The Ten Day Nightmare: Day Four – A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master
How does one follow the creative heights of a sequel like The Dream Warriors? Well, “hiring Renny Harlin” might not be the answer that pops immediately to mind, but that’s exactly what happened. But how does Harlin’s film live up to the last film? And is it possible to move Freddy himself into more of a starring role without somewhat damaging the character? The answers lie within. But remember, SPOILERS AHEAD.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER (1988)
Directed by: Renny Harlin
Story by: William Kotzwinkle & Brian Helgeland
Screenplay by: Brian Helgeland, Jim Wheat & Ken Wheat
A resurrected Freddy finally finishes off the remaining Dream Warriors, the last of the original Elm Street kids, but not before Kristen is able to transfer her power to her best friend, Alice. Unfortunately for Alice, Freddy starts using her and her new skill to pull other kids into his world. But what Freddy doesn’t realize is that Alice also gains power from every soul he takes, and she’s not gonna take Freddy’s plan laying down.
I have a theory. It’s not a revolutionary one, but it goes like this – in terms of movie franchises, the success of a particular entry depends mostly on the quality of the one that preceded it. Oh, sure, audience fatigue will inevitably set in for any long-running series, but this formula is a good indicator of whether or not even the hardcore fans are still happy with the product. Take, for instance, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. Or, if you need a more recent example, Saw VI. Both were considered to be surprisingly strong entries in their respective series (particularly for being that far along into them), yet both underperformed at the box office…most likely because both were following dreadfully bad fifth entries.
And so this also helps explain why, until 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason came along, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master was the most financially successful Nightmare film of them all. Coming off the awesome Dream Warriors, it makes sense that audiences were excited to see where the series would go next, and had faith it could only get bigger and better. How were they to know that New Line and the filmmakers were about to take a flaming dog piss all over that faith? And I’m not being harsh with that “flaming dog piss” line. I mean it literally. But, you know what…I’ll get back to that.
For now, let’s just cut to the chase and get right to the heart of the problem with The Dream Master. Namely, this is where the series more-or-less turns into nothing more than “The Freddy Show”…which might not have a laugh-track, but it might as well. By this point, New Line clearly understood they now had one of the all-time horror icons under their roof, and so they decided to increase Freddy’s exposure. An understandable move, and it at least finally earned Robert Englund the top billing he deserved, but it also pretty much ruined the series as a legitimate horror entity. Catching on to the fact that Freddy was by far the series’ most popular character, New Line assumed people wanted to root for him more than his prey. Unfortunately, this new “Freddy as anti-hero” approach also meant a general lightening of the character, downgrading his more terrifying aspects and instead going for a stronger emphasis on goofy hijinks. I could go on and on about how this turned Freddy into nothing more than an embarrassing self-parody…but I’ll just let the evidence speak for itself:
But, OK, it’s one thing to have Freddy rapping in Fat Boys videos, but the movies themselves are a whole other issue, right? They must have kept Freddy at least somewhat intimidating in the movies, right?!? Well…
So, The Dream Master unfortunately turns Freddy into more of a comedic character rather than a figure of terror. It’s one thing to have him spout the occasional one-liner, or to show his devilish glee at tormenting his victims – the previous films managed to do so while still having him remain a frightening presence. But once you’ve got the guy cross-dressing, eating a pizza topped with screaming face meatballs (“soul food,” as he puts it), or slapping on a pair on sunglasses and mugging for the camera, you’ve more or less waved goodbye to any sort of scary credibility.
It’s too bad, because as far as a continuation of Dream Warriors goes, the basic idea of The Dream Master ain’t half bad. I like that it’s smart enough to pick up the story pretty much from where Part 3 left off, and I like that the script called for Dream Warriors‘ intriguing heroine, Kristen, to return. Though I don’t like how that turned out, since, unfortunately, Patricia Arquette opted not to reprise the role. Even more unfortunately, they replaced her with singer/actress Tuesday Knight (yep, that’s her real name), whose screen presence…well, let’s just say it leaves a lot to be desired (translation = she’s awful). I don’t know, maybe they hired her just for her singing skills, as she also contributes the theme song, “Nightmare,” over the opening credits. It probably would have been best to just stop there, but no…they had to go and let her act in the damn thing, as well.
Still, Knight’s lifeless performance aside, I really do dig the concept of Freddy seeking vengeance on the remaining Dream Warriors. And I especially like the idea of Freddy meeting his match in Alice, a girl whose shattered home-life has left daydreams as her only sense of comfort (plus, Lisa Wilcox – while not exactly Meryl Streep herself – is still a far more charismatic screen presence than Knight, and the movie gets noticeably better once the focus shifts to her). While the movie doesn’t really offer any explanation as to how Kristen “transfers” her dream powers to Alice (no surprise there), the added twist of Alice gaining abilities from everyone Freddy kills is actually pretty clever. There’s an amusing irony to the idea of Freddy unwittingly making his nemesis even more powerful with each kill, thus accidentally setting the stage for an evenly-matched final showdown.
Even though all of that is admittedly cool in theory, most of the movie is a pretty muddled mess that just can’t seem to fit the pieces together. Dream Warriors saw multiple writers come together and actually fashion a terrific script that must have capitalized on all of their best ideas. The Dream Master is pretty much the opposite of that, as four writers (including no less than Brian Helgeland, who would go on to write such modern classics as L.A. Confidential and Mystic River) just sort of throw random ideas out there, but never really follow any of them through to their full potential.
