The first Nightmare on Elm Street film was an original supernatural slasher flick. The second film had some crazy subtext going on (which, to my everlasting regret, I missed). And the third flick continued to shake things up, giving Freddy Krueger’s potential victims the ability to fight back. Every entry in the franchise through the third film had enough unique characteristics to stave off franchise fatigue, but then producers Robert Shaye and Sara Risher decided to play it safe, assembling a paint by numbers movie with a screenplay by committee, and hiring an early-career Renny Harlin to direct. This flick was doomed to mediocrity before the first frame was shot.
Released a year after the previous film, in 1988, Dream Master picks up the story of Kristen and her surviving friends from the psychiatric hospital. They’re back in civilization, and all going to the same high school. Patricia Arquette turned down the role this time around, so Tuesday Knight was cast as Kristen, instead. Rodney Eastman reprises his role as Joey, Ken Sagoes returns as Kincaid, and Brooke Bundy even showed up for a cup of coffee and to deliver a couple lines as Kristen’s mother. And, of course, Robert Englund plays Freddy Krueger. Other than that, every other character in the film is new.
Having these Freddy survivors in the film is misdirection, though. They don’t all meet their bloody ends within the first few minutes, as some horror franchises do to surviving characters, but meet their ends they do. Because the last girl in this flick is not Kristen. Rather, it’s her boyfriend’s sister, Alice (Lisa Wilcox). After the film deals with the familiar characters, it’s up to Alice and her group — brother Rick (Andras Jones), crush Dan (Danny Hassel), and friends Sheila and Debbie (Toy Newkirk and Brooke Theiss) — to stop Freddy.
It’s slasher flick by rote. The characters in the films before this had depth. Not oceanic levels of depth, but they were developed enough to carry a film, plot and all. The characters created for this film just check boxes. 1980s boxes, as it turns out. This film was very much in touch with its time and place, to the point of caricature (I’m mostly referring to Brooke Theiss, whose character looked like she stepped out of a Jane Fonda workout video).
The thing about a slasher flick is that characters without depth are just fodder. It’s impossible to build tension when there aren’t any emotional stakes for the audience. Filmmakers have to make viewers care about the pretty people that are about to get chopped up, or we just root for the bad guy. Rooting for the bad guy is a danger sign that a franchise is beginning to suffer from fatigue. When it no longer matters who Freddy is cutting up, as long as Freddy is cutting someone up, it becomes clear to the audience that they’re watching a product as much as they are a film.
Things begin to look up in the last half hour, when a throwaway line from Freddy reveals his motivations, and there are some clever storytelling twists. By then, viewers will have been fed an hour’s worth of fast food filmmaking, and the whole package is beyond saving. That’s too bad, because there is a better movie lurking somewhere in this film’s inanity.
But, franchises rarely recover from a descent into the ordinary. This film is a warning for fans of the Nightmare franchise. The powers that be are no longer concerned with doing anything new. They will provide the blood and the bodies, Freddy Krueger will provide the quips, and in return, viewers will provide their money. That’s a cynical appraisal of this film, but I think it’s deserved.
Unlike its predecessor, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master does not crack the top fifty of the Watchability Index. Rather, it is consigned to the anonymous middle, where languishes forgettable films such as End of Days and The Skeptic. Dream Master was marginally more watchable than The Eye, so it takes over that spot at #179. This one is for fans of the franchise. Otherwise, I think potential viewers can skip it.
Keep a close eye out for scream queen Linnea Quigley. She was on screen for about five seconds in total, and still managed to show her breasts. That is some dedication to gratuitous nudity.