Warrior, Master, Child: A Nightmare on Elm Street 3-5

It’s been almost a month since I began my nostalgic look back at the Elm Street franchise, but it took me longer than I thought it would to line up a late night viewing slot when I was both in the mood and not in danger of falling asleep before the end of the movie. (I also made an ill-advised detour into the Freddy’s Nightmares (1988-1990) TV show which debuted in between parts 4 & 5 – I haven’t yet decided whether to share my pain, but don’t be surprised if a rant-fest about this utter dreck makes an appearance soon.) While A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) had its charms, as a sequel it was an ill-conceived misfire. Parts 3-5 are far more successful: they have a much stronger narrative and tonal connection to the original; they find a workable new formula with sufficient room for variation; and taken together they make up an informal trilogy within the franchise.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) wisely chooses to ignore the narrative dead end of Part 2, while still allowing for its existence – the original movie is said to be 5 years ago in Part 2 and 6 years ago in Part 3 (although, as is often the way with franchise timelines, there’s no point trying to tie that to real time – this movie is clearly not set in 1990!) Heather Langenkamp is back as Nancy, a hotshot psychiatric grad student with a remarkable success rate as a dream therapist. John Saxon also makes a welcome return as her father, having transformed from successful police lieutenant to drunk security guard. (We meet him in a bar called “Little Nemo’s”, a lovely tip of the hat to Winsor McCay’s acclaimed newspaper strip Little Nemo in Slumberland.) The opening titles provide a clear link back to the original – where the first movie showed the construction of Freddy Krueger’s glove, Part 3 opens with our new heroine’s construction of a model of Nancy’s old house, which from this point on is effectively Freddy’s nightmare house.

The new template for the franchise is set with the introduction of Kristen (Patricia Arquette in her screen debut), who has the ability to drag people into her dreams and is one of the last remaining children of the families who originally killed Freddy. After waking up with her wrists slashed, she’s sent to a psychiatric hospital for observation with the other surviving Elm Street children, who provide the basic model for the teenage supporting cast in Parts 4-6. As Freddy begins to work his way through the inmates, we see the debut of his more overtly quip-based incarnation, a killer who creates character-based nightmares for his victims, builds his kills around puns, and develops an unhealthy obsession with using the word “bitch” at the drop of a fedora. The most delicious pun on show here takes place in the mute Joey’s (Rodney Eastman) sex-dream-turned-nightmare – bondage-tongues spring from the mattress corners and fasten him to the bed while Freddy asks whether he’s “tongue-tied”.

I first saw Part 3 on TV in a Freddy marathon while I was babysitting, with the unfortunate consequence that two of the death scenes were butchered and difficult to understand: the marionette scene where Freddy draws out Phillip’s (Bradley Gregg) sinews to use as puppet strings was unclear; and former addict Taryn’s (Jennifer Rubin) death via syringe fingers was completely missing – last seen in her badass punk getup about to attack Freddy with switchblades, the rest of the scene was chopped and it was several years before I finally got to see what happened.

The film’s major stumbling block comes with the character of Dr. Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson), the psychiatrist in charge of the Elm Street children’s therapy. The movie should be about the passing of the torch from Nancy to Kristen, but there are far too many points where they effectively become supporting characters to Neil. Although Nancy is clearly the dominant character when she joins Neil’s team, we largely see her from his perspective, and there is an uncomfortable suggestion of a developing romantic/sexual relationship – entirely inappropriate for a senior medical professional who’s 10 years older than the graduate student working under him. It’s never fully followed through on screen, but it’s difficult to tell whether the filmmakers decided to pull back from that aspect or whether the lack of chemistry between the two actors forced the issue. Later on in the film, after Nancy has failed to enlist the aid of her father, Neil goes back to him and (implausibly) somehow bullies him into taking the action needed. These two characters have never previously met, and their later interactions were clearly conceived of as father-daughter scenes. It has the feel of a leftover scene from an earlier draft – once Nancy was needed elsewhere in the story, rather than drop or rewrite the scenes, the writers decided to given them to Neil since he wasn’t doing anything important. I can’t help but feel that another pass at the script could have solved this issue.

But the most egregious way in which Dr. Gordon distorts the story is the introduction of a plot element which has him visited by the ghost of Amanda Krueger, the nun who gave birth to Freddy. There’s no good character-based reason for her to appear to him – it would make much more sense for her to appear to one of the women more centrally involved in the conflict with Freddy, either Nancy or Kristen. The final beat of the movie shows him realising at Nancy’s funeral that the nun who’s been giving him plot hints was a dead woman – leaving a nagging impression that, despite Nancy and Kristen’s central roles in the plot and their importance to the series outside of this film, they’ve simply been playing second fiddle to a peripheral male authority figure. It’s a disappointing aftertaste to what was otherwise a pretty decent series entry.

