Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)


A Nightmare on Elm Street IV: The Dream Master (1988) perfects the Freddy movie formula devised for Dream Warriors (1987).

In The Dream Master, the special effects are better, the thematic through-line about teenage self-actualization is more developed, and the film features remarkable ambition, going so far as to feature one character dragged into a black-and-white movie version of reality, and the same character, Lisa Wilcox’s Alice, caught in a repeating time-loop dream.  

Yes, we’re absolutely lunging further from old school horror movie material  here -- and deeper into fantasy tropes -- but the entire film is frequently spectacular in its imaginings.

Freddy meanwhile, continues to be a droll ring-master, rather than the original film’s figure of terror, and the film’s climax might be considered a let-down Freddy sees his reflection, and dies almost instantly.  This quasi-mythic idea doesn’t really track with what we know of the character thus far, and seems a facile, over-simplified conclusion to his latest reign of terror. Still, the concept of Freddy seeing his own evil and dying works splendidly for its contrast with Alice’s story, and the fact that her power increases as she sees her reflection. 

Renny Harlin directs The Dream Master, and he is a strong presence in terms of developing memorable visuals. The lighting -- alternatively green and red -- always lets us know when Freddy is near.  

And Lisa Wilcox makes a strong impression as Alice, a character who can step into the void left by the absence of Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy Thompson.

The result is a thoroughly entertaining, thoroughly effective roller-coaster ride of a movie. Although I don't think it compares favorably to the 1984 original, others were highly impressed. Kevin Thomas at the Los Angeles Times called The Dream Master "By far the best of the series, a superior horror picture that balances wit and gore with imagination and intelligence. It very effectively mirrors the anxiety of the teenage audience for which it was primarily intended." (August 19, 1988, page 17.)

I agree wit his description of the movie as having imagination and intelligence, as well as a valuable social context.  I just think it comes up a lot short in the "scary" department.



 “Remember, you’re the one in control.”

After a dog pisses on his bones in a dream, Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) is back from the grave and ready to party.  His first order of business is killing off the surviving dream warriors.

Kristen (Tuesday Knight) is the last to go, but as she dies, she inadvertently pulls another teen from Springwood into her dreams, mousy Alice (Lisa Wilcox).  

Unusually, Alice possesses a powerful dream ability too: she can absorb the power of those who die. This means she -- like Kristen -- can now pull other team members into her dreams.  Freddy uses this power to access a new victim pool, since the original Elm Street children are all dead.

Alice and her friend, Dan (Danny Hassel) attempt to stop Freddy, a task eventually made easier because Alice is actually "The dream master:" a guardian of a dream gate.  And the abilities she absorbs from her dead friends ultimately make her Freddy's equal in terms of power.



“I am eternal.”

I wrote some in my review of Dream Warriors about the ways that the Elm Street movies actually serve as positive examples for teen audiences since they focus on youngsters surviving in a troubled world (existing under the threat of annihilation because of the Cold War, or the advent of the AIDS.) 

In the original film, Nancy learns not to deny or bury the truth, and faces the ugliness of the world made by her parents.  This makes her the horror movie equivalent of Hamlet, essentially.  

And in Dream Warriors, the writers make certain that the film’s teenagers have weapons with which to combat Freddy. 

No longer are they victims, torn apart in monstrous blood baths.  Instead, they are soldiers, capable of using their inherent gifts (in the form of their dream powers) to create a positive result for themselves and their world.  

Just as Nancy learns self-defense to fight Freddy, these teens learn to work together, harness their powers, and beat back the dark.


The Dream Master goes further down this pro-social road, and to really good effect. Here, Alice begins her journey as a teenager who is literally hiding herself from the world. She covers her bedroom mirror with photos of her friends, specifically.  There are so many photos placed there, in fact, that she can’t even see her own reflection.  She doesn’t want to see it, either.  Alice is mousy and invisible, and that’s just how she likes it.  Her father is a mean drunk, and if she can just be invisible, he won’t pick on her, won’t yell or abuse her.  She imagines standing-up to him, but doesn’t feel that she has the power to do so. Half the time, she lives in this day-dream world, striking back at the people who are bad to her.



So not unlike Freddy, Alice lives in a dream world of sorts. In her fantasies, she dreams of being strong, of fighting back. But they are just daydreams. And as Alice learns after day-dreaming of her dead brother, those fantasies don't get her anywhere. They don't help her cope with reality.

Yet Alice possesses a potent dream power too, which she finds during the film’s crisis. She can absorb the powers of others, taking on the characteristics of her friends after they battle (and lose…) to Freddy.

Where Kristen was the ultimate team player, able to pull others into her dream so as to present a unified front against Freddy, Alice is the ultimate individual, perhaps, drawing increased confidence and strength from the examples of others.  

