In spite of the 1988 Writer’s Strike, shoddy direction, and Fred Kreuger’s dual role as both an immortal dream monster and a lame stand-up comedian, Nightmare on Elm Street 4 managed to become the most successful film in the franchise…up to that time.
It’s easy to see why. The financial successes of Parts 2 and 3 led to the most interesting phenomenon in the Slasher movie’s short history. Hard as it is for genre fans to pronounce this word without retching, Slasher movies became…ugh…mainstream. It took ten years, but these Old Testament morality plays disguised as exploitative gore fests went from urban, independent theaters to multiplexes across the U.S. and around the world. Both Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street fielded successful TV series and horror merchandising started to ramp up to levels it hadn’t achieved since the ’50s.
Nowadays we can look back and see the sub-genre’s slow motion death, but 1989 was actually a rare year for the cosmopolitan horror fan who’d yet to turn their nose up at the Slasher movie. That was the year all three of the “name” Slasher franchises pushed out crap sequels. In fact, that summer saw a stupefying succession of sequels, with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade leading the pack. Star Trek V, Ghostbusters II, Karate Kid Part III, they all followed in an attempt to derail a little Warner Brothers picture everyone had heard about that was supposed to be half-decent, called Batman.
How could Freddy hope to stand against all that? The short answer is: he didn’t.
I can’t outright tell you the Nightmare franchise made August the safe place to dump your cheap, quickie, cash-in horror films…but I’ll bet you it helped out a lot. Two years it a row, it produced bland, disappointing retreds of Freddy’s Revenge…which was a pretty big disappointment in the first place. Like its prequel, The Dream Child still feels like yet another cobbled-together clip-show. But unlike Dream Master (which really is the Star Trek V of its franchise: massive aesthetic over-reach combined with Murphy’s Law to produce an all-around bad movie) Dream Child‘s clip show starts right off and it lasts for a full fucking hour.
This time, no writer’s strikes seized Hollywood up, all the key actors returned, and Robert Shaye hired a director who wasn’t Renny Harlin. This film has no excuse to be this annoying, but by the time it got through the MPAA, it had the perfect one. The Dream Child doesn’t need a script doctor, like its prequel: it needs a fucking trauma surgeon. Someone cut this film to ribbons and what’s left is almost exactly long enough to make up for its lack of quality by ensuring more screenings per day.
So what happened? Dream Child starts off on the right foot with a Freddy origin story, filmed in sepia-toned, nightmare vision. Inside a freakish, orange-tinted asylum, we catch up to Alice as she finds herself cast as Freddy’s poor, doomed mom, Amanda Krueger. Right away we notice our director actually knows how shoot a horror film. Renny Harlin was born to make action movies (by which I mean, rip-off other, better, action movie directors). Stephen Hopkins was born to direct actors performing actions. It’s a small but important distinction that saves this film from my full wrath, made all the more impressive by its four week schedule and the fact this was Hopkins sophomore effort.
As does the fact its lead actress, Lisa Wilcox, reprises her role as our Final Girl. I don’t know what happened to her between films, but good Lord, the difference is like night and day. Her performance here is calmer (if that makes since, consider how much time she spends screaming), more natural, more nuanced, more everything than her performance in Dream Master. Instead of playing a poorly-written afterthought, she’s playing a character, and since we all watched the last film (right?) her backstory’s already in place. We can jump right into the reality-warping action…right, guys?
Well, no, not really. After the usual false awakening (a decent drowned-in-your-own-shower sequence), we find Alice graduating high school along with her New
Meat friends…and here’s where I start having problems. Alice is mighty chummy with all these people, none of whom were in the last film, save her boyfriend, Dan the Jockman (Danny Hassel). Think back to high school. Let’s say your entire social circle up and died over the course of a week under mysterious circumstances. How many new friends do you think you’d make between that and graduation? I guess Alice rode Dan’s status (is that what they’re calling it these days?) as a Local High School Sports God all the way back up the social ladder.
As for the rest, we’ve got Greta (Erika Anderson) for a Rich Girl Spice, with a Bitch mom (played with an admirably amount of corn by Pat Sturges) who’s obviously pushing her to be a supermodel. Yvonne (Kelly Jo Minter), the Token Black Spice, is into high diving. Mark (Joe Seely) is into comic books. Throw in another (much better) returning performance by Nicholas Mele as Alice’s now-in-recovery (but still criminally under-used…he should’ve died in the last flick if we were going by the “rules” of How to Successfully Survive a Horror Movie) dad. All in all, a respectable victim pool, all characterized with the usual lack of subtlety.
