There were several reasons to look forward to the summer following the sixth grade, the summer of 1989. It was the last summer before I began junior high school (which I didn’t know would be hell). I remember feeling a lot anticipation for that summer. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was coming to movie theaters. So was Batman. I had seen Lethal Weapon on video and while Mom and Dad didn’t take me to see Lethal Weapon 2, I knew it wouldn’t be too long before it came to video. Ghostbusters II was also coming out (though I missed seeing that movie until it came out on video; the first of only two times I’ve seen the whole movie, the most recent was last year). The last thing that really got me excited was the last movie I’d see in the theater before the nightmare known as junior high (and pre-adolescence): A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child.
My mother, who wasn’t hip enough to have liked The Dream Master, left it up to my father to take me. Diggit: Dad doesn’t like horror movies. For that matter, my father doesn’t like most movies. Old westerns, The Horse Whisperer (which I have yet to see), and maybe a few early Clint Eastwood movies, otherwise Dad just isn’t interested. But he loved me (the old man still does) and he took me.
The Dream Master was a huge hit. The Dream Child was not. Was it Freddy fatigue? Was it that despite large numbers of people who went out to see the fourth Nightmare, far fewer actually liked it? Was it that teen pregnancy was a little too close to home for the Nightmare demographic? Perhaps it was all those things. Perhaps none. Another cause could be that the Horror Boom of the 1980s was about to crash. Stephen King was taking a short break to deal with some personal issues, and there were too many bad books on the shelves and even more bad movies in the theaters and on video rental shelves.
The Dream Child was directed by Stephen Hopkins, who, like the two previous Nightmare directors, went on to have a pretty active career once moving away from Elm Street. The story was by the horror novel writing team of John Skipp and Craig Spector, and Leslie Bohem, who wrote the screenplay. Somewhere in my memory, I link the writer David J. Schow to the film, too. New Line was tapping into the Horror Novel Boom for creative ideas. If I’m wrong that Mr. Schow (who appeared in Borderlands 5 with me, Stephen King, John Farris, and others…go find a copy on eBay) had anything to do with The Dream Child, I’m sure someone out there will correct me.
My feelings on the movie, released a few weeks before my twelfth birthday, have changed little in the twenty-one years since it came out. As a matter of fact, those early thoughts have solidified and become more adult. I actually have reasons for some of those feelings.
More continuity! This movie continues the story of characters we met in the previous movie. Woo!
Lisa Wilcox returns as Alice Johnson. Her performance in The Dream Master needed a little oomph until the end, but as I said in the last essay, it was probably that the director was about cool camera angles and flashy effects more than he was about acting. Wilcox does a far better job in The Dream Child, though she no longer looks like a teenager, even one graduating from high school. Her performance is solid and helps the movie flow. The only other comment I have is her hair. Her hair was dyed red in The Dream Master so people wouldn’t get her confused with Tuesday Knight. For The Dream Child, she sports her natural blonde hair. I’m always for the red hair, though.
Some of the supporting cast is okay, too. Nick Mele’s return as Mr. Johnson, who is a recovering alcoholic (he wasn’t recovering in The Dream Master) plays a sympathetic role, a real character arc from his assholy tendencies in the prior movie. Danny Hassell returns as Dan, Alice’s boyfriend. His performance is all right, it’s just good to see a returning character. Of the new victims–er…um…teenagers–it’s really only Kelly Jo Minter as Yvonne who is worth watching. She was trapped in high school in the 1980s, stuck in Summer School, for instance.
Stephen Hopkins brings a gothic feel to this movie that is missing from The Dream Master and only hinted at in Dream Warriors. The sets are usually darker in this movie than in the previous and there are shots of the institution where Amanda Krueger (the writers have dropped the whole Sister Mary Helena name) worked that remind me of the best gothic movies. This is a man who could have made a really good Nightmare, given better material.
Poor material or not, the idea of Freddy trying to use the dreams of an unborn baby is a good one. I know a lot of fans think it’s lame but I’m not one of them. Why not? If the execution is poor, it wasn’t for lack of trying.
The majority of the characters survive. This fact helps stop The Dream Child from bringing the Nightmare series too far into slasher movie territory.
The weak cast. Erika Anderson as Greta, the bulimic/anorexic teen model, and Joe Seely as Mark, the skateboarding comic book geek, are both all right but weak. They have their roles to fill and both do so, but are (wait for it…) stereotypes. Kelly Jo Minter is able to make Yvonne rise over any stereotype she might be in. The people who play Greta’s, Mark’s, and Dan’s parents have all the depth of sitcom parents.
The missed opportunities. Stephen Hopkins seems to be a director with talent. The movie isn’t too bad, except…well…I’ll get to that soon enough. It feels as though the screenwriter(s) could have taken the idea, the fear that all people have about being parents but especially a teenager with an unplanned pregnancy, and have gone further with it. Instead, we get a creepy kid with haunting blue eyes who keeps showing up, being creepy, and is calling Freddy his friend. We have a comic book geek taken out in a comic book dream, a bulimic/anorexic teen model killed by being fed to death (more on this later, too), and, well, other silly things that are supposed to be scary but are not. When Freddy comes back to “life” in the church from the last movie, he has a strangely long left arm and hunga-munga bare feet that last for only that scene. Why? Then Freddy’s face appears in an ultrasound nightmare. It’s scary only in that someone thought that would be scary. There was a lot more possibility with the material that seems to have just been put aside for the quick and easy. And if my two examples didn’t tip you off, then you’re gonna be shocked when I say that another nightmare is–
Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger. When he is reborn, after the required lame one-liner (“It’s a boy!”), there’s actually a creepy, nearly horrifying moment, if one can get past the stupidly long arm with the equally stupidly large hand attached (his gloved arm and hand are normal)¹. There are a few moments toward the end, when Freddy is walking down a corridor and the overhead lights are swinging and he blinks in and out of existence that somewhat works. Even the strange staircases-everywhere-ending that is reminiscent of a German expressionist film and M.C. Escher more than A Nightmare on Elm Street movie works. These are, I believe, Stephen Hopkins’s touches. Freddy, though, ruins this movie. He has become a comedian in this movie, yelling gallows-humor one-liners and making us, the audience, co-conspirators to his deviant acts.
