This far into the summer, I don't suppose I have to prove that I'm pretty hard to break, but I must say, my droogies, that this one hurt.
So: back to 1989, the year in which Jason took Manhattan and shamed Paramount into selling the whole damn Friday the 13th franchise. The year, if you buy my logic, that pretty much killed the first epoch of slasher movies. We've already seen how that worked in the case of Jason Voorhees, so now let's turn to Freddy Krueger: his 1989 outing made less money than any other film in the series, and was made over the objections of Robert Englund, who starred in the thing only because of contractual obligations. Sounds great doesn't it? I give you: A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child.
Here's how long it takes for the alarms to chime, for the discriminating viewer to realise that something is gone terribly wrong: 35 seconds. That's how long for the New Line logo to come up and fade out, and for the abstract blue images that follow it to resolve themselves legibly into two people fucking. Non-explicitly, of course. But still! There's a hoary old tradition that tells us that showing sex or nudity in the first scene of a film means one of two things: it's self-consciously artsy, or it's extremely crass. It's not hard to figure out which is which: Eyes Wide Shut = artsy. The Dream Child = good old-fashioned exploitation. Sure, it's not so classy as Zombie Lake or Bare Breasted Countess, continuing the odd Nightmare tradition of showing nary a single gratuitous boob, but it augurs poorly. When a movie gives up before the one-minute mark, you know you're in for a long haul.
Alrighty, so the couple turns out to be Alice (Lisa Wilcox) and Dan (Danny Hassel), the survivors of The Dream Master, about one year after the events of that movie. We join in during what appears to be the first Freddy-style nightmare that Alice has suffered in all that time: a peculiarly non-baroque number involving her getting trapped in a shower stall as it fills with brackish water. After escaping, she finds herself in a hellish industrial space, watching a nun get raped by maniacs. As she later reports, this is the first time since the last film that she's been unable to take control of her dreaming self, and this leads her to believe that the Krueg is back.
When she wakes up, it turns out to be the morning of her high school graduation, which lets us do a quick chronology soft-shoe: they're clearly marked the class of 1989, the year the film was released, and it takes place 8-9 years after the first one: ergo, A Nightmare on Elm Street must take place in 1980 - the year it was written! I'll tell you what, the films may be getting increasingly sucky, but the simple elegance with which they fit into an entirely unforced and coherent timeline. Smoke on your pipe and put that in, Friday the 13th.
Speaking of the first Nightmare, that film didn't have exactly a Shakespearean grasp on human psychology, but the four kids at the center were close enough to believable that it's hard to care. That held true, more or less, in the first two sequels, although by The Dream Master, the supporting cast was suffering from being too "character-ey." Here in film no. 5, Alice's posse of friends is unmistakable as anything other than Slasher Movie Meat: there's Greta (Erika Anderson), the resentful child of privilege; Mark (Joe Seely) the comic book nerd; and Yvonne (Kelly Jo Minter), the sporty chick (who is black without being Token Black, thankfully). And then there's Greta's mother (Pat Sturges), who is literally bug-eyed in her caricatured snobby evilness, reminding me rather starkly of Grace Zabriskie doing her crazy shtick for David Lynch. Only awful.
With our deeply unimpressive cast laid out all neat, it's time to get a-carving, but first it's time to bring Freddy back! How do they do it this time? By fiat. Literally, he just seems to come back because he damn well wants to. There's a really confusing suggestion much later on that he managed to hide a portion of himself inside Alice a year ago, but it doesn't even make as much sense as Jason The Fire-Pissing Dog.
Alice has a nightmare after graduation, in which she sees the raped nun, one Amanda Krueger (Beatrice Boepple, who was not the actress playing this character in Dream Warriors) giving birth to a grotesque demon-type baby in a scene that will remind you of every other "giving birth to something horrible" scene in history. That baby runs into a pile of clothes containing a fedora, a glove with knives on the fingers, and a green and red sweater. Faster than you can say "goddamnit, why am I doing this to myself?" the baby grows up into the full-blown Freddy Krueger, whose first line is "It's a boy!" and if one had any hopes that the jokey excesses of the last film were going to be avoided this time (I didn't have such hope), that hope is now mangled and dead.
Now, here's the thing about this dream: it's not at all clear that Alice was asleep when she had it. We'll learn the reason why in a bit, but it's important to note that the reason, which does not contradict anything in the preceding films, applies only to Alice. So when Dan finds out how badly she's been shaken up, and leaves the sub-Last Picture Show pool party at the school to meet her at work, there's no reason that he should have spontaneous waking nightmares. But he does, and it's a really dreary dream, in which Freddy possesses his truck, and then he hops on a motorcycle, and then Freddy possesses that, and there's all sorts of terrible effects involving Freddy's face made out of metal and wires, and I was just kind of embarrassed to be watching it.
