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

By the mid-80s, the Nightmare on Elm Street film series had cemented its place as the number one horror franchise for fans all over the world. From its humble beginnings with the original movie in 1984, which was a low budget independent feature that barely got off the ground, its screaming success single handily created a studio – New Line Cinema, and thrust horror directly into the mainstream. Freddy Krueger, the series’ villain, started out as a terrifying monster; the child murderer with the burnt face and knives for fingers that could invade your dreams and make sure you wouldn’t wake up. The concept by creator Wes Craven was a breath of fresh air to the horror community who were looking for something different, and once the first film became a hit the fans demanded more.

If Freddy were a recording artist, his career trajectory would go something like this. First album: all spit, snarl, and bite – a surprise debut from left-field, which surprised and shocked its audience with its brutality. Second album: similar to the first outing but has a nastier raw edge. Third album: the sound and identity is established combining the old with new bolder elements. By the time Krueger came around to his fourth adventure he was a fully-fledged star that had shaken off his underground beginnings and was performing with confidence. He owned the stage, had his audience going crazy, and had them eating out of the palm of his hand. Freddy Krueger, the man who had scared people the world over was now everywhere on t-shirts, posters, lunchboxes, and just about anything else that could have an image printed on it. He was performing in rap videos and appearing on popular music channel MTV, which would itself have a shameless plug during one of Part 4’s kill sequences. This huge popularity also begged a more pressing question: Is the “Bastard Son of a Hundred Maniacs” still scary now that he’s so well loved? The answer of course is a resounding no, but even though his spit, snarl, and bite had long disappeared, he was as wildly entertaining like never before.

After the massive success of ‘The Dream Warriors’ in 1987, New Line immediately began work on the next chapter in their growing franchise. Impatient fans could not wait for a fourth installment and they were expecting it to top the movie before it, and the studio was more than willing to oblige. Robert Englund again would find himself in the makeup chair playing Freddy, getting ready to stalk and slaughter unsuspecting teens in grotesque ways never before-seen in any horror film. Well, not since Part 3 that is. New Line, wanting to stay true to its independent roots, hired a relative unknown to direct their next installment. Finnish director Renny Harlin, fresh from his Hollywood debut with the  horror movie ‘Prison’, was brought on-board to helm ‘The Dream Master’. Being Harlin’s second only film he was more than enthusiastic to impress the studio with his outlandish ideas for the movie.

The plot of ‘The Dream Master’ follows directly on from ‘The Dream Warriors’, in which we see the surviving kids from that film, Kristin (Tuesday Knight, who took over the role from Patricia Arquette) and Joey and Kincaid (Rodney Eastman and Ken Sagoes reprising their roles), all now released from Westin Hills Psychiatric Hospital and living normal teenage lives. The trio are attending Springwood High and Joey and Kincaid have moved on from past events, but not Kristin, who is unable to accept that Krueger has been vanquished; instead believing that he is lurking in the shadows waiting to strike. This paranoia soon turns into reality, and before you can laugh or cheer at a dog urinating fire, the Dream Demon is back and has his clawed hand in the stomach of Kincaid. Directly after that he’s paying a visit to Joey, and drowns and stabs the poor kid in his waterbed. With only one Elm Street kid left to kill and time running out for Kristin, Freddy Krueger has to come up with a plan to find more victims. Kristin has a gift that allows her to bring anyone into her dreams, and she passes it onto her friend Alice (Lisa Wilcox) once she meets her end in a boiler room furnace. It is now up to this shy and introverted red head to provide Freddy with “fresh meat”.

From then on we are treated to a series of demented set-pieces in which Freddy uses his powers to stalk Alice and her friends, and where she must confront Krueger in one of the most spectacular finales the series has ever seen. The pace is quick and there is no time wasted as Freddy Krueger moves from victim to victim, cracking jokes and appearing in some very unusual circumstances; his claw is turned into a shark fin in one scene. In another, after Alice is sucked into a movie screen, she winds up meeting her future self at the diner where she works, and Freddy is snacking on a pizza no one would want to order. Another sequence that is one of the more head scratching has Alice running around in circles on an endless loop, as she’s trying to save a friend from a particularly grisly demise. These oddities and bizarre moments add to the loopy tone of the film; the filmmakers certainly had a “more is more” approach when going into this movie.

