The clearest sign of what went wrong: during the end credits of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, we are treated to a rap titled "Are You Ready for Freddy?" performed by the Fat Boys, with uncredited assistance from Robert Englund in character. It is the stuff of nightmares, if you'll pardon the expression.
But I've gotten ahead of myself! There's a whole movie full of nuclear suck before we get to that point. So let's dig in.
Context? What context? It was the late 1980s, and while the words Friday the 13th were no longer quite the financial perpetual-motion machine they had been, this was more than made up for by the Nightmare franchise, wherein each film had grossed more than its predecessor. Indeed, The Dream Master, with a final take around $49 million, was the highest-grossing film in the series up until 2003. It's kind of odd to consider that even as the slasher genre was tottering ever closer to death, the adventures of Freddy Krueger were still able to pull down such significant profits.
Maybe it's because, even at their worst through the first four movies, the Nightmare films showcased a level of invention that was simply nowhere to be found elsewhere in the genre. They might be crappy, but they were surely not your typical "big mysterious dude with a baroque edged weapon stalks & kills teens" numbers. And while The Dream Master was perhaps the closest to a normal slasher that we've yet seen, it still has plenty of outre tricks up its sleeve. God knows that they didn't all succeed as well as one might have hoped; really, they didn't succeed at all. But at least it was something that quite literally, nobody else was doing at the time.
So: it's about one year after Dream Warriors, and the three young survivors of that film are doing just fine back in Springwood High School, although Kristen Parker (the pornishly-named Tuesday Knight replacing Patricia Arquette) is still having creepy dreams about the house at 1428 Elm Street. I say "creepy." I lie. For the first time in four movies, the opening scene just flat-out does not work one little tiny bit. While the first three were brooding and threatening and generally worked up tension through a slow boil, this one is nothing but loud: Kristen sees that scary little girl from the last film (no longer even a smidgen scary), goes inside the house and mostly just gets knocked around by windows blowing up and winding pouring around everywhere. It's anti-subtlety, hair metal to the pizzicato strings that e.g. Wes Craven played so well.
Happily, I get to eschew my customary hand-wringing, "oh me, why has this happened?" because the reason why is gapingly obvious: Renny Harlin directed this film.
Oh Renny Harlin! Such an unusually terrible hack! His filmography is a road map of big-budget cinematic squalor: Die Hard 2, Cutthroat Island, Deep Blue Sea, the worse of the two shitty Exorcist prequels. And unlike fellow ur-hacks Chris Columbus and Joel Schumacher, there's no mistaking a Harlin film: take a screenplay of whatever quality (usually low), and proceed to make it as big as possible. No moment is complete until it ends with a slow-motion explosion; the sound mix is only ready for release once every line of dialogue has been swallowed alive by a cacophony of booms and impersonal violin music. It took less than five minutes before I sat in open-mouthed amazement at how that aesthetic translated to the slasher genre, and I found myself thinking, "it's completely obvious that this man also directed Cliffhanger."
Anyways, Kristen has apparently been much concerned of late that Freddy is only mostly dead, and her fears are starting to annoy the hell out of fellow-survivors Kincaid (Ken Sagoes) and Joey (Rodney Eastman), especially because she keeps using her nifty dream-sharing skill to pull them into her nightmares every evening. This is even after Kincaid's dog, who is named JASON, do you get it, the dog is named JASON, well let's just say it a couple times more to make sure that you understand that the dog is called JASON, that's right, JASON the dog, and there, now I've saved you a three-minute scene of the movie...um, so Jason gets sucked into Kristen's dream and bites her arm, and her arm is bloody in reality, and neither Kincaid nor Joey seem to give much of a damn about this.
But ho, ho, ho, who's got the last laugh now, after Kincaid's dream in which he awakes in the junkyard where Krueger's bones were interred. Jason is there too, digging up the bones, and he pisses fire onto them, and Freddy rises and kills Kincaid. There's absolutely no way to reconcile this with the previous film, and it's the first time that ever this series has descended to the arbitrary levels of Friday the 13th, declaring by fiat that Freddy is back because we said he's back, goddamnit.
Then, Joey gets drowned in his water bed after a rare (for this series) gratuitous boob shot.
So, Kristen is well and truly freaked, and for support, she gathers together her closest friends: boyfriend Rick (Andras Jones), his sister Alice (Lisa Wilcox), Debbie (Brooke Theiss), a poorly-conceived attempt at making some sort of gym-rat girl, the nerdy Sheila (Toy Newkirk), and Rick's best friend Dan (Danny Hassel). In confused bits and pieces, she lets them know that she's scared of the evil man in her dreams, but none of them understands or believes her. Their introductions, by the way, feel an awful lot like a typical "Meet the Meat" scene, right down to the awkward ways in which "character" "details" are laid out, with the subtlety of a train wreck.