No better time to mention: the effects in this movie suck gnats. Ever since Freddy stopped being a pair of bright eyes in the shadows (film 3), his make-up has looked dodgy, but the film around him usually doesn't seem so unmistakably fake as this one: cheap-ass prosthetics, cheap-ass animatronics, cheap-ass animations. Even though it wasn't cheap: this was the most expensive film in the series yet.
So Dan dies in a car accident, and Alice sees Freddy take over his body (waking nightmare) and passes out, and she ends up in a hospital. Two things happen, and the order that the happen in is really important: first, she learns that she's pregnant with Dan's baby. If it takes you more than ten seconds to realise that Freddy wants to take over the baby, and that's how he's infiltrating Alice's mind, then you are incredibly stupid, but not nearly as stupid as the characters, who won't figure it out for about 30 minutes (our time), or 20 hours (their time). Then, while Alice is resting, a fucking creepy little boy named Jacob (Whitby Hertford) pokes his head in to see how she is doing. Alice asks if he is a patient, and he kind of says yes. She mentions that she likes the name Jacob. The audience smacks its collective forehead, understanding that Jacob is the spirit of Alice's baby, but Alice won't realise that until right about the time she figures out that Freddy wants to control him. This is why the order of things matters: if we didn't know that she was pregnant, it might have taken another minute or two to make the connection once we learned that she was. As it is? Less than five seconds, no matter how stupid you are.
All that takes about one-third of the movie to set up, and then it just unspools in a series of unbearable moments in which Freddy invades someone's dream through an unexplained mechanism and kills them, in a horribly "funny" way. Robert Englund makes not the slightest effort to hide his disgust at the script this time around, for which I frankly salute him: a once-threatening character has been reduced to the world's worst clown, nothing but a machine for spouting one-liners now. As bad as The Dream Master was in this respect, at least there were a couple moments where Freddy actually seemed like a psycho killer. He's nothing more than a merry prankster now, and it sucks. It sucks so much. It sucks the emulsion right off the film.
Meanwhile, the story illogic continues apace: Alice acquires or loses knowledge and skills as is convenient, things happen that have no reasonable explanation ("reasonable" in the framework of the series, or even just this film), and Yvonne is tasked with hunting Amanda Kruger's bones, despite that fact that we've seen Amanda Krueger's grave in an earlier film.
God, I hated this film. I mean, it's better than probably five of the Friday the 13th movies, but looking at how far it is from the first film...dispiriting, man. That's the only real word for it. Jason Voorhees was only ever a cash-grab, and a particularly mercenary one; but this series, it started out with care and good craftsmanship, and that's all been pissed away.
Thinking back over the series, something strikes me that I probably should have noticed by now: the films are getting lighter. Not in the sense of "less scary" or "funnier," though God knows both of those are true. I mean, it's getting more light in it: like I said, Freddy used to be two bright white eyes peering out from under a fedora, and now the whole movie is exposed like a high-school film project, enough to make sure you can see everything without any character to the lighting. Where the finales once took place in dark houses or hellish boiler rooms, this film's climax occurs in a dusky church - pretty, I must confess, but not very shadowy.
This summer has been a fairly dramatic exploration of something I already knew: starting in about 1986, American horror movies got very deliberately unfrightening. I often used words like safe and sanitized and the like, and it all amounts to the same thing as raising the light levels: take the danger out, and you take the scary out, and you end up with a film that isn't very good but also isn't very upsetting, so the profligate teens who go to these things for a reason that is usually related somehow to making out won't be actually disturbed.
That's how we get leaden "comic horror" like The Dream Child. with idiotic sequences designed to make you giggle instead of scream, such as the scene where Freddy sports a French accent while he force-feeds Greta to death, or the repugnant comic book scene with Mark, that starts of like a terrible rip-off of the "Take On Me" video that ends with an effect that I won't even repeat, so much does it anger me that I ever saw it.
As much as 1989's Jason Takes Manhattan typifies what killed the slasher - too much money being spent by idiots on idiotic screenplays about idiotic characters - but The Dream Child is a bit more interesting (as is always the case with those two series - Friday the 13th is typical where Nightmare is unusual), because its great sin was trying to be, essentially, an effects movie slasher. Most slasher movies have effects that come from one tiny team of make-up artists, but The Dream Child had armies of effects artists working on all sorts of different effects, and hardly ten minutes can go by without some show-stopping blockbuster-type scene. Sure, it has the weakest script in the series, but that's not the problem. The problem is that it would rather impress us than scare us. That's not who Freddy is. Small wonder that after this colossal debacle crapped its way into theaters, New Line practically bragged that the next film in the series was going to end it. By this point, it wasn't horror any more. It was just horrible.
Body Count: Three. Four, if we count Freddy (which we shouldn't). Seriously, that's it. Parsimonious bullcrap.
Reviews in this series
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven, 1984)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (Sholder, 1985)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Russell, 1987)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (Harlin, 1988)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (Hopkins, 1989)
Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (Talalay, 1991)
Wes Craven's New Nightmare (Craven, 1994)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Bayer, 2010)