As the series grew so did the ways in which Krueger would dispatch his prey. Having their stomachs slashed open or swallowed by beds and spewed out in a gushing torrent was no longer enough to appease his growing fan base. The death sequences had to be bigger, badder, and had to be more surrealist eye popping than ever before. If Part 3 had Freddy Krueger offing his victims in imaginative ways then Part 4 not only ran with that particular ball but also kicked it over the fence. Audiences were now expecting creative deaths and this film would deliver them.

The 80’s horror movement had become notorious for its use of special effects; heavily employed at the time were Dream Quest Images and Screaming Mad George. Their creations and effects were used in multiple genre movies including Freddy’s previous installment, but ‘The Dream Master’ would end up being their Sistine Chapel. A skeleton reassembling itself in a grave, Freddy bursting from a waterbed (an obvious nod to the first movie), miniature meatball heads on pizzas, Krueger sucking the air out of an unfortunate girl who is asthmatic, a girl transforming into a cockroach, and the wild over the top finale with the souls of Freddy Krueger’s victims bursting from his body. ‘The Dream Master’ is a crazed showcase of effects that still hold up today and is filled to the brim with sequences that had audiences gasping and cheering.  In terms of special effects ‘The Dream Warriors’ was inventive but Part 4 had taken an acid trip.

These are just the sequences that we actually got to see. During the 2010 documentary ‘Never Sleep Again’, it is revealed that one particular effect had Freddy clawing the breasts off one girl. It’s no surprise that this scene was dropped so the film could avoid the dreaded X rating, but it shows how far the filmmakers were willing to go in terms of violence and gore and giving the audience what they now expected. Fingers crossed that this scene someday sees the light of day.

Not only were the effects now a staple of the Nightmare franchise but so was Krueger’s dialogue. Depending on the death, Freddy Krueger was now expected to deliver a witty catchy one-liner right before or after the deathblow. This was nothing new as he had dialogue in his first two outings but there it was kept to a minimum. With each passing installment the clown act was amplified and purists began to scoff at the way the villain had become a dark joke, but Englund himself was instrumental in pushing Freddy in that particular direction. He was more than willing to experiment with the way Krueger talked and walked, and for the most part audiences went with it until the comedy act did what many died trying to do – it ultimately killed Freddy Krueger! Some argue that Renny Harlin was responsible for killing off the dark Freddy we saw in the earlier movies and replaced him with a comedian. This is untrue and unfair; the studio, the writers, and most of all the actor playing him all had a hand in what Krueger would become, and so did the audience. They were the ones who were turning out in droves to see Freddy Krueger acting like a wild man and cackling maniacally; the audience had inadvertently created the circus act themselves.

Reviews for ‘The Dream Master’ upon its release in August 1988 ranged from mixed to positive. As expected it became an instant number one hit taking its studio and everyone else by surprise by easily outranking the previous three installments, becoming the franchise’s top performing film; still to this day, it sits in the number one slot as the highest grossing Nightmare. After the release, Freddy mania had reached gargantuan levels; now well in the mainstream Krueger had sold out and gone commercial. Kids were buying plastic versions of his razor glove and wearing his grotesquely burnt face that you could find in show bags, staging nightmares of their very own. That’s right, kids! People now worshiped the child murderer the very same age of his original on screen victims. He was no longer the dark and brooding underground performer but a bright and in your face showman, and like most showman, fatigue would start to set in and the party would come to a halt. After his biggest success would be his biggest failure.

Rod Taylor

out of

©2010 – 2011 Cinematic Horror Archive, Dave J. Wilson – All work is the property of the credited author(s) and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.

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One Response to “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)”

  1. That’s one of the most reflective and intelligent discussions I’ve read for ANOES 4. I think Part 4 suffers a bit in the scariness department by giving Freddy a little too much screen time and comedic dialogue, but you can’t deny it’s entertaining and stylish as hell. Lisa Wilcox also makes a great heroine, going from shy wallflower to butt-kicking heroine babe throughout the course of the film.

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