The night after showing Alice and Rick the house at 1428 Elm Street, Kristen has a dream in which Krueger comes to her and demands that she brings one of her friends into her dream. It seems that he's only able to invade the dreams of teens descended from the parents who killed him lo these many years ago, although that doesn't jibe with Freddy's Revenge on any level whatsoever. But she is powerless to resist, and so she randomly drags Alice in to meet the gloved killer. Then something happens that I didn't expect at all, and to be honest, I was very impressed by the film's balls in doing it: Krueger kills Kristen.
Depriving us of our protagonist, the film quickly latches onto Alice, suggesting that something in her dreamer's makeup (and she has been presented throughout as a lucid dreamer, so maybe that's something to do with it) causes her to "absorb" the "dream powers" of whomever she encounters. So even as Kristen dies, Alice gains her ability to pull others into her own dreams. From then on, the film progresses fairly inevitably, with the Meat wandering one-by-one into garish setpieces and getting killed off, resulting in Alice gaining their real-world skill: tech-knowledge, karate, strength, what have you. She's a bit like Mega Man, really. Anyway, as her friends get whittled down, she becomes stronger, turning slowly into the fabled Dream Master, and so becoming able to lay the smack down on Freddy. Which either does or doesn't kill him. I mean, obviously it doesn't, but it's wholly unclear what happens to him, just as it's unclear how he came back in the first place.
There's really no other word for The Dream Master than "nonsensical," but good movies have been made out of nonsense in the past. What really kills the film is its relentlessly goofy tone. Yes, "goofy" - so goofy that the not altogether trustworthy IMDb sees fit to label the film a comedy, and I don't have it in me to disagree. How Freddy Krueger could go from a menacing dark figure to a bloody clown in four years and four movies, I cannot explain, even though I've just seen it happen with my own eyes. And this despite the continued presence of Robert Englund! But he's been reduced to a dark shape with bright, evil eyes to a Bondian quipster, whose puns are more groan-worthy than ever, and whose manner of killing has become so extravagant as to invite only gaping dismay (the scene where he shows Alice a pizza festooned with the screaming faces of her dead friends is a particularly charming gag that just makes me want to go back in time and smack Harlin right across the face, although I suppose that it wasn't likely his idea).
It's not fair to blame poor Freddy for all of the film's problems, though. It was 1988 - it was the death of the serious & dangerous horror film, and all of the slasher films of the day were increasingly sanitized and tweaked just so they wouldn't actually scare anybody for any length of time (a weird exception: the same year's Friday the 13th: The New Blood). The Dream Master fits very neatly into that trend, and if this is more than a little disappointing, given that its three predecessors so resolutely refused to bend to the popular wind of the horror genre, it's also pretty much unsurprising, given that this is the first really "slashery" film in the series.
I'm not going to go back and trash the good Mr. Harlin more than I have, except to reiterate that the vacuum of effective scare moments in this film is very much related to the director's embrace of noisy excess. Because there are so many other things to complain about! For one, there are the in-jokes: Jason the dog is a particularly grim example, because of the obvious desperation from the writers (one of whom was - skeleton alert! - Brian Helgeland, Oscar-nominee for Mystic River) that we might not "get" it. But there are smaller moments: Rick jokes that Springwood is a dangerous place to be a teen, in a joke that is only a little less obnoxious than "Some folks sure got a strange idea of entertainment" from Jason Lives. Or the name of the diner that Debbie and Alice work at, the Crave Inn, which is simply rude to good old Wes, who busy though he may have been on the forgotten The Serpent and the Rainbow, at least had the good sense to stay the hell away from this film.
Then there's the colossal '80s-ness of the whole thing. My math says this takes place in 1991, but there's no reason it couldn't be tweaked to '88 or '89 (it has to be 8 years after the first film, that's pretty much the only requirement). But no matter what year, it really takes place in the unholy realm of post-post-New Wave and long-obsolete slang and hideous fucking clothes. I haven't had a problem with any of the earlier films in this respect, because they are not so pushy about cultural signifiers. Here, though, it's impossible to ignore. Of course, I can't blame a film from 1988 for being from 1988, but the film's problems transcend just seeming dated: none of the other films felt the need to fill themselves up with wall-to-wall pop songs, and in addition to sounding hilariously inane to the modern ear, these have the actual effect of changing the energy of the film. Pop music isn't scary. I mean, not in that way. And making music such an important part of the mise-en-scène the filmmakers turn The Dream Master into a teen movie with a killer, not a movie about killing teens.
So I return to where I began: Freddy Krueger rapping with the Fat Boys. It does a tremendous disservice to the character, and it makes the film profoundly silly. There are probably things more irrelevant than a silly horror movie, but I can't think of them just offhand.
Still: The Dream Master has a sort of constant level of goofy idiocy, where Freddy's Revenge goes from pretty decent to unspeakably wretched. So I can't actually claim that part 4 is the worst in the series: let's call it a photo finish. And it goes without saying that this can't hold a candle to the worst depths of the Friday the 13th franchise. Silly it may be, but at least it doesn't have any screaming redneck comedy.
Body Count: Six, and it's amazing how tone changes things: even though it sports just one more death than its predecessor, it feels much more than that.
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)