I understand that Robert Englund is a working actor and will go where the money is to pay his bills–Freddy Krueger was a guaranteed paycheck–but I would have to think that if you have helped build a character as strong, as memorable, and as scary as Freddy Krueger, you wouldn’t help dilute him. In a recent interview with Rue Morgue, he says that he and whatever Nightmare director he was working with on the later movies would often shoot two versions of a scene: one rife with quips and one-liners and another that was darker, meaner, and scarier, and that the editors/studio would often choose the former over the latter. Perhaps that is the case. New Line Cinema, in my book, had made some pretty terrible choices regarding the Nightmare movies thus far and didn’t really see them as anything other than cash cows. The art and thought Wes Craven put into the initial idea and resulting movie had been discarded before they even finished principle photography of that same movie, when Robert Shaye and New Line forced him to shoot different endings for cheap scares (and possible sequels?). By turning Freddy into a punk-antihero-lounge-comedian, they could sell more tee shirts, posters, dolls, etc., with his likeness.
If The Dream Master is the movie where Freddy Krueger stops being scary, then The Dream Child is the movie where he becomes boring. The movie halts each time he comes onscreen with his wisecracks. Oh, and I’m not fond of the makeup on Freddy this time around, either. In certain lighting, from certain angles, it’s quite effective, but when well-lit, it looks horrible.
The censors. By the late 1980s, Middle Amurica had had enough, damnit! All these horror movies and heavy metal songs and MTV and titty magazines and the new Fox Network with their Married…With Children that actually had porn stars on, and that radio guy from New York, Howard Stern, with his filth and…well, their heads were ready to explode. It was bad enough when Freddy Krueger was playing in small theaters and drive-ins, but now he was everywhere! The Religious Right, Tipper Gore, and their ilk were determined to set America back on its righteous path by protesting Freddy Krueger. Matchbox’s talking Freddy Krueger doll, glimpsed in passing at the local Child World (I miss that place), was pulled off the shelf before it could make it under my Christmas tree. The Dream Child, which didn’t just feature a child murderer/molester come back for revenge as the hero, but also dealt with teenage sex/pregnancy, fetuses (we all know how much the R.R. loves fetuses), and any number of other things that could/would damage any unsuspecting child/teenager who could sneak into the theater to watch it. As a result, some of the effects were toned down. Dan’s death on motorcycle is edited down to be not as graphic, and Yvonne’s death is edited to that Freddy is no longer dipping into her innards to feed her (which leads to the question: Why does she have a bleeding belly? when we see her later on). Honestly, the cuts were minor, but one senses that the story may have suffered from the motivation of trying not to offend people who would never actually see the movie, anyway, but just stand outside the theater with their signs and damn those who did want to see it.
The Morning After
My feeling when I saw it, weeks away from being 12, was: Not as bad as 2, not as good as 1, 3, or 4. I feel the same way twenty-four years later. The Dream Child shows signs of weariness. By churning out a movie a year, New Line Cinema exhausted the very people they wanted money from: the fans. Yes, the nine-to-twelve-year-olds were still excited by seeing Freddy in a new movie, but the older, more refined teenagers were growing tired. This is a shame because with A Nightmare on Elm Street and Freddy Krueger, New Line Cinema had on its hands the potential to make a few movies that were all good, scary, and thoughtful. Instead, it kept Freddy in a sort of veal cage, changing writers and directors, hiring actors with less and less skill, adding more and more special effects, and generally not giving a damn about the series that had put the company on the map.
Stephen Hopkins does a good job in the scenes leading up to Freddy and after he’s gone, but while Freddy is onscreen, he’s a joke. Super Freddy. Puh-lease. Freddy on a skateboard. “Bon appétit…bitch!” Come on. Shut the fuck up and be scary.
Still, The Dream Child isn’t the worst of the sequels. It has some inspired moments, an idea that I still rather like, and some decently creepy, if not horrifying or terrifying, moments.
Freddy’s Nightmares–A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Series continued another season after this movie, with Freddy’s makeup matching what he wore in The Dream Child. But the series, not very good to begin with, lost even more viewers and was canceled. Such is the way. After all, Tales from the Darkside, Monsters, and other horror anthology shows were also disappearing. Sales were beginning to drop on those horror novels and horror movies were beginning to sink at the box office.
New Line Cinema saw the writing on the wall and pulled Freddy out of the marketplace for a while. They were busy trying to acquire Jason Voorhees from Paramount Pictures. Just imagine what one could do with both Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger….
¹One can argue that the very fact that Freddy exists in dreams makes it okay for his left hand and his feet to be oddly large, and I can except that if they remained so throughout the movie or if strange morphs of his body–aside from gimmick nightmares–were part of the norm. The only physical thing that changed with Freddy, other than the hat and sweater, is his face. One could argue that as different teenagers dream about him, they add their own twist, I guess. But…I don’t think it completely works. Maybe if each person dreams a different look for him, but not in the larger sense.