Friday, September 27, 2019

Awesomely Shitty Movies: A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 - Dream Warriors

Welcome to another Awesomely Shitty Movies column here at Enuffa.com, where I take another look at a childhood favorite and talk about why parts of it don't hold up and in some cases make me cringe.  Some of you will probably hate me...


It's Halloween season, so I'm watching a lot of horror movies, and today I'm revisiting a classic of the cheesy 80s horror genre, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors!  I came by this series just as this film was being released in early 1987; a friend in junior high school was a slasher film fanatic and used to bring in issues of Fangoria for me to read (Goddamn, that magazine ruled).  I'd heard of A Nightmare on Elm Street and its first sequel from my older siblings but knew zero about them until my schoolmate showed me pictures of the burnt guy with the finger-knives.  Immediately I was fascinated - what kind of an imagination came up with this creepo??  My friend also had a copy of the novelization The Nightmares on Elm Street, Parts 1, 2 and 3, as well as the Nightmare on Elm Street Companion coffee table book (which I still have).  I rushed out to buy both books, having never seen any of the films, and dove in head-first.  I soon rented the first movie and loved it, rented the second and just sorta liked it, and couldn't wait to see the third once it dropped on VHS (Being under 17 I didn't have a parent/guardian available/interested in accompanying me to the theater for this movie/film).  Another friend eventually bought the third movie, so I watched it at his house, and it blew my goddamn fuckin' mind.  The nightmare sequences were way more elaborate and fantastical, the teenagers now had dream powers, and Freddy was crackin' jokes the whole movie.  It was like a slasher movie crossed with a comic book, and at 12 years old it was one of the greatest things I had ever seen.

This book is the TITS.

Tangent time: That summer I fashioned a Freddy claw out of an old leather glove and some Tinker Toys (they didn't yet have the licensed Freddy glove), and my mom bought me an official Freddy mask to go with an old red-and-green-striped sweater my parents happened to have in the house.  I obviously went as Freddy for Halloween that year and was proud as fuck of my costume.  'Course looking back now it seems borderline inappropriate for a 12-year-old to dress up as a serial child murderer, but the 80s were a strange time.

Anyway, back to the movie.  Nightmare 3 was considered a more faithful sequel to the original, after a second installment made against Wes Craven's stern objections and threw out some of the rules established in the first, as well as lightening the tone and injecting a love story.  Nightmare 2 was quite successful at the box office, but critics and fans were disappointed with how far it strayed from Craven's original vision.  So for the third movie Craven was brought back in to shape the story, Nancy Thompson returned to the fold, and while still slightly comedic, the movie restored somewhat the original's darker tone.  Freddy was now dream-stalking a group of troubled, suicidal teenagers, but said teenagers had also learned to develop special skills to fight back.  Armed with a more robust budget, the filmmakers poured everything they had into the set pieces and effects, creating a crowd-pleasing horror entertainment that handily outgrossed its two predecessors.

Hey, nothing wrong with that, but watching it now there is some stuff that doesn't hold up for me.  Before we get to that though, let me heap some praise on this esteemed bit of slasher escapism...





The Awesome


Effects

The 1980s, particularly in the sci-fi and horror genres, was an incredible time for special effects innovation.  Effects artists were doing things previously unheard of, making virtually everything imaginable pop off the screen, and the Nightmare series was loaded with dazzling practical effects.  Some of it now looks a big clunky, but hey, thirty years is a long time ago.  Regardless, Nightmare 3 boasts some of the most daring makeup/visual effects in the series, from Kristen's bathroom sink spigots sprouting fingers and claws to Philip's tendons being ripped out of his limbs to Jennifer's television growing arms and a head, to the giant Freddy snake.  There's some pretty fantastic, well-executed stuff to look at in this movie.

A fuckin' giant Freddy snake.  Holy shit.




