When A Nightmare on Elm Street was released in theaters, it took a long time to gain traction and build word of mouth. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge was released the very next year, while people were still only just discovering the original. But Freddy’s Revenge won over the mainstream audiences and wound up being the highest grossing horror movie of 1985, beating out the major studio release Fright Night. Obviously, Craven’s film was not yet heralded as the classic it is now. It was brand new and the clay was still wet, so Freddy’s Revenge proved to be a very different movie than the first, abandoning most of its style and central framework altogether. It’s almost surprising that New Line felt the need to course correct when it came time to prep the third entry, bringing back Craven to pen the sequel alongside Bruce Wagner. There had been a few rejected takes on Nightmare 3, even one from Robert Englund himself, before they managed to bring Craven back into the fold. His first draft was outlandish and almost cartoonish, with an “everything plus the kitchen sink” approach, likely factoring in the fact that he knew it would have a larger budget than the original. But even in that very rough early script, the DNA of what would become Dream Warriors was apparent. And even though it’s much more of a welcome direct sequel to the first, it feels like a natural progression of the much more internalized teenage struggles of Freddy’s Revenge.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors is, with good reason, considered to be one of the best (if not the very best) sequels in that franchise. It brings back several major players from the original, including Wes Craven, John Saxon, Heather Langenkamp and of course Robert Englund as Freddy. Which would seem obvious, but it’s worth remembering that on Elm Street 2, Freddy was initially recast when they didn’t think Englund was necessary for the role and cast a stuntman in his place. That lasted barely any time at all before they obviously brought Englund back. The first sequel is almost the polar opposite of Dream Warriors in many ways. It’s not a direct sequel by any stretch, doing away with the style and rules of the first in order to use Freddy for the monster in a possession story. It famously has its own subtext of teenage sexuality, and barely references the first at all, save for the fact that it’s five years later and Nancy is just some “girl who went crazy” after she saw her boyfriend get butchered across the street.
Obviously, just by bringing back Wes Craven to co-write the initial script (stunningly rewritten by Frank Darabont and director Chuck Russell) Dream Warriors is much more of a tried-and-true sequel. Nancy is back as a protagonist, this time as a grad student doing research into pattern nightmares. She’s grown up, she’s a mentor figure to a whole new cast of teens haunted by Freddy, all of whom are realistic kids we can’t help but root for. This might be one of the things that truly sets Dream Warriors apart from other horror movies in general, and one that it rarely gets credit for: it’s probably one of the healthiest depictions of a mental wellness facility ever seen in a horror film.
Psychiatric hospitals in horror are almost universally depicted as places of great torture and anguish. Asylum horror is essentially its own sub genre. Even when they’re abandoned, there’s often an elaborate backstory covering just how horrific life was for the patients that were mistreated and usually died there. It’s scary, sure, but hardly a glowing treatment of mental illness, by any stretch. Even though A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 is a horror movie set largely within the walls of an institution, the hospital is not the source of the fear. Far from it, in fact. Dream Warriors almost does the unthinkable by crafting an environment that is at least attempting to be safe and understanding. And everyone there has nothing but the patients’ best interest at heart.
When we’re first introduced to Dr. Neil Gordon, it’s driving him crazy that he’s no closer to figuring out how to help his patients. He empathizes with them deeply, but he doesn’t understand them and that seems to be something he’s actually willing to admit. Neil undergoes a very particular arc in this movie, as he has to learn to put aside everything he’s learned and trust in Nancy and her new and unorthodox means of treating the patients. Neil very much represents the old guard in terms of approach to helping teenagers suffering from depression and thoughts of suicide, he desperately wants to help them but he is able to recognize that the methods he’s used to using simply aren’t working. The kids are showing no progress.
Dr. Elizabeth Simms is another character who represents many of these ideas, but with the obvious difference that she never comes over to Neil or Nancy’s line of thinking. Neil makes a clear decision to change his approach to working with the kids, but Simms doesn’t. Most fans consider her to be the Nurse Rachet of Dream Warriors, but I think that does a disservice to what the movie as a whole accomplishes. After all, most horror movies dealing with any kind of mental health facility tend to portray the setting itself as villainous. They’re places that derive a thrill from experimenting on our outright torturing their helpless patients, the opposite of a facility designed to treat mental illness in any kind of positive way, their sole purpose seems to be to make you suffer.
And that is by all accounts not the case with Westin Hills, even with Simms, the film’s most antagonistic character save Freddy himself. If you don’t know that Krueger is actually killing these patients, then everything she is doing makes sense. Same goes for the hospital administrator, Carver, who fires both Nancy and Neil after Joey slips into a coma. This is a week with multiple suicides in a single ward and a doctor who went behind the hospital’s back to administer a drug not approved by the FDA. Neil and Nancy are probably lucky that firing’s the worst they got. Taking everything at surface level, without the knowledge that Freddy Krueger is actually killing these kids in their dreams, the hospital acted completely in the right.