Chuck Russell had written the SF-horror Dreamscape (1984) before making a solid directorial debut with this movie. His next film was the enjoyable 50s SF remake The Blob (1988), but he’s probably better known for The Mask (1994) and The Scorpion King (2002). Although Wes Craven was responsible for shifting the story away from the straightforward final girl formula to a more nuanced group effort, his original story ideas were heavily rewritten by the director in collaboration with Fred Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), a screenwriter who has since gone on to great acclaim, but who is still finding his feet here on his first feature-length screenplay. It’s also worth noting the presence of Laurence Fishburne in a small role as a hospital orderly – he’s noticeably one of the better performers, and it’s weird seeing him in such a minor role given the heights his career has reached since.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) shows every sign of having learned from its predecessor and refined the format, resulting in a final film which is an improvement on almost every level. The three survivors of Dream Warriors are back in school, although Kincaid (Ken Sagoes – a rare instance of a black character surviving a slasher film) and Joey are sick of being dragged into Kristen’s dreams. Patricia Arquette turned down the offer to return as Kristen, but Tuesday Knight is a decent replacement – and also, astonishingly, wrote and performed the movie’s opening credits theme song! Kristen is now dating cool kid Rick (Andras Jones, desperately trying to come across as kooky and edgy in a performance which looks like he’s peered into the future and is envious of Christian Slater) – but far more important is Rick’s sister Alice (Lisa Wilcox), the stealth protagonist and my favourite character in the Elm Street series. And in a rare move for a slasher movie, popular girl Debbie (Brooke Theiss) and nerd girl Sheila (Troy Newkirk) are actually good friends who look out for each other. Kincaid and Joey are largely sidelined by the new characters, as they’re really there to fill the role of “returning cast whose deaths will motivate the protagonist” – but, unusually, Kristen is also killed off much earlier than Nancy was in Dream Warriors, passing the lead role on to wallflower Alice. As the new supporting cast begin to be whittled down, Alice finds herself absorbing their skills and personality traits, which serve both to assist her in the climax and to serve as a symbolic redefinition of her self as she becomes a more confident and rounded person.

Novice Finnish director Renny Harlin pulls out all the stops in putting together a career highlight which saw him nominated for the Saturn Award for Best Director. His flashy camerawork is perfectly suited to creating a suitable atmosphere for the various nightmare attacks, although the standout example is his use of a spiralling camera to represent the effects of the sleeping pills which have been administered to Kristen as she stumbles upstairs and collapses on her bed. Although Harlin would go on to greater commercial success with Die Hard 2 (1990), much of his later work has been poorly received and he’s been nominated five times for the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Director (which makes me weirdly tempted to go back and see just how bad those movies were).

Dream Master also showcases the best Freddy make-up and most impressive practical special effects of the whole series, including work from such notable names as Kevin Yagher, John Carl Buechler and Screaming Mad George. Among the highlights are the pizza made of human souls, Debbie’s cockroach transformation, and Freddy’s final discorporation as the souls of his victims tear loose from his body. And while it’s not conceived on the same spectacular scale, I have to note the demise of returning character Joey. Although he managed to escape death-by-sex-dream in the previous film, this time he finally succumbs when he discovers the girl from his pinup inside his water bed – who pulls him inside, leading to a true death by wet dream. (He gets the best puns.)

Before moving on, I have to give a shout-out to the soundtrack – which, even when it includes songs I don’t particularly like, still gives the warm rush of familiarity of a movie released when I was 15, crucially formative years for anybody’s musical taste. There are a couple of old Blondie songs buried in the mix – “Rip Her to Shreds” and “In the Flesh” – both very easy to miss if you’re not listening for them. I have mixed feelings about Dramarama’s “Anything, Anything (I’ll Give You)”, partly because it took me 2 weeks to get the damn chorus out of my head again, but it’s well used in Rick’s showoff martial arts montage (!). But then there’s the double whammy of Divinyls “Back to the Wall” and Sinéad O’Connor “I Want Your (Hands on Me)”, for both of which I retain an undying affection. (And I suppose I should acknowledge The Fat Boys’ “Are You Ready for Freddy”, which provides the… singular experience of Freddy rapping.)