Dream Sequences

Along those same lines, the nightmare sequences are groundbreakingly imaginative, largely head and shoulders above those in the first two films.  Nightmare 3 became the blueprint for how to do a Freddy Krueger movie; parts 4 and 5 simply turned the dial up even higher.  Where the original film had to be mostly grounded in reality due to budget limits and the second film's set pieces mostly took place in the real world, Nightmare 3 added a wonderful surrealist tone to the series, almost Dali-esque at times.  The filmmakers got really creative when coming up with ways to attack the teenagers this time around - Kristen's sink coming alive to slash her wrists, Philip's puppet turning into a Freddy doll and using his own tendons as marionette strings, Joey being tied to the bedposts with elongated tongues and suspended over a pit of fire, Freddy's claws morphing into heroin needles as he attacks Taryn, etc.  Most of the nightmare sequences turned a character's trait against the character, which was poetic and inspired.

This is fucked up right here...




Ties to Original

Where the second film took the story in a totally different direction largely due to Wes Craven's refusal to participate (poorly received at the time but in hindsight a pretty ballsy left turn you kinda have to respect), Nightmare 3 returned the series to its roots, reintroducing Nancy Thompson as a mentor to a new crop of Elm Street kids being tormented by Freddy.  Nancy and Freddy's battle of wills comes to a head in this movie and it brings the series full-circle; the final act, dealing with our protagonists giving Krueger's remains a proper burial, gives the series an epic quality right out of a Dracula film.  Craven agreed to be involved this time around with the understanding that 3 would be the final film, but of course since it was a huge hit they made more.  Regardless, Nightmare 3 felt like a return to form that expanded upon the original film (though as I said, I do like Nightmare 2 as well).

Back together at last...




Robert Englund

Of course no Nightmare on Elm Street movie works without Robert Englund in the filthy hat and frayed red and green sweater (just ask Jackie Earle Haley); Englund simply IS this character.  From the first time we saw him in the original film, he disappeared into the role and conveyed a disturbing sense of menace, as well as a twisted comedic tenor.  He's the right mix of horrifying and charismatically amusing.  It's the role Englund was born to play, and I don't see anyone ever being able to replace him.

He's the man for his time and place.




Most Performances

The majority of the acting in this film ranges from passable to pretty good.  The aforementioned Robert Englund is spot-on as always, Jennifer Rubin is quite good as recovering heroin addict Taryn, believably portraying an addled young woman desperately trying to hold it together, Craig Wasson is dependable as the benevolent Neil Gordon, who just wants to do right by the kids in his charge, and Patricia Arquette is serviceable and sympathetic as main character Kristen Parker, showing flashes of her budding acting chops.  I wish all the performances were commendable...


So there's the good stuff about Nightmare 3.  Now for the bad news...



The Shitty


Heather Langenkamp

Alright, no one ever accused Langenkamp of being Oscar-worthy.  But in the original Nightmare film she was at least good enough to not be distracting.  More than that really, she was likable and credible as a teenage girl nearing the end of her rope.  I'm not sure what happened in the three intervening years, but her performance in this movie is like a high school play - awkward, forced, amateurish.  She either overacts or underacts in every scene, and it's so distracting it ranks up there with Sofia Coppola in Godfather III as one of the worst major performances in a mainstream film.  And Nancy's character is extremely important to this story.  She's the one who teaches the kids to fight back and helps save the day in the end.  Her comradery with Kristen is genuinely touching, as is Kristen's sorrow at losing her in the film's climax.  But Langenkamp's performance undermines all of that and takes you right out of the moment. 

What exactly is that face meant to convey?  Stoned?




