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He's not a nightstalker, and it'll take a lot more than bench presses to defeat him.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master

(SPOILERS) The most successful entry in the franchise, if you don’t count Freddy vs. Jason. And the point at which Freddy went full-on vaudeville, transformed into adored ringmaster rather than feared boogeyman. Not that he was ever very terrifying in the first place (the common misapprehension is that later instalments spoiled the character, but frankly, allowing Robert Englund to milk the laughs in bad-taste fashion is the saving grace of otherwise forgettably formulaic sequel construction). A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master boasts the most inventive, proficient effects work yet, but it’s also by far the least daring in terms of plotting, scraping together a means for Freddy to persist in his nocturnal pestilence while offering nothing in the way of the unexpected, be it characterisations or story points.

Perhaps most notably, it finds director Renny Harlin, who made his Hollywood debut with Viggo Mortensen starrer Prison, in an arrangement that saw New Line’s Bob Shaye unpersuaded of his merits. This might have been categorised as impressive foresight, given the director’s inverse excess/quality ratio in future productions (Die Hard 2: Die Harder, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Cliffhanger, Cutthroat Island, The Long Kiss Goodnight; the list goes on, eventually landing in STV territory; luckily, we were spared his Alien 3). Here, however, Harlin was a bright up and comer, and you wouldn’t countenance that he’d become the go-to guy for big-budget action during the ’90s when you couldn’t get McTiernan or Cameron.

Indeed, most lingering is a sense of pop-promo gloss atop the now patented surrealism of the dream sequences. This is compounded by an overt and evidently deliberate attempt to tap the lucrative allure of the previous year’s The Lost Boys, where the soundtrack was at least as important as the drapes, dry ice and goth coiffeurs. New Line don’t quite have the aesthetic savvy, hence teaming Englund and the Fat Boys for Are You Ready for Freddy, more interesting (and amusing) for the accompanying video than the song itself, in which Freddy regrettably raps. But with a soundtrack featuring Blondie, Billy Idol, Divinyls and Go West, there was undoubtedly a whole new level of attention being paid to marketing (Sinead O’Connor also finds herself on here, something it’s doubtful she’d have allowed had she been apprised; accompaniment to a swaggering hipster child murderer? That, and a Drink Before the War).

The soundtrack also revealed – on the opening credits no less – a song from Tuesday Knight (Nightmare), cast as Kirsten and replacing Patricia Arquette, who doubtless wished to be taken seriously and so was keen to eschew such supernatural nonsense (fast forward nearly two decades and seven seasons of Medium beckon). It seems Harlin, amid worrying about being fired at any moment, was canoodling with Knight and keen to give as much attention to his starlet as possible, so infuriating the rest of the cast. He’d be at it again a few years later with Laura Dern, and then on to Geena Davis.

Such trappings reflected the tack New Line was now taking with their horror icon. Less to be feared than perversely adored. As Harlin put it in his pitch, “He’s Rambo. He’s James Bond. He’s really cool. I wanted to make him the coolest guy. It’s just he likes killing people”. With such unreserved wallowing in Freddy’s savoir faire, it’s unsurprising that contemporary reviewers paid attention. Time Out’s Nigel Floyd opined that Kreuger had “now been reduced to a blackly comic carnival ride designed to showcase cult-hero Freddy’s stand-up act and some variable special effects”, while Film Year Book Volume 8’s Anne Billson, on point, called him the “horror equivalent of James Bond – popping up in his victims’ dreams with a would-be nasty wisecrack before dispatching yet another disposable teenager to a spectacular fate at the hands of the ingenious special effects department”. And, with a nod to the merchandising machine, she added he was “now well on the way to becoming a malevolent variation on ‘My Little Pony’”.

It seems production on The Dream Master was your typical botch job that occurs when a studio is racing to meet a release date, with filming (on effects) beginning before a director was attached and Brian Helgeland – before he hooked up with Mel and won an Oscar for L.A. Confidential, and long before he committed the cardinal sin of scripting Spenser Confidential – tapped to write a screenplay in two weeks; he’d previously penned 976-Evil for Englund, the latter’s directorial debut. A Writer’s Guild strike hampered the filming process, requiring improvisations of dialogue and dream designs (the latter, it seems mostly coming from Harlin).

