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A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) October 3rd, 2021

This review contains spoilers.

Alfred Hitchcock once said ‘…in the fiction film the Director is a God; he must create life.” If that’s true then Wes Craven is the God of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Like the Judeo-Christian God, Craven bestowed his commandments unto the world via an emissary whose voice could reach the masses without causing their heads to explode. Randy Meeks, Jamie Kennedy’s character in Wes Craven’s classic meta-slasher Scream, brought down the ‘Rules to Successfully Survive a Horror Movie’ from Paramount-Sinai. These ‘Ten Commandments’ of horror help guide us through the worlds Craven creates. The rules from the first movie are simple:

1. You can never have sex.
2. You can never drink or do drugs.
3. Never, ever, ever under any circumstances say, “I’ll be right back”.

Imagine the Israelites’ disappointment if Moses came down with only three commandments. They’d have burned him with the bush. Don’t fret guys, Randy lays out more rules for horror sequels in Scream 2:

1. The body count is always bigger.
2. The death scenes are always more elaborate. More blood. More gore.
3. Never, ever, under any circumstances assume the killer is dead.
Those rules are fine if you’re in a Wes Craven sequel, but what about a trilogy?

Randy bit the big one in Scream 2 after breaking too many of his own rules, but don’t worry, he left behind a posthumous VHS message with even more rules in Scream 3, this time they specifically pertain to trilogies:

1. You’ve got a killer who’s gonna be superhuman. Stabbing him won’t work, shooting him won’t work. Basically in the third one, you gotta cryogenically freeze his head, decapitate him, or blow him up.
2. Anyone, including the main character, can die.
3. The past will come back to bite you in the ass. Whatever you think you know about the past, forget it. The past is not at rest! Any sins you think were committed in the past are about to break out and destroy you.

Wes Craven was a horror icon before he issued his ‘Nine Commandments’ of horror and reinvigorated the genre with Scream. But given that A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors was both the third chapter in a Wes Craven trilogy and eventually downgraded to ‘just another sequel in a larger franchise’, I believe we can determine whether it’s more a sequel or the final chapter in a trilogy by applying Randy’s rules.

First let’s establish the backstory. Years ago the parents living on Elm Street got together and killed a local child murderer named Freddy Krueger whose vengeful spirit manifested the ability to inflict real harm on the living through their dreams. Teenager Nancy Thompson lived on Elm Street and survived the previous two films. We’re reintroduced to Nancy who’s interning at a mental hospital full of young people struggling with a group psychosis. In their shared delusion a severely burnt man wearing a red and green knitted sweatshirt tries to kill them in their sleep. Nancy knows it’s no delusion and plans to save the kids from her never-ending nightmare.

Sequels come before trilogies so I think we’ll start our analysis with their rules first.

Rule 1: The body count has to be bigger.

Check! I’m pretty sure only 4 people die in A Nightmare on Elm Street and something like 6 die in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. (While this is an increase from the original it is a dip down from the 10 deaths in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge but let’s just ignore that for now)

Rule 2: The death scenes are always more elaborate. More blood. More gore.

Is this even possible? Yeah A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors has great kills but I’ll only recap the top three. One character falls asleep and sees Freddy in a wall mounted tv. She gets too close and the TV sprouts long metal arms and Freddy’s head pops out the top, he says something snarky and probably calls her ‘bitch!’ before smashing her head into the set leaving her body dangling in mid-air for Lawrence Fishburne to discover. 2nd. During a particularly hardcore nightmare sequence Freddy turns his iconic knife-fingered glove into a syringe-fingered glove and forces a recovering junkie to overdose and die. That doesn’t sound super cool on paper but the moment you see his comically oversized needles full of brightly colored windex you’ll instantly appreciate the scene’s glorious camp. The third and best death comes early in the film when Freddy rips a sleeping character’s tendons out of their arms and legs then uses the tendons to puppet him around the hospital at night as if he were sleepwalking like a butcher-shop-marionette. Freddy walks the character up a tall tower in the mental hospital where he cuts the patent’s tendons causing the poor boy to fall to his death in full view of his friends. While that is a cool kill and gory kill I am forced to ask myself, are any of these deaths bloodier or gorier than the bed-of-blood from Nightmare on Elm Street? No to me. Fail.

Rule 3. Never, ever, under any circumstances assume the killer is dead.

