A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)

The film starts off in a sillier mode, where Freddy Krueger’s bones begin to reconstitute themselves after a dog desecrates his burial ground by relieving himself over it (the dog is named “Jason”, in tongue-on-cheek homage to the rival Friday the 13th series), resulting in Freddy immediately coming back from the dead to stalk another day.  From there, Freddy aims to take his revenge on the three surviving teenagers — Kristen (Tuesday Knight, who replaces Patricia Arquette), Joey (Rodney Eastman), and Kincaid (Ken Sagoes) — from the last nightmare, before eventually moving on to new classmates’ souls to snatch in a vicious fashion.

After three relatively unique and divergent entries in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, The Dream Master represents the first of the films that fully embraces being a formula film.  There is one unique aspect that is introduced, that being one where one of the victims becomes the focal point of Freddy’s powers, one who can pull in friends to their deaths, while also gaining some of their “powers” as they are dispatched.

The Dream Master is the most visually appealing of the Nightmare on Elm Street films up to that point by leaps and bounds, with professional lighting, quality effects, and much more emphasis on aesthetic qualities. While it has an eye-popping appeal, perhaps the film plays a little too bright and polished to feel like a horror film much of the time, delivering a tone very much like a typical and relatively indistinct teen flick of the late 1980s, albeit one that has horrific interludes where someone is cruelly murdered in a twisted way.  The typical movie teenagers are so annoying in some respects, it may even cause some viewers to root for Freddy Krueger to succeed in his effort to take them out of the picture.

Alas, even with more emphasis on the production aspects, the rest of the film from a storytelling standpoint feels like a missed opportunity to build upon the ideas presented in the prior entry, Dream Warriors.  In fact, the first half of The Dream Master primarily exists to actually undo everything established by its predecessor in order to take the series into its own direction where it can have free reign to recycle its ideas, unshackled by adherence to the original narrative.

The Dream Master is directed by Renny Harlin, a relative unknown at the time, hailing directly from Finland.  Harlin would go on to direct some big-budget action films through the 1990s, such as Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, The Long Kiss Goodnight and Deep Blue Sea.  Lobbying hard to producer Robert Shaye to give him his big break in Hollywood, Harlin, who likely would have been a natural in making pop-friendly music-videos,m if that were his passion, is definitely more comfortable in scenes of action over scenes of character or dialogue. This may make some of the set pieces feel a bit more electric, but because the characters feel like pieces of cardboard, we don’t feel any additional suspense of tension other than to admire the slickness of the presentation.

Those set pieces have become a formula at this point: we learn of a character flaw or phobia from each of the teens, then Freddy exploits those fears with an elaborate nightmare scenario, usually involving a punchline to deliver right when he gets said teen in his fatal trap once and for all.  One kid hates bugs, so Freddy turns her into one, ending up in a “Roach Motel”, just to say, “You can check in but you can’t check out!”

Reportedly, Harlin’s original cut of the film did not meet very well with the execs at New Line, who felt that the director was going for too much campy humor in his take, more in line with the tone of Freddy’s Dead, something they wanted to avoid at this point.  Along with the desire to get the run time down close to the ninety minute mark, many of these scenes were cut, never restored, though bits and pieces can be seen within the trailer for the film. A few connective scenes were ordered to keep the film intact, though, with the writers strike in full swing at the time, the actors mainly had to improvise to get through them, and Harlin, whose English was iffy, could offer little to help them.

Wes Craven and his collaborative writing partner on Dream Warriors, Bruce Wagner, had an initial idea for where the story would go, but the producers felt that it was a bit too high concept and esoteric for the audience (it involved the use of time travel from within the dream realm) that was there for the series, so a draft was never commissioned by New Line.  Despite the screenwriting credit of future Oscar-winning L.A. Confidential and Oscar-nominated Mystic River scribe Brian Helgeland, his first to be produced into a feature, the dialogue and situations feel no more sophisticated than what you might find within a horror-based comic book. Helgeland had been hired on at Englund’s suggestion, having scripted Englund’s directorial debut, 976-EVIL, which was filmed prior to the release of The Dream Master, but wasn’t released until 1989 in the United States.  That script had a mandatory deadline of one week, which meant that Helgeland’s initial treatment was a bare-bones treatment that they could use to build upon once production began.

