I have a theory, when you watch a film franchise or TV show (which lasts more than 5 seasons) that isn’t based on previously established material the first film or series in the run is the idea in its purest form. However, it doesn’t become the model that is most commonly known until at least the third instalment. A good example of this is the SAW franchise, the model that is most associated with the series (traps and creative deaths) is a better description of the sequels.
This theory is also true of the Nightmare on Elm St franchise. There is very little humour in the first two films, Freddy is a straight up slasher killer and the deaths are plain gruesome. It isn’t until the third film that we get the Freddy and film model that we know and love, in fact it is possible to pin point the actual scene when this series turns a corner but we will get to that later.
By 1987, when this film was released the slasher template was very well established and was being rolled out for all the slasher icons of the 80s (Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and even Chucky). A group of stereotypes (jock, nerd, bitch, virgin etc.) in a relatively confined location, being killed in a series of deaths that represent something about their character until the most virginal beats the killer. This is almost a perfect description of Nightmare 3.
We are first introduced to Kristen, our in for the film, who is forcing herself to stay awake because she is having horrific nightmares. I should also point out the music over the opening sequence, the song Dream Warriors by Dokken, written for this film. This is a great 80’s hair metal song (I have it on my iPod!) and the first sign that Freddy has become popular and is starting to get some mainstream treatment. Anyway, Kristen falls asleep and we get taken to the Freddy house. This sequence is very reminiscent of the first two films, we get the horror house, the little girls skipping and the infamous nursery rhyme (1, 2 Freddy’s coming for you …). I am getting what I know and I am into this film from the start, I especially enjoy how this sequence ends, with Kristen slitting her wrists with a little help from Freddy. This is also the first great thing that I am sure first appears in this film but becomes a staple; Freddy becoming something else in a dream, in this case a tap becoming the bladed fingers of the glove.
From this we go straight to the local mental institute (Horror films have told me that every town in America has one!) and we meet the rest of the teen group and they are the expected outcast archetypes, a Dungeons & Dragons nerd, an ex-druggy, sarcastic kid and shy kid, a delusional girl who wants to be a star and … err … an angry black guy. Yeah, things were a little different in 1987. Kristen has been brought in to join them and she isn’t alone.
Let me say it right now, I really enjoy this film, for me it is the most enjoyable Nightmare film but that does not mean it is a great film out right. There are a few things that are bad and it is at this point that we meet the first of them, Heather Langenkamp back as Nancy from the first film. This film has some young actors in it so I am willing to accept some less than stellar acting but Ms Langenkamp should know better. She is awkward in this film, she struggles to portray any real emotion and almost every interaction with any other actor looks like she is reading her lines off of their face. I understand that they have brought her in as a tie to the first film but she isn’t needed and I do think the film would have been better without her in it.
Anyway, I digress. So we have now met the whole group and through a number of conversations we now understand that despite the kids all talking about the same nightmare, it is classed as group hysteria, basically that they are being difficult teens and just need to behave. That’s not to say that all the doctors are against them, there is Dr Gordon, the one person willing to listen to the kids and try something different to help them. Played by Craig Wasson, this character is the anti-Nancy and is a real help to this film, he is convincing and shows that the character cares for the kids but is still a professional. He is also in the scene with my favourite line later in the film.
With the all the players in place the plots can begin and we get into the kills. Let’s get to the one that really matters, the moment Freddy becomes Freddy. The star wanna be, Jennifer, falls and asleep watching TV without realising it’s a dream, the TV goes on the fritz while attempting to fix it and we get more Freddy becoming something in the Nightmare. This time he literally forms out of the TV set, grabbing Jennifer and slamming her head into the screen and shouting “This is your big break Jennifer. Welcome to primetime bitch!” There it is, the one thing that was missing, Freddy pulling out one liners after each of his kills. It should be noted that this line was actually adlibbed by Robert England (Freddy) and started something both great ruinous for the later films.
The other side of the kids being killed is an origin story for Freddy and more supernatural shenanigans. I know it’s ridiculous to say about a film that has a killer stalking kids dreams but I find the introduction of a ghost nun a bit much. It’s fine but like having Nancy back it is something that isn’t needed and there could have been better ways to progress the story. Despite this, it is the Nun that has my favourite line in the film. When we find out that Freddy’s mother was trapped in the mental institute years before an repeatedly raped, during which Freddy was conceived, she describes him as “the bastard son of a hundred maniacs” a bit dramatic but awesome at the same time. This also leads to the contrivance of being given a way to beat Freddy. This is why I dislike the Nun so much, it’s too easy. A ghost turns up and tells you what to do to beat the baddy. Did all of this have to take place in this location for her to part this knowledge? What if they had gone to a different hospital? What about all the kids that died in the first two films, didn’t she care then? It gets the plot going and I will let it slide because this is a slasher film about a killer that stalks dreams but I still think it is a little lazy on the part of the writers.
Something positive? Ok, this film does have a positive message. We find out later that all the kids have select special powers in their dreams. Not going to go into them but suffice to say some are better than others and the questionable race relations continue (Kincaid the Black Character gets super strength and um, more anger – it seems fine in the context of this film but would not fly today). The point being that we all have dreams and that believing in them makes you stronger. The theme is well placed and actually plays out when they are fighting Freddy. It’s not often you can say that a daft slasher film has a positive message.
Getting to the climax we have had some great kills, dream confrontations and we also get a stop motion skeleton Freddy in the real world attacking someone. I have always had a soft spot for stop motion effects, the Ray Harryhausen style from the Sinbad films and the 1981 Clash of the titans. Granted they never look great but they have a feel to them that is something else and it works in Nightmare just as well. This is a great climax leading to a troupe of this franchise. Freddy being defeated is always a little woolly and never feels like it will be final. Yeah, I know the villain always comes back but the Nightmare films don’t really try.
In summary, this is, in my opinion, the best of the Nightmare films. You don’t have to have seen the previous films to understand anything; it contains some of the best kills of the series and we get the Freddy we know and love for the first time. This is a fun slasher horror film, with a couple of jump scares and plenty of blood for the gore-hounds. However, as I have mentioned it isn’t perfect. The story is a little weak and contrived, some of the acting is just plain bad and the final defeat isn’t amazing. Overall if you have never seen any of the “Nightmare on Elm St” films start with the first one and then watch this one, just to see the difference. If you have seen this, go back and watch and see how well some many parts of this film still stand up, especially if you are having a few drinks.