As is Freddy’s rebirth, this time via the resurrected spirit of Amanda Krueger. The birth scene is notable for the choppiness of its editing, the stiffness of its Newborn Freddy marionette, and inspiring the creators of Jason Goes to Hell. (Whether they admit it or not.) After exiting the dream womb, Fetal Freddy crawls past Alice (who observes the birth…which is its own kind of nightmare, even out here in the real world), back to the set from the end of Dream Master. Crawling into his old abandoned clothes, Freddy pops back up like the evil Jack he’s become by this point, saying, “It’s a boy!”
That line’s apparently the only survivor of the original script. I can’t imagine what that looked like, but the next three drafts ground it into the same bland, Slasher sausage we always got between 1981 and 1996. Sure, they throw in some special effects orgies for spice, but big fucking deal. They’re well made, and I appreciate the hard work that went into them…but by now, they’ve replaced Freddy as the main character in these fucking movies.
In fact, the gore effects in this flick were apparently too well-made. The MPAA insisted New Line cut them down to their current, truncated, shotgun-edited forms. They still used the “X” rating back then, and they threatened even halfway-gory films with that kiss of box office death in order to stave off the business backlash from American Moral Guardians eager to blame social ills on anything other than their own parochial ignorance. Slasher movies were too big by then. They figured everyone who produced them needed to be taught a lesson. And that lesson was, “Release an unrated cut to the home video market and you’ll make a small fortune on top of the fortune you already have.”
The result? All the trademark, elaborate death scenes – the one – nay, only – competitive advantage this series ever had over its competitors – are criminally shortened in all cuts of this pick, save the unrated VHS. And once again, I think I know exactly what happened. They filmed a two hour movie, the MPAA threatened the X, they cut down all the gore scenes, watched what was left…and, horrified, realized the film was now a neutered, unbalanced mess. So they cut out a whole bunch of that boring “character” stuff. You know, that part of the movie where you get a reason to give a shit.
For example: our New Meat have the inevitable post-graduation party. Dan leaves, falls asleep and the wheel, and Freddy kills him. This dream sequence almost apes Renny Harlin, with its cackling, catch-phrase spewing Freddy and its multi-colored, seizure lighting. You can sense this franchise’s desperate need to top itself and know exactly where the extra million dollars in the budget went: into producing fluids.
The MPAA hates fluids. More than language, more than violence. The blood is the life, after all…and some people just can’t stand to think about that. Those people naturally gravitate towards the censorship industry. And make no mistake, the MPAA is an industry unto itself, a vital part of the overall Hollywood system, where old-time hacks, fly-by-night sharks, and sheltered soccer moms get together to decide which movies live or die. Or try to. Audiences have this nasty habit of liking stuff they hate. Like sex. Or violence. Or the juxtaposition of those two.
None of them know what we know as actually fans of the fright flick. That uneasy feeling people get in their gut at the sight of blood or boobs is the whole fucking point of the movie. It’d be like telling the director of a romantic comedy, “Does there have to be so much damn kissing? That’s disgusting! And morally suspect. Cut out 75% of the tonsil hockey or no theater in America will dare show your film.”
Imagine if someone had told John Ford, “Get rid of those bleak landscape shots of lonesome, frontier desert. They make me feel small and meaningless, like a bug on the windshield of history,” John Ford would’ve crossed his arms and said, “Good.” A pregnant silence would’ve ensued. Gradually, the censors would’ve realized he’d taken that as a compliment and his sheer, John Ford-ness would prevent them from bringing it back up, for fear he’d kick their asses. Which he would’ve.
So, once again, we’re following the “Freddy needs a conduit” model of Nightmare on Elm Street Physics. Which you already know I don’t like because we all know it makes no sense. Is Freddy like an evil pirate radio station or something? Does he have to hack Alice’s frequency in order to broadcast himself into his victim’s dreams? Since when? Part 4? Then what was all that foolin’ around with Jessie about in Part 2? Or…wait…if the events of the first two films were all, in fact, dreams…but Nancy flat out says “he killed my friends,” in Part 3, so that couldn’t have been a dream…and Jesse’s obviously dead, so…gah! My head hurts.
All I know for sure is, this time, Freddy’s hacked into the signal of Alice’s unborn child, Jacob (played by professional “kid in the background” Whit Hertford, the “hey, it’s that guy!” of child actors). Through Jacob, Freddy kills Dan, sending Alice into a tailspin everyone, including her so-called “friends,” blames on her pregnancy. Once again, the teenagers of Springwood are all portrayed as selfish, ignorant brats who have to look up their own town’s history, even though its been the site of multiple mass deaths over the last decade. At the very least, it must be the teen suicide capital of…whatever state we’re in…
No one believes Alice until her friends start dying. The idea of a demonic child killer is just too much, even for these kids. Gretta even says, “If anybody’s after you, he’ll have to go through all of us.” Alice answers with a resigned, “That’s what I’m afraid of.” It’s like they couldn’t hang enough lampshades on themselves. This is what critics mean when they say, “The series descended into self-parody.” It makes the proceedings even less engaging than a thousand bad Freddy quips.