There are a few neat moments here and there – in particular a Groundhog Day-ish sequence where Alice and her boyfriend keep reliving the same moment over and over (I love this part, maybe because it feels more like an actual nightmare than a lot of the rest of the series). But, overall, the film seems depressingly complacent to, when at a loss for what to do next, just fall back on tired gags and puns rather than make any serious effort to shock or scare. That might have been OK if the movie had just said “screw it” and gone all the way over into ridiculousness (sort of like Freddy’s Dead), but you can actually sense this film’s confusion over what it’s trying to be.
Sure, Englund is clearly having a ball with the goofier material, showing his obvious enthusiasm for Freddy’s more over-the-top persona, and at times his performance is the only thing that makes this movie watchable. But his tongue-in-cheek playing to the audience doesn’t seem to match with the otherwise serious tone the film is sometimes striving for. It’s too awkward of a mix, and director Renny Harlin seems more concerned with making the movie look cool (it is the most stylish looking entry yet, I’ll give it that) than he does with addressing this distracting, inconsistent tone. In keeping with the increasingly elaborate visuals of the previous film, this film’s kills are even more surreal and outlandish…
…but all that effort is marred by the fact that – unlike last time – we don’t really give a damn about any of these characters, with the possible exception of Kincaid and Joey…and that’s only by default of them being the same actors from the last movie (although the fact Joey falls for the old “naked lady” trick for the second movie in a row kind of paints him as too dumb to really root for, either).
But, alright, the time has come – I promised I would get back to that flaming dog piss thing, and I’m a man of my word. And really, there’s no better way to sum up the problems with this movie than to take a look at the half-assed and utterly stupid way the filmmakers devised to resurrect Freddy. See, the last film made a big deal out of the idea that as long as his bones were buried in hallowed ground, that’s the end of Freddy. This was accomplished, as Dr. Neil Gordon used holy water to consecrate a grave he and Donald Thompson dug in the junkyard where the Springwood parents had originally left the remains. So, how to bypass this? Well, that’s easy…how about having Kincaid have a dream where his dog (named “Jason” – haha) pisses fire on the grave, and wakes up Freddy?
Now, obviously, there are all sorts of questions here – was the dog just part of Kincaid’s dream, or was the dog actually dreaming, too? Was it working for Freddy? If so, why does it growl at him when he starts coming back to life? And why does it pee fire?? But the biggest problem is that this still doesn’t really explain how the hell Freddy came back. I’ve seen some people claim that the fire/piss “washed away” the holy water, but that doesn’t make any damn sense. This is clearly taking place in the dream-world, not the real junkyard where Freddy’s bones are presumably still buried. So…what the hell? Well, maybe the man himself can explain it. What’s that you say, Freddy? What’s your answer for how and why you came back?
“You shouldn’t have buried me. I’m not dead.”
Oh, OK. Well, I’m glad we got that all cleared up.
You might be thinking – “well, if the reasoning behind his resurrection is so flimsy, I’m betting they at least came up with a sweet finale to make up for it.” Yeah, well, sorry to break it to you, but (SPOILER ALERT) this is the film where Freddy is killed by looking into a mirror. This, despite the fact that a scene in the previous film took place in a hall of mirrors that I can only assume Freddy himself created. Why would he do that if mirrors are like kryptonite to him??
So, to summarize – dog piss brings Freddy back, and he dies because he sees his own reflection. This is the level of thought that went into A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, and this is why it kind of stinks. There are some decent ideas in here, and it’s not the series’ lowest moment or anything, but it’s a pretty disappointing follow-up to a movie as awesome as The Dream Warriors.
BODY COUNT: 6
One less than the last movie, which just goes to show that – unlike Friday the 13th – theNightmare series was more concerned with coming up with more extravagant deaths each time than it was with just increasing the body count. And if you don’t believe me, just wait till you see the body count on the next movie.
For all the crap I’ve given this movie, I will admit this – it does have easily the most cringe-worthy “holy shit” moment of the entire series, as Freddy proves to be the worst spotter ever when standing behind the weight-lifting Debbie (Brooke Theiss).
Freddy’s not done yet, though. You see, Debbie is deathly afraid of bugs, and while you might expect the natural course of events to thus be her getting swarmed by insects by flesh-eating insects or something, I guess one of the writers had a hard-on for Kafka, and so instead Freddy actually turns her into a cockroach…
…before finally finishing it all off by trapping her inside a roach motel and crushing her to gooey death. It’s a bit ridiculous (not helped by Freddy’s ultra-cheesy “you can check in, but you can’t check out” line), but it’s still the most memorable death of the film, and really one of the most memorable of the whole series.
FREDDY’S BEST LINES:
“How sweet. Fresh meat.”
“Welcome to wonderland, Alice.”
“Why don’t you reach out…and cut someone?”
FINAL SCORE: 1.5 out of 4 Razor Fingers
Posted on December 4, 2014, in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Franchise Post-Mortems, Reviews and tagged A Nightmare on Elm Street, Flaming Dog Pee, Freddy Krueger, Horror Movies, Kincaid, Robert Englund, Slashers. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.