A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master
Director: Renny Harlin
Starring: Lisa Wilcox, Robert England, Tuesday Knight, Andras Jones, Rodney Eastman, Ken Sagoes, Danny Hassel, Brooke Theiss, Nicholas Mele
Kincaid: I'll see you in hell!
Freddy: Tell 'em Freddy sent ya!
1988 was unquestionably the year of Freddy Krueger's peak. He had launched a commercially successful sequel in 1987 that got everyone hotly anticipated for the follow up. The film bolstered Freddy's biggest opening weekend and highest grossing total intake of the series. It wasn't the biggest jump though, as it was a $5 million improvement on Dream Warriors. And that film had made the biggest jump, improving on Freddy's Revenge by $15 million. The Springwood Slasher was everywhere in 1988 too, and MTV was a big hangout for him and his perfect audience as they were the ones lining up in droves to see his movies.
Following the largely successful Dream Warriors, Bob Shaye knew they had to hurry up and crank another one while the iron was still steaming. An unsuccessful search had Shaye settling on Renny Harlin, who had been hanging around his offices and Shaye just wasn't sure about him. Harlin had recently made a horror film that was getting him some notoriety called Prison (which is actually pretty good, check it out). It wasn't talent that convinced Shaye to hire Harlin in the end, it was his size. The shoot was going to be grueling and physically taxing, and he thought Harlin looked like a big guy who could probably handle that aspect.
Harlin brought some good foreign flavor to the film to give it a unique touch. He also came as an outsider who saw things in a different light. Renny saw Freddy as the star of the film and wanted to make a film that showcased it. So, those one-liners that we sort of had been getting hints of in the previous films came front and center in this one. Also, his kills in the nightmare world also became bigger and more boisterous. Everybody steer very clear of the Fred-man because he's coming right through. This film would not only take Freddy to the top, but would be a break out launching place for Renny Harlin as he would follow this film up with Die Hard 2 and be brought on to direct the follow up to Aliens (Which he wound up leaving).
The film also brought with it more of a visual experience, aided by a sort of fresh approach by Harlin. Sequences are a little more imaginative and filmed with a little bit more artistry. There are also some big action moments pulled off quite well too. There are some just "pretty" sequences in the film, with a highlight being Alice's trip to the movie theater. The floating popcorn and her descent into the screen is all really cool. While it may not be intended, but there's a sort of excellence that comes across with her in the future diner (Crave Inn...get it? yok yok yok) and behind the theater she just left being back projected. I dunno, maybe I'm a dork, but I found the idea to do rear projection on the image of people in a theater to be pretty groovy. Another great moment, that will easily get people the first time is the time loop of Alice and Dan racing to rescue their friend. Nowadays, some might think their disc is skipping. Its out of nowhere, not hinted at or anything, and the first time you see it your mind is like "Wait, I thought I just saw that". Renny Harlin would go on to become one of the next decade's very best action directors. A pioneer of the "pure action" mold. You can see stamps of it here, but also he's got a nice sense of fantasy and imagination that looks to be a strength too, but sort of went by the wayside after this and prison and he went for more big time "grounded" affairs in his work. If there's one thing The Dream Master is one of the best Nightmares at is its visual storytelling.
While this is a pretty big and visual film, its a rather hollow experience, though. This is the "popcorn/date night" Freddy movie. There is some sense of the movie being scary, but for the most part it falls into the more fun realm of horror. Its strengths are purely in its action and comedy. There's not a lot to these characters aside from our lead, as we take things back to Freddy terrorizing high school kids in their everyday lives. The trick to this one is that Kristen Parker's power has become dangerous and is now bringing more meat to the slaughter following Freddy completing his revenge task.
One of the biggest piss offs of this movie is its treatment of our survivors from Dream Warriors. I mentioned last time that it was a great cast of even better characters. Before Act I finishes, Joey, Kincaid and Kristen (Now played by Tuesday Knight) are all bumped off by Freddy. They don't get much to do and its all in one fell swoop that he takes them out. Joey is rendered into a total moron, falling for pretty much the same trick twice (But, hey, how awesome and how 80s is having a water bed kill?). I don't mind that they kill one, two or all three off. Its just that they're treated so much like "Get them the hell out of here this instant!". I understand that killing them could bring the idea of "anyone could die", but it doesn't work here as its so obvious they are just making way for a newer "hipper" cast to line up.