So once Freddy feeds Gretta her own intestines (not shown), Mark comes around…just in time to die in yet another conscious call back to Johnny Depp’s death from the original Nightmare. Alice even tells him, “Don’t fall asleep,” so we know he will.
Then Mark’s death, which goes exactly how every post-Dream Warriors death in this franchise should’ve gone, shocked me back into wakefulness. Freddy taunts Mark with what he’s done to Greta (whom Mark’s loved from afar for, like, ever and stuff). This pisses Mark off, as well it should, and Mark seems to get the upper hand by morphing into his self-insertion, Bronze Age comic book protagonist: a beautiful amalgam of every taciturn bad-ass character Frank Miller’s ever created. Then Freddy takes him down by manifesting superior power…and saying a random one-liner. (“Told ya readin’ comics was bad for ya!” = LAME!) Compared to the clay pigeons of Dream Master, the New Meat of Dream Child prove themselves surprisingly versatile. One of them even escapes alive. Too bad its Yvonne, the boring one and Designated Skeptic.
Here’s why I liked Dream Warriors: it changed the dynamic of these films in a good, heightening the story’s stakes for both our pro- and antagonists. Dream Master might’ve done the same if they’d paid their writers enough. You can kinda see the kernel of an idea in Alice’s absorption of other people’s dream powers.
She forgets about all of them, save Kristen’s dream teleportation, but I don’t really mind that. Fighting Freddy with kung fu’s about as fruitless as fighting global warming with tax incentives. Instead, Alice fights Freddy by going into the rabbit hole of her own dreams and exploiting the shared dream world Freddy created to aid his rebirth: the nightmare asylum.
See, Freddy somehow managed to resurrect Amanda Krueger in the process of resurrecting himself. There’s some bullshit about freeing Amanda’s tortured soul from her earthly haunt, but Alice pawns that all off on Yvonne while she gallivants around the dreamworld, trying to keep Freddy off her kid. If I cared about Yvonne, I might care about that whole “freeing Amanda” subplot.
Instead, I’m distracted by the fact that the real life nightmare asylum – the “place where it all began” – the sight of Amanda Krueger’s rape and Freddy’s unholy birth – is now a vast, abandoned, Hammer Horror complex, drenched in moody, blue light. It looks more like Arkham Asylum than the actual Arkham Asylum’s looked in the last twenty years. All of which would be fine…if we hadn’t already seen “the place where it all began” back in Dream Warriors.
What was there a closed-off wing of the Westin Hills Sanitarium becomes a howling mad castle here. A condemned ruin, its symbolic of Springwood’s collective ruination over the course of this series. I get that. But did they think we were all foolish enough to forget Amanda Krueger’s monologue scene from Dream Warriors, which took place in that boarded-up old wing of Westin Hills? Or that, during said monologue, Amanda the Ghostly Nun identified that as the place where “it” happened? Where it all began? It was only one of the best parts of that fucking film. Who the hell was the intended audience again? Because I thought they churned these out for all the people who watched Nightmares 1-4 (like, say, me). What, did they think people would just decided to go in cold to the fifth film? What kind of idiot does that?
At least they hired Stephen Hopkins. Either he’s the second best dream sequence director in the series or he just happens to have more interesting dreams than anyone else. After four movies of linear, point-and-shoot-for-the-jump-scare directors, it’s nice to see someone willing to move the camera around. Someone who knows how to use Dutch Angles correctly. Someone willing to send the Final Girl, her Son, and Freddy on a chase scene through M.C. Escher’s Relativity. Hopkins’ personal style shines through all the more thanks to this films complete lack of substance.
After all, this is fourth time I’ve seen a Final Girl rescue some kid from a Slasher. For me, Nightmare 4’s immediate competitor, Halloween 4, was the last time two relations ran this gauntlet. Obviously that worked better than it does here, since we got to hang out with Jamie for the whole flick. Whit Hertford’s the better child actor, but Jacob can only communicate in dreams…and only then because Freddy’s feeding him power.
For about twenty minutes, it looks like Freddy might actually manage to recruit Jacob as his padawan learner. Then mom comes calling and Jacob might as well be named Judas, he turns on Freddy so fast. God knows we wouldn’t want any conflict messing with our tired-ass formula.
Despite cosmetic alterations, Dream Child ends up a perfectly average, late-80s Slasher movie. By this point, I was actually pinning for the days before this series had the budget or the “give a shit” to care about continuity. I wished someone in Hollywood had the common decency to take this franchise out back and put one through its head. Unfortunately, I got my wish two years later. Let that be a lesson to you: never make wishes. They tend to come true.