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A Look Back at A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master

With the remake slinking out of the boiler room and into theaters soon, I became intoxicated with revisiting A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master – the most financially successful Nightmare sequel before it was dethroned by Freddy vs. Jason in 2003. The Dream Master took in $49.3 million domestic gross at the box office in ’88, and inspired the production of more Freddy games, toys, dolls, surfboards, pogo sticks, race cars, planes and railway systems than anyone could’ve predicted.

Indeed, America had completely flipped its shit for Freddy, and the majority of the horror community had no idea how to cope with it.

A Look Back at A Nightmare on Elm Street  4: The Dream Master

The psychosexual A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge aggravated audiences by breaking most of the rules set by Wes Craven’s original, and the third film, Dream Warriors, turned some fans off with its enhanced Krueger-the-Clown bits. Yet it was The Dream Master that really set some folks aflame. It’s understandable, to a degree – a friend of mine, Mike Crooke, may have coined the phrase “Vegas Freddy” when recently discussing the film, referring to the way the eye-popping effects tended to thrill rather than chill. That flashy atmosphere resulted in a delicious irony: Krueger was as cruel as ever, but he was no longer scary.

Incredible, considering that the kills are all fairly despicable: Freddy jams his entire glove into a hefty boy’s belly while whispering in his ear, he tosses a long-suffering girl into a lake of fire to burn alive, and even sucks a bookish, asthmatic girl’s breath out of her body via what is presumably her first – and last – kiss. If the deaths themselves aren’t enough, Freddy is so tickled to be murdering the teens that you half-expect him to do The Twist after each kill. All this malice on display, only to leave viewers declaring “we ain’t scared.” What a weird moment in pop culture history …

Even still, if a Nightmare 4 had to be made – and the Dollar Gods demanded it did – things could’ve gone so much worse. The story is satisfyingly straightforward in a steak-n-eggs fashion: the remaining Dream Warriors and a few of their high school classmates get iced, leaving lonely and timid teen Alice (Lisa Wilcox) to avenge her friends (and brother) by sending Freddy back to Hell to think about what he’s done. Despite the rather streamlined nature of the plot, there are enough sincere performances, splendid effects, arresting camerawork and harsh dialogue to make this one truly stand out from the Nightmare pack.

We should start with Robert Englund’s return as Freddy. Howard Berger’s Krueger make-up looks great here, and Englund seems completely at home in it. Englund’s Freddy is less manic in this one, choosing to stroll onto or simply materialize in scenes, often pausing to let the camera really soak in his iconic status (director Renny Harlin employs a few sexy silhouette shots of Krueger that ooze a sleazy rock stardom).

That’s not to say Englund still doesn’t spend most of his time snickering, giggling, hoo-ha-ing or, sometimes, throwing his head completely back and cackling uncontrollably like a stoned crow. It’s all a big damn joke to Freddy by now, and Englund loves this. The actor lends the character such bravado, it’s like watching a melted, possessed Sinatra walk into a talent show audition.

A Look Back at A Nightmare on Elm Street  4: The Dream Master

I can understand how Englund took so much glee in behaving like Freddy. Fame and fortune aside, anyone who has ever worn a decent replica of the glove understands its strange power. I just put on a sheet-metal replica of my own to type this paragraph, now I feel like my words are bein g read and celebbrated In Hell because of it. Typing while wearing the thing makes accuracy a bit too difficult, though (you can only really use the tip of the forefingser ‘ blade on the right hand) so I’ll just finish this sentence with it on then put it back under my pillow. Those who have the patience to try such an experiment, however, should notice I only committed four typos with it on, and that ain’t bad. Moving on …

For all the gorgeous FX gusto The Dream Master offers, there are still some incredibly nice moments of quiet tension. Cheers to Harlin and Englund for making a simple scene with Freddy peeling an apple in a classroom something great.

The film’s teenagers are likable and convincing in other somber moments of the film. They’re all good kids, really, but have tons of baggage, which Harlin doesn’t overlook. Lisa Wilcox as Alice owns perhaps the most frightening moment in the film, trembling in front of the camera while confronting her alcoholic father. Her brother, Rick (Andras Jones) has shielded himself for a long time with humor – against his mother’s death, his father’s alcohol abuse, and now his friends’ deaths, including his girlfriend’s (he even cracks wise at his own funeral during a daydream sequence). Jones deserves a quick nod of appreciation here: the face he makes while stuck in a rapidly descending elevator is one for the books, and haunts me more than any other image in the film.

The film’s bigger effects come courtesy of John Carl Buechler (the pizza gag), Steve Johnson (the finale’s chest effects), and Screamin’ Mad George (the unforgettable Brooke Theissan-roach transformation). These effects – all fabulous – don’t have time for bloodshed, and I wonder if the absence of the red stuff somehow reduces the scare/disturb factor of the flick. For all the bizarre deaths The Dream Master flaunts, it feels like the Springwood prom punch is only slightly spiked – again, thrills over chills. If even the effects don’t scare ya, though, you have to admit it’s amazing work, some of which can be seen in the opening moments in this vid:

From what the trailers and spoilers and script reviews seem to be relaying, it feels like the upcoming remake is more like a love letter to how fans remember the first one – Freddy lurking, Tina’s vicious death, induced insomnia, and the epic glove rising from the bathtub. What looks like will be missing is that freakishly coked-up energy that Englund brought to Kruger, instantly recognizable even in his first big appearance in the first installment:

The remake has already secured a greenlit sequel as of this writing, and I wonder if the series will delve into zanier effects sequences like the ones that made The Dream Master so astonishing to watch, but not nightmarish enough to make you loose any sleep. We’ll have to wait, and in the meantime get our Freddy fixes with the sequels of the original series, of which I’ve always found The Dream Master to be the most … well, fun. And really, what more to expect from a flick that has a dog pissing fire in its first act?