Direction/Cinematography

It's possible Heather's performance isn't all her fault; the first time around she was working with an experienced horror director in Wes Craven, who was likely able to coax a stronger performance out of her.  This film was in the hands of first-time, 28-year-old director Chuck Russell, and his greenness shows.  Despite the movie's memorable, outstanding special effects and set pieces, the dramatic heft and photographic elegance to take it to the next level are missing and it often looks like a TV movie.  Quick example: Nancy's first appearance.  Early in the film Neil (and the audience) is informed that some "hotshot grad student" has been assigned to work with the troubled teenagers, having had experience with sleep-related trauma.  Kristen has just been admitted to the hospital and has an outburst, cutting Max the orderly (a young Laurence Fishburne) with a scalpel, and begins singing the Freddy nursery rhyme ("One, two, Freddy's coming for you...).  Suddenly Nancy appears in the doorway, finishing the rhyme for her.  It's handled with an abrupt cutaway to a flat, medium shot of Nancy, and then cuts to a wider shot.  I'd have had Nancy recite the line offscreen so the audience has a chance to say "Wait, that voice is familar," and THEN cut to Nancy standing in the doorway asking "Where did you learn that rhyme?" - it would've made her entrance much more powerful.  It's the little touches that make a great horror movie stand out from the pack.  Had Wes Craven returned to the director's chair I think we'd have gotten a much more complete film with a more striking visual flair.

"Hi gang!  Nancy here..."




Music

One of my least favorite things about 80s horror films is the synth-heavy, overly dramatic scores.  They're simply not scary - they sound overproduced and cookie-cutter, and the musical style makes the films feel more dated than they need to.  For some reason 1970s horror films feel more timeless to me, in spite of how people dressed, and the music is a big part of that.  Take the score to the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre - it's atonal, organic, minimalistic, and so offbeat it heightens the tension.  Angelo Badalamenti's Nightmare 3 score releases us from it, reminding us we're watching a slick Hollywood movie, when what it should be doing is fully immersing us in the horror.  This score is kitschy, like a parody of a horror movie score.




Script Issues

The final script must've been submitted very late in the game, as the novelization I had as a kid was based off an earlier draft, and when I read it after seeing the film I was pissed at how much I thought the novelization had revised.  Turns out numerous aspects of Wes Craven and Bruce Wagner's original script were changed by the time of production, in a late rewrite by Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont (of Shawshank and Green Mile fame).  Problem is, with the rewrites taking place so close to production the final script was still pretty messy.  There's a subplot about Nancy taking an experimental dream-inhibiting drug called Hypnocil, which Neil reluctantly agrees to administer to the kids to stop their nightmares.  But then this is never followed up on - did they ever end up taking Hypnocil and it just didn't work?  Did they scrap that plan?  We're never told.  There's the nun character who mysteriously appears only to Neil and informs him how to destroy Krueger, but it's never explained why Neil is the only one who can see her, we just find out at the end that she was a ghost all along.  The script introduces seven teenagers but scarcely gives any of them fleshed out character traits.  Kristen gets the most to work with as the main character, she's raised by a single mother who never has time for her, while Taryn gets a little scene with a drug-dealing orderly, but aside from that all the kids are defined by one attribute.  Philip is a sleepwalker who makes puppets, Will is a wheelchair-bound D&D nerd, Kincaid is prone to angry outbursts, Jennifer wants to be an actress, Joey is a mute who wants to bang the hot nurse.  That's it.  We need more depth to these characters in order to care when they're put in danger.  Also the script doesn't provide any sort of aftermath.  After defeating Freddy, the survivors are shown mourning at Nancy's funeral, and then Neil's at home sleeping peacefully.  But wait, shouldn't Kristen be the last character we see, being that the setup was about HER nightmares and SHE was the one most attached to Nancy?  What happens to the rest of the kids?  Are they released from the hospital now that their nightmares are over (The fourth film answers those questions but that wasn't in the works yet at this point)?  Does Neil get his job back?  What do the authorities say about Donald Thompson's peculiar death - impalement on the fin of a '57 Chevy?  The movie just ends with no real resolution beyond Freddy's death.




Nitpicks

-Is the main character's name Kristen or Kirsten?  They mostly call her Kristen throughout the film but when she introduces herself to the little girl on the tricycle at the beginning she clearly says "Ker-sten."  Does this broad not know her own fuckin' name??  Further proof that the script revisions happened very late in the game, as her name was originally written as KIRsten.

