As far as the horror genre goes, you would be hard pressed to find a director who has had a larger impact on the medium than that of Wes Craven. It’s hard for any director to remain relevant over a 40-year career, especially one that has long been associated with horror, a type of film looked down on by a vast majority of the movie-going public and critics alike, who cite it as a grotesque carnival of horrors, exploitation of the worst possible kind that highlights the worst aspects humanity has to offer. Of course, this is a short-sighted and often ignorant claim, as the best in the horror cannon serve up great amounts of satire while rooting into our subconscious, tapping into our most primal of fears. Since he unleashed The Last House on the Left way back in 1972, Craven has proven himself not only to be a unique voice in film but also a talent capable of reinventing himself and the entire landscape of the macabre. His directorial debut ushered in an angry, assaultive, and realistic style of horror that would become commonplace in the ’70s, a decade reeling from Vietnam and its fallout, the implications of the Watergate scandal, a flagging economy, and the hangover of the demonstration culture of the ’60s. The seminal film would help pave the way for Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), each of which would have a mammoth impact on future directors of the medium as well.
By the time the ’80s rolled around, Craven was looking for a new way to scare audiences, to keep them up late at night, long after the projector stopped flickering; to invade their dreams, turning them into nightmares. Thus, Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) was born, a low-budget film from an independent named New Line looking to break into the big time. Gone was the brutal, dingy look of his freshman offering, replacing it with a surreal tone, the filmmaker even going so far as to draft a mission statement emphasizing the horror needed to not just be “about fighting the monster, but about the framework of reality itself.” Thus, he built the blurring of reality and dreams into the fabric of his story, much like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion did in 1965, or, more recently, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan in 2010. The device that made the original Nightmare so chilling is used less effectively in the third offering of the franchise, Dream Warriors, but due mainly to Craven’s return (missing entirely from the second) to screenwriting duties, the film lives up to its billing as the best and most popular of the Elm Street sequels.
Directed by Chuck Russell (Eraser), the sequel picks up 6 years after the events of the first film. As it opens, we are introduced to Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette, in her film debut), a caffeine-infused teen who seems to be tired of run-ins with Kruger, as he limits her capability for a good night’s sleep. Soon she finds herself committed to Westin Hills, a psychiatric hospital, after her mother finds her in the midst of an apparent suicide attempt, of which Freddy is responsible. There, she makes nice with the other teen patients, all victims of the same malady, recurring dreams of torment and despair, spiked with a heavy dose of Kruger attacks, all of which are misinterpreted as mental illness. The group is being treated by a skeptical Dr. Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson, professional actor and Bill Maher body double) and a new staff research scientist, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp*) who also happens to be the only teen survivor of the first installment in the series and who immediately recognizes the situation for what it is. Throughout the course of Kristen’s therapy, Nancy finds out she has the uncommon power of pulling others into her dreams, a trait they can use to combine their talents in an effort to take down Freddy once and for all.
While it isn’t a perfect sequel, Dream Warriors contains several clever scenes and the effects are cool, even though some are too obvious to be taken seriously. One of the best dreams has Kristen being tormented by a giant penis-like snake complete with Freddy head that tries its hardest to swallow her whole. It’s a scarier sequence than most as it uses the weirdness of one’s own subconscious more vividly than the other sequences of the movie (which often rely on exploiting the one key characteristic that the secondary characters are saddled with against them), as the encounter makes more sense on a deeper, psychological level, mining a teenage girl’s fears related to male anatomy and the act of sex. This isn’t to say that all the other killings aren’t always unimaginative. One of the patients, an artist and sculptor named Phil, gets eliminated when Freddy, using his tendons like a puppeteer uses marionette strings, guides him to the top of the hospital, then cuts him loose, causing Phil to fall several stories to his death. The sequence is creepy fun and fairly intense, keeping Freddy in the realm of an out-and-out scary villain.
The film falters a bit when it begins to lay the groundwork for where the series and Robert Englund’s performance would go over the remainder of the decade. From here on out the cheeky mix of elaborate set pieces, visual gags, and one liners would help to distance the audience from the onscreen carnage, and by extension, Freddy gets less and less interesting. Both of these issues would be rectified when Craven took back the reinsand director’s chair for New Nightmare, giving Freddy his second wind
,,by infusing the film with a statement on how he saw the state of horror in the early ’90s, creating a wonderfully entertaining meta-slasher. Another main reason for the decline of the character can be traced to Dream Warriors: when they decide to explain Freddy’s origin (he’s the son of 100 maniacs, a biological impossibility unless I missed something in middle school). Horror movie 101 clearly states that the monster or killer is a scarier entity when the audience knows less. Why? Because the more they know, the more they can relate and having his mother raped a ridiculous amount of times certainly brings about pity from the viewer. I mean, come on, that would obviously suck, all but eliminating the chance for a normal upbringing.
A shift in the focus of the character to make the crowd laugh instead of cower in fear also starts to occur in Russell’s film. The sometimes dopey wordplay and relentless catch-phrases that would come to dog the series start here, paving the way for the commercialization of horror by making the killer easy to like. By the time the rock album Freddy’s Greatest Hits was released in 1987, featuring the song “Do the Freddy,” complete with guest vocals from Englund, the character had officially jumped the shark in terms of making one’s blood run cold. In his defense, Craven never wished to have his movie turned into a long-running horror series and his ending in the third effort stresses this, but the film’s success made that impossible. His original vision of “the ultimate bad father”,, his named derived from Last House on the Left’s rapist Krug, had become commercialized, converting him into the Jay Leno of the boogey man, serial killer circuit, and, in my opinion, making Dream Warriors the last hoorah for the horror icon until Craven’s return to the director’s chair.
*Langenkamp’s performance here is egregiously bad, making her consternation in her Entertainment Weekly profile piece from several years ago about how her career went nowhere outside of the Nightmare series laughable. Her acting is impossibly wooden, and at times, one can seemingly see her actively trying to remember lines. The rest of the cast is solid for the most part and features several actors and actresses that would become big names in the coming decade. In fact, this might be the best overall cast in the history of the series. Plus John Saxton comes back, which is bad-ass.