Now that’s more like it. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors is perhaps the best Nightmare yet. It features a strong ensemble cast and a vicious, darkly comic sense of invention — and, perhaps most importantly, it builds upon the Freddy mythology without repeating itself. The result is a sharp, tense, and smarter-than-average movie that finds the series back on firm ground.
Dream Warriors marks the return of Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), who’s been strongly influenced by Freddy: she’s now a psychiatrist specializing in dream therapy. Her expertise is desperately needed at the Westin Hills Psychiatric Hospital, whose staff doesn’t believe the tales of tormented dreams from a group of teenagers have attempted suicide.
Thus, it’s up to Nancy to save the teens, the last of the children whose parents killed Freddy years back. Soon, she discovers that one of her patients, Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette, making her big-screen debut), has the ability to pull others into her dream, a power that Nancy believes may be a key to defeating Freddy once and for all. Meanwhile, Nancy’s sympathetic-but-baffled colleague Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson) is visited by a wise, mysterious nun, who hints at terrible events in the hospital’s past — and reveals details of Freddy’s traumatic conception. As Nancy and Neil try to devise a plan to rescue their charges, Freddy begins yet another campaign of mayhem, picking off the hospital’s patients one-by-one.
Dream Warriors doesn’t have the novelty of the first Nightmare, and its plotting and character development are spotty as usual. It also traffics in plenty of shopworn fiction cliches: the antagonistic, paranoid residents of the mental facility seem drawn from your typical Agatha Christie yarn, and half-glimpsed specters haunt the grounds in the tradition of The Innocents. In addition, the hospital’s head doctor, Elizabeth Simms (Priscilla Pointer), is the least empathetic cinematic medical professionals since Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. However, it gets a big boost from its fine cast — this is the best-acted movie of the series so far, and the performers generate more sympathy than their thin characters would ordinarily merit. In particular, Laurence Fishburne makes the most of a minor supporting role, bringing a sense of tough-but-fair warmth to his turn as one of the hospital’s orderlies.
Most importantly, the consistently high quality of the series’ special effects reaches an apex in Dream Warriors, and that’s the key to the franchise’s success so far: rather than horror movies, the Nightmare films can best be seen as gristly art projects. There are several stellar, twisted moments in Dream Warriors — like the scene in which Arquette is trapped in a room while the walls collapse; when a marionette morphs into a claymation Freddy; or the gristliest killing via television since Videodrome. Some of these surreal effects wouldn’t look out of place in a Michel Gondry movie.
It’s also worth noting that, thus far in the series, the Nightmare movies have shown surprising restraint (to me, at least) in the areas of gore and shtick. Freddy’s a little more of a wiseguy in Dream Warriors — he delivers such dubious one-liners as “This is it! Your big break in TV!” before jamming a girl’s head into a television screen, and “Feeling tongue-tied?” after tying a boy’s arms and legs to bed with his serpentine tongue. Still, there are witty cameos from Dick Cavett and Zsa Zsa Gabor, a few genuinely bone-chilling moments, and a mix of exuberance and craft that make Dream Warriors the most purely enjoyable entry so far. (One nit to pick: isn’t it a bit, um, pretentious to include an Edgar Allen Poe quote in the opening credits?)
Tomorrow, we’ll do a little more dreaming with A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. With action-meister Renny Harlin behind the camera, does Freddy have more tricks up his red-and-green sweater sleeves, or can I expect a hellish descent into mediocrity? Check back tomorrow to find out.
Schedule of Nightmares: