I was ten, I guess, when I first learned of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, though it came out days before my eleventh birthday. I wanted to go to the movies to see it as I had the third movie but didn’t have the chance to. My first viewing of the movie was on VHS, rented from a video store (a local chain, I believe). I liked it a lot. At eleven, I loved that Freddy said all these sarcastic one-liners and that the movie was visually fun to watch. I liked that he was just so big, larger-than-life. I also liked that this movie had so many special effects, effects that were all over the tv.
Again, its place in American culture is important. The Horror Boom was at its peak. There seemed to be shows on tv every other weekend about horror special effects, including a special that aired in syndication called Stephen King’s World of Horror, a special that gave me the first hint of who this Stephen King guy was as well as showed me how some of the effects that garnished The Dream Master came to be.
MTV was at its height. It had changed the culture and was, at this moment in time, the place kids went for entertainment, news, and information. Freddy Krueger’s ascension was as much a result of MTV as it was the Horror Boom. Freddy had a very rock n roll/punk persona. He didn’t care about social norms or what was appropriate. He was a big ol’ Fuck You to the establishment at the end of the Reagan era and the kids, damnit, were listening. I may have only been 10/11, but I was one of them.
Wes Craven was officially off the movie. For some reason, New Line didn’t go with Chuck Russell or Frank Darabont to write/direct. I suspect it was a financial decision. With Dream Warriors a success, it probably would have cost more to rehire them than it was to go with new talent. One problem, though, was a writers strike that made the screenplay difficult to pin down. They went with Finnish director Renny Harlin to direct. The movie was shot in early 1988 and released that August.
Character continuity. Freddy’s Revenge kept Nancy’s house (and diary) but bailed out on any other character (except Freddy) from the first movie. Dream Warriors bailed on its predecessor and returned to the first movie without any mention to the second movie. The Dream Master takes place sometime after the events of its predecessor and re-introduces us to the survivors of Dream Warriors: Kristen Parker (this time played by Tuesday Knight), Joey (Rodney Eastman), and Kincaid (Ken Sagoes) in all his stereotypical glory. Freddy even returns from the junkyard grave he was placed in by Dr. Neil Gordon and Donald Thompson.
Lisa Wilcox as Alice. Her acting in this movie could be better, but the character isn’t supposed to have much personality in the beginning of the movie, so it sort of works. If she’d had a stronger script and a better director, her performance may have been better. She’s in the dream section because I find her purrrrty.
The overall acting. Look, there are no future Johnny Depps or Patricia Arquettes or Laurence Fishburnes in this movie, but for the third sequel to a low budget horror movie (and being a low budget horror movie in its own right), the cast is pretty good. The teenagers are believable enough. Nicholas Mele as Alice and Rick’s father is very good. I believe in the characters, which is all one could hope for. Another standout is Alice’s brother Rick, played by Andras Jones. Part wise-ass, part martial artist, part caring brother, he brings a certain level of realism to the part and helped make this movie a cut above the typical horror movie sequel.
Robert Englund as Freddy. By now, Freddy Krueger was more than just the bad guy in some horror movies, he was a genuine pop icon, up there with Lugosi’s Dracula and Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster. Englund is able to infuse Krueger with glee as he tortures and picks off the teenagers in this movie. Krueger looks like he’s having fun because Englund is having fun playing him. More on Freddy later on, though.
The special effects and the visuals. Renny Harlin may have won more Razzies than just about any other director, but he brought a certain style to The Dream Master that some of the other movies didn’t have. With the success of the previous three Nightmares, there was also more budget for more effects, which were interesting and fun.
The late-1980s charm. Like Freddy’s Revenge, it’s pretty easy to see where in American culture this movie takes place. From the music (this is the second Nightmare to have a real soundtrack, but the first for it to have its soundtrack so entwined with the movie) to the hair styles to the clothes, this movie reeks of the late 1980s. And like Freddy’s Revenge, it’s taken twenty years for that charm to surface. Hardcore fitness? Check. A nerd like Revenge of the Nerds? Check. A karate kid like…well…. Check. MTV reference? Absofuckinglutely!
The ending. I like the ending. The church set is pretty cool. The idea of evil looking at itself and dying is a nice one. The souls on Freddy’s chest introduced in Dream Warriors coming out and getting their revenge is a nice touch.
Who’s that girl? Ooohh…it’s Kristen. Patricia Arquette, who so famously squealed her way into our hearts as Kristen Parker in Dream Warriors, is replaced by singer-actress Tuesday Knight. According to The Nightmare on Elm Street Companion, producer (and Freddy’s Dead director) Rachel Talalay said that Arquette was never approached to reprise the role. Since it wouldn’t really be until 1993’s True Romance that Arquette would become a star, the only reason I can think of is the same reason I figure for not bringing back Chuck Russell or Frank Darabont: money. Arquette would probably have wanted a lot more. The other reason, and even more likely, is that Arquette probably would have said no. Coming from a family in the business, she might not have wanted to have been pigeonholed as a scream queen. After all, Joey, Kincaid, and even Kristen’s mother (Brooke Bundy) all returned to Elm Street for this movie. And even though Talalay says New Line never approached Arquette, I’m not sure that I’m convinced.
Either way, Tuesday Knight’s turn as Kristen Parker is okay, but there is a certain disconnect between her and the audience. She was a strong character in Dream Warriors and while Knight’s portrayal of Kristen is definitely more hard-assed, the character doesn’t feel right.
Again, stereotypes. Kincaid is written exactly as he was in Dream Warriors. Sheila (Toy Newkirk) is supernerd. Brooke Theiss plays Debbie, the hot fitness girl. You get the idea. Alice longs for Dan (Danny Hassel), the popular jock. In other words, A Nightmare on Elm Street is heading down typical 1980s slasher movie territory. Luckily for us Fred-Heads (I swear I didn’t make that term up), it’s not there…yet. But it’s damn close. I’ll get to the reason below.
Who wrote this thing?! The Dream Master was worked on during a writers strike. As a result, the story is by William Kotzwinkle and Brian Helgeland, and the screenplay is by Brian Helgeland and Jim and Ken Wheat (under the pseudonym Scott Pierce). There are also rumors that other people worked on the script and added things as well. Post-Dream Master, Helgeland went on to be nominated and win Oscars for such movies as L.A. Confidential and Mystic River, has written the upcoming Ridley Scott-directed movie Robin Hood, and directed Payback and A Knight’s Tale. (He’s also from my hometown, which is pretty cool). I guess the fact that the movie is good at all is a surprise, but the story is definitely lacking. It’s the kind of movie that if you’re watching it and not thinking, just being entertained by the cool camera angles and flashy effects, you don’t notice the holes in plot and logic. There’s a blurring of the nightmare/waking world in this movie toward the end that is major. At eleven years old I thought certain tricks, like Alice and Dan repeating a scene several times, was cool. At thirty-five, it doesn’t make sense. Are they awake? Are they sleeping? If they’re sleeping, where are they sleeping? They’re in an accident from sleeping at the wheel, but would that happen if they’re running to go save Debbie? And how come Nancy’s house is now very much Freddy’s house? And how come none of the three survivors of Dream Warriors mentions Nancy or Dr. Gordon, two people I would think they’d believe to be nearly saintly? And how does Joey get stuck inside his waterbed? And how come Kristen’s mother doesn’t know her daughter’s bedroom is engulfed in flames until her daughter’s boyfriend and his weird, mousy sister show up? And if what happens in your dreams happen in the real world, does that mean that Debbie’s parents are going to find a giant squished cockroach in their attic or will it just be Debbie’s crushed body? And…. Get it?
Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger. Yeah, that’s right, I said it. This is the first Nightmare that Robert Englund gets top billing, before the title no less. Not too shabby for the nerdy alien from V. By now, Freddy Krueger had become one of the 1980s answers to the Universal Monsters. Robert Englund had done interviews as Freddy, had hosted movies on HBO and music videos on MTV as Freddy. Freddy Krueger was on tee shirts, posters, yo-yos, albums, toys, pins, Halloween costumes…you name it. He was in music videos:
And where Freddy was, Robert Englund was. Freddy’s appearances became a sort of hammy, kitschy thing where Freddy would make quips at people, spin puns, and be a general friendly neighborhood child killer. I mentioned in my essay for Dream Warriors that Chuck Russell and his lighting people lit Freddy mainly outside of the shadows. In The Dream Master, Freddy is always lit very well. Not only that, but Freddy breaks the fourth wall!
You see, Freddy Krueger (and Robert Englund) is no longer just the bad guy in the Nightmare movies, he is the Nightmare movies. Teenagers are no longer paying to see whether or not the kids will escape Freddy, they’re paying to see how Freddy kills them, which makes The Dream Master different than the other movies of the series so far. However it’s the template created in Dream Warriors that starts it. More on this later. You see this in Kincaid’s nightmare where Freddy is reborn. The bones that were left in the junkyard at the end of Dream Warriors come together in The Dream Master (thanks to some flaming dog piss) and Freddy is born again. There’s a poorly dubbed moment when Freddy is posing, backlit, and says, “You shouldn’t have buried me…I’m not dead.” [Is this the best line they could come up with?!]. And then the camera, which means we, follow Freddy as he looks for Kincaid. We’re surprised when Kincaid, from nowhere, drops a car on Freddy. This isn’t the only time where it seems as though we’re following Freddy’s adventure. When Debbie becomes a cockroach stuck in a roach motel, we’re then outside the roach motel with a midshot on Freddy, who’s peeking into the small box with tiny screams coming from it. Freddy squishes it, ending the tiny screams and then says, “You can check in, but you can’t check out.”
