Reviews / September 13, 2018
As slasher franchises go, A Nightmare on Elm Street is certainly the most interesting conceptually: a former child murderer burned to death by the town’s vengeful parents returns years later to haunt and punish the community’s teenage children—by stalking their dreams. Because the dream world, like adolescence, is by nature irrational, the action of the films plays out on a surrealistic stage, and the suspense is constant: we never know what’s real and what’s fantasy, only that both states are potentially deadly. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors is the finest point of the series, in my opinion, as well as a defining ’80s genre film about the struggles of growing up in a decade that increasingly marginalized, patronized, and exploited young people.
Set six years after the events of the first film, Dream Warriors follows a group of suicidal teenagers who have been committed to a psychiatric hospital somewhere in the American suburbs. Kids are killing themselves all over town, we find out from a radio report, and “county health officials are at a loss to explain this alarming tend.” What the doctors and parents don’t know is that the suicides are actually the result of Freddy Krueger, who has returned once again to knock off “the last of the Elm Street children,” making their deaths appear self-inflicted. Nancy (Heather Langenkamp, reprising her role from the first film), now a “grad school superstar” researching pattern dreams, is called in to try to help the teens; still young enough to trust and be trusted, she tells them the truth about Freddy and gives them an experimental dream-suppressing drug that she herself is taking. With the help of good-hearted doctor Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson), Nancy shows the kids how to tap their “dream powers” to unite against Freddy. But the “suicides” continue, and Nancy and Neil are eventually dismissed by Dr. Simms (Priscilla Pointer), the stern director of the hospital who insists that the kids are suffering from “group psychosis” and “mass hysteria,” that their nightmares are “by-products of guilt” and “psychological scars stemming from moral conflicts and overt sexuality.”
While the action unfolds in typical slasher fashion, with the addition of some truly brilliant practical effects, there is much more going on beneath the surface cuts. Wes Craven’s initial script for Dream Warriors was reportedly influenced by the teen suicide rate in the U.S., which jumped 40% between 1970 and 1980 and spiked again at about the time the film was released, 1987. The numbers were surely much higher, because at the time many suicides were reported and filed as “accidents”—just as in the film. There was a great stigma around mental health issues, especially in the young, so much so that parents, politicians, school officials, and even psychiatrists deflected their own responsibility for the crisis onto the few things that made teenagers happy and gave them agency: music, sex, television, video games, horror movies, and fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. President Reagan, no surprise, blamed depression and suicide on “the ‘drug culture’ that [preaches] despair and violence,” proclaiming June 1985 (and June 1986) Youth Suicide Prevention Month, a cynical attempt to acknowledge the tragic mess his administration spread and smeared by defunding and effectively dismantling federal psychiatric services, along with social services like after-school, family planning, and sex education programs (teen pregnancy soared as a result).
This hypocrisy is made explicit throughout Dream Warriors. The very first scene at the hospital has young orderly Max (Larry Fishburne) tell Dr. Gordon his theory on the suicide epidemic:
Max: It’s fucked up chromosomes, man. Think about it. All their parents dropped acid during the sixties.
Dr. Gordon: Well, it beats Simm’s theory. She thinks it’s nothing but sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.
Max: Shit. That’s what keeps people alive.
Of his even younger charges, who allegorize the pursuits and desires the adult world has denounced and forbidden, Max remarks, “They’re good kids, but they’re dangerous.” Wheelchair-bound Will (Ira Heiden), the “Wizard Master,” teaches the other kids to play a D&D-identical game to pass the anxious hours before nighttime, when they all take up extreme measures (eating coffee grounds, driving lit cigarettes into their arms) to stay awake. Jennifer (Penelope Sudrow) wants badly to be a TV star (she’s killed when Freddy becomes the TV and yanks her into the screen). Taryn (Jennifer Rubin) is a recovering drug addict forced to fend off the persistent advances of sleazy orderly Lorenzo (Clayton Landey), who offers her a “clean pharmaceutical high” in exchange for sex. Mute, shy Joey (Rodney Eastman) is in love with one of the nurses (Stacey Alden), so Freddy disguises himself as the nurse, seduces him, and lashes him to the bed with multiple slavering tongues, where he stays, rendered comatose in the real world until his friends rescue him in the dream world. Freddy doesn’t just use the teens’ weaknesses against them; their punishments reflect their sins, a puritanical variation on Dante’s Inferno.