This is a tough one because Freddy’s entire conceit is he’s already dead and operates from beyond the grave. But Craven wrote the rules, God wouldn’t just make up arbitrary shit… right? Exactly! God’s master plan necessitates our sun to provide not just heat and light to our planet but also cancer if you’re out in it too long. He is truly mysterious. In A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors it is revealed Freddy Krueger’s mother was a nun who worked in this exact psychiatric hospital 50 years ago. She became pregnant after being trapped in the tower for days while countless mental patients raped her hundreds of times. This revelation gives us the best line of the series when the nun telling the story refers to Freddy Krueger as “The bastard son of a hundred maniacs.” This immaculate line suggests Freddy could have 100 biological fathers which would make his conception undeniably supernatural and arguably Antichrist-like. The exposition-nun suggests the only way to put his spirit at rest is to bury his remains in hallowed ground. That’s kind of like killing something that’s already dead right? Dr. Neil Gordon, the lead psychiatrist treating the group of delusional kids, heeds the nun’s advice and attempts to bury Freddy’s remains in holy ground when suddenly the murderer’s evil bones come to life like a Harryhausen skeleton and attack the doctor. Apparently Freddy can control his old bones as well as he controls dreamworlds but most importantly the movie tricked me into believing Freddy could only harm people in the dream world, but there he goes, becoming a sword fighting skeleton in a junkyard. Once again proving I should never, ever, under any circumstances assume the killer is dead… or that their death makes them less deadly. Solid check!

2 for 3 points for ‘just another sequel’, but believe me A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors feels like it could’ve been a fantastic final chapter, so let’s see how it fares against the trilogy rules.

1.You’ve got a killer who’s gonna be superhuman. Stabbing him won’t work, shooting him won’t work. Basically in the third one, you gotta cryogenically freeze his head, decapitate him, or blow him up.

Freddy Krueger’s already superhuman but I think the new ability to reanimate his own remains qualifies as an increase in supernatural abilities, it’s a check.

2. Anyone, including the main character, can die.

Remember when I said there’d be spoilers? This is a big ol’ check because Nancy Thompson, twice the final-girl, finally dies in part 3 which provides the trilogy with much needed closure… or does it?

3. The past will come back to bite you in the ass. Whatever you think you know about the past, forget it. The past is not at rest! Any sins you think were committed in the past are about to break out and destroy you.

This is another big check. Not only do we get the reveal about Freddy’s origins but Nancy’s father, who was instrumental in Freddy’s murder, kicks the bucket after reluctantly leading Dr. Gordon to the location where he hid Krueger’s remains. That means the last two characters to survive the events of the first movie are dead by the end of the third. That feels like a good way to end a horror trilogy right?

3 for 3 on the trilogy scale. It makes me think, can’t a trilogy end one section of adventures while setting the foundation for future stories? It absolutely can, and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors does just that. You can decide you’ve had enough of Freddy Krueger and put the series to bed or you can wipe the sleep from your eyes and follow his escapades from A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: Dream Master through the rest of the franchise.

Beyond this playful exercise A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors is a really good horror movie, it’s structured more like a superhero movie where a group of young people discover their budding superpowers and use their new skills to defeat a bad guy. That’s exactly what happens here, the surviving kids in the mental hospital discovered they have unique powers in the dream world and learn to use those powers to defeat Freddy. One kid is super strong, another is a wizard a la Dungeons and Dragons, Patricia Arquette’s character is really good at… gymnastics? Not exactly super but whatever it’s fun to see Freddy get dropkicked.

At the core of great stories is a universal truth, something so potently realistic you can’t help but relate with the character’s emotions, in this case a terrifying sense of helplessness. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors examines the fear of losing freedoms in a mental institution. These kids are kept under supervision for their own safety but the people in charge can’t understand that the real danger isn’t their delusions or drug addictions… it’s the spectral child-murderer who turns into a worm and tries to eat them! (Isn’t that Beetlejuice?) A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors isn’t a sublime meditation on the horrors of institutionalization but it becomes exceptional by comparison when so many horror films don’t bother to construct a coherent plot.

Now I need to address the demon-bear in the room. Do you remember my The New Mutants review? I think I said something like “Oh man, what a great concept, too bad they made the movie so shitty.” Turns out the super-powered group of teens who use their powers to defeat a fear monster and escape institutionalization wasn’t such an original premise after all. Yep, apparently the people at Fox discovered a loophole around remaking A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors without paying Warner Brothers royalties. Oh it’s not something clever… the loophole is you have to make it suck.

I wish you could have the experience I had with A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. I don’t like the first two Elm Street films and I almost vetoed watching this one because of it but boy am I glad I didn’t. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors stands out for being a well crafted story that’s fun, exciting, and scary. It’s disappointing when a 34 year old Warner Brothers movie feels like a much needed breath of fresh air clearing out the stench Wonder Woman 1984 and Godzilla vs. Kong left behind. Who knows, maybe The Suicide Squad will be good?

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