After Wes Craven himself turned down an offer to rework that initial script, revisions were scripted by Ken and Jim Wheat, writing under their singular pseudonym of Scott Pierce Their main claim to fame would be in scripting the first entry in the Riddick franchise, Pitch Black, though they had a couple of notable, but not exactly critically acclaimed, efforts made for television, most notably in Ewoks: Battle for Endor and The Birds II: Land’s End.  It’s their kind of comic-book dialogue that The Dream Master feels more in line with, and certainly a far cry from the kind of deep characterization and snappy banter that Helgeland would bring to the table henceforth.

It may not be a step up in terms of overall quality, but few would argue that there is a better and more interesting soundtrack in the series.  Dramarama’s “Anything, Anything (I’ll Give You)” has become an 80s classic.  Tuesday Knight is not only one of the stars of the film, but, being a bit of a pop star in the making, she also sings on the theme song that plays over the opening credits, “(Running from This) Nightmare”, which would be a bit of a cult song worth seeking out on its own, as it was never released in the official soundtrack (Knight released it on CD and streaming on her own with a variety of versions many years later).   The soundtrack also includes songs from popular acts like Billy Idol, Blondie, and Sinead O’Connor.

The Fat Boys deliver, “Are You Ready for Freddy?”, the rap song heard on the end credits, which also features vocals by Robert Englund as Freddy.  DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince had originally been slated for that honor, having written, “A Nightmare on My Street” for the film, but it was rejected, causing them to release it on their own album, “He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper”, which brought on a copyright infringement lawsuit, resulting in a settlement that they never release the music video they had created, and a warning label appear on the album disassociating the song from the movie.

The Dream Master would prove to be the most successful movie, outside of the novelty of Freddy vs. Jason, in the franchise at the box office, earning slightly more than Dream Warriors (by about a million dollars, though, to be fair, with a reported $13 million budget that exceeded the budgets of the first three films combined).  Much of that was earned in the first three weeks of release, where it took the top spot in the United States, due to the overall series momentum, especially after Dream Warriors, which had been seen as the pinnacle of where the series could go.  The film proved so successful that not only was a follow-up immediately ordered, but a TV show spin-off anthology series also was commissioned, “Freddy’s Nightmares”, which ran in syndication from October of 1988 until March of 1990.

Despite its success, and Robert Englund’s assertion that this film was his favorite in the series, fans were tepid overall on The Dream Master, especially as it effectively closes off whatever was enjoyed in the stories that emerged from the first and third entries in order to give us more ways for Freddy to kill new teenagers who had little to nothing to do with his vendetta beyond death to snuff out the children of the people who snuffed him out.  It isn’t without some nifty ideas, but the direction taken is as uninteresting as the new characters, leaving the film only titillating in so much as the nightmares are imaginative and gruesome.  In the end, it just feels like the ideas for Freddy’s kills were thought of first, and then a film was built around them, and that’s really no way to keep a franchise feeling fresh.

Sadly, the series would only continue to devolve into more of the same after this entry rather than return to its modest but effective roots found within Wes Craven’s original vision, with plots that merely serve up the gory moments and characters merely fodder for the slaughter.  By comparison, The Dream Master isn’t really a bad entry, perhaps a step above Freddy’s Revenge, and certainly better than the two films that come after, but it’s hard not to feel like an opportunity was missed in building upon what came before rather than destroying it.

Qwipster’s rating: C-

MPAA Rated: R for gore, strong violence, nudity, and language     
Running Time: 93 min.

Cast: Lisa Wilcox, Robert Englund, Tuesday Knight, Rodney Eastman, Danny Hassel, Ken Sagoes, Toy Newkirk, Brooke Theiss
Director:  Renny Harlin
Screenplay: Brian Helgeland, Scott Pierce (aka Jim Wheat and Ken Wheat)