Franchise quality can be a funny thing. Generally speaking, although there are local dips and peaks, we expect the quality of a film franchise to gradually slide down over time. What’s more, once a franchise hits a certain nadir, it can be expected that that’s it for the franchise; it may manage to scrape its way back up to mediocrity, but it will never be truly “good” again. With horror franchises having a particular reputation for being quickly-turned-out rehashes to make a buck, this goes double for them. So when I found A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 to be a very poor movie, it made it hard to expect much out of part 3.
And yet, Dream Warriors (directed by Chuck Russell) is a return to form for the series. While not a superior film to the original, it’s back on the same level as it. Of course, a lot of this has to do with the fact that it returns to the story and themes of the original instead of diverging the way the second one did.
An actual attempt at continuity? What’s the world coming to?
As always, Robert Englund returns as dream-killer Freddy Krueger, but critically in this film Heather Langenkamp also returns as his adversary Nancy. Dream Warriors picks up Nancy’s story several years later; still suffering from nightmares, but taking medication for them, Nancy is now working on a doctorate in psychology, and is interning at a local mental hospital. Naturally, she soon finds that the kids there are suffering nightmares that are all too familiar to her, and it’s up to her to convince the doctors that there’s more to this than just bad dreams.
The film makes solid use of the motifs of the first one, continuing the surreal nature of the nightmares. As before, many of the lethal dreams start without any warning that the victim has fallen asleep, preserving the dreamlike nature of the film. This time, however, there’s a variation which helps to keep it from being a straight rehash of the original film. One of the teenagers being haunted, played by Patricia Arquette in her film debut, has the ability to pull other people into her dreams. Once there, the other children have dream abilities of their own which they can use to fight Krueger. This helps to keep things interesting as it gives the characters a believable chance — while keeping open the possibility of that chance being dashed by Krueger’s relentlessness.
The personalities of the children are, as is typical, fairly thin. There’s the recovering junkie, the wannabe starlet, the tough, the wallflower, the nerd. Nothing especially deep. Still, despite the shallow characterization and the novice status of most of the young actors, several of them turn in solid performances and make the audience care about their characters, even if they don’t really know much about them. Ken Sagoes, Ira Heiden, and Rodney Eastman are all particularly notable in getting a little more life out of the script than is technically there. The adults in the film are fairly believable as well; Laurence Fishburne has a small role as a friendly orderly, and Craig Wassen’s performance as skeptic-turned-believer Dr. Gordon works really well. Of course, there’s also a doctor who remains skeptical throughout, as is traditional in horror films; Priscilla Pointer does a good job as the character, but as usual there’s a small difficulty in the character. It’s not that she’s unlikeable; that’s intentional, and perfectly appropriate. It’s also not that she’s skeptical; that, too, is appropriate. The problem is that even if one accepts her skepticism, her actions just seem like bad medical care even from a strictly mundane standpoint.
I believe these kid are engaging in self-harm whenever they’re alone at night. Therefore I’m ordering that they be kept in solitary confinement every night and not be checked on.
Still, one can hardly fault a horror film too much for keeping one example of the traditional “adults are useless” trope, especially when there are a few that defy it. The strengths of the film more than outweigh the downside of putting one character just a bit too far on the stupidity scale. The film, while seldom truly scary, manages to be thrilling by virtue of how it portrays the struggle of the teenagers against Krueger both as a chase and as a fight. By going back to the story and themes of the first film, making amendments rather than largely ignoring it, the film also goes back to the same level of quality.