Franchise Friday - A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4: The Dream Master
In the retrospective documentary ‘Never Sleep Again’, which looks back at the entire Elm Street series, it was dubbed the MTV entry into the series…and they’re not wrong. From the numerous rock songs present in the soundtrack to the actual appearances of MTV within the movie itself, they’re definitely on to something. However, this moniker also applies to the movie itself, as a fair amount of the dream sequences almost play out like a music video…you know…back when MTV played those or had anything remotely to do with music…as opposed to the reality TV shite they play now.
Ahem…but that’s another rant for another time. Instead, let’s talk about Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4: The Dream Master.
Freddy’s back! And Kristen knows it. Although she fails to rally the other Dream Warriors to prevent his return, a new generation of Elm Street kids are ready to step up and go face to burned face with the dream killer. However, when Kristen’s friend Alice absorbs her power to bring others into the dream realm, will this make Alice Freddy’s new agent amongst the living, bringing him more souls to consume? Even worse, will she be the pathway for Freddy to terrorize a whole new generation of Elm Street’s teens?
Let’s be honest up front, trying to follow Part 3 was going to be an unenviable task, no matter who the task fell to. So to compare the two isn’t exactly fair. That being said, Renny Harlin’s entry into the series is indeed a solid film. It proves to be a successful sequel in finding a new way to propel the series forward, filling in a little back story on where Freddy derives his powers and ties up any loose ends from the previous entry. There are also steps backward though, as this film does fall solidly into the ‘Final Girl’ trope so familiar to horror movies.
Why don’t we tackle the negative up front…because, in a way, that’s what the film does. We spend the first 40 minutes in what essentially is a prolonged baton-passing. Kristen, Joey and Kinkaid are a year removed from their battle with Freddy and have re-integrated into Springwood High School. Kristen is seeing Rick and is friends with his sister, Alice. Of course, Alice has her own circle of friends: weight-lifting soap opera fan Debbie, science nerd Sheila, and pines away for the hunky Dan. As we open the film, we find that Kristen’s having nightmares. Even though Freddy remains dead, too many signs point to his immanent return, so, much like in Part 3, she pulls Kinkaid and Joey into her dreams. However, they’re eager to move on with their lives and put this chapter behind them. Of course, Freddy does return…because a dog in a dream peed in the junkyard where his remains were set to rest in consecrated ground. Here’s our first problem. If any holy ground were to be considered desecrated by an animal relieving themselves…I gotta call birdshit. Literally. Given how many birds likely shit on churches, so-called ‘holy ground’ would never, ever be a thing. I get that you’ve gotta get Freddy back on his killing spree, but man…this needed a couple of more drafts. That being said, for a group of teens that learned the vital lesson that the way to beat Freddy is via teamwork, they damn sure did forget awfully quick. And this is a bit of a lost opportunity. How much better would it have been to see Freddy turn them against one another before picking them off one by one. There’s some slight hinting at this, maybe in a couple of lines of dialog if you’re really paying attention, but that in and of itself violates a cinematic no-no: Show, don’t tell. Kinkaid actor Sam Sagoes has gone on the record with his disapproval on how the hold-over characters were treated and, if I’m being honest, he’s right. They did deserve better. Still, let’s not be naïve, anyone that survives one horror movie and shows up in the sequel, well, unless your name is Jamie Lee Curtis, it’s a damn fair bet you’re not making it to the end credits. That rule goes all the way back to 1981’s Friday the 13th Part 2. In this vein, there’s also the casting of Kristen. Part 3 saw Patricia Arquette in the role, but between the success that followed from that appearance and the famous nature of her family and siblings, she opted not to return to the role…being replaced by Tuesday Knight. It’s not that Knight is bad in the role, she’s perfectly serviceable, but if you’re watching the films in rapid succession, as we are for these reviews, you’re definitely gonna notice…and you’re definitely gonna notice that Arquette not only is the better actor, but had a better chemistry with her Elm Street cohorts. Additionally, we see Kinkaid and Joey falling into the exact same traps that they fell into in Part 3, sadly ignoring any concept of character growth. Joey falls for boobies again and Kinkaid gets angry and starts swinging, thinking he can beat Freddy all on his own. While these are set up as events, there isn’t much in the way of connective tissue to make it a story. For as bad as this sounds, it’s almost as if this opening forty minutes needed an additional thirty!
