When it comes to horror movie franchises, there are few with as much horror clout as A Nightmare on Elm Street. Spanning an impressive 7 films (plus a remake and Jason match-up), the menacing Freddy Krueger returned time and time again to torment a whole new batch of unfortunate souls. And while the franchise is unique in the fact that it’s leading villain was consistently portrayed by the same actor (the iconic Robert Englund), the music of Elm Street did not retain the same consistency. Each and every time Freddy returned to haunt our communal dreams there was a new composer providing the tunes. While each individual brought something unique to the table, there is one film and one soundtrack that stands a bit off to the side, a bit outside the rest of the Elm Street scores. As it is Greedy Guts month here at Nightmare on Film Street, I’d like to seize the opportunity and talk about the one, the only, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.
The film is in many ways a refreshing return to the franchise anchored by the reappearance of Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp). It’s so lovely seeing her character again and seeing how Nancy has evolved and attempts to cope with the scars that Freddy has left behind. However, the music to the film is markedly different. There’s a clear sonic shift that occurs and it’s no surprise that this shift would come at the hands of the now iconic, Angelo Badalamenti. Before Twin Peaks, before Cabin Fever, before Wild at Heart, there was Freddy.
Released in 1987, NOES 3 was very early in Badalamenti’s film score composing career and provides a fascinating glimpse into the mind and future of this infamous creative. While he was a dedicated and lifelong musician, Badalamenti got into the film composition game a bit later than one might think. It wasn’t until his late 40’s that he would enter the field professionally with his work on David Lynch’s 1986 Blue Velvet. Initially working on the film as Isabella Rossellini’s singing coach, this soon led to a small role as a piano player, which then led to Badalamenti scoring the rest of the film. This serendipitous series of events would thrust the new talent into the consciousness of Hollywood and it wouldn’t be long before the phone started ringing. Immediately following the Blue Velvet project came the first offer for a solo film scoring gig; Dream Warriors.
It’s been many years since Freddy Krueger’s first victim, Nancy, came face-to-face with Freddy and his sadistic, evil ways. Now, Nancy’s all grown up; she’s put her frightening nightmares behind her and is helping teens cope with their dreams. Too bad Freddy’s decided to herald his return by invading the kids’ dreams and scaring them into committing suicide.
Badalamenti was in good company when he agreed to take over the helm on the latest installment of the NOES series. Strong groundwork had been laid and established by the original composer of the franchise, Charles Bernstein (Cujo, April Fool’s Day). Themes, vibes and catchy children’s rhymes were all introduced through Bernstein’s music and his work present in this first film would continue to be a light thread stitching all 7 of the main films together. Next up for NOES 2: Freddy’s Revenge, was the orchestral maestro Christopher Young (Hellraiser, Sinister). While much more traditional that Bernstein’s synth-infused score, Young managed to match the unique story that NOES 2 was telling. Between these two powerhouse composers, there was a solidly laid foundation, but the doors for what was to come next were all left wide open.
With the return of Nancy Thompson to the world of Freddy Krueger, there was already a close connection to the first NOES and this fact was not lost on Badalamenti. While he was certainly ready and willing to create his own unique sonic landscape in Dream Warriors, Badalamenti was cognizant of the brilliant and establishing work that had come before him. Tackling this expectation right out of the gate, there is an artful transition that occurs within Kristen‘s (Patricia Arquette) initial dream sequence. Here we get a taste of the original NOES theme followed by some Badalamenti loveliness as Kristen finds herself in Freddy‘s boiler room with a young girl. As she grabs the child from her tricycle and attempts to run away the music drops it’s atmospheric swirlings and dives right into full synth mode. Syncopated chime-like notes provide the melody over electronic drums and long sustained chords.
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“…we get a taste of the original NOES theme [until] the music drops it’s atmospheric swirlings and dives right into full synth mode.”
While the synth patches may not be as polished as say a Harold Faltermeyer (Beverly Hills Cop, Running Man) score, the sounds that are present are truly fitting and appropriate. Coupled with a few well executed stings, it’s quite soon in the movie that we as an audience are well aware of the ride that we are in for. As Kristen awakens from her dream, there’s also an interesting editing technique present. Known as a ‘L’ cut, the scene quickly changes from dream world to the real world, and yet the music from Kristen‘s dream world bleeds over into her bedroom. Here the music is used as a psychological tool to let us know that not all is quite what it seems and the lines between Kristen‘s dreamscape and reality are blurring. This combo in both film editing and sound design works on multiple levels and can be found time and time again throughout the film.
Lest you think the nightmare is over, Freddy reveals himself once again as Kristen encounters a killer faucet fixture in her bathroom. At this point in the score, Badalamenti is leaving little doubt as to the direction the film is heading. While this section of the scene lasts a mere minute, so much more than just Freddy‘s intentions are revealed. There’s a simplicity and innate cheesiness to the structure, pacing and timbre of the specific tones that are utilized. There’s also a shocking amount of tribute sounds crammed into a very short amount of time. The muted horn sounds, classic string pulls, dissonant chords, bird sounds, and cascading piano runs call to mind films like Friday the 13th, Re-Animator, The Birds, and Psycho. What Badalamenti is doing here is laying a foundation and sonically imbuing the film with a certain level of camp. It’s genius, really. In this one scene, he blends together the work that both Christopher Young and Charles Bernstein created with his own while simultaneously hinting at the fact that Dream Warriors is a middle ground between the first and second installments of the franchise.
