Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Census Bloodbath: G Is For Giggles

Today's Blogging From A to Z Challenge is a continuation of an old tradition - the return of Census Bloodbath! I've been meaning to get back to my bone-deep exploration of the 80's slasher genre and my new essay prompt about the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise is a great entry point.

Year: 1987
Director: Chuck Russell
Cast: Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, Patricia Arquette
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors opens with a solemn Edgar Allen Poe quote, so you know Wes Craven had something to do with it. Slasher movies were never more literary than when ole W-Crave was around. And in fact, he did produce this film and write the story treatment, after sitting out the first sequel (which ended up having absolutely squat to do with the rest of the series but is pleasingly homoerotic).

Craven's presence means that this is pretty much the best Nightmare sequel until New Nightmare came around in the same year I did - 1994. Although his raw power was diluted somewhat by co-writer Frank Darabont (yes, this guy) and director Chuck Russell (who would direct my favorite 80's remake, The Blob), Dream Warriors is a delightful and clever script that introduces the new, more comedic, elements of Freddy's character while still maintaining a solid aura of horror.

As perfectly evidenced by this still of Freddy slashing Zsa Zsa Gabour.

This is the film where Freddy truly gains his black humor and affinity for puns. Although people certainly do like to remember the original Nightmare as a laugh riot, that kind of thing really didn't come around until this sequel. It's quite similar to how people view The Evil Dead through the filter of Evil Dead II. Casual horror fans have very poor memories, it seems. Although at least they're watching Evil Dead.

That's one of the really interesting thing about slasher franchises. The most memorable aspects of key characters don't usually come in until the third entry in two of the genre cornerstones. Freddy didn't get his puns until Dream Warriors and Jason didn't get his mask until Part 3: 3D. I suppose the filmmakers know they have to shake things up at some point and why not now? When you're two movies in and swimming in the dough, you have all the confidence in the world to twist a thing or two around.

Freddy's newfound sense of humor represents the turn to self parody that inevitably strikes long-running horror franchises. Jason didn't chime in until Part VI and Michael was late to the game with Halloween H20 in 1998. Chucky lost his edge with the fourth film, Bride of Chucky, and Prom Night figured it out with The Last Kiss

Because, at some point, the basic trappings of the slasher genre are picked clean and you can't pull the same characters out of the gate for the eighth time over and expect the same kind of magic. The always intelligent Craven knew this and so he turned his bright eyed demon of the night into a clownish huckster, still a dark figure, but one whose work is immensely fun to watch. Freddy would eventually beach himself as the humor dried up during three more installments, but the clever sparkle is what helped teen horror fans fall even more in love with the character.

Either that or they're fans of phallic imagery. Come to think of it, maybe it's the second thing.

But anyway! The movie!

Our Meat this time around is a group of teens who are in a mental hospital due to insomnia-related illnesses and attempted suicide. What the doctors don't realize is that the injuries that they incur during the night aren't of their own doing, but rather the angry man with knives for fingers who haunts them every time they fall asleep.

The protagonist du jour is Kristen Baker (Patricia Arquette in her first film role), a spunky young blonde with the ability to pull people into her dreams, but her ragtag band of inmates includes Joey (Rodney Eastman, previously a featured extra in Chopping Mall), a kid who has lost the ability to speak due to Freddy-induced nightmares; Kincaid (Ken Sagoes, who I met at a convention. I am unhappy to report that he is a terrible, rude, cheap little man and as a result I perhaps unfairly hate his character), an angry young man who spends most of his time locked up alone in the "Quiet Room"; Taryn (Jennifer Rubin, who I also met and is lovely), a badass ex-heroin addict; Jennifer (Penelope Sudrow), a sweet young woman who wants to be a TV star; Phillip (Bradley Gregg), a marionette maker; and Will (Ira Heiden), a wheelchair-bound nerd who adores tabletop fantasy games.

With so many characters to keep track of, it's easy to see why it's a near impossibility that this film would have the terror and impact of the original. It's hard to fall in love with so many people at a time so, when they inevitably die, it has to be funny or else it's just kind of sad. Throw in the three-person hospital crew (One of whom is played by Laurence Fishburne. I'll pay you $500 dollars if you can sit through the entire movie without making a Matrix joke.) and add in a little Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) to class up the proceedings, and you have a veritable parade of human flesh.

The return of Nancy, the Final Girl from the original film, is another huge benefit to the success of this sequel. Despite still being a remarkably atrocious actress, Langenkamp has a charismatic magnetism that makes you want to love her. And having a Krueger survivor in the mix deepens the mythology and allows for a character to learn from her mistakes in the past and use it to save a new generation of Final Girls.

 Basically, Wes Craven should write all sequels. He knows what's up.

Although the kids are thinly characterized, they each have a particular weakness that can be overcome in their dreams. For example, the wheelchair kid can walk again and gains the powers of a magical Dungeons and Dragons wizard. And the heroin addict is beautiful, bad, and powerful. The introduction of this element, that which lends the film its title, provides a powerful thematic through line as the teens battle Freddy on his own terms in Dreamland.

He uses their weaknesses against them (the celebrity wannabe is thrust into her TV set - "Welcome to Prime Time, bitch!"), but they must find the internal strength to overcome them by utilizing their dream skills. It's a tremendously fun battle to watch and it resonates with teens across the world as they battle their own personal demons. Theirs might not be a burned man in a battered fedora, but every high school problem feels equally as dangerous and deadly as Freddy's razor glove when you're the one living through them.

With such a powerful theme to hang its hat on, the film is a remarkable success at combining comedy and horror, typically the two hardest genres to mix - like oil and water. The gonzo special effects of the Dream World are also a huge draw, although it's clear that the budget was poured directly into their realization, leaving the real world sets looking thin, cheap, and a little worse for the wear.

And no matter how many times I watch and enjoy this movie, I still can't force myself to truly believe that Patricia Arquette turns in a good performance. But despite its flaws, Dream Warriors is a fun tour of the new Freddy and the absolute best of the comedic Nightmare films.

Killer: Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund)
Final Girl: Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette)
Best Kill: Freddy rips out a sleepwalker's tendons and uses them as marionette strings to walk him off the roof of the hospital.
Sign of the Times: Half of the soundtrack is by Dokken. The other half is by Cyndi Lauper's synth falling down the stairs.
Scariest Moment: Freddy turns a drug addict's needle scars into gaping mouths and stabs her with his hypodermic claws.

Weirdest Moment: The backstory in which it is discovered that Freddy is quite literally the "bastard son of 100 maniacs."
Champion Dialogue: "In my dreams, I am the Wizard Master!"
Body Count: 6; Not including Freddy because come on.
  1. Phillip has his tendons pulled out and is used as a marionette, falling off of the tower when Freddy cuts his strings.
  2. Jennifer is shoved into a TV set.
  3. Taryn is stabbed with Freddy's needle claws, overdosing on heroin.
  4. Will has his heart ripped out before he can use his wizard powers to good effect.
  5. Donald Thompson is impaled on a car fin.
  6. [Nancy Thompson is stabbed in the stomach.
TL;DR: A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors is less powerful and character-driven than the original, but its sense of humor and special effects extravaganzas make it a truly enjoyable sequel.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1507
Reviews In This Series
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Russell, 1987)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)

1 comment:

  1. You're in college? If so, I'm just amazed that someone so young likes a movie from when I was a teen! I think I saw this one at the theater. I remember thinking the Nightmare on Elm Street films were so creepy at that time, but now they seem cheesy when I watch them.