Kristen had to coordinate different personalities (Joey, Kincaid, etc.), which could be like herding cats. Alice absorbs their experiences effortlessly, adding one skill -- kung-fu, tech-wizardy, brute strength --  after another.  She is thus in a very real way,  Freddy’s equal.  He is the “master” of the negative or nightmare dream portal; she is the protector of the positive dream portal.  Each one absorbs something from those who die.  Either their strength (dream powers) or their souls themselves.

In terms of A Dream Master's visuals, Harlin cleverly charts Alice’s journey by returning to her bedroom mirror again and again.  As each friend dies, Alice tears down their photos from the mirror, and begins, in doing so, to detect the outlines of…herself.  

And, as Alice grows stronger, she likes what she sees.  She grows more beautiful, more put-together, less mousy, as her confidence increases.  Her outer beauty is a reflection of her inner beauty.   Alice self-actualizes in terms of skill, resourcefulness, appearance, and confidence, and it’s all because she has taken in the lessons of her friend; she has incorporated, essentially, their love.  

Where they fail, she succeeds.  She takes the best parts of them to do this, and it’s a great metaphor for the learning process we undertake in adolescence. We make friends who reflect who we are, but who also (we hope) make us stronger.  We incorporate them -- the good and the bad -- into our gestalt as we mature; as we grow up.

We learn not only our lessons in life, but we learn from their experiences too.  In the end, we emerge stronger and better because we’ve been that crucible -- adolescence -- together.

The film artfully balances Alice’s journey, in which she seeks out her constantly-improving reflection, with Freddy’s opposite journey.  He cannot look at himself and survive, because he is so hideous in spirit and action.  He is a monster who cannot bear to look at his own evil, his own reflection. He thus thrives on denial and avoidance, a negative example for the same teens who should be buoyed by Alice’s growth.

This comparison -- a monster hiding from his reflection and a hero rising because of hers – works very well for The Dream Master, but not  always overall for the Freddy saga.  Why doesn’t Alice just show Freddy a mirror in The Dream Child (1989) and kill him right off?

She should bury his bones again, this time in a mirror-studded box.

Alas, one hard-and-fast rule of the Elm Street movies seems to be that any technique used to kill Freddy works one and only one time. After that, something new must be devised.

And on that note, I must point out one of the singularly most lame monster resurrections in movie history.  

Here, Freddy is resurrected, to start with, when Kincaid’s dog, Jason (wink, wink), pisses on his hallowed grave at the junkyard.  But importantly, Jason doesn’t do it in the real world, he does it in the dream world.


So a real life dog (apparently having a dream), pisses on Freddy in that dream, and this is enough to undo the burial we saw in Dream Warriors Even though that burial occurred in the real world, not the dream world.  

Another way to put this: If you went to Springwood and drove to the auto junkyard, you'd still find Freddy's bones buried nicely in hallowed ground. But in the dream world, fiery dog piss has desecrated Freddy's resting place.

Got that?

It makes absolutely no sense in any way, shape or form, and yet, on a re-watch for this review, I found it less bothersome than I had in the past.  The rest of the film thrives on its mirror imagery, and its twin journeys of denial/confidence (Freddy/Alice), and I accept that Freddy had to be resurrected in some fashion. 

I would have preferred a reason less bizarre than a dog pissing on his bones in a dream, but I do like that dream’s visual punctuation.  There is a dramatic camera pull-back and we see that Kincaid is trapped in a junk-yard world, an entire planet devoted to Freddy’s resurrection, essentially. It’s a good shot, nicely-orchestrated, so I’ll give the fire-pissing dog a pass, I suppose.

I make that concession willingly because the other dream sequences in the film remain so imaginative.  Alice is pulled into the dream world while dreaming during a viewing of Reefer Madness (1936), and ends up in the Crave Inn (Craven, get it?) with Freddy.  There, he offers her a pizza topped with the souls of children.

And then there’s the repeating time-loop dream, wherein Alice and Dan keep repeating the same sequence of events, getting into his pick-up truck, and driving to the scene of an attack.  I loved this sequence because playing with time is a new gimmick for the franchise, and the scene requires absolutely no special effects.  Also, it happens to be true to dream logic. We’ve all had dreams where we are attempting to get to some destination, but can’t quite get there.

What ages The Dream Master most today, frankly, is the soundtrack.  It’s wall-to-wall late 1980s pop, from Tuesday Knight’s theme song (which proves, decisively that the Freddy films are aping the 007 films…) on.  Despite this, The Dream Master holds up better than Dream Warriors.

Previous to this screening of the Elm Street films, I had always actually preferred Dream Warriors to The Dream Master, but on this viewing, I felt that Renny Harlin’s film adopted the same template and essentially improved on it.  Alice is a better lead than Kristen, and one who better expresses the film’s theme about teens learning to be themselves, and finding the key to survival in the process.  

The Dream Master is slicker and better put together than Dream Warriors, despite the dumb resurrection.  This entry is the most financially successful of all the Elm Street movies, and it's not hard to see why.  It entertains relentlessly, and has a strong lead in Lisa Wilcox.

Next up, an under-appreciated entry in the canon: The Dream Child.

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