“Brennan Went to Film School” is a column that proves that horror has just as much to say about the world as your average Oscar nominee. Probably more, if we’re being honest.
WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER. READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.
The Elm Street franchise has a reputation for going downhill after Freddy gets funny, with most people fearing to venture past the high-water mark of the third film, Dream Warriors. But if there’s one Freddy film that sticks in my craw and makes me think about it more than any other, it’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master.
Yes, the movie with the karate dude. The movie with the soul pizza. The movie that has multiple Dramarama needle drops. Let me explain.
If you’re not familiar, The Dream Master tells the story of Alice Johnson, as played by Lisa Wilcox, who is part of a new group of friends (there’s always a new group of friends) that surround the three survivors of the previous installment. She’s a sweet, shy girl who has a tendency for daydreaming in order to escape the mundane, awful realities of life with her abusive, alcoholic father.
When Freddy Krueger returns to continue his reign of terror (this involves a fire-pissing dog named Jason, don’t ask), Alice discovers that not only do people possess special powers in the dream world, but her particular power is to absorb the skills and abilities of her friends once they are killed. After they’re all dead, she becomes the Dream Master, the only person who has a chance of conquering Freddy once and for all. Or at least until they made three more sequels and a spin-off.
It might not seem like it at first, but Alice Johnson’s character arc is probably the most powerful in the franchise. In between the cockroach weight lifting and the time loops and the movie theater vortex is a genuinely powerful story of a young woman’s self-actualization in the face of trauma.
Alice starts the movie as a beaten-down, mousy wallflower who lets her more outgoing friends lead her thoughts and actions. In fact, she’s so bland and boring that you might even start to wonder why the movie even decided to have her as the protagonist. Her whole life seems to entail going to school, going to work at the local diner, and doing her best not to stand out.
But there’s one thing that already implies her potential to be a worthy adversary to the unstoppable dream demon: she already lives in a world of daydreams, so she and Freddy share the same domain. She’s only truly at home in the dream world, as it is the place that gives her the power to carry on with her day.
As the story progresses, we see Alice literally draw strength from her friends and eventually learn to cope with the hand she’s been dealt, until she is accomplished and powerful in her own right. Not only does she defeat Freddy, but she gains her own agency, fights back against her dad, and wins the heart of the hunky guy she’s been crushing on. It’s a radical, inspiring change worthy of any high school movie, even one where a man with a charred face drowns a kid in his own waterbed.
Now that’s all well and good, but there’s a visual metaphor at the center of this that drives everything home so powerfully that it’ll never detach its vise grip on my mind. In Alice’s room, she has a mirror that’s so covered with photos of her friends there’s hardly space to check the bags under her eyes. She has literally hidden herself behind the faces and personalities of those she loves.
But as they start to die off one by one, Alice removes their pictures from her mirror. Friend by friend, power by power, Freddy’s murder spree chips away the photo collage until all she’s left with is her own reflection. Once she has become complete and ready to face her demons on her own, she is finally able to look herself full in the face and find her own identity.
It’s a powerful image, and maybe the most subtle in director Renny Harlin’s entire career. And that’s why The Dream Master never strikes me as one of the worse entries of the franchise. Not only is it a fun, cheesy supernatural slasher, it’s an uplifting tale of a girl who deserves more finally learning to respect herself and using that very respect to change the world around her for the better. I think that’s a message we could all use, even if you have to dig a little bit to get it.
Brennan Klein is a writer and podcaster who talks horror movies every chance he gets. And when you’re talking to him about something else, he’s probably thinking about horror movies. On his blog, Popcorn Culture, he is running through reviews of every slasher film of the 1980’s, and on his podcast, Scream 101, he and a non-horror nerd co-host tackle horror reviews with a new sub-genre every month!