A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989) has a less than stellar reputation, but I find it difficult to understand why. This was the first series entry I was able to see in the cinema, which I’ll admit adds a certain gloss to my memories, but I thought at the time (and continue to think) that it was one of the best – at least on a par with fan favourite The Dream Master. Alice is back as the heroine, along with her boyfriend Dan (Danny Hassel). Alice falls pregnant during the opening credits (a reveal which is saved for later) and Freddy uses her unborn child’s dreams to secure more victims, preparing the way for him to be reborn into the physical realm. This is an excellent device on both a story and character level. Storywise, since Alice no longer needs to be asleep herself for people to be pulled into dreams, there’s no need to contrive a situation where a character falls asleep – they can be sucked into a nightmare unawares, making the transition between dream and reality more precariously uncertain than in previous films. On a character level, the pregnancy allows Alice’s ambiguous feelings about being a single mother after Dan’s death to manifest via interactions with her child’s dream-self, and her erratic-seeming actions in the real world allow for the exploration of the paternalistic ways in which society and medical professionals can treat young women.

Australian director Stephen Hopkins is less prolific than Renny Harlin, but is a much more consistent craftsman. Beginning his career as second unit director on Highlander (1986), he co-wrote and directed the obscure Australian thriller Dangerous Game (1987), a tight and efficient low-budget machine which deserves to be better known. He creates a tremendous sense of atmosphere in The Dream Child, making particularly good use of the beautifully gothic asylum and adding an appropriate sense of dream-like unreality to the flashback scenes involving Amanda Krueger. Many of Alice’s dream confrontations with Freddy take place here rather than in the traditional Elm Street house and the movie is all the better for it. The final setpiece is designed around a gravity-distorting Escher layout similar to that seen in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986) (although the dynamic between David Bowie’s Goblin King and toddler Toby is obviously very different than that between Freddy Krueger and the pre-natal Jacob (Whit Hertford)). Hopkins followed up with the similarly underrated Predator 2 (1990) before moving further into the mainstream, largely working in TV since his breakthrough success directing 12 episodes of the first season of 24 (2001) (leaving before the rapidly declining failure that it became in later seasons).

Frustratingly, it’s not currently possible to see The Dream Child in its original form. The producers re-cut it before release, introducing some continuity errors, but more damningly the first two death scenes of the film have been heavily censored on all available home releases – they only survive on the long-out-of-print VHS and laserdisc. The first death – an amazing setpiece which shows a motorbike gradually merging physically with Dan while he rides it, eventually transforming him into a cyborg demon-motorbike hybrid – at least remains comprehensible in its current form (although it obscures the meaning of the “fuel injection” pun). The second death, in which Greta (Erika Anderson) is force fed by Freddy in front of her diet-obsessed mother, is missing so much detail that it’s difficult to know what happened, although what remains of the final section – stop-motion mould and eyeballs, an eruption from Alice’s fridge, a note left on the fridge by Freddy – is a highlight. And the final death, as a comic book artist in a black & white comic book world is shredded into two-dimensional pieces while the colour drains out of his image to pool on the floor, is imaginatively realised (even if the sequence as a whole can come across as dated given its obvious indebtedness to a five-year-old A-Ha video).

To coincide with the release of Part 6 (which I’ll cover another time), Innovation Comics released a 6 issue Nightmares on Elm Street comic book series by Andy Mangels which bridges the gap between movies and offers the characters of Parts 3-5 a last outing. The first two issues reveal that Nancy has become a benevolent counterpoint to Freddy since her death, but her pseudo-boyfriend Dr. Gordon ends up in a coma after helping her save another girl. The story is slight, but the painted artwork by Tony Harris really helps to sell it. Unfortunately the final four issues are pencilled by a barely competent novice whose art badly undermines the story. Alice returns to Springwood with her 3 year old son and crosses the path of a female serial killer who is attempting to give Freddy the power to extend his influence. Nancy and all of the dead “dream warriors” from Part 3 return to gang up on him in the dream realm, and Alice’s dead boyfriend is returned to life in the body of the now-awake Dr. Gordon. It’s pure fan service, peppered with visual references to the earlier films in lieu of any originality and clearly written to provide some sort of happily-ever-after ending before Part 6 closes the books (temporarily) on Freddy’s story. I’m grateful that they didn’t end up bringing Alice back in Part 6 to kill her off, but I’d advise any fans to write their own happy ending for her in their heads rather than to take this series as gospel.

I was delighted to discover that Lisa Wilcox, the actress who so memorably portrayed Alice, was responsible for the creation in March 2020 of a COVID-19 Public Service Announcement titled #StopTheNightmare. She enlisted fellow Elm Street actors Heather Langenkamp, Mark Patton, Ken Sagoes, Andras Jones, Brooke Theiss, Toy Newkirk, Ira Heiden and Brooke Bundy (with cameos by Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Leatherface and Chucky) to contribute to a Freddy-themed advertisement which I choose to believe also refers more broadly to the true horror that was the Trump presidency. His recent election loss should prove to be a major contribution to efforts to save Americans from the nightmare virus-land they currently inhabit.

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