Another thing that makes Dream Warriors so great is the glimpse we get at a composer navigating his own path. With the gift of hindsight, we can see the gears turning as Badalamenti finds his scoring feet. Take the track ‘Deceptive Romance’ for instance. While Joey gets all tongue-tied with his nurse, we are led into the scene with a truly sweet, simple melody with intense nostalgic vibes. Here we hear Badalamenti’s M.O. developing and the type of sound he will become more known for in the future. The characteristic pop quality coupled with a minimalist off-kilter surreality will become the style that Badalamenti excels at, attracting like-minded filmmakers like David Lynch. Then, as Freddy reveals himself to Joey, long sustained synth chords are held and layered with deliberate and succinct, punctuating notes.
The tension and the suspense begin to build as the world collapses around Joey. Here we also see Badalamenti’s understanding of space really come through. While Joey‘s life hangs literally in the balance, the score is reduced to a swirling, sustained synthetic drone. The lack of movement in the score here builds more tension and suspense than any melody could. This stagnation in melody and forward momentum also mirrors Joey‘s inability to verbalize the danger building around him. Unable to cry out for help, the sustained synth chords lay like an auditory weight allowing us as the audience to really feel the internal and external terrors that encompass Joey in this moment.
Throughout the entirety of the film, Badalamenti continues to experiment with tones, textures, rhythms and mediocre synth patches. While these elements commonly result in criticisms concerning quality and overall continuity, I’m here to argue that the score perfectly encapsulates the NOES brand and it’s continued dedication to evolving without losing its core identity. Yes, the Dream Warriors score isn’t nearly as polished as the first. You’d also be correct in saying it’s not as theatrical and orchestrated as the second. But it is damn near perfect for the film that it is actually anchoring. As Freddy makes the rounds to the complicated and complex cast of teenagers, we see him really hitting his stride. Catchy one-liners? Perfection. Menacing and messed up kills? Nails em’. Surrealistic dreamscapes with unlimited potential? You got it. And standing right there next to Freddy, holding his knife clad hand, stands the film’s score. As the music subconsciously guides the audience through dreams and reality, it’s also there to support both the comedy and the horror in equal measure.
“….standing right there next to Freddy, holding his knife clad hand, stands the film’s score. As the music subconsciously guides the audience through dreams and reality, it’s also there to support both the comedy and the horror in equal measure.”
Another element of Badalamenti’s surrealistic score is how well it compliments and works with the insert and promo songs courtesy of 1980’s rock icons, Dokken. There’s already an overarching aura of camp and quirk about the film’s music, so the utilization of not one, but two Dokken songs in the film doesn’t seem out of place or forced. As Kristen sits with ‘Into the Fire’ blaring from her desktop radio, it’s a refreshing bit of pop culture nuance that reaffirms the teenager’s ages and position in society. It anchors the kids in a mental time capsule that we can all relate to and connect with. And don’t you for one second think I’m not going to talk about Dokken’s promotional marketing bombshell track, ‘Dream Warriors’!
Released almost 3 weeks before the film, Dokken’s killer song coupled with the film footage heavy music video preemptively clues in movie goers as to where this next installment of the franchise is heading. It would be truly strange to follow up this humorous and fun romp of a marketing campaign with a serious and dramatic film score. If that had occurred, it would have made the Dokken video more of a joke than the intelligent and tasty marketing asset that it is. Even though it was so early in his film career, Badalamenti’s music strikes a perfect balance of effective score and franchise friendly technique with his own characteristic quirk and texture.
Much like Freddy gains strength from the souls of his victims, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors gains strength from the sonic landscape that Badalamenti creates. It’s a fascinating and engaging listen that holds up within the film, as well as outside of it. If looking to dive into the score a bit more, this is one of those circumstances where lack of options is not an issue. Varese Sarabande issued a great CD and LP version back in 1987 that has several versions composed by Badalamenti not quite found in the film. These deep cuts and hidden glimpses are fascinating and highly recommended for interested parties. They also released an impressive CD box set back in 2015 that includes lots of unreleased bonus material from fellow composers Ken Harrison and Charles Bernstein.
However, Death Waltz Recording Company issued the holy grail for vinyl collectors in 2017 with their A Nightmare on Elm Street: Box of Souls box set. This 7 LP set features scores from each of the main films, beautiful artwork, liner notes, and bonus tracks. And if it’s just the Dokken song you’re after, One Way Static released a perfect little 7″ in 2015. For those more adventurous, if you do enough crate digging, you can likely find an original 1987 Elektra single at your local record store. Any way you slice it, Dream Warriors is one of those perfectly cheesy, perfectly quirky 1980’s film scores that not only satiates that nostalgia itch but provides an intimate and early glimpse at one of film’s most unique composers.
Which NOES score is your personal favorite? Which film score do you consider Badalamenti’s best? Let us know over on Twitter, our subreddit, or at The Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook! And if you’re looking for more of horror’s best scores, make sure and check out my other installments of Terror on the Turntable!