As Max’s quip makes clear, the moral conflict between teenagers and adults in Dream Warriors is pointedly generational. The dreary, aseptic mental institution that pits a repressive medical establishment against a motley group of misunderstood and mistreated patients is an obvious play on Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a 1962 novel revered by the counterculture. The message is literally embodied in Freddy, where the “souls of the children” he’s killed are trapped, gnashing and wailing in his flesh: the suburban, middle-class, Baby Boomer parents of Elm Street, after reaping the harvest of the post-war bounty and indulging in all manner of Dionysian and anarchic revels, or at the very least enjoying unprecedented leeway, are denying these same impulses and opportunities to their own children, all the while gorging on the easy money their found privilege and Reagan’s tax cuts afforded them. And where the Boomers’ parents by and large offered their kids a home, loyalty, community, security, and attention, the parents in Dream Warriors are aimless, divorced (yet another dismal record set during the decade), indifferent, bitter, drunk, or simply absent.
The deeply conservative agenda enacted throughout the ’80s, waged openly by the nascent Christian right, was in part a concerted attempt to strip the independence and political power—the twenty-sixth Amendment, passed in 1971, lowered the national voting age from 21 to 18—won by young people during the ’60s. The authoritarian, patriarchal, paternalistic, militaristic values (aka “family values”) condemned by so many Boomers were regurgitated and force fed to ’80s kids until they understood their proper place: self-righteous Afterschool Specials, abstinence-only programs because premarital sex is a sin and AIDS is “nature’s revenge on gay men,” children’s books about prepping for nuclear war, repulsive motivational speakers, latchkeys under the “Welcome Home” mat, razors hidden inside Halloween apples and the permanent sundering of the community trust, curfews, bans, and “just say no” to everything except summer jobs and self-abnegation. “Fucked up chromosomes, man”—to the max.
After Phillip (Bradley Gregg), the sleepwalker and puppeteer, is led to his doom by the strings of his own peeled arteries, the survivors meet in a group therapy session with Dr. Simms and Dr. Gordon. Their pleas for someone in power to merely believe them are dismissed at once by Simms: “I’m not going to take any more of this. How much longer are you going to go on blaming your dreams for your own weaknesses?” She threatens to sedate them, and tough guy Kincaid (Ken Sagoes) flips out; he’s sent to the “quiet room,” where he sings to himself all night, terrified. We can feel the walls of the institution—the vise of the incurable establishment—closing in on them. All they have now is each other, and this is the power of teenagers: to come together, regardless of differences or circumstances, and resist. But it’s not enough. When Nancy and Kristen (Patricia Arquette) finally unite everyone in the dream world, the group is quickly separated, and their newfound powers fall short. Taryn and Will are toyed with and easily killed. Joey holds Freddy off with a primal scream, and the survivors celebrate a victory we know is false. The ghost of Nancy’s father (John Saxon), killed earlier trying to bury Freddy’s remains in “hallowed ground” (a misguided plotline), suddenly appears before his long-estranged daughter. He apologizes for being a rotten father and tells her he loves her. They embrace, and dad morphs into Freddy, who kills Nancy.
It had to be so. And that’s because, even though we’re supposed to believe that he’s “the bastard son of a hundred maniacs,” Freddy is Nancy’s father. Freddy is the monstrous alter ego lurking inside all of the Elm Street parents—inside all parents—who no longer care to understand their children, who can’t even be bothered to show up. Indifference and neglect are more violent, and more deadly, than a glove with knives attached to it. Maybe fictional slashers disposed of so many teenagers in the ’70s and ’80s because never before had teenagers felt so disposable. At the very least, Freddy and company paid attention to them, gave them a sense of purpose, challenged them, even respected them as opponents. For the young, there’s only one thing worse than living on Elm Street with Freddy, and that’s living on Elm Street without him.