What would have been much more effective is to have one of the Dream Warriors die as the Act I turning point, discovering Freddy has returned. The other two could be off'd as the movie progresses and maybe the last one before the ultimate showdown. Kristen could have been that big Act I shocker death as she's the biggest character from that last movie. She pulls Alice into the dream and passes her powers. You now have Joey and Kincaid who have to help Alice learn about Freddy and the dream world. There could also be a clash with her group and the two Dream Warriors as she learns this stuff and accidentally keeps pulling old friends "fresh meat" into the dreams extending Freddy's existence. I normally don't go off on my own fan fiction tangents, but this sort of fix seems so simple. But I gotta remember, these are low budget slasher affairs, and fresh teen faces every time out are an important factor.
Its not like these new characters are awful, they just pale massively in comparison to the last movie and feel very much like also rans. We get vanilla Dan and a couple friends whose character depths are defined by their clothing or a couple off lines. Alice and Rick, though, seem to have an interesting story with their alcoholic father and their differing personalities. Rick is actually one of the more sympathetic characters here. Andras Jones plays him, and man does he just look like an 80s actor. His passion for his sister never wavers, he's a fun guy and he really cares about those close to him. We get to see his morning for Kristen's death. However, the poor guy gets quite possibly the lamest death in the entire series. In a tale of the production obviously running out of money, he kung fu fights an invisible Freddy and then is stabbed by a hover glove. WEAK!
This film is all about the lavish kills. Aside from Rick, pretty much every one of them has some sort of big set up and is its own unique set piece. This predates it, but these kills all feel like Mortal Kombat "Fatality" finishing moves. When they begin, it feels as if someone just entered the code. There's a music cue, the lighting changes and then all attention is on Freddy to off the person. Funny enough, Freddy would later go on to be an unlockable character in a Mortal Kombat game. The kill that I think this movie is most remembered by is the Roach Motel. Its such a weird idea, but what I like about it is just how bizarre and gross it winds up being. I don't know who came up with it, but its wild and sort of out of place, yet somehow works out just fine. And the effects on it still look gooey, gross and hold up.
I'm a big fan of Alice, Freddy's new nemesis. Lisa Wilcox was a big 'ol childhood crush of mine because of these movies. I'm not sure I've seen her in anything else. She really has a nice arc here in this movie that is rather weightless. We see her go from shy and day dreaming to the kick ass Dream Master taking on Freddy. If I'm being honest, while her movies may not be better, I've kind of been more partial to her character than Nancy. In a new twist with Kristen's power, Alice is able to absorb strengths from her friends as Freddy steals their souls. Her showdown with Krueger is also a pretty awesome fight. It leads to what is probably what is Freddy's best death of himself in the entire series. Its gross, awesome and features Linnea Quigley's boobs. No, seriously, that's her in the chest bursting soul escaping sequence.
If you want to capsule up the "MTV Generation" in movies, this one would be a prime candidate. I think this film worked much better during its time than its held up over the years. The film is overloaded with a soundtrack focused heavily upon throughout the film. The kids fit a bunch of stereotypes and styles of the times. I say MTV, but this movie actually has MTV product placement within it. And I do remember that commercial with the guy talking about watching MTV all the time. What's accomplished in the movie retrospectively makes the series look like a build up to this. You can only do this kind of movie once, and after that Freddy is kind of demystified because he's now a guy you're rooting for to show up and laughing with. You're no longer worried about the fate of our characters, you're concerned with if their death is going to be A) Cool looking or B) Get an awesome one-liner. I'm not damning this film for what its doing, just saying this is the only film you're going to be getting away with it. From here on, going back to being scary likely isn't going to work and having comedian Freddy is going to continually turn to a groan-worthy affair.
Every Nightmare On Elm Street fan has a time in their life where this was possibly their favorite entry, if not their 2nd favorite. Back in '88 and through a lot of the 90s, something just jumped out and latched to everyone. I think it was because we all either had crushes on Lisa Wilcox or that this movie really embraced Freddy and wasn't afraid to have him brought to the forefront. As time as pressed on however, this one has fallen down the quality chain. Its not bad, its just more of a mindless entertainment enjoyment more than anything. A Freddy haunt with no real weight or stakes, but a lot of cool effects and plenty of the Fred-man. The biggest crime it commits to the series is the handling of the survivors of the previous films. Yes, most slashers do far worse to their survivors in the subsequent entry, but you'd think these kids would be different. I do think the film builds to a really fun and rewarding finale, all said and done. You're truly rooting for Alice to go kick Freddy's ass. The last couple times I'd watched The Dream Master, I'd been down on the film, but I had a lot of fun this go-round. As a horror-effects-action showcase, The Dream Master really does make good on that premise.
NEXT TIME: Super Freddy and The Need For Speed