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


Part 4 is usually accepted as the moment this series started heading south in terms of quality. Well, those people are right, but the stuff which would become sort of unbearable in later movies is used well here, and the fact we’re watching yet another “whoops, we failed to kill the immortal indestructible baddie” movie is compensated for by a decent cast, and an occasionally excellent writer and director. I’m rather surprised they’ve all aged as well as they have, to be honest.


The one thing I’d forgotten about this one, though, is how long the cast from part 3 hang around. As aficionados of slasher cinema will know, if someone survives one of them, chances are you’ll see them getting killed in the first few minutes of the next – this is a classic of the “Halloween” sequels, for example. But Kristen (now played by the bet-she-regrets-that-name-now Tuesday Knight, as Patricia Arquette was pregnant), Kincaid and Joey make it to almost halfway, even as the editing and new characters lets us know they probably won’t be around at the end.


Luckily, all three of the part 3 survivors are at the same high school, despite them not knowing each other before, and after an unspecified amount of time has passed (honestly, it could be a month since the end of part 3, or two years) Kristen starts having nightmares again, doing her trick of pulling Kincaid and Joey into them too. After Kincaid’s dog Jason (not the last in-joke in this movie) pees fire on Freddy’s gravesite, that’s all the encouragement our old friend needs to re-form his skeleton, pop his flesh back on, pick up his glove and hat and get back to doing what he does best. He does have an interesting wrinkle in this one, though, because there’s only three Elm Street kids left and he wants to carry on killing! I guess due to people still not knowing who the hell he is, he needs Kristen to bring in new people to her dreams, so Freddy can then go after them, and then their friends.


That brings in Alice (Lisa Wilcox), the sister of Kristen’s boyfriend Rick. Their Dad’s an alcoholic – although not because he had anything to do with torching Freddy, just because – and one gets the feeling their lives are sort-of dead end, even as teenagers. Anyway, the two of them team up when Kristen finally gets hers and they’re helped by a small group of friends, all of whom have a “thing”. We’ve got fitness nut Debbie (Brooke Theiss), nerd Sheila (Toy Newkirk, now much better known as a TV producer), and jock Dan (Danny Hassel), the eye candy for Alice. Oh, and Rick’s a martial artist too, which is sort of important. Although this uses the same idea as part 3, where people use their dream powers to fight Freddy, it’s spun in a new and interesting direction – after Alice is given Kristen’s “suck people into your dreams” power, she also gains personality traits and useful skills from her friends, after they die.


The first enormous stroke of luck this movie got was hiring a young Renny Harlin to direct, pretty much fresh off the boat from Finland. This movie’s success got him “Die Hard 2” and then a decade or so of big-budget thrillers, even though a couple of big-budget flops in the late 90s (“Deep Blue Sea” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight”, both of which I loved) drove him from the A-list. Well, those flops and making rubbish like “Cliffhanger”, but you know what I mean. His skill is immediately apparent – the time-loop scene is a mini-masterpiece of editing, and while some of the dream sequences are a bit flat (the opening is all sound and fury, signifying nothing), I like the look of others. Plus, even if you’ve seen this movie before you can try and spot all the references to Finland and its Soviet past which Harlin slips into his movies – my wife spotted a book one of the high school kids was carrying, called “Soviet Psychiatry”.


And the second was a future Oscar-winning screenwriter. Much like Full Moon Pictures got lucky and hired future “Dark Knight” scribe David S Goyer for their tiny-monster movies, New Line gave Brian Helgeland his first job. He wrote “LA Confidential”, “A Knight’s Tale”, and is no doubt about to win a ton more awards for writing and directing 2015’s “Legend”, the story of the Kray twins. He seems like a good guy (one of a tiny handful of people to voluntarily accept a Razzie award, to remind him of the quixotic nature of Hollywood), and given this movie has to have Freddy coming back from the “dead”, it’s done about as well as could be expected.


What “Dream Master” does have is a lot of touches that make you realise lots of smart people worked on it – New Line and producer Robert Shaye seemed to both listen to fans and be genuinely interested in making good movies, not just churning them out (although I’m sure they were helped by being very profitable). So there’s the time loop scene, the “Greetings From Hell” postcard, and the way Alice’s mirror is used as a metaphor for her increasing power and centrality to the movie – as she blossoms, you see more of her. When you’ve sat through entire slasher series where smartness is on the level of remembering a character’s name from one movie to the next, this stuff is important.


I’m almost beginning to gush here, and writing about it has made me think more about it and realise just how much fun it was. Although I’ve not even talked about Freddy yet – Robert Englund is top-billed in this one and relishes every moment on screen, enjoying his work even if the quips are, if we’re being honest, pretty awful – “how’s this for a wet dream?” being the best/worst. As a further attempt to beef up Freddy’s powers and give him a reason for wanting to carry on killing kids, there’s a plot idea about using the power of dreams, and how there are gatekeepers to both the good and bad side of them. Freddy has clearly assumed the role of bad gatekeeper, although good gatekeeper appears to be vacant; and while I appreciate them trying to give the story that meat, it honestly feels a bit under-done. There was a writer’s strike at the time, meaning Helgeland was unavailable for rewrites, which might explain some of these oddities.


It’s a movie that succeeds despite itself. The basic structure had to be there – Freddy comes back from the dead and kills kids in their dreams – and it’s sort of “oh, this again?” if you think about it. But, two enormously talented people at the beginning of their careers chose to use this as a calling card and almost forced it into being a horror classic – it’s still miles ahead of just about every slasher movie you could name. With, essentially, two casts, some of the supporting people feel a smidge under-done, as there was no real reason to bring Kincaid and Joey back, or at the very least have them survive for the first five minutes. And they called the house “Freddy’s house”, when he never lived there. It’s Nancy’s house, dum-dums! But this is small potatoes. Oh god, part 5 is going to suck, isn’t it?


Rating: thumbs up