Monday, April 5, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)

by Alexander "Their world is full of Elm Streets" Kraft

I racked my brain for weeks to find something to say about A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. My first impulse was to talk about the subjective nature of reality: how the diegetic blurring of lines between dreaming and waking, like when a boy walks through a locked door or a girl gets her head inside a television mounted seven feet off the ground, mirrors the blurred line between one's internal model of the world and the objective world “outside” of our consciousness, and the children banding together in dreams to combat Freddy likewise comments upon the way collective, intersubjective agreement can reify imaginary threats and likewise provide tools to cope with them.

My next thought was to examine the film from a feminist perspective: after all, it is in this installment of the series that Freddy is revealed to be the spawn of a hundred vicious rapes, Freddy refers to women exclusively as “bitch,” and in one scene he turns into a sort of gigantic penis-creature that tries to eat a girl. Nancy, our returning heroine, has been recast as a woman who is being marginalized in a “man's field” and struggling to be taken seriously. It is only when she refuses to play their game and takes matters into her own hands that she achieves self-actualization and the respect of the men in the film. The children in the hospital can likewise be interpreted as marginalized voices (like those of women) struggling to be heard.

But the reality is that neither of these perspectives is compelling. Do you want to know why? Because this movie is a turd. Don't let the high production values, Laurence Fishburne's panty-drenching animal magnetism and your love of the franchise blind you; this film is not just a waste of time, it literally corrupts the time spent watching it, infecting it with a black ichor that rots the rest of your time, giving you a kind of time-necrosis that will slowly destroy you. Yes, literally. I am not speaking figuratively. This will actually happen.

“But wait!” you cry, “Of course slasher movies are bad! Therein lies the fun, and furthermore, you're killing the delicate balance of irony required to enjoy them by pointing out that they're bad, baby-killer.” My rebuttal is twofold: First, that last bit about my being a baby-killer is uncalled-for and kind of mean. That was an accident, and you know it. Second, what makes Nightmare 3 so bad is that it kind of isn't. It's just glossy, mediocre dreck. What makes a slasher flick fun? Sometimes, they break new ground, pushing the limits of taste and acceptability in film in a way that makes them shocking even to today's audiences. Sometimes, the limits of budget force filmmakers to explore innovative and experimental techniques that are sometimes brilliant and often hilarious. Sometimes, there is a delight in discovering an underappreciated gem of a film that has been ignored because of its location in a genre that has been largely dismissed by critics. And often, of course, none of this happens, and we are left with a “film” so screamingly bad that it reaches heights of comedy undreamed-of by earnest comedians.

But alas, Nightmare 3 is none of these things. It is the product of a crank-operated prolefeed machine. Released in 1987 as a sequel to a successful franchise in a successful genre, the formula had been set and it would have been business heresy to suggest that it be deviated from. The guy kills the kids, the kids get scared, nobody believes them, they fight back. The production is nice enough not to be funny (except the giant cock-Freddy! Hoo-boy!) but modest enough not to break any new ground. The acting is wooden, but not enough to be quotable, and the scares are predictable, within the context of a Nightmare film. This is the film equivalent of a Hot Pocket. You pay for it, you consume it, you have no complaints. But if asked to articulate what about it was satisfying or pleasing, you are left searching for an answer. “Well, I ate.” Well, you've watched a movie. I guess you had to do something with your 96 minutes, and this is more engaging that staring at an ashtray, an almost-empty bottle of bourbon and a framed photo of your ex that you've been meaning to get rid of for the past year and four months. For an hour and a half. Again.

This film specifically disappoints Nightmare fans for a couple of reasons, as well. First, someone has apparently tipped off the producers that by 1987 most people are laughing at American horror movies, not being terror-stricken. Accordingly, Freddy (no longer the shadowy “Fred” of the first film) has begun cracking wise and mugging for the camera--the vanguard of the postmodern '90s self-aware meta-slasher of Scream and Urban Legend. The first Nightmare on Elm Street was clunky in ways, and certainly a product of the American horror tradition of its time, but Wes Craven was doing what he then did best: tapping the horror and menace implicit in seemingly innocuous activities--in this case, dreaming. Perhaps we chuckled at the cardboard sets and hackneyed dialogue, but we were engaged by the workmanlike telling of a legitimately scary story that made us look at something mundane in a new way. Dream Warriors tells essentially the same story, the retelling of which weakens its power. But worse, it does it with a wink and a nod that completely strips away any gravity, leaving us with a comedy. But if this is a comedy, why do so many scenes drag so damn much?

Secondly, Nightmare 3 disappoints because of Wes Craven's involvement. Sure, he only shares co-writer credit with three other dudes, but nonetheless, his involvement raises a fan's hopes and contributes to the impression that an uncritical viewer may take away that they have just watched a film that was somehow worth watching. In the same way that Dream Warriors marks a shift from a movie about the uncontrollability and potential danger of dreams to a movie about Freddy Krueger, it also marks a shift in Craven's career, from movies about scary things to movies about Wes Craven movies. Which, well, sucks. It is difficult to view Last House on the Left and Scream 3 in the same week without wanting to kill yourself, or at least write about how sad what happened to Wes Craven is. Which is, well, never mind.

Honestly, the only thing this film leaves me with that approximates a burning, unanswered question is this: why in the world is Heather Langenkamp still here? Of all the mediocre performances in this film, she is the only one who stands out as being downright bad. And this is not only our star, but our returning star? This casting decision really underscores the fact that the filmmakers were on vacation when they shat this brick. Why look for a new actress? We got a perfectly good one right here. And by perfectly good I mean, you know. One. That's here. Like this movie.