Despite critical neglect, the horror movie genre has produced some undeniable cinema classics, the kind of movies that burrow into the popular subconscious in a deep way, and stay there. Movies like The Exorcist, Halloween, and The Shining are all still cultural touchstones, while many other popular films from their respective eras have faded from collective memory.
But as incredible as the horror genre can be, I’will be the first to admit that most horror movie sequels are usually pretty terrible. The previously mentioned movies like The Exorcist, Halloween and others like Poltergeist and Psycho and many others all had lackluster sequels. And before someone brings up Evil Dead 2, that movie is more like director Sam Raimi’s screwball remake of his original film than a true sequel. Sure, there are crappy sequels in other genres of film too, but not as much as there are for horror. Sci-fi has given us the likes of The Empire Strikes Back, Aliens and T2, while the superhero genre has The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2 and X2.
But there is one great exception to the “all horror sequels must suck” theory – and that would be A Nightmare On Elm Street. 3: Dream Warriors. Released on February 27, 1987, the movie accomplished what few horror sequels ever do, which is elaborate and give greater depth to characters from the original film, introduce new characters we love just as much, and just expand the mythology in new and interesting ways. Dream Warriors does all of these things in spades. This could have merely been another poorly conceived follow up, since the second Nightmare film was exactly that.
New Line Cinema’s original A Nightmare On Elm Street, from writer/director Wes Craven, was a sleeper hit when it was released in the fall of 1984. The president of New Line Cinema, Bob Shaye, had put all of his money on this film and the future of his studio on the line, and if it had failed, New Line would have gone with it. But Shaye knew that Craven’s film was something special, and he was right.
The original Nightmare tapped into something going on in American culture, and it was a shot in the arm to a genre that was starting to get tired. All the elements for that first Nightmare worked. The casting of Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger, the score, and the subtext that the ’80s generation was paying for the sins of their Baby Boomer parents all helped to make A Nightmare on Elm Street a modern classic.
So of course New Line wanted a part 2 right away. Wes Craven wanted to move on, not really ever wanting a sequel to his film. Within a year of release, A Nightmare On Elm Street. 2: Freddy’s Revenge hit theaters, an early example of the quickie cash-grab sequel. The movie jettisoned a lot of the elements that made the original work. The “dream rules” from the original film had changed, at least somewhat, and the iconic musical score was gone. Tons of things happen that make no sense within the context of the plot.
Luckily, the producers were smart enough to have kept Robert Englund as Freddy, and he has several iconic moments in the movie. But even though the film made slightly more money at the box office than the original, everyone knew it was worse than the original. Nightmare 2 has a different reputation today as the “gayest horror movie ever made,” due to all the deliberate gay subtext put in by the writer, which makes it a hoot to watch now. But as a strict sequel to Craven’s original? It’s a total disappointment.
So when time came to go into production for part 3, Bob Shaye went back to the man who started it all, Wes Craven, to provide a bit of a course correction. He and his writing partner Bruce Wagner came up with a script that was vastly different from the final product, but the very basic elements of that script remain in the final film. The heroine of the first movie, Nancy Thompson ( Heather Langenkamp) returns as an older, wise mentor figure to a new group of kids. The action of the movie now centers around a psychiatric hospital for troubled teens, and Freddy’s dream powers greatly expand from the first two movies. When Craven decided he wasn’t going to direct, the studio hired first time director Chuck Russell, and he a young writer named Frank Darabont re-wrote Craven’s original draft, while adding several new elements (not sure what became of that Darabont guy).
The most important new element that makes the film really stand out was the group of teens at the Westin Hills Institute. While all the kids kind of fit into typical Breakfast Club style classifications (the jock, the nerd, the criminal, the basket case) the movie finds a great cast to make the kids more than just stock stereotypes (among those kids was a very young Patricia Arquette, in one of her first roles). And then the story adds the genius element of giving the kids super powers in the dream world as a way of fighting Freddy, making it an almost superhero like story, a smart expansion of the original film’s concepts.
The film added other cool new elements as well, like giving Freddy Krueger a more sinister origin story than what we already knew. Dream Warriors added the backstory that Freddy’s mother was a nun who was trapped in the mental hospital one night with the worst of the mentally ill, and that her child, conceived by the brutal rape she endured by the inmates, ended up being Freddy — “the bastard son of 100 maniacs.” This disturbing new wrinkle to Freddy’s backstory was a genius addition to the mythology.
Freddy’s dream powers expanded (and so did the budget) giving the movie some truly memorable kills, like when Freddy turns the puppet-obsessed teen Phillip into a puppet himself. And the concept of the souls of the children Freddy murders become a part of him was also introduced in this movie, adding another element of now iconic Freddy visual imagery. No knock against Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, but they just can’t do anything as cool as this.
Maybe most importantly, the idea of Freddy as a kind of “funny villain” really began with Dream Warriors. Sure, there were a few quips here and there in the first two movies, but this installment takes Freddy’s sick humor to an all-new level. Later entries in the series would overdo the humor, making Freddy into a horror version of Bugs Bunny, but Dream Warriors struck the perfect balance. Is there a more sickly funny moment in any horror film than when Freddy appears on a late night talk show and kills Zsa Zsa Gabor? The idea of Freddy Krueger as the stand up comic of horror icons really began with this film. It’s because of this movie that Freddy as we know him truly was born, at least in a greater pop culture sense.
Dream Warriors debuted at No. 1 at the box office during its opening weekend in 1987, and it eventually made $44 million at the domestic box office. That’s honestly not bad for a low budget horror film today, and thirty years ago, that kind of money was astronomical for something like this. A decent follow up film followed the next year, and Nightmare 4 made even more, but it was all downhill from there. None of the follow ups were as inventive or added any truly cool new elements to the Elm Street mythos like part 3 did, and by installment #6, the franchise was super tired. Luckily, Wes Craven returned to direct the final installment, New Nightmare, giving the series a proper ending. But Dream Warriors still remains the high point of all the sequels, and just horror sequels in general.
Thirty years on, most horror sequels have not learned the lesson that Dream Warriors tried to teach, and instead they keep making the mistake of usually just giving fans a re-hash of whatever worked in the first film, and expecting the audience to not care. I’d say one of the only modern horror franchises to really take a lesson from Dream Warriors is The Conjuring series, which chooses to focus on the human leads and give them a new supernatural case each time, instead of giving us a “greatest hits” version of the original film. When followinh up an unexpected horror hit, there should be a Blu-ray copy of A Nightmare on Elm 3: Dream Warriors on the desk of every movie executive as an example of how to make a horror sequel the right way.
Which Nightmare sequel is your favorite? Let us know down below in the comments.
Images: New Line Cinema