Written by: William Kotzwinkle (story), Brian Helgeland (story and screenplay), and Scott Pierce (screenplay)
Directed by: Renny "Anything That Can Explode, Will Explode" Harlin
Starring: Robert Englund, Lisa Wilcox, and Tuesday Knight
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"You shouldn't have buried me. I'm not dead."
In the 1980s, horror wore three faces in the form of Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger. In the years hence, the slasher trio has become known as "The Big Three" among horror enthusiasts and has represented the modern era much like Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula, and The Wolf Man represented the genre's first golden age. However, if there ever were a king to emerge from this diabolical triumvirate, it was without a doubt The Bastard Son of a 100 Maniacs, who ruled in a way his contemporaries never did. By the time the decade wound down, Freddy was a global icon who starred on MTV, had his own weekly television series, and even had an entire day dedicated to him in Los Angeles in 1991. It was 1988, however, when Freddy truly had his day with the release of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, a popcorn tour de force that features Freddy at the height of his pop culture prowess.
It's been about a year since the events of Dream Warriors. The surviving teens (Kristen, Joey, and Kincaid) have settled into a normal high school existence far removed from their days in Westin Hills. Kristen, however, can't let sleeping dream demons lie, and everyone's favorite night stalker is back and ready to claim the last of the Elm Street children before moving on to fresh meat in the form of Kristen's friend, Alice. Krueger eventually manipulates Alice's dreams, which he uses as a gateway to reach her friends. The formerly shy and reserved Alice must now step up and become a guardian for all the souls that Freddy is out to consume.
For many, The Dream Master represents the end (or, at best, the beginning of the end) of Freddy as a viable horror icon. Many lament the turn towards comedy and popcorn fun in lieu of the horrific and dark material of the earlier entries. I, however, am not one of these people, as the fourth Elm Street film is without a doubt the most fun and nostalgic for me. While Dream Warriors will always be my favorite, there's something to be said about the pure entertainment value of this follow-up effort. The film is simply too well-made and just downright fun to condemn like so many of my fellow horror enthusiasts have done over the years. I'm certainly in the extreme minority when I say this, but if I were to show someone a film that best represented Freddy himself, this is the one I'm throwing in, as it truly captures Freddy as a horror zeitgeist and pop culture icon.
This is due to the fact that Freddy himself is finally the star after three entries. Though the character's screen time steadily increased over the first three films, there's a reason why Robert Englund gets top billing here, as Krueger is the raison d'Ítre: the plot essentially revolves around him and moves through him. Englund turns in one of his best performances as Freddy, as he owns every scene that he's in, from his show-stealing resurrection to the final kung-fu showdown with Alice. Hell, there's one scene where Freddy's invisible, and Englund still manages to own it. No, he's not the dark, shadow-lurking dream stalker that Craven originally envisioned him as, but Freddy here is as good as the character gets. At this point in the series, pulling the character to the forefront was a logical move given how popular the character was becoming. It was at this moment that Freddy not only announced that he was much bigger than his contemporaries, but also that he was much cooler as well.
By making Freddy the star, one might expect a significant drop-off with the remaining cast of characters, but this isn't exactly the case. One thing that always separated the Elm Street series from its contemporaries was its commitment to actually developing likeable characters and its refusal to become standard body count slasher films. Part 4 follows suit, despite the fact that it has the largest body count of a standard Elm Street film (Freddy vs. Jason is excepted for obvious reasons), the characters here are developed just enough. They definitely fall into the standard cliches (the jock, the geek, the tough girl, etc.), but each is infused with good performances from the cast. Perhaps my biggest complaint here is that Tuesday Knight's Kristen is quite different from Patricia Arquette's, almost to the point of being completely different. Then again, I suppose a girl in her position is bound to change over the course of a year. As a whole, the characters here are a good bunch that just feel like real characters; plus, there's no sense of cliques or petty teenage rivalries, which heightens the sense of camaraderie that's so important in this series. Newcomer Lisa Wilcox exhibits the most range, as her character is adequately developed and grows into a formidable foe for Freddy.
That said, this is definitely the closest the Elm Street series ever came to being a simple body count film because the plot essentially boils down to "Freddy's back and kids die." This becomes evident when Freddy is simply resurrected by flaming dog piss; sure, it might be a reference to defiling the consecrated burial from the previous film, but it's so outlandish, random, and indicative of the film's rush to get its main star in the picture quickly. As the film progresses, it's one nightmare sequence after another, with the scenes in between giving just enough time for character development. In many ways, it's a small miracle that this one turned out as well as it did. Nearly every Elm Street sequel faced quick turnarounds and rushed production schedules, and Part 4 was no exception; however, it also had to contend with a looming writer's strike, which resulted in a lot of improvisation while filming.
However, whatever weaknesses the script has, Renny Harlin's direction and style more than make up for it. Slickly made and visually impressive, Harlin's film is definitely an exercise in style over substance, but it works. This should come as no surprise, as our favorite Finnish director would go on to specialize in popcorn entertainment. Here, Harlin's dynamic camera angles, rapid pacing, and penchant for interesting visuals are the order of the day, and I would argue that the film still stands as the most stylish Elm Street film even twenty years later. At any rate, it's certainly the most explosive, which is the only way Harlin would have it. Nothing is safe from Renny's Law: windows, classrooms, and even Freddy's boiler room. At one point, I swear that an explosion erupts from another explosion. It all adds up to the most action packed and quickly moving Elm Street to date, as there's scarcely a moment without some sort of action.
Another important component to the film's success are the special effects. Though the film isn't a particularly gory or violent film, there are more than a few gruesome special effects. Perhaps the most infamous is a sequence where a victim is turned into a cockroach and crushed to death. There's also Freddy's own "demise," an elaborately crafted special effect that literally took days to complete (watch out for Linnea Quigley and her breasts here--the girl obviously never saw a film she wouldn't take her clothes off for). Though the logic behind this conclusion is pretty absurd, there's no denying that it's an appropriately bombastic ending to a thoroughly entertaining piece of cinema.
I'm not sure why The Dream Master has fallen from grace in the eyes of horror fans over the years. At one point, it seems like it was the last Elm Street film everyone liked to a certain degree. Perhaps it's just too fun and doesn't satisfy as a horror film for many, but it's obvious that this isn't what the film was aiming for. Some will decry such a move, but I think it resulted in a fine Elm Street film. From a personal perspective, this is the first one that I can remember seeing television spots for, and I'd wager that I've probably seen it more than any of the other films in the series. Full of 80s sights and sounds and featuring one of the finest soundtracks of any horror film (Dramarama's "Anything, Anything" still rests in my regular rotation) in the film is such an 80s tour-de-force that's the cinematic equivalent of comfort food.
New Line Home Video has only released the film once on DVD, way back in 1999. Released as part of the Nightmare on Elm Street box set, the film features a still-solid transfer that accurately reflects the film's lush, colorful look, and both 5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo soundtracks that are more than adequate. The film's extras are strewn throughout the Elm Street Labyrinth extra disc. There was also a standalone release at the same time that features a full-frame transfer. As a piece of pure 80s popular culture, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 is pretty much essential, as it represents one of horror's biggest icons at his biggest and his best; however, as a horror film, I objectively know that it's just a notch below that--but just barely. Don't let the film's reputation fool you--there's no need to run from this nightmare. Buy it!
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