A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4: The Dream Master
Dir. Renny Harlin
Freddy Krueger returns once again to terrorize the remaining Elm Street teens, and he uses them to infiltrate the dreams of their friends to grow stronger and continue his killing spree. All that stands in his way is the quiet determination of a young woman who can absorb the good natures and attributes of her rapidly dwindling friends, gradually gaining the strength to stop Krueger once and for all. Until the next sequel, of course.
"When deep sleep falleth on men, fear came upon me. And trembling which made all my bones to shake" - Job IV, 13-14
"How sweet. Fresh meat." Freddy Krueger
The commercial and critical success of Dream Warriors convinced New Line to start work on another Elm Street sequel. As was their usual custom, producers Sara Risher and Bob Shaye (who likened the creation of each instalment to assembling a cheeseburger!) approached Wes Craven, with whom relations were now in tatters to say the least, as Craven resented how his ideas for Dream Warriors had been reworked. Nevertheless, he submitted an outline for a sequel involving time travel within dreams. New Line did not like it, and it became apparent to Craven that the only reason they approached him each time was so they could attach his name to the series and say ‘Hey look! The guy who made the original film is involved with this one, too! Remember how good the first film was?’
After they rejected Craven’s proposal, New Line turned to writer William Kotzwinkle, who drafted a screenplay similar in tone and style to Dream Warriors. It followed directly on from that film and strengthened the series’ continuity with the surviving teenage characters now back in school and attempting to rebuild their lives after defeating child-killer Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund). Brian Helgeland was brought in to redraft Kotzwinkle’s screenplay (Really, New Line? Another writer?), and he introduced one of the series’ key characters: Alice Johnson (Lisa Wilcox), a shy high-school girl with a predisposition for daydreaming. Alice discovers that she can control her dreams like Kristen could in Dream Warriors, and when Krueger is killing her friends she also realises that she can absorb their attributes, and by doing so becomes the Dream Master.
The Dream Master was the most expensive of the films and also the most commercially successful. Directed by Renny Harlin, famed for his action flicks, the slow-burn, atmospheric approach utilised so effectively in Craven’s original film was now just a distant memory. As with the prior film, the plot of Part 4 is structured around a series of fantastical set pieces in which various characters are murdered in highly outlandish and cartoonish ways by Krueger. By now way too familiar to audiences to be even remotely scary, Krueger had become a sort of jokey anti-hero, and Robert Englund now received top billing, with audiences flocking to see the films solely because of Freddy. The Dream Master features a rollercoaster pace, comic-book tone (complete with a ‘super-hero’ story feel following on from Dream Warriors) and more special effects sequences than you can shake a razor-clawed glove at. The emphasis again is on thrilling spectacles and fun entertainment. Characters are boiled down to recognisable slasher types (though they arguably always were) and the ways in which they’re dispatched by Krueger more preposterous. From the fairly inspired (death by waterbed) to the fucking ridiculous (girl transformed into a cockroach and squished by Kruger), the overtly novel deaths in this also feature an asthma sufferer having the air sucked out of her lungs, a fight sequence between a ninja-loving teen and an invisible Krueger, and a girl being chased along a beach by a subterranean ‘Freddy-shark.’ Oh, and the catalyst for Krueger’s resurrection/return in this one? A dog pisses fire on his buried remains in someone’s dream (maybe even the dog's dream). Or something.
Now firmly marketed at the MTV generation, this entry also boasts a soundtrack positively laden with rad rock songs popular at the time. The sets are even more elaborate and the SFX enhanced dream sequences much more audacious. Heavily stylised lighting provides the film with a comic-book feel, and at times it even resembles a music video. While impressively warped dream logic again prevails, tension is completely absent; it’s all about spectacle now, not chills. Freddy is wide out in the open for all to see, and exudes none of the menace he used to.
Since battling Krueger during their stay in a psychiatric clinic, surviving Dream Warriors Kristen (here portrayed by Tuesday Knight), Kincaid and Joey made a pact not to talk about him or dream about him. Kristen still freaks out from time to time and pulls her friends into her dreams for company and reassurrance. When Krueger returns, she accidentally summons Alice into her nightmare thus revealing to her who Krueger is. Apparently the adult populace of Springwood have hush-hushed his existence and refuse to believe he has returned; something that would be addressed in more detail in Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and Freddy vs. Jason. Once the survivors of Part 3 have been dispatched, including Kristen, sadly, whose mother drugs her to make her sleep - essentially sending her own daughter to her death - Krueger uses Alice’s dreams to go after their friends, branching out from Elm Street and into wider Springwood. As Alice absorbs her friends’ good qualities, she removes their photos from her bedroom mirror, gradually revealing more and more of her own reflection. It’s a rather obvious metaphor for her finding her own strength and becoming comfortable with who she is, but it’s nicely handled and about as subtle as Harlin gets!
As with the earlier films, generational conflict and familial strife are again evident here; which at least goes some way to emphasising the teens’ vulnerability. Kristen’s mother is still as cold-hearted as ever, and Alice’s alcoholic father neglects her and her brother. Broken families and teenagers having to grow up fast seem to be the norm on Elm Street, and while the films had now become cartoonish rather than scary, they still retain the modicum of a frosty edge because of this aspect. Things even get a little Craven-esque when Alice explains Aristotle’s theories on dreams and how to control them. Apparently Aristotle believed that during sleep, the soul roams free. What it sees are dreams, and only skilled dreamers are able to control what they see. To their credit, all the Elm Street movies featured strong female characters at the heart of their stories (even Part 2’s male protagonist was flanked by a level-headed and strong willed girlfriend) who have to use their resourcefulness and channel their resilience to escape Krueger’s slashing clutches. As Alice, Lisa Wilcox delivers a sincere performance, ensuring the audience sympathises with her. She undergoes a rites of passage transformation, developing from a shy and awkward girl into a veritable force to be reckoned with, much like Nancy did in the original. This adds to the super-hero feel of the story, and in a nice twist, she even comes to the rescue of her jock-boyfriend.
As the film races towards its climax, the special effects team go into overtime, supplying all manner of jaw-dropping spectacles, including trapped souls bursting out of Krueger’s body and a cinema screen that sucks its audience into the film. The showdown takes places in a psychedelically gothic church which would inform the tone and atmosphere of the follow up film. Amongst the admittedly impressive production design is a haunting and dilapidated version of Nancy’s house from the first film; now as much a part of the series as Krueger. In her analytical studies of the slasher film (Men, Women and Chain Saws), Carol Clover identifies one of the common motifs of the sub-genre as ‘the Terrible Place’; usually a house. Quite why Nancy’s house has become a recurring motif with such connotations in the series isn’t clear. As far as we know, Krueger never lived there; in fact, it was where he was defeated by Nancy in the first film. Perhaps certain spooky folklore has attached itself to the place in the reality of the film. Nevertheless, its use in the sequels as a place where kids are drawn to in their nightmares is creepily realised.
The Dream Master was the Elm Street series’ pinnacle of success. Its overblown fantastical death scenes and portrayal of Krueger as a wise-cracking bogey-clown are what the series is now famed for. While it is a well made film, and as entertaining as fantasy-horror gets, its deliberate crowd pleasing/pandering aspects strip it of any suspense or emotional impact, and it’s as far removed from the foreboding darkness of the original film as is possible.