Very fortunately, once the baton is passed from the last of the old Elm Street kids to the first of the new, the movie does improve. The combination of the writing, actors and unseen chemistry makes this new group pretty easy to like. Rick is a kung-fu enthusiast, which is definitely very 80s. [Oh my god…do you remember the sheer amount of ninja-themed magazines that were out back then? – Ed.] Debbie is the epitome of 80s big hair, a Dynasty fan and, as I already mentioned, lifts weights. Dan’s your stereotypical captain of the football team hunk that, unlike the other guys, isn’t a jerk. Sheila is the science nerd, asthmatic and Alice’s best friend. Which leads us to Alice, who proves to be an interesting core to not only the group, but also the film itself. With the typical subtlety one expects with horror films, when we’re introduced to Alice, she has a bedroom mirror that is covered in pictures: her friends, her family, her late mom and so forth. When it’s brought up that such a cluttered mirror defeats the purpose of having a mirror at all, she responds that she doesn’t want to see herself. Additionally, when we’re introduced to Alice, it’s clear she’s a daydreamer, displaying a fighter’s spirit in her imagination, yet remaining meek and mild on the outside. In some ways, it’s a pity that these daydreams aren’t used by Freddy for some evil purpose, however, as she loses her friends, she removes their pictures from her mirror, steadily revealing more and more of herself in the mirror. On top of that, as they die, they pass their defining traits to her. In other words, Freddy gets their souls, but Alice gets their ‘power’. How does this happen? Well, Kristen pulled Alice into the dream where she was getting killed and that’s where the transference occurred.
Okay, let me pull out of that paragraph because we end up having a few things going on with Alice here. First up, she serves as the bridge between the new and the old. You see, in killing the last of the Dream Warriors, that’s it…Freddy’s vengeance is completed. However, in typical horror villain fashion, he’s not satisfied. As Kristen’s power transfers, this ends up opening the gate…allowing Freddy to prey on the new generation of Elm Street teens. Of course, he takes advantage of this, knocking off Alice’s friends one by one. As that happens, we see Alice becoming more self-assured and self-aware and perhaps the embodiment of possibly the film’s theme: in some ways, all we are is the amalgamation of the people in our lives. This isn’t the only thing she takes into her final battle with Freddy though, well, aside from all the totems that represent her late friends. She also brings a nursery rhyme about a ‘dream master’…which…ugh. I won’t lie, it falls kinda flat for a couple of reasons. First, we only hear it twice…once when she’s recounting the first couple of lines to Kristen in the hopes it’ll help her with her dreams and second at the very end in its full form. The problem here is that in that first recounting, Alice’s memory is hazy and then boom…there it is just in time for the final battle. Had it appeared a couple more times throughout the film, that might have helped. My second issue with this rhyme is that it’s pretty derivative, riffing on the ‘Now I lay me down to sleep’ bedtime prayer often recited by children everywhere. The insertion of a ‘master of dreams’ in the verse just feels clunky, as if perhaps a couple of more writing attempts were needed. Still, credit where it’s due, while everyone goes into Part 4 thinking The Dream Master will end up being Freddy, it actually turns out to be Alice and the film deserves points for that.
Kevin Yagher returns from Part 2 to once again tend to the Freddy make up but also in the makeup effects department for this film you have Howard Berger, John Carl Buechler, Steve Johnson and Screaming Mad George…a veritable who’s who list of effects masters that aren’t Tom Savini or Stan Winston. And it shows in the film, whether it’s Debbie’s eventual cockroach form, Freddy’s chest comprised of souls or just the various kills we’re treated to…this entry really is no slouch when it comes to the blood and gore.
Sadly, the same can’t exactly be said for the visual effects. There are some blue/green screen effects that get an A for effort, such as when Alice blasts a hole clean through Freddy…but sadly the execution isn’t much better than a TV meteorologist wearing green or blue during a broadcast while working the chroma-key. In all fairness though, at this point in the life of the studio, New Line was finally starting to get their legs under them…but still, horror movies are intended to be relatively on the cheap side and given the high quality of the physical and makeup effects, costs had to be trimmed somewhere…and this was it. All things considered, it was the wisest choice.
Of course, I always like to add a blurb about the soundtrack and since I started this review by agreeing with the assessment that this film is indeed the MTV Nightmare, I feel almost obligated to talk about it. The film had nine current rock/pop songs on its soundtrack and an additional nine that were featured in the film but no placed on the soundtrack for a total of 18 songs. Craig Safan would compose nearly 42 minutes of music for the film, but with a running time of 93 minutes, it really feels like Safran was wasted here, especially if you recall some of his other scores such as Remo Williams or The Last Starfighter. Furthermore, remember that Freddy’s theme has to be prevalent in the score, and it is…which goes even further to minimize Safan’s contribution.
You’re always going to have a bit of a letdown after a super-solid entry in a movie franchise, and sadly, The Dream Master falls into that trap. Given the problems with the first half of the film or the Dream Master rhyme, maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise to find out that there was indeed a writers’ strike occurring while they were filming and, as such, most of the nightmares were created off the cuff by Harlin and actors had to create their own dialog at times. In spite of all that, while not hitting the heights of Dream Warriors, A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4: The Dream Master still proves to be a solid entry into the series. Englund continues to shine as Freddy Krueger, even giving rise to a couple of iconic lines in this entry: “Wanna suck face?” and “How sweet, fresh meat!”. It would definitely be unfair to say that the makeup and gore effects saved this one, because the new cast members do create likeable characters and that certainly helps, but when you have a veritable all-star team on effects, yeah, that’s certainly where this film shines…and deservedly so. Thus, The Dream Master, like it’s predecessor, earns a Happy Cat rating…granted, it’s a low-end Happy Cat as opposed to Part 3’s high-end one…but even though there is a bit of a drop off from that peak, it’s still an entertaining entry and worth checking out.