Chris Haberman

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Chris Haberman

  • plagiarize

    Part 4 sure has some weaknesses (the horrible recasting of Kristen being the most in your face). Tuesday Knight does just fine, it just isn’t remotely believable that she’s the same character from Part 3.

    The story is pretty much none existant, but the strength of 4 for me is how surreal it is. It’s one of the more surreal films in the series and it taps into dream and nightmare logic more than most.

    Things like the looping time, the blurring reality and dreams, the transformative body horror, and more really push the ‘nightmare’ aspect of the series in ways no other film really managed.

    The dream sequences felt more like real nightmares than the hollywood nightmare sequences of the latter films or the overly realistic (as in looking too much like reality) nightmares of the first three.

    Anytime you let screaming mad George go to town is a plus for me too. The guy has ‘nightmarish’ down better than any effects guy.

    Dream Child has some wonderful visuals and some incredibly over the top kills (at least in the uncut version) but there just aren’t enough.

    Dream Master is like nightmares come to life on the big screen. That sure brings a lot of illogical with it, but it’s why I have a soft spot for it.

    The three Craven had the biggest hand in remain my favourites, but i probably place Dream Master just a shade above Freddie’s revenge.

    As for the remake? It looks like the Freddy I have nightmares about is back… and that’s really the only standard I have for the series that has to be met. I can’t imagine it being worse than some of the later sequels, and even those I find pretty damn watchable.

  • nonserviam03

    Unfortunately, I think Part 4 is one of the weakest sequels.

    I much prefer Part 3 and New Nightmare.

    Hmm… all the Nightmare movies I really like have had Craven and Langhencamp involved.

  • Count Zartro

    Nice retrospective. Part 4 was the first Horror movie I got to see in the theatre, I was 11.

    “Freddy is so tickled to be murdering the teens that you half-expect him to do The Twist after each kill” – This line killed me, I’m at work and I’ve been laughing all day at this image, and how true it was. Thanks for that.

    I also agree with the above posters that part 2 was under-rated. Freddy had no humor to him, and he was presented as much more frightening. That pool party scene I was a big fan of. I really like Part 3, but I agree that 2 deserves better, much like Halloween 3 and Friday 5.

  • James Coker

    I absolutely LOVE the scene in part 2 when Freddy comes out of jesse, and as for the debate between part 4 and part 5, I have to say I like part 4 much better, there was something about part 5 that i just did not like, and Terminal, Freddy’s Revenge is pretty bad so prepare yourself

  • NoCalMike

    You know that comedian Brian Poshen? In an episode of the Sarah Silverman show he was wearing a Freddy shirt, where Freddy was doing that shot from the original NOES flick, in the clip above, where he has the glove open to the side of his face, and the quote “This….Is God” I so fucking want that shirt. I have been looking everywhere for it but can’t find it dammit…..

  • Terminal

    Love the asthma death.

    But “The Dream Child” is the superior sequel.

    I’ve seen all but “Freddy’s Revenge.”

    Which is a stupid title, because I thought Freddy coming back from the dead as a demon was Freddy’s revenge.

    • Sirand

      You haven’t witnessed the homo-erotic epic that is Nightmare 2? YOU MUST!

      • Terminal

        I’ll get on that.

        • LifeMi

          Freddy’s Revenge doesn’t deserve the bad rap it tends to get. It’s not a great movie by any means, but it’s fascinating nonetheless. And I agree with you Terminal, Dream Child is better than Dream Master.

          • Terminal

            It’s a booooooooyyyyyyy!

          • LifeMi

            Bon Appetit, BITCH!

          • BlackFlagg

            I prob like part 2 more than most, all the homoerotic stuff aside it has a few of my fav scenes of the series. The bus dream and the exploding parakeet, heh

          • AngryChairr

            I think horror fans get way too hung up on the homoerotic stuff, and in fact don’t give the movie the credit it deserves because that stuff makes them feel “icky.”

            Part 2 is the best sequel, period. It’s the only one that even halfway makes sense. The others really go off the ledge into some weird, murky abyss trying to establish a world for Freddy when all it does is make the movies dumber and dumber as they progress. Trying to follow Freddy’s story from movie to movie just kept pissing me off when I rewatched all the movies like a month ago. They had a simple premise — child murderer dies but comes back for revenge on the children of the parents that killed him. Then they threw in the stuff about the dream demons, Freddy’s mother being a nun that was raped, and so on.

            Part 2 at least played with horror conventions, usurping the notion of the final girl, and also works unintentionally as a film about sexual repression. It also has Freddy’s most iconic moment outside of the first film, when, at the pool, he tells the kids they’re all his children.

          • Uncle Creepy

            Part 2 is easily my favorite of the sequels. At the very least it marks the last time in the franchise that Freddy is actually evil and scary.

          • LifeMi

            I never found him scary in Part 2; I thought the film actually mishandled Freddy.

  • LifeMi

    I don’t know if I would consider Dream Master a good movie, but it’s easily the most entertaining of the sequels. Just like with Jason Lives, it’s hard to hate it because the filmmakers are clearly having fun making it. It’s got some great kills and Lisa Wilcox is, in my opinion, the best heroine of the whole series. If I had to rank the series, it would be the original, Dream Warriors, Dream Child, Dream Master, New Nightmare, Freddy’s Revenge, Freddy’s Dead (fuck that movie).

    • Terminal

      Freddy’s Dead is pretty entertaining for me. I consider it a real guilty pleasure. Plus it’s the only movie I’ve ever seen in 3D.