-Why in the fuck is Philip's door open while he's sleeping?  The kid's a known sleepwalker.  For that reason alone any reputable facility would lock him in at night to prevent him from say, falling down a flight of stairs or walking out the door and into traffic (which is how he dies in the original script, as opposed to jumping off the tower).

-Jennifer the aspiring actress gets killed when, in her dream Freddy's head and arms burst out of the TV set she's watching, and he rams her head-first through the tube.  And when Max finds her she's literally hanging from the television.  Umm, that TV would never hold Jennifer’s weight, she'd fall right out.

How....what.....how.....

-There are two group therapy scenes where they all fall asleep together through hypnosis so they can share the same dream.  In the first Neil hypnotizes everyone, in the second it's Nancy.  But hold on, how is the person guiding the hypnosis also able to fall asleep while counting backward from five?  "Five....four.....three....two.....zzzzzzzzzz...."

-The first time we see Joey he has a teardrop tattoo, which in street gang culture means you've murdered a person.  But the rest of the movie the tattoo is gone.  What'd he have it removed at the hospital?

-This was a problem dating all the way back to the first film, but why is Freddy’s voice inconsistent from one scene to the next, sometimes even from one *line* to the next?  Christ, either put the effect on his voice or don't, pick one.

-Why does Freddy keep Joey in a coma instead of killing him?  Joey's situation prompts Dr. Carver to fire Neil and Nancy, advantageous for Freddy since it weakens the remaining kids, but wouldn't three deaths in a week have brought about the same result?  Why keep Joey alive?

"Come and get him, bitch."

-Speaking of, how does Dr. Carver arrive at “Joey’s coma is your fault?”  Is he blaming the Hypnocil?  Did Neil even give any of the kids Hypnocil?  They're still having nightmares so it doesn't seem like it.

-This isn't a nitpick, but it was a nice touch to bust Donald Thompson down from police lieutenant to lowly security guard, implying that after his wife died at the end of Nightmare 1 he hit the bottle with a vengeance and it cost him his job (I literally just noticed this detail on this latest viewing).

-Why did they use the wide take of Freddy stabbing Taryn with the needles when he clearly misses with most of them?  Then in the closeup they're all neatly sticking into her arm.  That there is a poor edit, and it's bothered me since I was a kid.

Look at this shit - one out of four lands....

-Will’s dream outfit is literally a Dracula cape over his jammies. That's the best your subconscious can come up with, nerd?  Fuck, dream bigger kid.

Take it down a notch, Dr. Strange...

-When Nancy and the others are in the shared dream looking for Freddy, a steel boiler room door appears in midair, and Nancy goes "It’s a door..."  Oh really professor, ya think?  Did you learn at grad school how to identify points of egress?

Oh is it a door?  I thought it was a pencil sharpener....

-There's a scene where the good guys are in a hallway full of mirrors, and Freddy appears in every mirror and drags them all inside except Joey, who discovers his dream power - voice imodulation.  Joey screams "NOOOOOO!!!" like he's Anakin Skywalker and the mirrors all shatter, releasing his friends back into the hallway.  They go into the next room and Nancy says "It's over!"  Umm, why would Nancy think it was over just because Joey broke some mirrors?  Did you see Freddy die?  Did Freddy die that way the last time you ran into him?  Don't be fuckin' stupid, Nancy!  And of course Freddy then takes the form of Nancy's dad, hugs her, and stabs her through the stomach with his knives.  In the words of bitchy hospital administrator Dr. Simms, "You brought this on yourself."




Conclusion

So in short, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 is a very entertaining, sometimes disturbing, mostly pretty fun horror film.  It stands as one of the definitive installments of a series that distinguished itself from other slasher films of the era by including fantastical elements, innovative set pieces, dark humor, and of course one of the great movie boogeymen of all time.  It's certainly easy to watch and has some unforgettable moments.  But it could've been more than just a good popcorn horror film in the hands of a more surefooted, experienced director and with a tighter, more thoroughly reworked script.  Oh well, I'll settle for an ASM....


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