Originally written on the 30th anniversary of Dream Warriors
Abuse and generational torment were always part of the thematic underpinnings of the Nightmare on Elm Street film series. In the first NOES ,the budget relegated dream sequences to a more lucid effect (not to discredit the great-late Wes Craven, whose directorial prowess gave the film its own sense of surrealism without the larger budget). In Dream Warriors, the gang of teenagers are still under the threat of Freddy Kreuger while also dealing with their own struggles and aspirations.
Dream Warriors presents a flawed gang of teenagers. Not miscreants but not quite do-gooders, they’re just kids with their own demons to battle. The kills are more technically proficient than every other film in the series (minus the Wes Craven directed entries of course) but it’s in how surreal direction provides the emotional efficiency. Rather than delegating schlocky kills designed as set pieces, the nightmares are extensions of the teenagers fears and insecurities, making them feel more tangible in our own viewing experiences.
Among the many strengths of this series is the surreal style horror narrative but no single entry benefits from the narrative surrealism more than this one never benefited as well as it does here. It also helps that this is arguably the strongest cast of characters in an Elm Street movie. Through group therapy sessions, we come to learn our dream warriors. Kristen Parker, a lonely, often neglected teenager; Kincaid, a tough kid from the streets; Will, a wheelchair bound boy; Joey, a mute; Taryn, recovering drug addict; Phillip, who suffers from sleepwalking; and Jennifer, an aspiring actress. Each of them are clearly defined, even in the span of a single scene. It’s nothing extraordinary though nonetheless impressive given the common status of slasher victims being as commonplace as neighborhood recyclables. We root for them as they fight back against their own worst nightmares and we feel for them when they’re engulfed by their own issues.
There’s a legitimate aura of tragedy to the dream warriors. When they fall at the hands of Freddy, they’re really falling at the hands of their own demons. None may be as tragic as the death of Taryn White. An easy contender for the coolest supporting character in slasher movie history, she embodies herself with her own perception of beauty and cool. She is one of the few to immediately put up a strong fight against Freddy and even appears to catch him off guard. But he turns the tables on her, utilizing her worst fears against her: drug addiction. Her heroin track marks open themselves up, welcoming the needles protruding from Freddy’s fingers. It’s a grizzly kill and the one that breaks my heart the most, even when I know it’s coming.
These kills land harder because we don’t want them to land at all. Surprise! Slasher movies are more effective when you care about the people in them.
The outline of the story is strong enough to carry legitimate themes and arcs for the cast. As it’s a franchise, the inclusion of Freddy and Nancy Thompson (returning after a maligned absence in the further maligned second installment) could feel arbitrary but instead allows the themes to be more impactful dealing with the legacy of trauma. Nancy’s return also gives the story more weight in an optimistic sense. What better way to help kids dealing with their own issues than to talk to someone who has struggled through a similar ordeal. If this other adult can move beyond her own issues, maybe they can too. Then the gut punch happens.
Nancy Thompson, one of the great cinematic scream queens, meets her end at the clawed hand of Freddy. Her courage and sacrifice are more than just fighting back against an ultimate evil (something worth commending already). The life she lived allowed her to gain an unorthodox perspective into the world of pain and suffering. While she assisted in dealing the killing blow to Freddy as her final act, her main point of victory is in uniting this group of kids to believe in one another to overcome their sorrow with the support of adults who would actually look out for them.
The production design is far out enough not to delve into full on campiness by delegating the sets to emotional agency first and foremost. Mind you, this is a movie where Freddy says “Welcome to prime time, bitch.” before shoving Jennifer’s head into a television. While I’m a fan of the Craven entries in the series, with both being must watch for having Craven’s name on them alone, it’s Dream Warriors I’ve always been attracted to the most. It’s one of those sequels where it takes the foundation of everything done in the first entry, and actively pushes the limits on what came before. In a perfect world, this sort of fills out a perfect trilogy of Nightmare movies with the original as the first, Dream Warriors as the middle installment, and New Nightmare as the final chapter both as a remix of iconography and metatextual culmination of everything that came before.
It’s rare for a slasher movie, let alone a sequel, to garner critical acclaim and a cult following. Regardless of what good or bad directions the series took after this chapter, Dream Warriors remains a worthy sequel to the Craven classic and stands tall as a great exercise in surreal horror.