Friday, November 24, 2017

Worth Mentioning - 30 Years of Dreading the Lonely Nights

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

A Nightmare on Elm Street gets a perfect sequel.


The concept writer/director Wes Craven introduced in A Nightmare on Elm Street of a killer who can manipulate the dreams of his intended victims had so much potential for further exploration, it's a little baffling that New Line Cinema ended up handing the sequel, Freddy's Revenge, to a creative team headed up by a director who wasn't interested in the nightmare aspect of the material and instead turned the second movie into an oddball haunted house / possession story. That sequel wasn't very well received. So how do you course correct a franchise that went off track with its second installment? New Line decided to double down on everything that made the first movie special.

This endeavor started by bringing Craven back to write a script for the third film with Bruce Wagner that featured the return of the first movie's heroine, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp). What Craven and Wagner wrote is quite different from the finished film, but they provided the foundation that director Chuck Russell and his co-writer Frank Darabont were then able to build upon.

There is no explanation for the return of dream stalker Freddy Krueger in this film. You didn't think he was defeated at the end of the previous movies anyway, did you? From the opening moments, Freddy is in action, continuing to stalk the dreams of teenagers in the town of Springwood - I'm not sure if Springwood was established as being in Ohio yet as of this film. It's definitely Ohio in the next one, The Dream Master.

The deaths of the unlucky kids who are murdered by Freddy in their dreams, and thus die in real life, appear to be a rash of accidents and suicides. The ones who have been able to escape from Freddy's clutches up to this point are tormented during their waking hours, terrified of falling asleep. Parents see their attempts to stay awake as behavioral or mental issues and commit their children to the local psychiatric hospital, Westin Hills.

That's what happens to Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette), the first character we're introduced to in Dream Warriors. After trying to keep herself awake with loud music, caffeinated drinks, and spoonfuls of coffee, Kristen falls asleep and into a nightmare. There is no big reveal given to Freddy, driving home that nightmares about him are routine at this point. He's first seen running down a hallway toward Kristen, swiping at her with the razor claws on the glove he wears on his right hand.

Even within this first nightmare, it's quite apparent that Russell is a director who was very interested in exploring the possibilities of delving into cinematic nightmares. The nightmares in the first movie had been rather grounded for the most part, while Russell widens the scope of the dream sequences and throws in more surreal visuals.

Freddy makes it look like Kristen has slashed her own wrist, so she ends up in Westin Hills with fellow teenage patients Kincaid (Ken Sagoes), Taryn (Jennifer Rubin), Joey (Rodney Eastman), Will (Ira Heiden), Jennifer (Penelope Sudrow), and Phillip (Bradley Gregg). We'll know some of these characters for longer than others, as Freddy will proceed to whittle down their numbers one-by-one, but during the time we do have these kids Russell and Darabont make sure that they all have depth. We know who each one of them is. They all have hopes, fears, interests, issues. And they're all likeable. This isn't a film where you're rooting for any of the potential victims to become actual victims.

Most of the adult characters aren't too bad, either. Nancy re-enters the Krueger picture by getting a job at Westin Hills as a therapist - since we last saw her, she has become a "grad school superstar" who has been doing groundbreaking research on pattern nightmares. She finds an ally and a love interest in Dr. Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson) as they work together to try to help the kids. Orderly Max Daniels (Laurence "Larry" Fishburne) is also a good guy. The character who will really get on a viewer's nerves is Dr. Elizabeth Simms (Priscilla Pointer), a strictly by-the-book woman with old fashioned views. If there's a wrong decision to make with kids dreaming of Freddy Krueger, Simms will make it - like ordering that the kids be sedated at night so they can get the rest they've been resisting.

Nancy has been taking Hypnocil, an experimental dream suppressant that might be able to help the kids avoid having nightmares, but Freddy makes sure that they don't have time to get that stuff settled into their system. When he traps Joey in the dreamland so he appears to be in a coma in our reality, Hypnocil takes the blame.

What's especially great about the nightmares in this one is that Freddy specially crafts the scenarios around each victim, based on their personalities and interests. A kid who makes puppets gets turned into a living puppet himself in the most grotesque way possible when Freddy slices open his arms and legs and uses his tendons like the puppet strings. Freddy's fingers turn into syringes when he confronts a kid recovering from drug abuse, the one Nightmare image that always stuck with my mom. Kristen dreams about her troubled home life. Another girl has her aspirations of being an actress turned against her. A kid with a crush on a nurse has a nightmarish tryst with her.

This is also the entry in which we find out that Freddy gains power with every victim, collecting their souls and absorbing them into himself. The faces of the dead children appear on his torso, quite a twisted idea.

Dream Warriors doesn't just expand Freddy's powers, it also reveals that the kids themselves have the ability to use their own powers in their dreams, which is how the movie earns its title. The powers the kids come up with aren't that great - strength, toughness, gymnastic skills - but whatever. One who plays Dungeons & Dragons does dream himself to be a wizard, but his wizard powers don't accomplish much. It's a cool idea anyway. I have a dream power myself. Throughout my life, I've had dreams where I have the ability to float off the ground. I can't fly, but I can get around through the air by either propelling myself off of objects or riding on the breeze. Not something I would be able to use against Freddy, but it makes for some nice dreams.

Kristen has the most powerful ability, which is to call out to someone and pull them into her own dream. That's how Nancy first realizes that Freddy is back, because Kristen pulls her into one of her nightmares. With that established as Kristen's power, I don't know why the filmmakers also decided to turn her into a dream gymnast as well.

This being a sequel, it also feels the need to tell us more about the villain. Freddy's story is no longer as simple as "he was a child murderer who was burned alive by a mob of parents, so now he continues murdering children in their dreams". We learn more about his history, we find out who his mother was, and learn the disturbing details of his conception, which earn him the nickname "the bastard son of a hundred maniacs". I don't know if this was necessary, but it adds another layer of unpleasantries to the whole thing.

The ghost of Freddy's mother Amanda (Nan Martin) does provide the information needed so a plan to defeat Freddy can be put together, with Neil Gordon working toward a goal in the real world with Nancy's drunken estranged father Donald (John Saxon) while Kristen pulls Nancy and the other dream warriors together into the same dream so they can try to rescue Joey. Almost the entire third act of the film takes place within the dream world, and Freddy is even able to cause some strange things to happen in the scenes set in the real world, since Neil and Donald are messing with his bones. That makes for an awesome stretch of movie that's packed with action, horror, and death.

You can question a choice made here or there, but overall Dream Warriors is really a perfect sequel. It's smart, it's fun, the characters are well written, and it takes the ideas presented in the first movie and goes even further with them. Something that builds on everything that was great about the original, going bigger and better in some areas, without making any egregious missteps - that's exactly what a fan wants to see from any sequel, and that's exactly what Dream Warriors does.

The most substantial nitpick that could be made about this movie is the fact that it does start the ball rolling for Freddy to become a more comedic, jokester character in later sequels. He drops a lot of one-liners in Dream Warriors, but it still doesn't feel overdone here. This movie found the right balance between the horrific and the comedic. The jokes here are enjoyable, while later they would become cringeworthy. Movies that followed would take it too far, but I can't blame Dream Warriors for that.

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