What we end up with in this “Dream” trilogy’s second part (much as Star Treks II-IV formed a trilogy), is a retread of the talented dream adversary idea; where in Dream Warriors that was a team effort, brought together by Nancy and Arquette’s Kristen’s dream-share abilities, here Alice (Lisa Wilcox) is a “dream master”, whereby “You just have to dream about someplace fun. Remember, you’re in control”. Albeit, there’s precious little seen of such a skill until the climax. There’s a decent idea here, whereby Alice takes on the abilities of her friends when Freddy kills them, beginning with Kristen (Knight), but Harlin and co fail to make enough of this in any kind of iconic away (there’s a crappy “getting ready to fight Freddy” montage, but it rather recalls Evil Dead II playing the similar scenario for laughs).

Nevertheless, Wilcox is good casting as the shy girl who gains confidence, possibly the best lead the series has hatched thus far. The problems lie with Helgeland and Ken & Jim Wheats’ adherence to the usual kill structure. It’s particularly lame that returning characters Kristen, Roland (Ken Sagoes) and Joey (Rodney Eastman) are dispatched so easily by Freddy. Making matters worse, Knight is a poor substitute for Arquette, lacking her presence and energy, so the intended sense of continuity is largely for nothing. Freddy also returns in the daftest fashion (a dog, Jason, pissing flames on his grave? In a dream?) One might regard that as reflective of the irreverent approach to the material at this stage, but there’s quickly a sense that this is just a collection of variably creative dream kills, rather than working from the kind of functional plot Dream Warriors had.

Joey’s demise, finding a naked girl beneath his water bed, is visually striking, and the picture makes creative use of pop-culture imagery, from The Karate Kid (Andras Jones’ Rick is a practitioner), to Jaws (Freddy’s glover speeding up a beach), to Flashdance (Brooke Theiss’ Debbie is a fitness junkie, complete with legwarmers and spandex). Debbie is given perhaps the most grotesque death, turned into a cockroach, but a more creatively effective moment precedes this, one Englund cites as his favourite in the movie (he also professed this to be his pick of the series, although changed his mind, depending on which quote you find).

Alice visits a cinema (showing Reefer Madness) and ends up entering the movie screen, transported back to the diner where she works as a waitress, where Freddy orders soul food pizza (pizza with souls of dead children as meatballs… I wonder if this pizza place has a basement). A subsequent sequence finds her and Danny Hassel’s Dan (a jock of the type you’d expect to be mocked in the same year’s Heathers) continually returning to their car in an attempt to rescue Debbie (“You know, I get the weirdest feeling we’ve done this before”). At one point, they realise OMG “We’re both asleep”. Yet there’s no real agency to the conceit – they fail to summon ingenuity to escape – and it rather highlights that this is the sort of invention the series should be attempting all the time, embellishing and prefacing the kills with absorbing mini-narratives.

Indeed, Shaye reject a pitch of time travel through dreams from Craven and Bruce Wagner; that might at least have mixed things up a bit, as for all that “Harlin’s direction creates an atmosphere which is more morbid than scary”, it can’t mask the roteness of plot. Englund doing a Kenny Everett with Freddy as a nurse is amusing. As is Kirsten’s mum Elaine (Brooke Bundy), ultimately responsible for her daughter’s death by spiking her with sleeping pills and responding indignantly to her accusations with “Elaine, we went through this in therapy!” Harlin milks Freddy for iconic posturing and quips (“How’s that for a wet dream?”; “You can check in, but you can’t check out”; “Well, I ain’t Dr Seuss”), and on that score, the The Dream Master is highly successful, but it never comes close to the potential of the Job quote that prefaces it.

Nigel Floyd’s characterisation of the movie in terms of Freddy’s showman turn and the variable special effects is about right; I can see why fans rate this entry, but it also seems to be the point where the series is content to rest on its laurels conceptually; mind you, when it did come up with something different, scrappy as the results would be, it fed the collapse in box office of The Dream Child. The Dream Master spent three weeks as the US Number One, while The Dream Child could only must a third place first weekend. A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Master found a way to milk the franchise beyond the demise of the last of the Elm Street children, but perhaps, retrospectively, it showed no one really cared to sustain the series creatively.

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