A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) **
I think I see a pattern forming here. The first A Nightmare on Elm Street was easily the best slasher movie in six years when it came out, and I’m inclined to say it was the best since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a full decade back. It was followed a year later by Freddy’s Revenge, the creators of which let a really good idea for a sequel slip right through their fingers. Three years after that, after A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors arrived on the scene to reclaim the franchise’s honor, it was in turn followed up by a sequel in which the potential strength of the initial premise was pissed away once again by sloppy writing and a completely illogical storyline.
It’s been about a year since Kristen Parker (now played by Tuesday Knight [there is no way that’s her name...]— Patricia Arquette having already become too expensive for a slasher movie by 1988) and her friends defeated Fred Krueger (Robert Englund yet again) once and for all. Or so they thought, at any rate. Kristen has begun dreaming about 1428 Elm Street again, although Freddy himself never appears. Even so, the dreams are extremely frightening, and she frequently uses her psychic abilities to draw the other surviving Dream Warriors, Joey Crusel and Roland Kincaid (Rodney Eastman and Ken Sagoes, whose careers did not take off meteorically in the year that intervened between A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4) into her almost-nightmares for moral support— or for a more active form of backup, should it come to that. Joey and Kincaid think Kristen is simply being paranoid. Krueger has yet to put in even one appearance in the past year, and they followed to the letter the instructions on how to destroy him given by the ghost of the killer’s mother. Freddy Krueger is dead for good this time, and Kincaid, for one, would appreciate it if Kristen would leave him alone to have his own dreams in peace.
In any case, Kristen has other friends now. Like Joey and Kincaid, she has returned to Springwood and resumed the life of a normal high school student. The rest of her circle— her boyfriend Rick (Andras Jones, from The Demolitionist and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama), his sister Alice (Lisa Wilcox, of Gimme an “F”), tough chick Debbie (Brooke Theiss), nerd Sheila (Toy Newkirk), and new-kid-in-town Dan (Danny Hassel)— lead lives entirely untouched by deadly dreams, and Kristen has never even told them in any detail about what happened to her a year ago. But all this complacency is unwarranted. Not long after Kristen starts dreaming about the Elm Street house again, Kincaid and Joey both dream about its spectral inhabitant. Kincaid finds himself in the junkyard where Krueger’s bones were buried. His dog is there, too, and Jason (surely the name is not a coincidence) begins digging agitatedly at a spot on the ground before a high stack of wrecked cars. The dog eventually unearths a charred skeleton, and then pisses fire onto it! This has the inexplicable effect of restoring Krueger, who slays Kincaid after a brief battle. At the same time, he appears to Joey in the guise of the bikini girl from the pinup on his bedroom wall, and drowns him in his own waterbed. Kristen knows what it means when neither boy shows up at school the next day.
Realizing that she’s next, Kristen finally unburdens herself to Rick and Alice regarding the lethal nightmares that landed her in the mental hospital a year before. She takes them, along with Dan, to the ruins of 1428 Elm Street (which is awfully odd, when you consider that the preceding movie clearly portrayed Kristen as not having known where it was, or even that it was a real house) and lays out the whole story of Fred Krueger, from his early career as a child killer to his most recent resurrection. Rick seems to be the only one who quite believes her— at least about that whole “back from the dead again” business— but give them time. They’ll all be seeing the error of their ways in short order.
Freddy, you see, isn’t content simply to murder Kristen and complete thereby the extermination of his own killers’ progeny. Krueger believes that Kristen’s ability to merge her subconscious with those of other dreamers will allow him to branch out and kill anybody he wants to. All he has to do is panic her into calling for help when he comes for her. It ends up being Alice to whom Kristen turns, and though it might seem at first that Freddy’s murder of Kristen would tend to undermine his own plan, the girl solves that problem for him by conferring her mind-melding power on Alice. Because Alice apparently can’t control her newly acquired psychic gift, Krueger is able to use her mind as an inroad to those of all her friends. Whenever Alice falls asleep, somebody she cares about dies. Krueger has miscalculated, though. The same psychic connection that enables him to gobble up the souls of Alice’s friends through the medium of her dreams causes Alice to absorb some of their spiritual power too. Without even realizing it, Krueger, with each life he takes, is steadily creating a dream opponent just as formidable as he is.
As I did with my review of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, let’s start by imagining the movie that A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master could have and should have been. The idea that Krueger is somehow limited to preying on the children of his killers is an interesting one, and provides a plausible impetus for him to try to exploit Kristen’s power. After all, if Krueger can exist only in the dreams of what Nancy Thompson once called “the Elm Street kids,” then he himself will cease to be if ever he completes his revenge. We might envision a scenario in which Freddy is initially okay with the idea that the powers of cosmic darkness have granted him such a limited exemption from death, but gradually realizes that he’s not ready to die again as he closes in on the last of his intended victims. Seeking a way to preserve himself, he could then imprison Kristen in her subconscious— like he did with Joey in Dream Warriors— keeping her alive but comatose and relying on her panicked efforts to get help to give him access to dreams he never could have entered by himself. Krueger’s rebirth could be explained by a forthright admission that his mother had it wrong— something much more powerful than Freddy himself wants him to finish the job and fulfill his end of a bargain ceding his own soul to Hell. Unfortunately, I’m at just as big a loss as the filmmakers when it comes to devising a sensible way to bring Alice into her role as the Dream Master, and any story predicated on Krueger’s inability to prey on anyone outside of a small, narrowly defined group also flies directly in the face of Freddy’s Revenge; if Krueger could enter Jesse’s dreams when the boy had only just moved to Springwood, why shouldn’t he be able to do the same to any of the natives? But that aside, there is much to be said for the premise, and that goes double for the notion that Freddy would have to share the power he gains from his victims with the person whose dreams he uses as a conduit for stealing their souls. I also like the idea, referred to quite openly throughout the film, that Alice specifically is destined to become the Dream Master (a quibble: she really ought to be the Dream Mistress) precisely because of her helplessness and timidity in the real world— like Alice says herself, dreams are all she’s got. The trouble is that it’s all handled in ways that make very little sense. To start with the biggie, no explanation is ever given for the two crucial events of the story: Krueger’s rise from the dead and Kristen’s transfer of her psychic powers to Alice. Matters are not helped, either, by the lesser instances of lazy writing that are scattered all through the film. For example, in a couple of cases it isn’t even clear that Freddy’s victims are supposed to be sleeping at the time, and when Krueger comes for Dan, although he is explicitly described as being asleep, the outcome of the attack would be flatly impossible unless he were really awake!
If that were all that was wrong with The Dream Master, it would merely have been yet another mediocre 80’s horror film, but the movie has another, more damning, flaw that makes it also the beginning of the end for the Nightmare on Elm Street series. For it was with A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 that Freddy Krueger fully emerged as a sardonic antihero rather than a figure of real menace. The killer’s wise-cracking has spiraled completely out of control by this point, and the murders themselves have devolved into little more than expensive, bloody sight gags. When the bug-phobic Debbie meets her end by being transformed into a cockroach and trapped within a Roach Motel, or when Freddie taunts Alice while eating a pizza topped with meatballs bearing the screaming faces of her dead friends, it is clear that Wes Craven’s original vision of the character has been entirely abandoned. After all the clowning we see from Krueger during the film proper, it is with less surprise than dispirited resignation that we hear Robert Englund— in character— joining the Fat Boys in a rap over the closing credits. If that doesn’t bode ill for the future of the series, I don’t know what does.