Of course, we have Nancy as well, representing the new blood. This is an older Nancy than we met in the first film, but it’s such a smart evolution of her character and—considering all of the themes present in Dream Warriors—it’s perfect movie for her to return. Nancy has a perspective that Neil and Simms don’t have, because she’s been where these kids are. They’re survivors and so is she. That’s ultimately what A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 is all about. As noted earlier, in Freddy’s Revenge, Krueger was a fairly explicit metaphor for sexuality. This time, he’s a manifestation of depression. Even in the movie itself, Freddy is something that Nancy has learned to manage, to cope with, but not to overcome. She’s still taking medication to keep herself from dreaming from the moment we meet her. She can relate to the young patients on a level that the rest of the hospital staff cannot, and it has nothing to do with her age. She understands exactly what they’re going through.
When it comes to the new cast that make up the victims/heroes of the film, they again stand out from typical depictions of mental hospitals in horror. There are no crazed caricatures or overt stereotypes. These are kids just trying to get by, occasionally losing control, sometimes even fighting one another, but in a way that doesn’t feel at all like a bunch of “basket case” kids at each others’ throats and instead feels much more like a family. They might not always get along, but they’re there for each other. They need each other to survive and that’s the whole point. In Dream Warriors, it’s sometimes heavily implied and other times outright mentioned that these kids have attempted suicide more than once. On a plot level, we’re led to believe that that’s Freddy’s doing, that he’s after them in their dreams, and metaphorically, that’s where Freddy as a manifestation of depression comes into play. But even on a surface level, it’s pretty clear that some if not all of these kids have self harmed before Krueger came into the picture.
Will, for example, took a jump that led him to be confined to a wheelchair. From everything we’re given in that scene, especially his embarrassment at admitting it, it’s clear that that happened before he started dreaming about Freddy. In the same scene, Kincaid criticizes Will’s fall as being better than Taryn “sticking needles in her arm with a bunch of lowlives.” While the film made it clear up to this point that Taryn was a recovering heroin addict, that line definitely helps to fill in the puzzle pieces that it was likely an OD that led her to wind up at Westin Hills in the first place. On a textual level, these are kids who have attempted suicide. Freddy stands only as a manifestation for the things they are already battling with. He’s teenage depression brought to life. He’s not a mood that’s going to just go away, he’s not being dramatic. He’s an oppressive force. One that cannot be defeated, but can only be suppressed and, for a time, subdued.
With that in mind, it’s actually kind of perfect that this is the Elm Street in which Freddy really starts to target his victims’ specific anxieties and fears. These elements of themselves that they think they’ll never be able to overcome. For Taryn, it’s the fear that she’ll always be a junkie and that she’ll never be able to beat her addiction. For Will, it’s the fear that he’ll always be stuck in his chair. This is a shift for the series, as Freddy had only vaguely at best touched on these specific kinds of fears before. But Dream Warriors is the perfect time to make that transition, because that’s what depression does. Freddy is every worst thought you’ve ever had. Every time you’ve wondered if it could possibly ever get better and heard a voice in the back of your mind hiss “No, it won’t,” that’s Freddy. And that’s the version of Krueger that Dream Warriors perfectly embodies.
It’s perfect, then, that the whole conceit of the movie is that Freddy is a threat that cannot possibly be fought alone. These kids cannot fight him on their own. Even if they fight him together, they might lose. But it’s made explicitly clear that the only way to battle Krueger is through a support system. Alone, they’re vulnerable, no matter their inherent strength. But together, they’re strong and more than that, they give each other strength. This is the first Elm Street in which several main characters are left standing at the end, and even then, Freddy only kills Taryn and Will by splitting them apart from the group. This is a movie about the importance of a support system, especially those who understand your experiences. Compared to the two features preceding it, the dream talents—superpowers, for all intents and purposes—could be seen as jarringly over-the-top, but that’s the whole point. They should be. These kids are empowering themselves just by being around each other.
More than potentially any other Elm Street movie, Dream Warriors is something that young fans continue to rediscover. It’s something that still resonates, not just with those of us who grew up with it, but those seeing it for the first time as well, because the themes are universal. It strikes such a chord with anyone who’s ever felt assaulted by their own brain, who has had to treat getting out of bed in the morning as a small victory, who has to beat back the voice inside that tells them nothing they do is worth it.
Freddy remains a perfect pop culture boogeyman and all of those qualities were defined in Nightmare 3, but at the same time, he serves a very important purpose as an oppressive force of self-hatred in a film about teenage survivors banding together to keep each other alive. For many young fans, it’s the first horror feature where they don’t want any of the characters they’re watching to die, no matter how entertaining Freddy might be. And that’s a testament not only to how the movie handles its delicate themes, but the characters, performances, and the overall film itself.