How ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors’ (1987) Defied the Sequel Curse

The Curse of the Sequel is a phenomenon that has been proved evident by Hollywood time and time again. When there is an initial commercial success, studios and producers want to double their money and sequel writers are inclined to believe that if they copy the same formula again they are bound to achieve similar results, but that is rarely the outcome. In the worst cases, secondary spinoffs can ruin the integrity and popularity that the inaugural release held. Take the likes of Jaws 2, Teen Wolf Too, The Hangover II, Son of the Mask, Grease 2, and countless more— they corroborate the idea that trying to replicate the success of their predecessor usually ends in an embarrassing failure. Horror movies specifically are even more privy to criminally bad sequels; Halloween has a tragic number of chapters that are hard to watch, there is a Jason Takes Manhattan installment in the Friday the 13th series, and absolutely no one saw American Psycho II. So just how can the geniuses behind the original concepts come back from that? How do you stop a bad sequel from ruining your legacy? Wes Craven knows, and the evidence lies within the critically hated sequel A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, and the fan-favoured follow up A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. 

The first of the Nightmare franchise was a box office hit and became an instant classic to audiences and critics alike, even revamping Wes Craven’s reputation after some previous career flops. Craven birthed the concept of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) after reading about Asian Death Syndrome— a peculiarity about survivors of the Killing Fields passing away in their sleep after reporting horrific night terrors and resisting going to bed. He wrote and directed the film as a one-off, never intending it to become a franchise and probably well aware of the sequel curse himself. After its commercial success, producers wasted no time jumping into a second installment. Since Craven had no interest in adapting the story, other writers were enlisted, and when offered to direct number two, he turned it down after disagreeing with many elements of the script. He had no part in Freddy’s Revenge other than being credited as creating the character of Freddy Krueger. As the curse pattern continues, the Nightmare sequel was heavily disliked by horror fans who couldn’t help but compare it to the first. It has been dubbed as tedious, not scary, unmemorable, clunky and riddled with illogical plot holes. Production Company New Line Cinema questioned whether or not they should even continue the franchise, but when Craven came to them with the desire to salvage what was left of his creation and write a third installment to close up the franchise, they gave him the greenlight.

Freddy Krueger with needles filled with blue poison as fingers
Image Courtesy of New Line Cinema

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors stars newcomer of the time Patricia Arquette as Kirsten, who we meet chasing dry instant coffee powder down with Diet Coke in an attempt to stay awake. At this point no set-up is needed— audiences already know that in Krueger’s world, sleep is the enemy, and the young girl before our eyes is about to fall victim to it. After her bathroom sink faucet turns into Freddy’s finger blades, her wrists are slashed, and her mom bursts through the door— bringing Kirsten out of the dream world and appearing as though she just attempted suicide. This leads her to being admitted to a psychiatric ward and marking a shift in the Nightmare series. This script transcends the teeny-bopper, Depp in crop-top, highschool classroom genre of which the series was once confined to. Craven and his co-writers instead created an allegory for mental health care, which was a topic considered taboo in the 1980’s. In the halls of Westin Hills Psychiatric Hospital, Kirsten is introduced to the six other youths in her ward; Kincaid, Joey, Taryn, Phillip, Will and Jennifer— a collection of misfit toys who are all having the same recurring nightmares. They are continually gaslit by hospital staff, which will seem far too familiar to anyone who has experienced a mental health crisis, by being told their reality is false and that they are crazy and unstable. The doctors and orderlies would rather sedate their patients than hear them out, writing off their shared dreams as a form of group psychosis or mass hysteria. The kids have no choice but to form a trauma bond, since the only people they can trust in this proclaimed ‘snake pit’ are each other. That is until the return of original Nightmare final girl Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) as a pattern dream specialist, who gains the trust of Kirsten and the rest by knowing the lyrics to Freddy’s Lullaby. She leads a hypnosis session to merge all of their nightmares together, and through that finds that each of them carries a different power that combined could wipe out Kruger once and for all. In the dreamworld, Will can walk, whereas in reality he is confined to a wheelchair; Taryn is badass and beautiful, but in real life self-hating and sabotaging; Kincaid has super strength, but back in the psych ward is locked in solitary confinement and weak to his surroundings. The list goes on, but each kid’s pitfall in reality becomes their fighting superpower in the dreamworld— making them the Dream Warriors.

Doctors and patients sitting in a circle for group therapy
Image Courtesy of New Line Cinema

The main element that makes number three stand out from the other Freddy-verse films is the carefully crafted script by Craven and his co-writers. In only ninety-six minutes, they are able to divvy up equal screen time to each of the Warriors; unpacking all of their anxieties, fears, hopes and aspirations. They provide an answer to why these particular kids were chosen: they are the remainder of the Elm Street children, whose parents vengefully burnt Freddy to death years ago. They finally explore the mystery of Krueger’s own origin story, which was glaringly missing in the first two films. To balance out the grim and onerous nature of the story, the script allows Freddy to become completely uncensored; his flagrant and out-of-pocket one-liners are priceless and make up the most seminal quotes of the franchise. His best lines always come before a kill, which are another aspect that makes this film unrivaled, each death is absurdly iconic, the definition of camp, and pure unadulterated fun. In a pre-CGI world, the practical effects add so much texture, a sticky and slimy corporeal feeling that makes each kill a tangible, somatic experience. Arguably the most memorable death in the movie is Jennifer’s; a ward patient who is certain she will be a famous actress, a star of the silver screen. She tries to stay awake one night by watching the Dick Cavett Show, but accidentally falls asleep— suddenly it is now Freddy interviewing Zsa Zsa Gabor on her TV. His head protrudes out from the television set and grows mechanical arms, lifting her up in the air and taunting, “This is it, Jennifer, your big break into TV!” In full Poltergeist fashion, he smashes her head into the box and exclaims, “Welcome to Primetime, Bitch,” a line improvised on the spot by Robert Englund himself. 

Jennifer being lifted off the ground by robotic arms towards the television set
Image Courtesy of New Line Cinema

Despite the over-the-top silliness in Dream Warriors, the film doesn’t shy away from the powerful subtext of the deficiency in mental health care and the end of innocence for the kids of suburbia. Freddy Krueger is used as a vessel, a messenger of how brutal life can be as you grow out of childhood. All the warriors expressing their fear of Freddy sends the same message: your struggles will be downplayed or ignored, your cries for help will be deemed as attention seeking, and you will be called insane before endangered. Krueger first appears as welcoming, someone as safe as your father giving you a loving embrace. He then exploits that fantasy and turns it into a death trap. He is an embodiment of your worst fear, and in turn, your worst nightmare. Wes Craven and director Chuck Russell create a mosaic look at what a horror film can be— how it can be a synthesis of light and dark, an amalgamation of popcorn slasher and parable on how one’s wounds can become strengths. The combination of all these elements, teamed with a score by Angelo Badalamenti and Robert Englund’s killer portrayal of Freddy makes A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors the best chapter in the franchise, and one of the few films out there to defy the curse of the sequel.