Spring Slashers: Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)
I’ve been talking about slashers a lot for the past couple of months, but one thing I’ve avoided thus far was talking about any of the major franchise players. However, after a very stressful week, I felt like the cinematic equivalent of comfort food, and that’s what lead me to pop in Nightmare on Elm Street IV: The Dream Master. Back in October when I was talking sequels, I talked at length about my love for Nightmare III: The Dream Warriors, and though it had been a number of years, I still looked back on Dream Master follow up with the same nostalgic glee. So imagine my surprise when I found The Dream Master to be a film that was far less than masterful. Often when I go back to watch films that I haven’t seen since I was in my teens, either I find them to contain interesting elements my youthful mind glossed over or they turn out to be painful affairs that make me want to go back and punt my 13 year old butt for liking. Nightmare 4: The Dream Master contains more than a little of both.
The opening strains of the weakly poppy theme song, “Nightmare“, sang by Elm Street 4 actress Tuesday Knight, announce quite quickly that this will be a different kind of film than the one that preceded it. Nightmare 3 kicked off with Dokken and featured Freddy in his prime, both terrifying and delivering some of the best zingers in the series. When the last flick ended Kristin Parker (Partricia Arquette), Kinkaid and Joey banded together to unleash a can of “Dream Warrior” whoop ass on one Fred Kruger. The sequel begins with Kristin (Tuesday Knight) and her pals trying to live a normal high school life, but she stop Kruger soon returns to life in one of Kinkaid’s dreams. Dispatching with the foes that defeated him in the last film, Freddy moves on to prey on a new batch of Elm Street kids including Kristin’s friend the demure Alice (Lisa Wilcox). As Alice’s friends begin to get killed one by one, she find herself in possession of their greatest talents (such as her brother’s martial arts skills, the rocker chick’s strength, and the nerdy girl’s brains). By the time Freddy comes for her, he finds not a scared teenage girl, but a formative Dream Master ready to rumble.
Despite the theme song’s wanting nature, Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master starts off on a good note. The opening scenes, running straight through Fred’s resurrection and first kill, are dark, moody, and set the stage for some decent tension. Well, that is except for the appearance of neon pink, glowing, smoking claw marks on the lockers as Kristen and company walk by. This moment is indicative of the whole film. Somewhere buried beneath some of the worst Freddy one liners, Pizza with soul toppings, and some non-sensical death scenes, there might have been a scary dark script lurking underneath, but it hardly ever made it up for air. Director Renny Harlin (who would go on to direct both Die Hard2: Die Harder and Cutthroat Island (!?)) was just coming off directing his American breakthrough, the incarcerated horror flick Prison, when he was slotted to replace as director of Nightmare 4. Harlin does a solid job with the film visually, but the tone is all over the place, and I have to chalk it up to an inexperienced director balancing what he wanted with what the studio demands were.
Nightmare on Elm Street 4 marked the first of the Elm Street movies that gave top billing to the central bad guy, Freddy Kruger a.k.a actor Robert Englund. Strangely, I would consider it the first where he didn’t deserve to be billed as such. Not only are Freddy’s jokes and one-liners stale or just unfunny, the director (or the producers) found it necessary to really amp up the vocal effects on Robert Englund’s performance. While they didn’t quite go so far as to auto-tune the Kreuger, the layer upon layer of effects left everyone’s favorite scorched slasher sounding like Harvey Firestein on a particularly phlegm-filled day. It didn’t help that his one-liners were not partially funny or scary with his only gem being, “You shouldn’t have buried me. I’m not dead.” Yeah, I know. It’s not a terribly great line, but as the second place winner would be Fred telling a girl who is turning into a roach, “They check in, but they don’t check out.”, the competition is far from stiff. While Englund didn’t turn in his best performance as Freddy (despite his in-drag turn as the school nurse), the film does see the slasher get some very nice effects moments. Freddy’s reconstitution scene, while not as stunning as Frank’s in Hellraiser, is a very enjoyable classic, practical effect, and I always enjoy the souls pushing out of Freddy’s chest. When recycled as a pizza, it’s not nearly as good though.
There’s not a ton to say about the acting in Nightmare 4, but I do have a very few words to say to some of the performers. Tuesday Knight, you’re no Patricia Arquette, but you did a good enough job to where I barely missed her. Andras Jones, you’re no Johnny Depp. No matter how many martial arts montages they give you or amount of hair gel you apply, you will never jump any streets, but you were in Night Trap so that‘s something. Randy of Randy and the Redwoods, thanks for showing up on a TV screen because I had almost totally forgotten about you. Brooke Theiss, who played the big haired rocker chick who gets turned into a cockroach, I really feel like you should have gotten a more appropriately rock and roll death. Speaking of which Lisa Wilcox, the nerd girl, I have to wonder if you’re like me and can’t quite figure out why the first thing Freddy sends against you is a mechanical arm coming out of a pool of blood on your desk. It’s not his style and seems pretty incongruous. Finally, Rodney Eastman, I realize it was your character, but even in a dream I would assume a naked girl inside my waterbed was trouble.
I can still recall pulling a copy of Nightmare 4 off the shelf at Blockbuster, getting my parents to rent it for me, and watching it with a friend who was spending the night. While my memory was more than a bit on the faulty side when it came to quality, Freddy rampage, cheesy as it was, still felt like a slice straight out of my childhood, albeit a stale one. Nightmare on Elm Street 4 is not the film perfect to use to introduce people to the series, but it does set things up for the final of the "dream" movies, 1989's The Dream Master. Simply put, Nightmare 4 is not the scariest, funniest, or most original among the Kruger films. The performances are lacking and the tone is uneven. On the other hand, it’s flaws make it a excellent example of the excess and lack of quality control that ran the ‘80’s franchise horror film off the rails. Freddy might well have intoned in Nightmare 4, “fresh meat so sweet”, but there was very little fresh on display in the film for him to call sweet. Well, except for perhaps the Fat Boys single that the film spawned, "Are You Ready For Freddy?" 'cause that does happen to be pretty sweet.