Sunday, August 11, 2019

30 Years Ago Today: A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)

In many ways, the Elm Street movies are a lot like the James Bond films. Consider: there is one larger-than-life figure at the center of each film (Freddy or 007), and much of the action and plotting seems to be determined by the need to feature spectacular set-pieces. 

But also like James Bond, the Freddy films seem to need occasional re-grounding in reality. 

This re-grounding has happened on a few occasions in Bond history.  The out-of-balance nuttiness of Moonraker (1979) was deliberately redressed by the back-to-reality For Your Eyes Only (1981). Recently, Casino Royale (2006) re-imagined the 007 series after the surfing-tsunami, ice castles, and invisible car excesses of Die Another Day (2002).

The Dream Child (1989) is, in many ways, a similar kind of effort.  

A Dream Master is a pop-music laden, slick Freddy film (that I like a great deal…), but which takes the series quite far from its original horror roots. Freddy the Ringmaster has replaced Freddy the sicko.  

Stephen Hopkins’ film, the fifth entry, adopts a new approach. It continues the rules and formula of Dream Warriors and The Dream Master, but attempts to inject more horror -- specifically body horror -- into the proceedings.  

Freddy is also on screen less frequently, and his make-up has changed some to make him look more malevolent.  

The movie doesn’t even begin with a light pop song.  Instead, The Dream Child commences with a creepy musical composition that accompanies disturbing views of Dan and Alice having sex. We don’t actually see them in their entirety, only shots of their bodies -- their flesh -- moving up and down in unsettling blue light.  This is the beginning of the movie's thesis about body horror, but our the unsettling nature of evil that can grow inside.

This disturbing first scene is an indicator that the Freddy movies are attempting here to move into adulthood alongside their original audience, instead of staying permanently arrested in teenage concerns. 

In keeping with that approach, the film meaningfully discusses hot-button issues in the culture, including abortion and eating disorders.  The focus is still on young people, but The Dream Child isn't afraid to explore deep problems in that milieu. Like Nancy Thompson, this film isn't afraid to dig beneath the surface.

The Dream Child is not as light, not as slick, as The Dream Master, but I appreciate its dedicated attempts to move the franchise forward, while simultaneously returning some element of fear or terror to the Freddy character.  

On the down-side, the film definitely showcases some artistic exhaustion in terms of the retread supporting characters -- who come across as replacement friends, and bad copies -- and there are some continuity issues that the film must contend with as well.

But as a Freddy Krueger body horror show, The Dream Child impresses, and distinguishes itself from the Elm Street pack.

“This is one of God’s creations.”

High school graduation nears for Alice (Lisa Wilcox) and Dan (Danny Hassel), but Alice feels increasing anxiety about Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund); about the possibility that he might manage to return from the grave.

Her intuitions prove correct.  Freddy is alive, though weak, living in the dreams of her unborn baby. As Alice soon learns, she is pregnant.  And babies dream most of the day, which means that Freddy has access to a universe of nightmares, even when she is wide awake.

Freddy uses his new power base -- Alice's womb -- to reach out and grab others, including Dan, whom he murders.  

While Alice grapples with what to do about a baby that could be born evil, she must also protect her friends, including Greta (Erika Anderson), who has an eating disorder.

“Your birth was a curse on the whole of humanity.”

The Dream Child -- the fifth entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street film series -- suffers a bit from its placement in the series.  It has not been long since the events of the fourth film, for instance, and yet Alice is fully ensconced at Springwood High with a new set of friends: Yvonne, Greta and Mark.  

Nobody talks about the friends who died last year, and certainly these friends would have gone to high school with them, right?  It's like Alice just opened a six pack of new friends, and there they are!

The film features some baffling continuity errors with the rest of the series too. 

Westin Hills -- which audiences saw up and running in Dream Warriors, and which could not have occurred more than two or three years earlier -- is described in the film's dialogue as as having been abandoned for years.  

Also, it is now located across from a park and is a huge, Gothic construction (represented by inadequate matte painting).  This is a dramatic rewrite of series history, since Kristen, Kincaid and Joey -- all classmates of Alice’s -- were warehoused there for a time.

And now we also learn that Sister Krueger’s body was never found, and has been hidden in the walls of the hospital for forty-something years? 

That’s new information too, and information that doesn’t really line up perfectly with the events of Dream Warriors either.  In fact, we saw the Sister’s grave in that film.

Also, when we witness Freddy’s birth (or is it rebirth?) in the film, why is he physically-deformed, a physical terror from birth?  

The real Freddy was a normal person, in terms of appearance, before his burning in the boiler room, right?  

So is Freddy re-born as a monster in this case, because we  are witnessing his rebirth, not a flashback of his original birth, in the movie?  It would be nice to have a bit more clarity about this, but the movie provides none.

These changes are vexing -- and continuity is not at all a strong-point of the Elm Street franchise -- but I admire Dream Child for attempting to be more psychologically adroit and thematically interesting than some of its predecessors.

