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.

elm4r - 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.

elm4r1 - 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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