Not only does Freddy become the star, but with all the zany camera angles, Freddy also becomes a model. Every line is accentuated with a flick of the finger-knives, or some pose that deals with the glove and knives. In other words, Englund’s performance as Freddy Krueger becomes too big. Though it’s still rather restrained compared to where it’s going (remember, I still have the worst of the movies to come), Freddy has officially stopped being the villain and has become the sarcastic 1980s antihero. Freddy becomes to the monster movie what Eddie Murphy became to cop movies around the same time.
The Morning After
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master opened on August 19, 1988 (almost a week before I turned eleven) and was a huge hit. It was the highest grossing of the original Nightmare series. That summer, Freddy was everywhere. Every entertainment magazine had a story about the movie or Freddy. He was on television and the radio. He had his own 900-number. Freddy was more than just the bad guy in a horror movie now; he was a star. The template had been set by the previous movie, Dream Warriors a year before. The anticipation for the third movie was pretty big and there were more photoshoots starring Freddy than previously done. With the success of that movie, the PR on The Dream Master worked overtime. Generally, the makeup job most people think of when they think of Freddy is the makeup job done for The Dream Master, even though this one is, again, different than its predecessors and successors. It’s very similar to the makeup used in Dream Warriors, only has more color to it. But I digress….
With Freddy the star, the teenagers are now automatic victims. Dream Warriors, trying to get away from Freddy’s Revenge, basically introduced us to teenagers whose purpose was to last only so long before Freddy picked them off. However, those teenagers were pretty well thought out and the audience could buy into them (though not as easily as Wes Craven’s original cast). With the fourth movie, even though we begin with three survivors from the previous installment, we get the sense very early on that most of these characters will not make it through. The reason: We never learn about them the way we learned about prior Elm Street characters. As a result, we have more stereotypes cast only for flashy death sequences and a villain who is now the hero.
This puts the Nightmare movies on track to become just another slasher series. Its saving grace is its imagination. Because Freddy haunts the dreams and nightmares of his victims, the audience is always given the treat of interesting and bizarre sets and imaginative terrors. Only, there are no terrors at this point in the series. There are no horrors. There’s some gross-out and a lot of eye candy, but nothing that really gets under the skin. The original Nightmare was full of horror and terror. Freddy’s Revenge has a few (albeit too brief) moments of horror and at least one of terror (again, Jesse fighting to keep the basement door closed but losing, only to turn around and find the monster right there). Dream Warriors had several creepy moments and, with Nancy and her father central characters, definitely had moments that qualify as horrifying/terrifying. The Dream Master has no real horrifying moments and certainly never terrifies us. It’s unsettling in a few minor moments, but mainly it’s fantastic (in the true sense of the word), gory, and over-the-top.
Yet, its popularity has cemented this movie’s version of Freddy Krueger into our minds.
It also helped get horror fans ready for Freddy on television. In the fall following the release of The Dream Master, an anthology television series called Freddy’s Nightmares — A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Series came out. Freddy was a character in a few of the episodes but was mainly the host, a la Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The first season (which has Brad Pitt in an episode) was the more “popular” season and had Freddy in his Dream Master makeup.
At this time, between the movie (which I didn’t see until its home video debut), the press, and the tv series, I was in full horror mode, renting such gems as Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night II and other classics (as an aside, give me the money and I’d happily write/direct a remake of Mary Lou). I watched some of the Friday the 13th movies if they came on HBO, Cinemax, or Showtime, and saw Halloween IV and V (the first one was difficult to come by, for some reason), but Freddy Krueger and the Nightmares he inhabited were the poison of choice in the monster category. I also became aware of the movies of Stephen King, Pet Sematary being the more recent of his movies released at that time.
Today, I still hold The Dream Master in my heart, not for any reason of quality but because it was part of the building blocks of what made me who I am today. I wish that the filmmakers/studio had had the interest/ability to get Heather Langenkamp back as Nancy. With her death at the end of Dream Warriors, and Kristen’s promise to “dream her into a beautiful dream”, it would have been interesting to make Nancy the anti-Freddy. This idea was done in the early 1990s in a comic book series (Nightmares on Elm Street) written by Andy Mangels and published by Innovation. It would have gone with Craven’s symbolism of Freddy as evil incarnate and Nancy as good. Alas, it was not to be.
The Dream Master stands out for all the reasons above and for being Freddy’s swan song for a bit.
But not our swan song, for we still have four more movies to get to, including what I think is the worst Nightmare in the series, and the second best (and on some days, the best) Nightmare. So stay tuned, folks. This nightmare is nowhere near over.