a child all supported this view. The L. Frank Baum Oz books. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. (Which are a particularly difficult case because to grow up is Susan’s special sin.) The Dark is Rising books by Susan Cooper. The books of Lois Duncan. The works of S.E. Hinton. There is an entire genre of teen-oriented books, the titles of which all escape me at the moment, in which adolescents are presented with evil adults. The adults in these books are kidnappers, sexual predators, or are merely alcoholic and abusive.

It did not occur to me that these books were myths of common fears. I took them to be a map of the world and of the future. I learned from them.

I was not allowed to watch much television as a child, not many films. (For the longest time the only movies I’d ever see were the Star Wars trilogy and The Wizard of Oz.) But in 1986 my family got cable tv. I was entranced. I watched as much as I could manage. Here, here were stories. Stories the like of which I’d never seen. I watched Bogart. Hitchcock. Grant, Bacall, and Astaire. I watched John Hughes and Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter and Jim Cameron. And I fell in fascinated dread and love with the teen slasher genre.

This. These were confirmation of my worst fears. Because, after all, they were real, were they not? I do not mean to say that I thought Freddy Krueger was real. I did not think my house was haunted, I did not think sociopaths in masks were going to kill me. I did think, though, that these movies were metaphors for something which was quite real. That adolescence was extremely hazardous, barely survivable. Oone had to keep one’s head down and avoid notice. Live until age brought you out the other side.

The movies of Wes Craven were especially resonant for me. In 1987 I think I watched Nightmare and Nightmare 3 probably a dozen time each.

In Nightmare on Elm Street we meet Nancy. Nancy is a normal nice girl. She’s the staple of the early teen-slasher flicks. She is smart but not overly geeky. She’s interested in boys but a little reserved in sexual matters. She has a friend who is a bit more wild, she has parents who are distant and uncomprehending. She is fairly normal.

Over the course of the first movie Nancy learns that her life is based on deceptions perpetrated on her by her parents. And that these deceptions are going to be paid for in her blood and death. That her parents are liars and murderers. Her life is going to be destroyed for nothing she has done. And in the end, when she needs the help of her parents the most, they not only fail her, but they actively obstruct her efforts to save her own life.

The emotional heart of this film is not fear. It’s betrayal. The scenes of death are frightening. And if you don’t believe me, watch the first Nightmare by yourself at night. Preferably far from help. But Nancy’s worst moments are not when her friends die — it’s when her friends die and she is helpless to save them because her parents have purposely stopped her. Nancy’s confrontation with her mother and father are the best emotional notes in the film. The careful revelation of their multiple betrayals is when Nancy’s heart breaks.

But Nancy, like all the slasher heroines, is stronger than even she knows. And she is smart, and she gets through. In Nightmare, Nancy defeats the monster by stepping outside of the game. She refuses to run. Refuses to hide. She refuses to be a part of her familial legacy and demands that she be freed. Not through the assistance of any outside agency, no. But through her own force of will.

Much of this power is subverted in Dream Warriors, aka Nightmare on Elm Street 3. But while it is subverted to keep the fiscal power of the franchise going, I think Wes Craven managed to remain largely faithful to his original vision.

In Nightmare 3 we are introduced to Kristen. Kristen’s situation is perilous from the beginning. She’s not only experiencing the nightmares with which the audience is familiar, but her home life is precarious. Her mother is a more than uncomprehending, she is actively hostile to her daughter. Kristen is, again, bright and motivated, but she is trapped by her age and its attendant lack or real power.

Here’s the thing about power; when you have no small power, you are left with only the big guns. People who are systematically thwarted in their small assertions of autonomy are forced to grander gestures. This is seen again and again in teen fiction. The teen who is prohibited from dancing begins drinking and having sex. The teen who is prevented from dating begins having an affair with a married adult. The teen who is not allowed to dress as they please turn to sex and drugs and rock and roll. This trope is evident even in the teen comedies. In the dramas and the cautionary tales all these escalate towards suicide. The final power, the nuclear option of teen autonomy. If I can exert no other authority in my life, I can at least do this.

Nightmare 3 plays on this in the opening scenes. Kristen’s nightmare blends the reality of her unsatisfactory home life with the threat of Freddy to attempt her death. The attempt is hidden as a suicide attempt, making Kristen’s pleas for understanding and assistance even less plausible, less credible, to her mother and the other adult authorities. When we next see Kristen the adults authorities are in the process of stripping away her last, most basic, physical autonomy. They are going to tie her down and force her to sleep. This removes even the suicide option from her, removes her last defenses against Freddy.

Kristen does receive some help from adults on Nightmare 3. Nancy is now an adult, albeit a very odd one. We are told, very early on, that Nancy is essentially crazy. This reduces her power in the adult world and makes her an effective teen for the narrative purposes. Her other ally, Dr. Gordon, is at first unhelpful and uncomprehending. As his comprehension grows his power at the hospital shrinks. (His last remnant of adult power comes in the odd and not-quite-satisfying confrontation with Nancy’s father.)

Over the course of Nightmare 3 we see adult incomprehension move from obtuse to actively malevolent. The true horror in this film is not the deaths available — spectacular though they may be. The horror in the grinding powerlessness. The disbelief by authority. The willful injuries inflicted on the youths by those who have sworn to care for them.

The Nightmare of Elm Street movies are of a time. Of a place and a genre and a specific moment. They are fables of fear, the fears everyone has of powerlessness. The fears teens have of being trapped in youth and instability. I see that now. But I didn’t then. I learned things from the Nightmare movies, from Wes Craven and Heather Langenkamp and Patricia Arquette. I learned to to solve any problems my friends and I might have by myself, by ourselves. That confidences to adults would be betrayed. That no one would help.

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I was, in case it has escaped your notice, Dear Reader, a rather melodramatic teenager. But I did love those movies, I love them still, and I am waiting with elation and dread for Michael Bay’s remake. Elation and dread.