In particular, I admire the film’s courage in dealing with two important issues involving young adults.  

The first involves Greta.  She feels tremendous pressure from her mother to be “Polly Perfect,” in her own words. This means that she is constantly being monitored in terms of what she eats and what she wars. 

Greta is not seen for who she is, but what kind of fame -- vicarious or direct -- she can bring her to her mother. Greta’s mom is thus an Elm Street Parent in keeping with others we see in the films: one who is corrupt and sinful, and unable to legitimately love her child for who she is. The message, voiced in the film, goes beyond even “pushy parents can drive you nuts.” Rather, parents can create pathology in their children.  And Greta, obsessed with her weight, and eating the right foods (“you are what you eat”) is sick.  She may be bulimic, or even anorexic.

Freddy, of course, attacks this pathology, and force feeds Greta until she dies. 

This is one of my favorite kills in the Elm Street series because it expresses something vital about the teen-centric “body image” crisis that is on-going, wherein teens are encouraged by media, parents and society to be of a certain weight, of a certain appearance. It’s a pressure that people still feel, and if anything it has gotten worse, since now men and women both are urged to conform to social norms in terms of their bodies.

Similarly, The Dream Child doesn’t shy away from examining unwed mothers and their problems. 

For a time, Alice contemplates abortion, because she simply doesn’t feel equipped to be a mother at this point.  Ultimately, she chooses to keep the child, Jacob, yet then faces scrutiny from Dan’s parents, who want to raise the child themselves.  

The upshot?  Alice lives under judgment, no matter what she does.  

She is judged for being pregnant, judged for contemplating her choices regarding having the baby, and judged for her fitness in being a parent.  

It’s not an easy situation she’s in, and it’s rewarding that The Dream Child goes to these places, and doesn’t give any of the issues it raises short-shrift.  The on-going subtext of the Elm Street films is that the sins of the parents are delivered upon the children.  Alcoholic, demanding, corrupt and pathological parents of the Reagan Era don’t pay attention to their children, and allow a monster to slip into a place that should be safe: the family hearth.

The Dream Child goes further than any other film, excepting perhaps the original, in diagramming this equation.  Alice and Greta deal with some major problems in the film; problems that arise not just from Freddy’s presence, but the behavior of the adults in their lives.

Some folks won’t like the presence of the abortion debate in the film, I know. Yet The Dream Child is very even-handed in discussing abortion, and doesn’t adopt either a hard pro-life or a hard pro-choice stance.  Instead, Alice just contends with the situation in front of her, trying to make the best decision he can. 

There’s something very realistic about the debate in the film.  In real life, choices about abortion are not an abstract, binary, either-or decision. For those involved, the choice is not a political hot potato, nor an opportunity to grand stand.  There are shades of grays, there are personal considerations, and there are repercussions, no matter what path is selected. 

In terms of set-pieces, I’ll be the first to admit that The Dream Child doesn’t rate positively beside some of the other films in the saga.  The Phantom Prowler comic-book scene is a travesty, with Freddy comically aping a graphic novel superhero with bulging muscles.  The Dream Child's purpose is clearly to re-establish Krueger as a serious threat, lurking in the shadows before striking his enemies.  This set-piece is so silly it undercuts, largely, the film’s attempts at re-grounding.

Much more fascinating and on-point is Dan’s death scene. Freddy becomes a motorcycle, and sort of “grows” into Dan, shearing off his flesh and perforating him with tubes, coils, and other mechanical devices.  

It’s incredibly grotesque, and almost David Cronenberg-like in both conception and execution (think: Crash).  When you couple this scene with those shots of Jacob in the womb, and Greta’s over-stuffing, there is a fleshy, tactile nature to the death scenes in this film.  They feel more organic, and less fantastic, and, frankly, I prefer this approach.  

But the organic nature of these scenes also make the comic scene stand out like a sore thumb.

Many critics and Freddy fans don’t like The Dream Child very much, and I suspect this is because the film is the only one of the sequels that really succeeds in making folks feel...uncomfortable.  The organic nature of the deaths, and the questions raised about body image issues and reproduction are not easily digested as mere entertainment. There’s a queasy, discomforting aspect of the film. It’s painfully aware of the fragile nature of our bodies, from birth onward.  The movie begins in a dank, squalid insane asylum, where a group rape occurs, follows on to the birth of a monstrosity, and then features many scenes that showcase how vulnerable and pliable our flesh really is.  There's nothing light about The Dream Child.

In other words, The Dream Child is a legitimate horror movie, not just another roller-coaster Freddy sequel, not just a lark with Freddy as circus ringleader. 

I rather like it, and appreciate what it was trying to achieve, though I readily admit it has flaws. I remain disappointed that Freddy’s Dead (1991) dropped Alice’s story, and went in a less satisfying, less human direction.

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